English English language Etymology Expression food Language Usage Word origin Writing

On claret, hock, and sack

Q: I often see “claret,” “hock,” and “sack” used in British novels for what I take to mean red wine, white wine, and sherry. Where do these terms come from?

A: The word “claret” now refers to a French red wine, especially one from Bordeaux, while “hock” is a German white wine, especially one from the Rhineland. “Sack” is a historical term for a sweet white wine that was once imported from Spain.

Here’s the intoxicating story.

When English borrowed “claret” from Old French in the 15th century, it didn’t mean red wine. The term referred to “wines of yellowish or light red colour, as distinguished alike from ‘red wine’ and ‘white wine,’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary cites a passage in French showing that in the late 14th century vin claret meant something other than red wine. Here we’ve expanded and translated the passage:

“et puis ils aportent de très bone cervoise et des bons vins; c’est a savoir vin claret, vermaille et blanc” (“and then they bring very good cervoise [beer] and good wines, namely claret, red, and white wine”). From La Manière de Langage Qui Enseigne à Parler et à Écrire le Français (circa 1396), a handbook intended to help the English improve their French.

The dictionary’s first example of “claret” in English is from Promptorium Parvulorum (c. 1440), an English-to-Latin dictionary: “Claret or cleret as wyne, semiclarus.” (In Latin, semiclarus means half-bright or half-clear.)

The OED’s first English example that clearly shows “claret” as a wine other than red or white is from Colyn Blowbols Testament (c. 1500), an anonymous poem about a drunkard: “Rede wyn, the claret, and the white.”

Oxford says that since about 1600 “claret” has meant a red wine, adding that it’s “now applied to the red wines imported from Bordeaux, generally mixed with Benicarlo or some full-bodied French wine.”

The dictionary’s earliest definite example of “claret” meaning a red wine, which we’ve expanded, is from the early 1700s:

“To be sold an entire Parcel of New French Prize Clarets … being of the Growth of Lafitt, Margouze, and La Tour” (The London Gazette, May 22, 1707).

We found this earlier example in an Oct. 17, 1634, letter by the British historian James Howell:

“As in France, so in all other Wine countries the white is called the female, and the claret or red wine is called the male, because it commonly hath more sulpher, body and heat in’t.” From Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ (“Letters of Howell”), Vol. 2, published in 1747.

As for “hock,” it’s a shortening of “hockamore,” an Anglicized form of Hochheimer, a Rhine wine from Hochheim am Main in Germany, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is for the shorter term:

“Nay, truly, he had as good a study of books, I’ll say that for him, good old authors, Sack and Claret, Rhenish and old Hock” (from Juliana, a 1671 tragicomedy by John Crowne). The passage refers to a proud cardinal who collected wines instead of books, and who “would not stoop to pray.”

The dictionary’s first example of the now-obsolete term “hockamore” is from Epsom Wells (1673), a comedy by Thomas Shadwell: “I am very well, and drink much Hockamore.”

Finally, “sack” refers to a sweet wine imported from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest example in the OED is from a 1531 Act of Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, setting retail prices for imported sweet wines:

“It is further enacted … that no Malmeseis Romeneis Sakkes [Malmseys, Rumneys, Sacks] nor other swete Wynes … shalbe rateiled aboue .xij. d. the galon.”

The dictionary adds that “sack” was also used “with words indicating the place of production or exportation,” as in “Malaga sack,” “Canary sack,” and “Sherris sack.” (Málaga is a Spanish province and the Canary Islands a Spanish region in the Atlantic. “Sherris” is a transliteration of “Jerez,” a city in southwestern Spain and the Spanish word for “sherry.”)

As for the etymology, the OED says the term “sack” is derived from vin sec, French for “dry wine,” though it notes that “some difficulty therefore arises from the fact that sack in English … was often described as a sweet wine.”

Julian Jeffs, who has written books on sherry and other wines, has suggested that “sack” is derived from sacar, Spanish for to “draw out,” and saca, the wine extracted from a solera, a tiered cask for blending different vintages.

In his book Sherry (2014), Jeffs notes that wine exports were referred to as sacas in the minutes of the Jerez town council for 1435. However, he doesn’t cite any English evidence connecting sacar and “sack,” and we haven’t seen such evidence.

Was the “sack” of the 16th and 17th centuries similar to the fortified wine that we now know as sherry?

Jeffs says it’s “difficult to say exactly what Elizabethan sack wines were like,” but he adds that “they were certainly fortified.” As evidence, he cites a passage from Chaucer about the power of sack.

We’ll end instead with Falstaff’s praise of sack in this prose passage from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.

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English English language Etymology Expression food Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

A flight of chardonnays

Q: In recent years, I’ve observed “flight” used in restaurant menus for a selection of alcoholic drinks in a wine, beer, or whiskey tasting. Where does this usage come from?

A: The word “flight” has been used for centuries as a collective term for an airborne group of things—birds, insects, angels, arrows, even clouds.

In this usage, which began appearing in the mid-1200s, “flight” means “a collection or flock of beings or things flying in or passing through the air together,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But “flight” as a restaurant term for a sampling of foods or drinks is much more recent, dating from the late 1970s. The OED defines this sense as “a selection of small portions of a particular type of food or drink, esp. wine, intended to be tasted together for the purpose of comparison.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is about a wine tasting: “There were four flights of wines, as they say in the trade, four spätleses, four ausleses, four beerenausleses and four trocks [trockenbeerenausleses]” (New York Times, March 29, 1978. The terms describe late-harvest wines of varying sugar content).

The OED also has this example in which the “flight” is a selection of edibles: “They turned the dinner into a smoked salmon tasting…. Each flight of the tasting was garnished differently” (Washington Post, Dec. 14, 1983).

We’ll end with a flight of alcoholic examples from the OED:

“An inviting line-up of the famous single malt whiskeys available in tasting flights” (Sydney Morning Herald, June 17, 1997).

“The tasting bar offers three to six flights of wine in several categories: classic, prestige, all white, and all red” (Wine Lover’s Guide to Wine Country, by Lori Lyn Narlock and Nancy Garfinkel, 2005).


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Are Normandy veggies Norman?

Q: What is Norman about frozen Normandy vegetables? Do they actually come from Normandy? Are they typical of the veggies grown there?

A: As far as we can tell, the veggies in the various brands of “Normandy” frozen vegetables don’t necessarily come from Normandy. In fact, some of the vegetables often found in the mix aren’t even among the major crops grown in the French region. We suspect that “Normandy” is simply used here to Frenchify a prosaic side dish.

The earliest written use we’ve seen of “Normandy” to describe mixed vegetables is from an announcement in the Bangor Daily News on June 13, 1995, about a concert and meal at a senior housing center in Rockland, Maine:

“Methodist Conference Home at 39 Summer St. invites local senior citizens to an informal piano concert at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, June 15, in the dining room. Participants are invited to join the midday meal which is served at 11 a.m. The menu will be Swedish meatballs, rice, Normandy vegetables and fruit whip.”

In 1996, the US Department of Agriculture published a list of popular frozen vegetable blends, including “Normandy blend: Broccoli spears, crinkle cut carrots, cauliflower florets.” Other mixes listed were California blend, Italian blend (also known as five blend), Midwest blend, and Oriental blend. (From Choice Plus: A Reference Guide for Foods and Ingredients, published by the department’s Food and Consumer Service.)

The Normandy blend seems to be especially popular at senior centers. This is from a senior center menu in New Orleans: “Thursday Sliced Roasted Turkey/Poultry Gravy, whipped sweet potatoes, Normandy blend vegetables, white dinner roll, chocolate pudding” (Times-Picayune, Sept. 2, 2010).

The first example we’ve seen for the term used by a specific frozen-food brand showed up a couple of months later in a recipe for vegetable soup: “8 c frozen mixed vegetables (i used birds eye normandy blend).” From a Nov. 7, 2010, post on Just a Pinch Recipes, an online recipe site and social network.

Conagra Brands, the owner of Birds Eye, hasn’t responded to our request for information about the naming of Birds Eye’s Normandy Blend, a mix of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, and squash. Other frozen food brands include variations on that blend. Costco’s Kirkland Signature Normandy-Style Vegetable Blend, for example, contains broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots.

We assumed at first that that the blend may have been named “Normandy” because the French region was a notable producer of the ingredients. However, we later found that Normandy is a significant grower of only two of those vegetables—carrots and cauliflower. As for cuisine, Normandy is primarily known for its seafood, cheeses, and apples (used to make Calvados and cider).

As we’ve said above, we imagine that “Normandy” here is merely a marketing device intended to give the blend a linguistic rather than a gustatory flavor of France.

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Why is a turkey leg a drumstick?

(We’re repeating this post for Thanksgiving. It originally ran on Nov. 21, 2012.)

Q: I have a Thanksgiving question: Why is a turkey leg called a “drumstick”? Why not a “club” or a “bat” or a “bowling pin”?

A: You’re right. The leg of a turkey isn’t as long and skinny as a real drumstick. Even the bone alone isn’t quite like a drumstick—it has big knobs at each end instead of a single knob or padded head.

So calling this part of the bird a  “drumstick” seems to be stretching a metaphor. But why use a metaphor at all?

Etymologists think that people started calling this part of a fowl the  “drumstick” because the word “leg” wasn’t polite table talk in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Neither were the words “thigh” and “breast,” so discreet (OK, prudish) diners referred to them as “dark meat” and “white meat.”

Sometimes the breast of the turkey was referred to as—ahem—the “bosom.” And occasionally the term “upper joint” was used instead of “thigh,” and “lower joint” or “limb” instead of “leg.”

Yes, really. There actually was a time when “leg,” “breast,” and “thigh” were considered too coarse for the ears of ladies and unfit for mixed company.

The word “drumstick,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first used in the mid-18th century  to mean “the lower joint of the leg of a dressed fowl.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from Samuel Foote’s play The Mayor of Garret (1764): “She always helps me herself to the tough drumsticks of turkies.”

Our fellow word maven Hugh Rawson recently discussed
dinner-table euphemisms like these on the Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog.

As he writes, “By the end of the eighteenth century, drumstick was being used by the authors of cookbooks, and it eventually was lumped in with other dinner-table euphemisms.”

Rawson cites a lecture, “The Laws of Disorder,” by the Unitarian minister and speaker Thomas Starr King, who died in 1864: “There are so many that love white meat, so many that can eat nothing but dark meat, two that prefer a wing, two that lie in wait for drumsticks.”

Such terms, particularly in America, made table talk easier for everyone, Rawson explains: “Polite guests at American tables knew that asking a poultry-serving hostess for white meat instead of ‘breast meat,’ dark meat instead of a ‘thigh’ and a drumstick in place of a ‘leg’ saved embarrassment all around.

The 19th-century British novelist and naval captain Frederick Marryat pokes fun at this kind of squeamishness in Peter Simple (1834). In one episode, Rawson points out, the novel’s hero describes a dinner party on the island of Barbados.

“It was my fate to sit opposite a fine turkey, and I asked my partner if I should have the pleasure of helping her to a piece of breast. She looked at me very indignantly, and said ‘Curse your impudence, sar, I wonder where you larn your manners. Sar, I take a lily turkey bosom, if you please. Talk of breast to a lady, sar! – really quite horrid.’ ”

The OED cites another example from Marryat’s works as an example of “limb” as a euphemism for “leg,” a usage it describes as “now only (esp. U.S.) in mock-modest or prudish use.”

In his book A Diary in America: With Remarks on Its Institutions (1839), Marryat says a young American woman told him that “leg” was not used before ladies; the polite term was “limb.” She added: “I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte.”

That example, like several others from the OED, seems to have been used with humorous intent.

For example, Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his novel Elsie Venner (1861), has this bit of dinner-table conversation: “A bit of the wing, Roxy, or the—under limb?”

And John S. Farmer, in his Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1885), uses this illustration: “Between you’n me, red stockings ain’t becomin’ to all—ahem—limbs.”

Euphemistic language has proven itself useful, not just at the dinner table. It comes in handy for swearing, too.

We’ve written before on Grammarphobia about euphemistic oaths like “doggone it,” and “gosh a’mighty,” milder substitutes for “God damn it” and “God almighty.”

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English English language Etymology Expression food Language Usage Word origin Writing

A pasta noodle maker?

Q: A friend of mine refers to his pasta maker as a “pasta noodle maker.” Since “pasta” by definition is a “noodle,” is that not redundant?

A: A noodle is a type of pasta, but not every type of pasta is a noodle.

Standard dictionaries define “noodle” as a long, narrow strip of dough, and most dictionaries say it’s usually made with flour, water, and eggs. However, “pasta” comes in many shapes (elbows, bow ties, tubes, shells, alphabet letters, etc.), and it’s often made without eggs.

We agree with you that “pasta noodle maker” is redundant, though we’re not particularly bothered by it. And some people might find it a colorful way of referring to a pasta machine that’s primarily used to make noodles. However, we’d refer to such a machine as either a “pasta maker” or a “noodle maker.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines “noodle” as “a narrow, ribbonlike strip of dough, usually made of flour, eggs, and water.” It defines “pasta” as “unleavened dough, made with wheat or other flour, water, and sometimes eggs, that is molded into any of a variety of shapes and boiled.”

As for the history of these two words, English borrowed “noodle” from German in the 18th century and “pasta” from Italian in the 19th, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED says “noodle” comes from the German nudel, which is “probably a variant of knödel dumpling.” In medieval German, knödel could mean a small knot.

The dictionary’s first example for “noodle” in the pasta sense is from a 1779 entry in the journal of Lady Mary Coke: “A noodle soup—this I begged to be explained and was told it was made only of veal with lumps of bread boiled in it.”

An unrelated “noodle,” meaning “a stupid or silly person,” had appeared half a century earlier, as we note in a 2009 post about the various “noodle” terms in English.

That noun’s origin is uncertain, but the OED says it may be a variant of an even earlier word, “noddle,” which meant the head (or the back of the head) and was frequently used “in contexts suggesting emptiness or stupidity.”

As for “pasta,” the Italian word is derived from the medieval Latin pasta (pastry cake), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. It’s related to our words “paste” (originally a cooking term) and “pastry.”

The first OED citation for “pasta” is from an early 19th-century travel book: “Maccaroni, like vermicelli, is only one of the forms into which the Italians make what they call ‘pasta’ or paste. It requires a particular sort of wheat, a brittle, flinty grain, to make this pasta” (from Journal of a Tour in Italy, 1830, by James Paul Cobbett).

The OED also has a somewhat earlier example in which “pasta” is used in an Italian phrase: “The Italians prefer that [macaroni] which is fresh made, and made at home, and called pasta di casa, household paste” (from A Journey in Carniola, Italy, and France, 1820, by William Archibald Cadell; Carniola, ruled by the Austrian Empire at the time, was part of what is now Slovenia).

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English English language Etymology Expression food Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why is a ‘square meal’ square?

Q: Why do we call a balanced meal a “square meal” rather than a well-rounded one?

A: The phrase “square meal” is derived from the use of the adjective “square” to mean just, equitable, honest, or straightforward, senses that began showing up in the late 16th century and gave rise to such expressions as “playing square,” “a square deal,” “the square thing,” “on the square,” and “fair and square.”

An early example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “square” meaning honest is from a pamphlet that purports to be a defense of Elizabethan con men, but actually exposes their tricks with humorous tales of double-dealing:

“For feare of trouble I was fain [glad] to try my good hap [fortune] at square play” (The Defence of Conny Catching, 1592, by Cuthbert Cunny-Catcher, pseudonym of the English author Robert Green). “Coney catching,” Elizabethan slang for chicanery, comes from “coney” (spelled various ways), a tame rabbit raised to be eaten.

Over the years, the adjective “square” took on various other senses that may have contributed to its use in the expression “square meal,” which showed up in the US in the mid-19th century.

In the early 17th century, “square” was used to describe someone who was “solid or steady (at eating or drinking),” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example refers to “a square drinker, a faithfull drunkard; one that will take his liquor soundly” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

The next citation, which we’ve expanded, describes gluttons: “By Heaven, square eaters! More meat, I say! Upon my conscience, the poor rogues have not eat this month! How terribly they charge upon their victuals!” (from Bonduca, a tragicomedy written sometime before 1625 by the Jacobean playwright John Fletcher).

In the early 19th century, “square” came to mean balanced or in good order. Here’s an OED example from Mr. Midshipman Easy, an 1836 novel by Frederick Marryat:

“If she is unhappy for three months, she will be overjoyed for three more when she hears that I am alive, so it will be all square at the end of the six.”

As for “square meal,” when the phrase showed up in American English it referred to a “full, solid, substantial” meal, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an article about the American West in a British periodical. We’re expanding the quotation to give more of the context:

“Roadside hotel-keepers are every now and then calling the miners’ attention to their ‘square meals’: by which is meant full meals, in contradistinction to the imperfect dinner a man has to put up with on the mountains.” (From the Sept. 19, 1868, issue of All the Year Round, a literary magazine edited and owned by Charles Dickens.)

However, we’ve seen several earlier examples online, including this one from a restaurant ad in an American newspaper:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice” (from the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., Nov. 8, 1856).

Standard dictionaries now define “square meal” as one that’s balanced or nutritious as well as substantial.

Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) defines it as “a substantial, satisfying, and balanced meal,” and gives this among its examples: “Daily physical fitness is just as crucial to good health as getting three square meals and eight hours of shut-eye.”

As for the early etymology, English borrowed the adjective “square” from Old French in the late 14th century, but it ultimately comes from exquadrāre, a colloquial Latin term composed of ex- (out) and quadrāre (to make square).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective refers to “a Square plate perced with a certein holes” (from A Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1391, an instructional manual by Chaucer for an instrument used by astronomers and navigators to take celestial readings).

The Latin term exquadrāre is also the source of the noun “square,” which showed up in the 13th century, and the verb, which appeared in the late 14th. The noun originally referred to an L-shaped carpenter’s square while the verb meant to reshape something into a square form.

The first OED citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1300:

“And do we wel and make a toure / Wit suire and scantilon sa euen, / Þat may reche heghur þan heuen” (“And let us make a tower with square and gauge that may reach higher than heaven”). The poem expands on Genesis 11:4 by adding the reference to “suire and scantilon,” Middle English terms for a carpenter’s square and gauge for measuring dimensions.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb, which we’ve expanded, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The kyng comaundide, that thei shulden take the greet stoonus, and the precious stoonus, into the foundment of the temple, and thei shulden square hem” (“The king commanded that they should take the great stones, and the precious stones, and they should square them for the foundation of the temple”). The biblical passage is 1 Kings 5:17.

In closing, we should note that there are several myths about the origin of “square meal.” The most common folk etymology is that the expression is derived the square wooden plates once used for meals in the Royal Navy. Forget about it.

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Bone appétit

Q: When I was a child, my mother used to tell me a story about a wealthy landowner and a shepherd that ended with the proverb “the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” I’ve seen many theories about the origin and meaning of the proverb. Are you aware of the actual origin and meaning?

A: The proverb originated in the Middle English of the late 14th century. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), a 13th-century Latin work compiled by Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):

“Þe nerre þe bone, þe swetter is the fleissh” (“the nearer the bone, the sweeter is the flesh”).

The passage is from a section of the encyclopedic work about why some foods are sweet and others bitter, why some stimulate the appetite and others suppress it. No story is mentioned. The one you heard from your mother probably appeared later and used the proverb to make a point.

The OED‘s citations for the proverb include versions with “closer” as well as “nearer.” The first citation with the usual modern wording is from a May 13, 1778, letter by Samuel Cooper, a Congregational minister in Boston, to Benjamin Franklin, who was then the American ambassador to France: “We all agree the nearer the bone the sweeter the meat.”

The dictionary doesn’t comment on the meaning of the expression, but the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes it as a proverbial saying that reflects “both the belief that meat close to the bone has the best taste and texture, and the idea that it is valued because it represents the last vestiges of available food.”

The slang lexicographer Eric Partridge has noted that it’s also used as a “low catch-phrase applied by men to a thin woman” (from the 1937 first edition of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

The OED cites Partridge’s comment as well as this passage from Shibumi, a 1979 novel by Trevanian, the pseudonym of Rodney Whitaker: “A little skinny in the arms and waist for my taste but, like my ol’ daddy used to say: the closer the bone, the sweeter the meat!”

In a post we wrote a few years ago, we included an analysis by the philologist Neal R. Norrick of two proverbs: “Like father, like son” and “The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.”

In “Proverbs,” an essay in the Encyclopaedia of the Linguistic Sciences, Norrick explains that proverbs like the one you’re asking about don’t adhere to the traditional use of noun phrases and verb phrases.

“Many proverbs such as Like father, like son and The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat adhere to formulas, here like X, like Y and The X-er, the Y-er, which do not conform to customary NP + VP syntactic structure,” Norrick writes. “So special interpretative rules beyond regular compositional semantic principles are necessary to assign these proverbs even literal readings.” (“NP” and “VP” are short for “noun phrase” and “verb phrase.”)

Such literal readings, he says, “provide the basis on which figurative interpretations are determined.”

“One interpretative rule will relate the formula like X, like Y to the reading ‘Y is like X’ to derive for Like father, like son the interpretation ‘the son is like the father,’ ” he writes. And “another rule related the formula The X-er, the Y-er to ‘Y is proportional to X’ to interpret The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat as ‘the sweetness of the meat is proportional to the nearness of the bone.’ ”

As we say in our earlier post, Norrick’s analysis can be heavy going for lay readers. To put things simply, proverbs are often idiomatic expressions that don’t necessarily conform to the traditional rules of English.

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