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From ‘agog’ to ‘go-go’

Q: I was recently reading a novel and “agog” jumped out at me. Where did this weird-sounding word come from? Does it have anything to do with being goggle-eyed? I’m all agog to know.

A: “Agog,” meaning excited, astonished, or expectantly eager, probably isn’t related to goggling or goggly eyes or, for that matter, to goggles.

But there’s an etymological trail leading from “agog” to “go-go” dancing and “go-go” boots—and if you don’t remember those, you’re not of our generation. Here’s how it all came about.

“Agog” entered written English in the early 1400s. Though the word’s source is uncertain, etymologists say it’s likely to have come from the Middle French phrase en gogues (amused, entertained), formed with the plural of the Old French noun gogue (fun, amusement).

When “agog” was first recorded in English, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was an adverb meaning “in excited readiness, expectation, or desire; in or into a state of great eagerness, enthusiasm, excitement, suspense, or (in later use) astonishment.”

The dictionary’s oldest example uses the word to mean in expectation or suspense:

“He shal be hourled so in high courte and holde so agogge, That hym were bettre lose his lande þenne long so be toylid” (“He shall be so attacked in high court and held so agog [in such suspense], that it would be better for him to lose his land than to be so long in litigation”). From Mum and the Sothsegger, an anonymous poem dated circa 1405. The “Mum” in the title is one who’s silent; the “Sothsegger” (soothsayer) tells the truth.

In this later example, “agog” is used to show excited readiness or desire:

“I suppose you now sit all agog, / In hopes to hear a smutty Epilogue” (from Nicholas Amhurst’s Poems on Several Occasions, 1720).

The word began appearing predicatively as an adjective in the 1600s. The OED’s earliest example is from John Wilson’s tragedy Andronicus Comnenius (1664): “They are all agog, / And may do mischief.”

The OED defines the adjective as “excited, eagerly expectant, enthusiastic; (in later use) astonished. Also: on the move, busily astir.”

But most often the adjective seems to express eager expectation, as in this poetic example: “And she too fires my Heart, and she too charms, / And I’m agog to have her in my arms” (John Oldham’s Poems, and Translations, 1683).

As we mentioned earlier, etymologists trace “agog” to the Middle French phrase en gogues, formed with the plural of the Old French noun gogue (amusement, fun).

And gogue, the OED says, is probably the source of the Middle French phrase à gogo, which originally meant “joyfully, uninhibitedly, extravagantly,” and later came to mean “galore, aplenty.” It was this latter sense of à gogoOxford says, that gave English the swinging-’60s term “a-go-go.”

This all began, the dictionary says, when a nightclub and discotheque opened in Paris in 1952 with the name Whisky à Gogo (literally, “Whisky Galore,” apparently after a 1949 British film by that name).

The club “quickly became a favourite with the young and fashionable set,” and in a few years “many clubs and discotheques bearing the same name and playing the latest music on disc had sprung up in France and elsewhere in Europe,” the OED says.

“The first club of this name in the United States (Whisky a Go Go) opened in Chicago in 1958,” the dictionary notes, though the most famous one opened in 1964 on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It became “a leading venue for popular music in the 1960s and popularizer of go-go dancing.”

Meanwhile, Oxford says, “a-go-go” came to mean “fashionable, modish, up to date, ‘with it,’ ” as well as “lively, ‘swinging.’ ”

Finally, about those “goggle” words. As we said, etymologists see no connection between them and “agog.” However, both “goggle” and “agog”are probably imitative in origin—that is, they imitate a sound, a motion, a feeling, etc.

The probable source of “agog,” the French gogue (fun and merriment), comes from “a Romance base of imitative origin,” the OED says. Which means that to the French, gogue sounded like fun.

As John Ayto puts it in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “it may perhaps be imitative of noisy merry-making.”

But the verb “goggle,” first recorded as “gogelen” (circa 1380), is thought to be from an onomatopoeic element “expressive of oscillating movement” of the eyes, the OED says.

The dictionary defines the verb this way: “To turn the eyes to one side or other, to look obliquely, to squint.” Later it meant “to look with widely-opened, unsteady eyes; to roll the eyes about,” the OED adds. The other “goggle”-type words are derived from the verb.

The adjective phrase “goggle-eyed” was first recorded (as “gogil yȝed”) around 1384. However, the adjective “goggle” by itself, as in “goggle eyes,” didn’t appear in writing until 1540; “goggly” followed in the late 1600s. And “goggles,” the noun for the eyewear, made its appearance in 1715.

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Why an app is called a widget

Q: How did an app come to be referred to as a widget?

A: The story begins in the early 20th century, when an unnamed gadget was called a “widget” for the first time, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The usage appeared in Beggar on Horseback, a 1924 play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly about a struggling classical composer who plans to marry the daughter of a rich industrialist.

In a dream sequence, the composer imagines giving up music to work for the industrialist: “What business are we in?” he asks. “Widgets,” his father-in-law says. “We’re in the widget business.” On waking up, the composer decides to marry the girl next door instead.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “widget” in this sense as “an indefinite term for a small gadget or mechanical contrivance.” The dictionary labels it “origin uncertain,” but adds that it’s “perhaps an arbitrary alteration of gadget.”

In the 1990s, according to the OED, “widget” took on the computing sense of “an application designed to perform a relatively simple task, esp. one which displays a simple piece of information (such as a weather report or the date and time) on the screen of a computer, smartphone, etc.”

The first Oxford citation is from a June 19, 1991, comment on a Usenet newsgroup (comp.windows.x): “A customer wants to have a row of clocks showing different timezones. Unfortunately the clock widget doesn’t handle that case very well.”

As for “application,” it showed up as a computer term in the 1950s, according to the earliest OED citation:

“This approach to a file maintenance application implies that a number, or ‘batch’ of transactions is collected and sorted into the order of the master file” (Programming for Digital Computers, 1959, by Joachim Jeenel).

The shortened version, “app,” showed up a few decades later in an advertisement (originally with a period at the end to indicate an abbreviation): “Strong IBM customer … will hire a tech support person to … interface with app. development and comp. operations people” (Computerworld, April 20, 1981).

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Regarding ‘in terms of’

Q: Have you ever discussed the awful overuse of “in terms of” in current everyday parlance?

A: You’re right that the phrase “in terms of” is getting quite a workout these days.

The expression was little used in the 19th century, as a search with Google’s Ngram viewer shows. But it began rising steadily around 1910 and arrived at a sharp peak in 1980. Since then it has fallen slightly and leveled off, but it remains at a relatively high frequency of usage.

A comparison chart shows that “in terms of” is now clearly more popular than its usual synonyms, listed here in order of frequency: “regarding,” “concerning,” “in relation to,” “with respect to,” “as far as,” and “with regard to.”

The chart shows that “in terms of” was the least popular a century ago, but now it’s the favorite. Why? We can’t say. Perhaps it strikes people as more scholarly or scientific than the alternatives.

In fact, “in terms of” had scholarly beginnings. It was first recorded in the early 18th century as a mathematical expression meaning “by means of or with reference to specified variables or quantities,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest written use is from a technical dictionary, John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum (1704): “Square number A mix’d Number … whose Fractional Part is exprest in Terms of a Vulgar Fraction.”

These examples from the next three centuries more clearly illustrate the expression’s technical meaning:

“The nearest distance of the orbits of Venus and the earth was concluded in terms of the earth’s diameter” (Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects, 1866, by John Frederick William Herschel).

“Solve the given equation for y in terms of x” (College Mathematics, 2nd ed., 1951, by William Whitfield Elliott and Edward Roy Cecil Miles).

“Write down an expression, in terms of x, for the amount Dan received” (Cambridge O Level Mathematics, 2012, by Audrey Simpson).

The nontechnical meaning of “in terms of” emerged in the early 19th century. It’s defined in the OED as “by means of or in reference to (a particular concept); in the mode of expression or thought belonging to (a subject or category); (loosely) on the basis of; in relation to; as regards.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrase used in this sense is from a work by the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham: “Contradictoriness … manifested, in terms of a certain degree of strength, towards some proposition or propositions, that have been advanced by some one else” (The Elements of the Art of Packing, as Applied to Special Juries, 1821).

These later examples show how the usage has evolved:

“Most persons, on being asked in what sort of terms they imagine words, will say ‘in terms of hearing’ ” (The Principles of Psychology, 1890, by William James).

“System design is discussed here in terms of fact finding, developing specifications, meeting specifications, and matching equipment with the system” (Automatic Data-Processing Systems, 1960, by Robert Henry Gregory and Richard L. Van Horn).

“We need to recognise metropolitan and CBD business remain the major engine of growth in terms of new employment” (Australian Financial Review, May 25, 2000).

The phrase as we know it today, the dictionary says, is sometimes influenced by a use of the plural “terms” in a sense that dates from the late 14th century: “words or expressions collectively (usually of a specified kind); manner of expression, way of speaking; language. Chiefly preceded by in.”

Familiar expressions using this sense of “terms” include “in general terms,” “in layman’s terms,” “in the strongest terms,” and “in no uncertain terms.”

So “in terms of,” the OED says, sometimes comes close to meaning “in the language or terminology of.”

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A lion, a flower, and a king

Q: Is Leonotis, the plant genus, related etymologically to Leonidas, the Spartan king?

A: The botanical Latin name of Leonotis, a genus of flowering tropical plants native to Africa and India, ultimately comes from the classical Greek terms for “lion” and “ear.” Not surprisingly, a common name for it is “lion’s ear.”

As far as we can tell, the German botanist Christiaan Hendrik Persoon was the first person to use the term. In Synopsis Plantarum, Book 2 (1807), he lists Leonotis as a subgenus of Phlomis, a genus of shrubby and herbaceous plants native to the Mediterranean.

A few years later, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown listed Leonotis as a genus in Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen (Introduction to the Flora of New Holland and Van Diemen’s Island), an 1810 treatise on the plants of mainland Australia and Tasmania.

Leonotis and Phlomis are each now considered a genus of the family Lamiaceae.

Neither Persoon nor Brown explain why they named the plant Leonotis, but the term probably refers to the shape of the corolla, or petals.

In this image of the species Leonotis leonurus, the corolla also looks a bit like the tip of a lion’s tail—and “lion’s tail” is another common name for the genus.

The botanical Latin name ultimately comes from the classical Greek terms for “lion” (λέων, leon) and “ear” (ὠτός, otos, the genitive form of οὖς, ous).

We’ve seen no evidence that it’s derived from Leonidas, the fifth century BC king of Sparta. However, the king as well as the plant had leonine names. The king’s name in ancient Greek, λέωνῐ́δᾱς, means “son of a lion.”

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Wild swimming

Q: When did the term “wild swimming” become common? I first I heard it a few years ago in an episode of the BBC mystery series Vera. Since then I’ve noticed it more and more. When I was a kid, we swam where there was enough water: a pond, a river, a lake, a pool. We called it all swimming.

A: The phrase “wild swimming”— swimming outdoors in natural waters—has been around since the late 1990s. It originated as a British usage, which is why you first noticed it while watching that BBC mystery series.

The Vera episode you mention first aired in the UK in 2012. In the script, Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope briefs colleagues about a murder victim whose body was found on a riverbank:

“Jenny Lister. Forty-one years old. Social worker. Wild swimming enthusiast. Now according to Billy, she was stunned by a blow to the head, probably with a rock, and then held under the water until she drowned.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase “wild swimming” as “chiefly British” and defines it as “the practice or activity of swimming for pleasure in natural waters, typically rivers and lakes.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use is from Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (1999), by Roger Deakin: “With so much twenty-four-carat water everywhere, there’s a tradition of wild swimming in all the towns and villages.”

In the book, Deakin, an environmentalist and documentary maker who died in 2006, describes a swimming tour he made in 1997 through Britain’s waterways, starting at the Isles of Scilly and ending at the North Sea.

When it was published in 2000 in the US, the trade magazine Kirkus Reviews called Deakin’s book “the foundational text for the international ‘wild swimming’ movement.” Since the book appeared, it has inspired a documentary and dozens of books on the appeal of swimming in open waters.

Deakin can probably be credited with inventing the term “wild swimming” as it’s popularly used. We’ve found only one earlier example, but it’s probably an outlier, since it appears to use “wild” in the sense of unauthorized or in an undesignated area:

“Tourist traffic at dams and banks, wild swimming and wild camping, sports fishermen and pedestrians cause damages in forests, at embankments and at structures.” (From Developments in River Basin Management, 1987, edited by Kokei Uehara et. al., a collection of papers presented at a conference in Brazil in August 1986.)

The OED’s 21st-century examples include two from British newspapers: “Wild swimming is much more fun, it is a sort of communion with nature” (The Bath Chronicle, Aug. 3, 2004) … “It’s an old quarry that is now an oasis that empties and fills with the tides, and it’s a wonderful place for wild swimming” (The Times, May 17, 2015).

Not everyone is fond of the term. In a column in The Guardian last year, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote: “I’ve never been a fan of the phrase ‘wild swimming’; in Snowdonia [Wales], where I grew up, we always just called it swimming. To call it ‘wild,’ I feel, is to centre the urban, the municipal and the populated, and to place the rural and the natural at the margins.”

We can see her point. The use of the modifier (“wild”) implies that the default mode of swimming is in an artificial pool built for the purpose. This is analogous to the phrase “woman doctor,” which implies that the default doctor is a man.

As for the adjective “wild,” it’s been in written English since the early eighth century in its general sense—existing in a state of nature. It was inherited from the Germanic languages; the OED points to the Old Saxon wildflêsc (“wild meat”) and the Middle Swedish wilskin (“wild leather”).

When first recorded in English, “wild” was used to describe plants and animals. It meant “living in a state of nature; not tame, not domesticated” (as applied to an animal), and “growing in a state of nature; not cultivated” (as applied to a plant or flower).

The earliest known uses in writing are from a Latin-Old English glossary dated around 725: “Indomitus, wilde” and “Agre[s]tis, wilde” (the first used for animals, the second for plants). The citations are from the Corpus Glossary, so named because the manuscript is held at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University.

Beginning in the 800s, the adjective was used more broadly—at first to describe uncultivated or uninhabited places, and later it was applied to people in senses both good and bad. It could mean free or unrestricted on the one hand, but uncivilized, unruly, or immoral on the other.

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Mixing and matching

Q: I hear “mix and match” where merely “mix” is meant, as in a Bloomberg article about Covid-19 that quotes a doctor as saying “there is evidence that mixing and matching different vaccines may actually boost the immune response.” How long has “mix” been needlessly expanded? I’m ready to hear you say this has been going on for approximately 1,000 years. Well, at least 300.

A: No, not quite 1,000 years. Nor even 300. “Mix and match” apparently showed up about 60 years ago.

We agree that “mix and match” can often be replaced by “mix” alone, but the full expression suggests something more than merely mixing, especially when it’s used as retailese to promote things like a summer wardrobe, a sound system, or a cable TV package.

Standard dictionaries generally define the verb phrase “mix and match” as to combine different but complementary things—compatible items that complete or improve one another. So you can “mix” two clashing pieces of clothing, but “mix and match” only compatible ones.

The doctor quoted by Bloomberg seems to be using the expression in the dictionary sense. She uses it to mean combining compatible Covid vaccinations to improve their effectiveness.

It seems odd that a doctor would use a retailing expression to promote a Covid treatment, but people fighting the pandemic, and the news media covering them, have apparently adopted this usage. Here are some recent headlines:

“ ‘Mix and match’ UK Covid vaccine trial expanded” (BBC News, April 14, 2021).

“Can you mix and match Covid vaccines? Here’s what we know so far” (CNBC, April 9, 2021).

“Can We Mix and Match COVID-19 Vaccines? Experts Say Not Yet” (Healthline, March 27, 2021).

“Getting One Vaccine Is Good. How About Mix-and-Match?” (The New York Times, March 30, 2021).

“Scientists get serious about mixing and matching COVID-19 vaccines” (Medical Press, March 1, 2021).

As for the etymology, the expression emerged in the 1960s as both a verb and an adjective, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, though similar phrases in the 1940s and ’50s anticipated the usage.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the verb phrase means “to select and combine different but complementary items (originally of clothing) to form a coordinated set.” It has a similar definition for the adjective.

The dictionary cites this forerunner of the verb: “Tropical separates … Of crisp tropical rayon suiting nicely tailored … You can either ‘mix ’em or match ’em’ ” (from an ad in The Baltimore Sun, April 3, 1948).

And here’s a precursor of the adjective: “Mix-match styles, casual jackets and skirts which match or contrast, but are sold separately” (The Fashion Dictionary, 1957, by Mary Brooks Picken).

Interestingly, the first Oxford example for the actual verb phrase refers to mixing and matching laboratory glassware, not clothing. It comes from an ad that we’ve found in an earlier publication and expanded here: “Mix and match! Order anything in the complete Kimble line … mix Kimax rod, tubing and pipe with lime glass or Kimax volumetric ware” (Analytical Chemistry, Jan. 1, 1960).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective, which we’ve also expanded, is from an article about various terms for leotards and tights: “The leotard look in tights also appeared under the names of color-cued tights, Glamour Gams, streamlined stretch tights, full-fashioned tights, casual tights, Gotham-tites, mix-n-match Tights” (“Leotards and ‘Tightsomania,’ ” by Kelsie B. Harder, American Speech, May 1960).

From what we’ve seen, the phrase “mix and match” usually appears in the sense of combining and complementing things, not just combining them. And the items combined are compatible, not clashing. However, we don’t find the expression used much in general writing or conversation.

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We are met on a great battle-field

[Note: In observance of Memorial Day, we are reprinting this post, originally published on Jan. 9, 2015.]

Q: Watching a recent rebroadcast of “The Civil War” on PBS, I was struck by this sentence in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war.” Is “we are met” just a poetic usage? Or is something else going on?

A: “We are met” is a present-perfect construction, parallel to “we have met.” The usage dates back to the Middle Ages, but by Lincoln’s time it was considered archaic and poetic.

You can still hear it today, though the usage sounds unusual to modern ears because it combines “met” (the past participle of “meet”) with a form of “be” as the auxiliary verb instead of the usual “have.”

So, for instance, a speaker uses “we are met to honor him” in place of “we have met to honor him”—or, to use the simple present tense, “we meet to honor him.”

The poetic “we are met” gives the message a solemnity and gravity it wouldn’t otherwise convey.

Here “met” is used in the sense of “assembled” or “gathered” or “brought together.” And the auxiliary “be” is possible only when this sense of “met” is used intransitively—that is, without a direct object.

In its entry for “meet,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “in intransitive use the perfect tenses were freq. formed with the auxiliary be in Middle English and early modern English; subsequently this became archaic and poetic.”

The OED has citations from the 14th century onward, including this Middle English example from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Complaint of Mars” (circa 1385): “The grete joye that was betwix hem two, / When they be mette.”

This one is from Thomas Starkey’s A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, written sometime before 1538: “Seying that we be now here mete … accordyng to our promys.”

And here’s a poetic 19th-century use from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Virginians (1859): “The two gentlemen, with a few more friends, were met round General Lambert’s supper-table.”

Today, we’re more likely to encounter this usage on solemn occasions, as when people gather for religious worship or funeral eulogies.

Lincoln isn’t the only American politician to use “we are met” in elevated oratory. In 1965, in a speech before Congress in support of equal voting rights, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:

“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

A somewhat similar use of “met” with the “be” auxiliary is also antiquated today. This is the expression “to be well met,” first recorded in the 15th century and meaning to be welcome or well received.

This is the source of the old expression “hail fellow well met,” which evolved in the late 16th century from the slightly earlier phrase “hail, fellow!”

“Hail, fellow!” was a friendly greeting of the 1500s that was also used adjectivally, the OED says, to mean “on such terms, or using such freedom with another, as to accost him with ‘hail, fellow!’ ”

We’ll quote 19th-century examples of the shorter as well as the longer adjectival phrases, courtesy of the OED:

“He crossed the room to her … with something of a hail-fellow bearing.” (From Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886.)

“He was popular … though not in any hail-fellow-well-met kind of way.” (From H. Rider Haggard’s novel Colonel Quaritch, V.C., 1888.)

We’ll close with a more contemporary example we found in a letter to the editor of the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 2012:

“The most exciting thing about the Republican National Convention was the hurricane. … Where is the enthusiasm, the fire they need to capture the voters? Where is the ‘Hail fellow, well met’? This convention was a snore fest.”

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A seafarer’s middle ground

Q: Was “middle ground” originally a nautical and/or cartographic term? It’s still used commonly by mariners and mapmakers, but outside the seagoing community it seems mostly to be used figuratively.

A: Yes, “middle ground” was originally used by sailors and mapmakers. When it appeared in the 17th century, it referred to “a shallow place such as a bank or bar, esp. as a navigational obstruction,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the earliest OED example, the term is used as a proper name: “Within them lyeth a plate on the starboard side, a little to the n. wards of the Haven, called the Middle-ground” (from A Description & Plat of the Sea-Coasts of England, 1653, a guide for sailing in English waters).

The most recent Oxford citation is from a late 19th-century description of Humboldt Bay on the north coast of California: “Their burdens of detritus find fitful equipoise on the spit terminals, on the middle ground within, or on the bar without the entrance” (Overland Monthly, October 1896).

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the nautical sense of the term is now obsolete, but two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for it.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “a shoal in a fairway having a channel on either side,” while Dictionary.com says it’s “a length of comparatively shallow water having channels on both sides.”

As you point out, the expression “middle ground” is still used by mariners and mapmakers. For example, the online International Dictionary of Marine Aids to Navigation describes the term this way: “Island or shoal which divides a fairway into two shipping channels; these subsequently join again into a single channel.”

And a glossary of nautical terms on the website of Practical Boat Owner, a British magazine, defines it as “A shallow bank which divides a channel or fairway into two parts. It is marked with Middle-ground buoys which usually indicate the deeper of the two channels so formed.”

As for the other senses of “middle ground,” in the 18th century it came to mean the middle distance in an artistic composition. The earliest OED example describes how painters divide their compositions “into fore-ground, middle-ground, and distance or back-ground” (from The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, by the English painter William Hogarth).

The modern figurative sense of “middle ground” showed up in the early 19th century, according to Oxford citations. The dictionary defines it as “a (metaphorical) place or position halfway between extremes; an area or position of moderation or possible compromise.”

The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise on religious imagination:

“But when, either by the refinements of rationalism—a gross misnomer—or by superstitious corruptions, the central facts of Christianity are obscured, no middle ground remains between the apathy of formality and the extravagance of enthusiasm.” (From Natural History of Enthusiasm, 1829, by Isaac Taylor.)

The dictionary’s most recent figurative example is from the late 20th century: “With Labour’s Tony Blair seeking to steal the political middleground by talking of lower taxes … the Tories will be under pressure to match the promises” (Daily Telegraph, London, Aug. 17, 1994).

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On mom, pop, and dad

Q: I can see how “mother” gave birth to “mom,” “mommy,” and so on, but how did we get “dad,” “daddy,” “pop,” etc., from “father”?

A: The various “mom,” “pop,” and “dad” words are all probably derived from the “ma,” “pa,” and “da” sounds that babbling infants utter and that parents mistakenly think are references to mother and father. The parents then respond with baby talk that gives reduplicative, or doubled, sounds like “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” a maternal or paternal sense.

The linguist Roman Jakobson has suggested that this process begins while babies are nursing: “Often the sucking activities of a child are accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother’s breast or to the feeding bottle and the mouth full.”

After nursing, he says, “the nasal murmur may be supplied with an oral, particularly labial release; it may also obtain an optional vocalic support.” (The “nasal murmur” is an m-m-m sound; the “labial release” and “vocalic support” produce an a-a-h sound.)

Jakobson’s comments are from “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa,’ ” a paper presented on May 26, 1959, at a linguistics seminar at Stanford University, and published in Perspectives in Psychological Theory (1960), edited by Bernard Kaplan and Seymour Wapner.

Since the mother is the source of a baby’s nourishment, Jakobson writes, “most of the infant’s longings are addressed to her, and children, being prompted and instigated by the extant nursery words, gradually turn the nursery interjection [“mama”] into a parental term, and adapt its expressive make-up to their regular phonemic patter.” In other words, “mama” comes to mean “mother” to the child.

Jakobson’s baby-talk approach, which is generally accepted by linguists, focuses on the physiological ability of infants to make various vowel and consonant sounds:

“Nursery coinages are accepted for a wider circulation in the child-adult verbal intercourse only if they meet the infant’s linguistic requirements” and “reflect the salient features and tendencies of children’s speech development.”

As it turns out, “a” is the easiest vowel for a babbling baby to produce. All you have to do is open your mouth and make a noise. Two of the easiest consonant sounds are “m” and “p.” All you have to do is put your lips together—no tongue or teeth required. That’s why they’re called labials.

The letter “d” is a bit harder since you have to put the tip of your tongue against the upper gum or upper teeth (the upper teeth don’t arrive until around 8 to 10 months of age).

The “f” and “th” sounds in “father” and “mother” are much harder to make, and even a toddler may have trouble with them. (In Old English, the “th” of “father” and “mother” was a “d,” which may have made things a little easier for Anglo-Saxon children.)

Of the various parental nursery terms in English, babbling infants generally say “mama” first, followed by “papa,” and then “dada,” according to linguists. The duplicatives “baba,” “nana,” and “tata” (plus “mama” and “papa”) and their variants are infantile parental terms in other languages.

English-speaking parents, as we’ve said, hear familiar speech sounds and assume that “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” are attempts to say “mother” and “father.” By repetition, pointing, smiling, head-shaking, and so on, the parents instill that belief in their babies and it becomes mutually reinforced.

In addition to Jakobson’s paper, we’ve relied on related comments by the linguists Larry Trask, John McWhorter, William Poser, Nancy J. Frishberg, and Robert A. Papen.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “mom” is a shortening of “momma,” a variant of “mama,” which is “probably ultimately [from] a (reduplicated) syllable /ma/ which is characteristic of early infantile vocalization and regarded by some as a development of the sound sometimes made by a baby when breastfeeding.”

Similarly, the OED says “dad” is probably derived from “an imitative or expressive formation” made up of the reduplicated syllable “da” and “characteristic of early infantile vocalization.”

And “papa” is also probably derived from a reduplicated syllable characteristic of early infantile vocalization. Oxford notes that πάππας (“pappas”) was the way a young child in ancient Greece pronounced πατήρ (“patir” or father).

Here, according to Oxford citations, are the dates when various parental terms were first recorded in English writing: “mama” (1555), “momma” (1803), “mom” (1846), and “mommy” (1846); “papa” (1681), “pa” (1773), “pop” (1840); “daddy” (1523), “dad” (1533), “dada” (1672), and “da” (1851). Linguists note that similar nursery words in other languages aren’t etymologically related, but the result of early infant-adult communication.

Of course, unrecorded examples of “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” undoubtedly occurred long before those dates. In fact, one scholar has suggested that a version of “mama” may have been one of the first words uttered by humans or their hominin ancestors:

“It does not seem unreasonable to assume that the equivalent of the English word ‘Mama’ may well have been one of the first conventional words developed by early hominins.” From a 2004 article by Dean Falk, a neuroanthropologist who specializes in the evolution of the brain and cognition in higher primates. (“Prelinguistic Evolution in Early Hominins: Whence Motherese?” in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.)

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Fair enough?

Q: Would you consider an article on the origin of “fair enough”? I recently read an online comment that suggested it originated in wooden boat building. I’m skeptical, but stumbling around on Google hasn’t gotten me an answer.

A: There’s no evidence that “fair enough,” an expression dating from the early 19th century, has its origins in boat building. All of the early examples we’ve seen are from ordinary conversation.

The oldest we’ve found is from an opinion piece originally published in the Baltimore Whig: “G. Your plan seems fair enough. T. Fair enough! Can any thing be fairer?”

The article, an imaginary dialogue between “Gaius” and “Titus” on political subjects, was reprinted in the Virginia Argus (Richmond) on Oct. 28, 1813.

That example uses “fair enough” as the adjectival complement of a verb (as in “sounds fair enough,” “looks fair enough,” “that’s fair enough,” “appears fair enough,” and so on), not as an expression that stands alone.

The stand-alone expression “fair enough” emerged slightly later, and is the equivalent of “that’s reasonable” or “I accept that,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And again, all of the OED’s examples are from everyday dialogue.

This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Two per cent discount—fair enough.” From The Itinerant (Vol. VI, 1817), a memoir by the English actor Samuel William Ryley. (The discussion is about lodgings at an inn.)

And Oxford has this example from conversation in a British novel: “ ‘Let me hear what the service is, and then I will answer you.’ ‘Fair enough.’ ” From The Adventures of Captain Blake: Or, My Life, by William Hamilton Maxwell (1835).

We’ve also found mid-19th-century examples in newspapers published in the US and in Australia: “Fair enough! cried I” (New York Daily Tribune, July 25, 1844) … “ ‘Fair enough,’ said he” (Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, March 19, 1853). So the expression was familiar to speakers of British, American, and Australian English.

But none of the OED’s examples of “fair enough” refer to boat building, and neither do any 19th-century examples we’ve found in old databases.

The dictionary’s only marine-related definition of the adjective “fair” is this one, in reference to weather: “Of the wind, etc.: favourable to the course of a ship, aircraft, etc.” Written uses date from late Old English.

And the dictionary’s only construction-related definition of the adjective is this one: “Of a line, curve, or surface: free from roughness or irregularities; smooth, even.”

For instance, phrases like “fair line,” “fair curve,” “fair plane” and so on mean a line (curve, etc.) that’s perfectly smooth—in any kind of carpentry, not specifically boat building.

Written examples of that usage in carpentry date from the late 15th century, but the OED’s only boat-building examples are modern ones—from Popular Mechanics in April 1939 (“to level everything off to a fair line”), and from a 2003 book, Don Danenberg’s How to Restore your Wooden Runabout (“to achieve fair surfaces”).

We should also mention that a verb, to “fair,” emerged in carpentry in the early 19th century and meant to smooth or blend the lines of a ship (later, an aircraft or motor vehicle). But this verb first appeared in 1822, which was after the conversational expression “fair enough,” so any connection is highly unlikely.

In websites devoted to boat construction and restoration, we’ve seen many uses of the verb “fair” and its derivatives in reference to the smoothing of a hull or other surface.

For example, enthusiasts speak of “fairing” a surface,” the “fairing” process, “fairing compound” or “fairing mix,” and they occasionally use “fair enough” to mean smooth enough. But all these uses came long after “fair enough” was a general expression for “I accept that.”

As for the etymology of the adjective “fair,” it was inherited from Germanic languages in which it meant beautiful, pleasant, bright, etc. It’s been known in writing since early Old English (fæger), where at first it was mostly used to describe good-looking men, a sense later transferred to women.

That general use of “fair”—for attractiveness in people or things—is “now somewhat archaic and literary,” Oxford says. It’s still sometimes found in uses like “your fair city,” “the fair sex,” “my fair companion,” and other courtly-sounding phrases.

From its early Old English senses of beautiful, agreeable, and pleasing, “fair” moved on and acquired additional meanings in Old and Middle English.

Because Germanic notions of beauty were often associated with lightness and brightness, “fair” sometimes meant light-colored hair or complexion. Other senses implied abstract notions rather than physical attributes: favorable, unbiased, honest, just, equitable, legitimate, reasonable, and so on.

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Rapping paper

Q: I’ve always assumed that “rap” in its speaking sense was derived from “rapport,” but dictionaries offer only talking or conversing as a definition, and almost no indication of the etymology. Am I right about the origin?

A: The use of “rap” in the sense of talking in an easy, familiar, and frank way may very well have been influenced by “rapport.” But “rap” had nothing to do with conversation when it first appeared in Middle English.

It was originally a noun meaning “a heavy or severe blow from a weapon,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the earliest OED example, the weapons are stones:

“Þai gun anoþer fiȝt & stones to gider þrewe; Gode rappes for þe nones Þai ȝauen wiþ þe stones” (“They began another fight and threw stones at each other; Good raps for the nonce they gave with the stones”). From Roland and Vernagu, circa 1330, a medieval romance about Charlemagne’s conquest of Spain and Roland’s battle with the Saracen Vernagu.

A verb meaning to strike someone forcefully appeared a couple of decades later in this OED citation: “Mony a mannes hed foro þe body he rappeþ” (“Many a man’s head from the body he rappeth”). From The Seege or Batayle of Troye, an anonymous romance believed written around 1350 or earlier.

The OED says the verb “rap” probably came from the noun, which is thought to be “an imitative or expressive formation.” In other words, “rap” means  what it sounds like. The dictionary notes similar imitative words in other Germanic languages: rapp (Norwegian), rapp (Swedish), and rap (Danish).

Over the years, according to Oxford, the hitting sense of the noun and verb weakened. The verb came to mean “to strike (a person or thing) in a sharp, usually relatively light, manner,” while the noun meant “a sharp, but usually relatively light, stroke with a stick, etc.”

Getting back to your question, the OED says the verb “rap” took on a speech sense in the mid-16th century, when the phrase “rap out” meant “to utter (words, speech, etc.) sharply or suddenly” or “to swear (an oath) vigorously.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1541 letter by Sir Thomas Wyatt, an English politician and poet:

“I am wonte some tyme to rappe owte an othe in an erneste tawlke.” From Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1963), by Kenneth Muir. (Wyatt, who is said to have introduced the sonnet to English literature, was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London for a rumored affair with Anne Boleyn.)

The noun “rap” took on a similar sense in the 18th century. The OED’s first citation is from a 1787 letter by the antiquarian Joseph Ritson: “I shall be most glad of my Lords arrival if it were only for the raps you promise me.” From Letters of Joseph Ritson (1833), edited by his nephew Joseph Frank. (Ritson is better known for his 1795 compilation of the Robin Hood legend.)

Finally, in the 20th century, the verb took on an informal sense in American English that the OED defines as “to talk or chat in an easy or discursive manner.”

Oxford, an etymological dictionary, describes this usage as “probably influenced by rapport n. in later use.” Two standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and Longman, suggest that it may have been influenced by “repartee.”

The earliest OED citation for the American usage is from a collection of criminal slang: “ ‘Rap’ means to speak. If you ‘rap’ to a man you speak to him or recognize him.” From a lexicon of criminal jargon in the book How to Be a Detective (1909), by F. H. Tillotson, a Pinkerton’s detective.

A couple of decades later, the usage appeared in a short story by Damon Runyon: “I wish Moosh a hello, and he never raps to me but only bows, and takes my hat.” From “Madame La Gimp,” published in the October 1929 issue of Cosmopolitan.

And a few decades after that, it showed up as “rapping” in the writings of Eldridge Cleaver: “In point of fact he is funny and very glib, and I dig rapping (talking) with him.” From a letter Cleaver wrote on Sept. 19, 1965, from Folsom State Prison in California and included in his memoir Soul on Ice (1968). It’s interesting that Cleaver felt it necessary to include a parenthetical definition of “rapping.”

Meanwhile, says the OEDthe noun “rap” took on the sense of “a verbal display, esp. one intended to impress. Hence: improvised dialogue; banter, ‘spiel’; an instance of this.” The dictionary’s first example is from “All Through the Night,” a short story by Nelson Algren in the April 1957 issue of Playboy:

“People like to say a pimp is a crime and a shame. But who’s the one friend a hustling broad’s got? …  Who puts down that real soft rap only you can hear to let you know your time is up and is everything alright in there Baby?” (An expanded version of the story appeared later as “Watch Out for Daddy.”)

The next Oxford example is from a 1965 soul song originally performed by the C.O.D.’s: “His rap is strong, with lots of fame / When the girls see him coming they tighten up their game.” From “Michael (the Lover),” written by Larry Brownlee, the Chicago group’s lead singer.

And here’s an OED citation from The Politics of Ecstasy (1966), a collection of essays and lectures by Timothy Leary: “He started a three-hour rap about energy, electronics, drugs, politics, the nature of God and the place of man in the divine system.”

The word “rap” has had many meanings over the years: a bum rap, a spirit’s rapping, a rap on the knuckles, and of course rap music.

It’s notable that the use of “rap” in music is descended from the conversational meanings of the word, especially the “verbal display” sense mentioned above.

The OED has two definitions of “rap” as used in music—one for a performance or a work, and one for the genre itself. Both, like the “verbal display” meaning, are labeled “originally U.S. colloquial.”

In the earliest usage, dating from the late 1970s, “rap” means “a performance in which lyrics (typically rhyming and sometimes improvised) are spoken rhythmically over a strong background beat.” Here the word can also mean “a rap song” or “a set of rap lyrics,” Oxford says.

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Young DJs like Eddie Cheeba, DJ Hollywood, DJ Starski, and Kurtis Blow are attracting followings with their slick raps. … Tapes of Hollywood’s raps are considered valuable commodities by young blacks.” From Billboard magazine, May 5, 1979.

Soon after, the OED says, “rap” came to mean “a genre of popular music in which lyrics (typically rhyming and sometimes improvised) are spoken rhythmically, and usually rapidly, over an instrumental backing which has a strong background beat and often features samples.”

And here’s Oxford’s earliest use of that sense of the word: “Rap isn’t simply a male monopoly as Blondie, Angie B and Cheryl rap to the shuffle boogie beat of the Sugarhill Gang band.” From the Boston Globe, April 10, 1980.

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The went not taken

Q: In Little Women, the girls chide their friend Teddy for flirting, to which he replies that sensible girls “won’t let me send them ‘flowers and things,’ so what can I do? my feelings must have a went.” I haven’t seen “went” used as a noun before. Have you come across it?

A: The “went” that Teddy uses is an antiquated noun for a path or road. The word dates from the Middle Ages and wasn’t an everyday usage by the time Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868. A more modern character might say, “My feelings must have an outlet.”

We’ve found only one current standard dictionary that still recognizes this use of “went.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, an American dictionary, labels it a British noun for “a traveled way,” synonymous with “road, lane, alley, passage.”

However, we don’t know of any standard British dictionary that now includes the term. And the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it’s obsolete except in dialect.

The OED defines a “went” as “a course, path, way, or passage,” and says the noun is related to the verb “wend.” Oxford’s earliest example for the noun, which we’ve expanded, is from a Middle English translation of Genesis:

“He knowned one ilc ſterre name, / He ſettes in ðe firmament, / Al abuten ðis walkne went” (“He alone knoweth the name of each star, / He sets in the firmament, / All across this vaulted way”). The passage, from around 1250, is cited in The Middle English Genesis and Exodus, edited by Olof Sigfrid Arngart (1968).

In the following century, Chaucer used the noun in a more literal way: “Hyt forthe went Dovne by a floury grene went Ful thikke of gras” (“It forth wended down by a flowery green path full thick with grass”). From The Book of the Duchesse, circa 1369. (Note that the first “went” in the Middle English passage means “wended” and the second means “path.” More on that later.)

Oxford notes that the noun “went” in this sense was sometimes used in reference to a crossroad. The dictionary cites 18th- and 19th-century examples in which “went,” used with a number, meant a point where several roads converged, as in a “three-went way” or a “four-went way.”

Though we’ve found some 20th-century examples of the noun “went,” it’s generally used historically—that is, in reference to times past—or as a curiosity. By Louisa May Alcott’s time it wasn’t in common use.

The word doesn’t appear in the dictionaries of John Kersey (1708), Nathan Bailey (1731), Samuel Johnson (1755), William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), Noah Webster (1806, 1828), or Joseph E. Worcester (1860).

As we mentioned, there’s a connection between the noun “went” and the quaint old verb “wend” (to turn, change direction, or go).

The story begins with “wend,” a word that may date as far back as the 700s in early Old English writing. Similar words are known in other Germanic languages, and the ultimate source, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic verb that’s been reconstructed as wandjanan (to turn or twist).

As the OED explains, “The core sense of the Germanic base is evidently ‘to turn.’ ” However, in Old English the verb “wend” acquired an additional meaning not known in its Germanic cousins: “to go.” This development, the dictionary suggests, came about “probably via a sense ‘to turn in a particular direction in order to go.’ ”

Significantly, a past-tense form of “wend” was “went,” which isn’t an unusual pattern in English. The “-d” ending of the infinitive became “-t” in the past tense, as in pairs like “send/sent,” “bend/bent,” “lend/lent,” and “spend/spent.”

Meanwhile, the unrelated verb “go” had its own past tense in Old English: eode (sometimes spelled yode). But beginning in the 1400s that old past tense began to slip away and was gradually replaced by “went.” This was only natural, since “went” was already a familiar past tense to English speakers, who often used “wend” and “go” for the same thing.

Consequently, “wend” acquired a new past tense all its own: “wended.” The result, the OED says, was that in many writings of the 15th century and a bit later “it is often unclear whether a particular instance of went should be interpreted as the past tense of wend … or of go.”

The meaning of “wend” gradually changed too. It lost its more straightforward “go” senses (to move, proceed, etc.), which were transferred to “go.” But it kept the twisting and turning senses. Today “wend” and its modern past tense “wended,” Oxford says, “often imply an indirect or meandering course” as well as denoting “unhurried movement.”

And as for that old noun “went,” it has wended its way into history.

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Let’s you and him fight

Q: Would you please comment on a recent headline in The New York Times: “ ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Review: Let’s You and Him Fight.” I like the “Him,” but not the grammar. Perhaps the writer meant “Let’s Let You and Him Fight”?

A: This is a joke—a rather old joke, in fact—on the “let’s” construction (short for “let us”). And it’s not supposed to be grammatically correct.

The normal construction, for a speaker offering to do something jointly, would be either “Let’s fight,” in which the participants are understood to be “me” and “you,” or “Let’s you and me fight,” in which the pronouns are added in apposition to “us” (more fully: “let us, you and me, fight”).

In the Times headline, the sentence begins with the contracted “let us,” but the writer then substitutes “him” for “me.” The joke is that the speaker declines the honor.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “let’s you and me (do something)” as an “irregular phrase” that’s colloquial in the US. Its citations date from the 1920s.

But we see nothing particularly irregular about it, and we’ve found numerous examples dating back to the mid-19th century in both American and British publications. To cite just a few:

1856: “let’s you and me make a bargain to try and get away” (from The Refugee: Or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, collected by the Boston abolitionist Benjamin Drew).

1858: “let’s you and me walk along the street together, and chat about this business” (The Young Duchess: Or, Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, a novel by George W. M. Reynolds, published in London).

1859: “let’s you and me be off” (Tighe Lyfford, a novel by Charles James Cannon, published in New York).

1862: “let’s you and me take a little country walk” (A Tangled Skein, a novel by Albany de Grenier Fonblanque, serialized in The St. James’s Magazine, London).

The construction was common enough to get the attention of textbook writers, who apparently regarded it as a normal English usage. Their only concern seemed to be that the proper pronoun case be used: “let’s you and me,” not “let’s you and I.”

Josephus Collett, in his Complete English Grammar (1891), parsed the phrase this way: “A common form of command or entreaty is expressed by an auxiliary verb followed by an infinitive—Let us (indirect object) go (to go, direct object); or, Let’s you and me go = Let us, you and me (appositive), go.”

In English Grammar and Composition for Higher Grades (1901), Gordon A. Southworth explained that only an object pronoun can be the object of a verb, then asked students to choose correctly here: “Let’s you and (I, me) bring the sleigh.” Similarly, Alfred M. Hitchcock, in his Composition and Rhetoric (1917), asked students to choose the correct pronoun here: “Let’s you and (me, I) go home.”

Publications for adults offered the same advice. In the business-writing column of the journal Correct English (April-May 1920), a reader questioned the correctness of a phrase spotted in a circular, “let’s you and I get together.” The editor replied: “ ‘let’s you and me get together’ is the correct form, the objective case being required after the verb let.”

Of course, there are other ways to say this: “let’s X,” “let us X,” “let you and me X,” even “let us X then, you and me.” (Poets are licensed to break the rules, as T. S. Eliot did in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky.”)

As we mentioned above, “let’s you and him fight” is an old joke.

It dates as least as far back as the early 1930s, when it was a catchphrase of J. Wellington Wimpy, a character in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theatre” comic strips, starring Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, “Let’s You and Him Fight” was the title of a Paramount Productions cartoon short featuring a boxing match between Popeye and Bluto, released in February 1934.

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Plead, pleaded, and pled

Q: You had a recent post about the use of “lead” for “led.” What about the use of “plead” for “pled”? I see that in print every once in a while.

A: The usual past tense and past participle for the verb “plead” is “pleaded.” That’s the only standard form in British English and the most popular one in American English.

All ten of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) recognize “pleaded” as a past tense and past participle. All the American dictionaries also recognize “pled,” and three of them include “plead” (pronounced as “pled”).

However, some usage writers have complained since the mid-19th century about the use of “pled” and “plead” for the past and past participle of the verb “plead.”

In Vulgarisms & Other Errors of Speech (1869), Richard Meade Bache writes: “Plead, mispronounced pled, is frequently used for pleaded; as, ‘He plead (pled) guilty to the indictment.’ The sentence should be, ‘He pleaded guilty to the indictment.’ ” He gives “pleaded” as the only past and past participle.

In Dictionary of Errors (1905), Sherwin Cody offers this advice: “Say, ‘He pleaded guilty’ (not ‘pled’ or ‘plead’).” And in A Desk-Book of Errors in English (1906), Frank H. Vizetelly writes, “The spelling of pled for the past is not warranted, and is a colloquialism. Careful speakers use pleaded.”

As for now, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Both pled (or plead) and pleaded are in good use in the US.” It adds that “pled” is “fully respectable” in American English “in spite of occasional backward-looking by a commentator or two.”

The online Merriam-Webster standard dictionary says in a usage note that “pleaded” is the more popular usage today, both inside and outside the courtroom:

“In legal use (such as ‘pleaded guilty,’ ‘pled guilty’), both forms are standard, though pleaded is used with greater frequency. In nonlegal use (such as ‘pleaded for help’), pleaded appears more commonly, though pled is also considered standard.”

As we’ve said, three US dictionaries (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Webster’s New World) include “plead” as a variant past and past participle. Nevertheless, we’d avoid it, since the usage is unusual and could be confusing.

When the verb “plead” appeared in Middle English (borrowed from Anglo-Norman), it was spelled various ways, including plaide, plaidi, and pledde. The OED’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Þeȝ we ne bo at one acorde, / we m[a]ȝe bet mid fayre worde, / witute cheste, & bute fiȝte, / plaidi mid foȝe & mid riȝte” (“though we two are not in accord, we can plead better with fair word, without strife & fight, with togetherness & right”).

The past and past participle were also spelled in different ways in Middle English, including pladd, pladde, and pleyd. The “pled,” “pleaded,” and “plead” spellings appeared in early Modern English (the first two in the 1500s and the third in the 1600s).

Here are the earliest OED citations for the three spelling that are seen today:

“The canon law … which is dailie pleaded” (from a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, a collaborative history of England, Scotland, and Ireland).

“And with him to make part against her, came Many graue persons, that against her pled” (The Faerie Queene, 1596, by Edmund Spenser). We’ve expanded the citation.

“St. Augustine plead it in bar to Celer’s action of unkindnesse against him for not writing sooner” (The Alliance of Divine Offices, 1659, by Hamon L’Estrange). The passage is from a section comparing practices of the Church of England to those of the early Christian church.

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Got your jabs?

Q: I’ve got both vaccinations now. Why do so many people refer to them as “jabs”? Is this something new?

A: No, the use of “jab” in reference to injections isn’t at all new. It’s more than a century old, dating from before World War I.

However, as we’ll show later, the Covid-19 pandemic has given the word “jab” (both the noun and the verb) a tremendous boost.

First, some etymology. You might say that “jab” means what it sounds or feels like. It developed as a variant of a late 15th-century word, spelled “job,” that was “apparently imitative of the sound or effect of a stab or prod,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The verb “job” used in this sense appeared in writing somewhat earlier than the noun, according to OED citations. In its earliest use, in 1499, the verb described what a bird does with its bill, but in the 1500s it was used more generally, Oxford says, meaning “to penetrate into, to stab, pierce, or prod at.”

Similarly, in the 1500s the old noun “job” meant “an abrupt stab with the point or end of something; a peck, a thrust, a jab,” the dictionary says. All these uses of “job,” verb and noun, are rare in modern English, Oxford says.

The modern “jab” emerged as a variant spelling of “job” in Scots English in the early 19th century. Oxford labels all uses of “jab”—verb and noun, then and now—as  “colloquial or dialect.”

The verb originally meant “to thrust with the end or point of something; to poke roughly; to stab,” the dictionary says, while the noun meant “an act of jabbing; an abrupt blow with something pointed, or (in Boxing slang) with the fist.”

The OED’s earliest examples for the verb and the noun are from the same source, John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825): “To Jab, to prick sharply,” and “Jab, the act of pricking in this way” [i.e., sharply].

The use of “jab” in connection with injections was bound to come along, and it did, in the early 20th century. The noun was recorded first, as “slang (originally U.S.)” and meaning “an injection with a hypodermic needle,” the OED says.

In Oxford’s earliest example, the noun is a term in illicit drug use: “Jab, current amongst morphine and cocaine fiends. A hypodermic injection.” From A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914), by Louis E. Jackson and C. R. Hellyer.

Here’s a later medical use of the noun: “The visitor must … take precautions and submit to a variety of jabs.” From a Liberia Supplement to The Times (London, April 17, 1973).

As for the verb “jab,” it’s defined this way in the OED: “to inject or inoculate (a person) with a hypodermic needle; to use (a hypodermic needle) to make an injection.”

Oxford’s first example of the verb in this sense is from a 1938 issue of the journal American Speech: “To jab, to take drugs hypodermically.”

And here’s a medical citation from a book of military slang: “Be jabbed, to be inoculated or vaccinated.” From A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, 1939-1945, by Eric Partridge et al. (1st ed., 1948).

As we said above, the pandemic has given new life to the word—both noun and verb.

A search of the NOW (News on the Web) corpus shows that until late 2020, the use of  “jab” had held steady for decades at a quiet frequency of 2 to 3 appearances for every million words. All that changed when uses of “jab” rose sharply in November and December, then skyrocketed during each month of early 2021.

Currently, the NOW corpus figures for the month of April are almost double those for January, at more than 28 per million words—an enormous increase. There’s no question about what’s caused the surge; vaccines were approved at the end of 2020 and made available to the public in 2021. The rise in the use of “jab” has closely tracked these developments.

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Is ‘graffiti’ a verb?

Q: Is it becoming acceptable to use “graffiti” as a verb? I recently encountered a sign that read “Do Not Litter / Do Not Loiter / Do Not Graffiti.”

A: Yes, “graffiti” is a verb. Five of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult (Cambridge, Collins, Lexico, Merriam-Webster, and Merriam-Webster Unabridged) recognize “graffiti” as both a verb and a noun.

Merriam-Webster, for example, defines the noun as “usually unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface” and the verb as “to draw graffiti on” or “to deface with graffiti.”

The verb showed up in print a few decades ago, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED’s definition of the verb is “to cover (a surface) with graffiti, apply graffiti to; also, to write as graffiti.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a newspaper in southeastern England: “The material has a wood bark finish which is very difficult to graffiti” (South Oxfordshire Chronicle, Nov. 20, 1987).

As for the noun, English borrowed it in the 19th century from Italian, where graffiti is the plural of graffito (a little scratch). In English, “graffiti,” plural of “graffito,” originally referred to drawing or writing that was scratched on ancient walls or other surfaces.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the plural and refers to marks at the site of a Neolithic tomb on Mainland, the main island in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago:

“The slight scratching of many of the Maeshowe Runes, and the consequent irregularity and want of precision in the forms, and also, no doubt, in the orthography and grammar, of what, it must be remembered, are mere graffiti” (Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, 1863, by Daniel Wilson).

In the mid-20th century, according to the OED, “graffiti” first appeared in print as a singular mass noun—like “writing,” “art,” or “vandalism”—for “words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the July 27, 1961, issue of The New York Times: “The slogans were scratched out … in the never-ending battle between those who write and those who remove graffiti.”

Here’s an early example we’ve found that’s more obviously singular: “the graffiti is passable—‘Norman Norell Is A Yenta’ ” (New York magazine, Sept. 1, 1969).

Most of the standard dictionaries we use say the noun “graffiti” can now be either singular or plural, but it’s usually a singular mass noun. The dictionaries say the singular “graffito” is usually limited to archeological or other technical writing.

The OED and many standard dictionaries also include “graffitied” as an adjective meaning covered with graffiti, and “graffitist” as a noun for someone who writes or draws graffiti. The first Oxford citation for the adjective, which we’ve expanded, refers to a school in Buffalo, NY:

“I came across a graffitied bulletin board in a guidance office that was a combination of ribbing and signifying. Under the graffiti ‘Hoes of Buffalo sign here’ were five names.” (From Ribbin’, Jivin’, and Playin’ the Dozens: The Unrecognized Dilemma of Inner City Schools, 1974, by Herbert L. Foster.)

The earliest OED example for “graffitist” is from the New Statesman (Dec. 2, 1966): “His gift is to bring out the scholiast—or the graffitist—in the reader.” A scholiast was an early commentator who made marginal annotations in ancient literature.

The next example refers to an artist inspired by graffiti: “For Pop Master and one-time graffitist Claes Oldenburg, the blossoming graffiti are like a dream come true” (New York magazine, March 26, 1973).

We’ll end with an Oxford example of “graffiti” used as a singular mass noun in Ed McBain’s 1977 mystery Long Time No See: “The graffiti was oversprayed—Spider 19 giving way to Dagger 21, in turn giving way to Salazar IV, so that nobody’s name meant a rat’s ass any more.”

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On ‘lead’ and ‘led’

Q: I notice more and more the spelling “lead” where “led” is intended. Is this a case of evolution? Or merely a misspelling?

A: The only standard past tense and past participle of the verb “lead” is “led.” All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) agree on this.

But as you’ve noticed, the past and participle are sometimes written as “lead,” though this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s a usage that’s been criticized since the late 19th century, if not earlier.

For example, a paper analyzing the writing of students applying for admission to Harvard College in 1896 found that “led” and “lead” were among “a large class of misspelled words that indicate a difficulty in deciding between ‘e’ (or ‘ee’ ) and ‘ea.’ ”

In the paper, “Sub-freshman English,” Adams Sherman Hill and Elizabeth Aborn Withey report that Harvard applicants misspelled the metal “lead” as “led,” and the past tense and past participle “led” as “lead” (Educational Review, December 1897).

Why the mix-ups? Merriam-Webster, one of the standard dictionaries mentioned above, says confusion over the pronunciations of the various words “lead” (the noun for a metal, the verb for going ahead, the adjective for most important, etc.) results in confusion over the spellings.

“The homophonic confusion leads to homographic confusion, and you will therefore occasionally see lead in constructions where led is called for (as in, ‘She lead the ducklings to safety’ instead of ‘She led the ducklings to safety’),” the dictionary says in a usage note, “When to Use Lead or Led.”

We’d add that “lead” belongs to the same class of irregular verbs as “bleed,” “breed,” and “feed.” Like them, it forms the past and past participle with a short “e” (“bled,” “bred,” “fed”).

We suspect that the people who write “lead” for the past and past participle pronounce the word as if it were spelled “led,” along the lines of “read,” which is pronounced like “red” in its past forms.

As it turns out, the past and past participle of “lead” have been spelled all sorts of way since the verb appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as lædan. In Old English, for example, the past tense was lædde and the past participle læded.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the past tense, is from an early eighth-century Old English translation of the Book of Psalms: “Astigende in heanisse gehefte lædde heftned” (“You ascended on high; you led your captives in captivity”). From the Vespasian Psalter, Psalm 68:18.

In Middle English, the tense forms were written in many different ways: the past as leaded, ledd, ledde, and so on, and the past participle as læded, læd, ledde, etc. The “led” spelling first appeared in Middle English for both the past and past participle, but some of the other spellings were still seen in early Modern English.

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The jig is up

Q: I am familiar with the phrase “the jig is up,” though I am not familiar with its origin. And I keep hearing people mispronounce “jig” as “gig.” Maybe they think “gig” makes more sense.

A: In the expression “the jig is up,” the noun “jig” means a trick or a joke. When “the jig is up,” the trick has been exposed and the game is over. The “j” is pronounced like the one in “jolly.”

The word “jig” has had this meaning since the late 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “a piece of sport, a joke; a jesting matter, a trifle; a sportive trick or cheat.”

(The other word you mention—“gig” in the sense of a job or engagement to perform—dates from the 1920s. As we wrote in a 2010 post, it’s probably of African-American origin. Here, “g” sounds like the one in “golly.” )

Interestingly, some people are misusing the expression in writing too, as in this HuffPost headline from Nov. 20, 2020:

Joe Scarborough Lays Down Ultimatum To Mitch McConnell Over Trump Support

“The gig is up,” the MSNBC “Morning Joe” host said in a withering monologue aimed at the Senate GOP leader.

However, sometimes “the gig is up” is a pun, as in this headline about independent-contractor jobs: “The Gig Is Up for Uber in the U.K.” (Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2021).

Here’s the earliest OED example for the “jig” that’s a con or a trick (the plural “jigs” is spelled “Iygs,” with a capital “i” instead of the modern letter “j”):

“Looke to it you Bookesellers & Stationers, and let not your shops bee infected with any such goose gyblets or stinking garbadge, as the Iygs of newsmongers.” From Thomas Nashe’s 1592 satire Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Diuell [Devil]. (Nashe is railing against the pamphleteers of the day; we’ve expanded the quotation to give more context.)

This OED example has the modern spelling: “When the Major now perceived the Jig, and how Kitchingman had fooled him, he could have pulled the Hair off his Head.” From Flagellum (1663), James Heath’s biography of Oliver Cromwell.

As for “the jig is up,” it means “the game is up” or “it is all over,” says the OED, which labels the usage “now dialect or slang.”  These are the dictionary’s earliest examples, starting with an older version, “the jig is over”:

“Mr. John Miller came in and said, ‘The jig is over with us’ ” (The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, June 17, 1777).

“As the Baltimore paper says, ‘The Jigg’s up, Paddy’ ” (The Philadelphia Aurora, Dec. 17, 1800).

William Dean Howells left no doubt about the phrase’s meaning when he wrote, “The die is cast, the jig is up, the fat’s in the fire, the milk’s spilt” (Harper’s Magazine, February 1894).

And since we can never resist quoting P. G. Wodehouse, here’s a final example: “You’re in the soup, Miss Briggs. The gaff has been blown, and the jig is up” (Service With a Smile, 1961).

The origin and history of “jig” are uncertain. Several similar and apparently related nouns spelled “jig”—a lively dance, the music for such a dance, a comic entertainment, as well as the “jig” that’s a trick or con—all emerged in the last half of the 16th century. And the order in which those senses developed isn’t clear.

What the dictionary suggests is that “jig” may simply be onomatopoeic in origin, “the large number of words into which jig- enters indicating that it has been felt to be a natural expression of a jerking or alternating motion.” (It’s interesting that in the late 1590s, when a “jig” was a joke or a con, a “jerk” could mean a witticism or an insult.)

The OED dismisses suggestions by some etymologists that the noun “jig” came from Old French, in which a gigue was a medieval stringed instrument. The Old French word, Oxford says, “had none of the senses of jig, it was also obsolete long before jig is known to have existed.”

Furthermore, the modern French gigue, for the dance and the music, came a century after the English noun, in the last half of the 17th century. It didn’t come from the earlier word for the stringed instrument, the OED says, noting suggestions that it was “simply adopted [from] English jig.”

There’s also a verb “jig,” first recorded in 1598. Some of its senses—to sing or dance or play a jig, or to move jerkily—“evidently” came from the noun, the OED says.

The dictionary also dismisses any connection between the verb “jig” and earlier, obsolete French verbs meaning to frolic (giguer) or kick (ginguer): “this resemblance may be merely accidental, or due to parallel onomatopoeic influence.”

In fact, “jigging” has long been associated with jerking, jogging, and fidgeting. The phrase “jig-a-jig” (or “jig-a-jog”), from the early 1600s, was used adverbially to mean “with a jigging or jogging motion,” the OED says, and arose from “imitative words expressing reiteration or alternation of light, short, jerky movements.”

We’re reminded of an old nursery rhyme that evokes a creaky wagon bumping its way home. There have been many iterations over the centuries, but we like the Mother Goose version:

To market, to market to buy a fat pig;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.

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‘Summoned’ or ‘summonsed’?

Q: I’m curious about the police use of “summonsed.” Is this an example of a verb made out of a noun? Should it not be “summoned”? Or “issued a summons”?

A: The use of “summons” as a verb is not unusual or new. Since the 1600s it’s been a term used in law for ordering an appearance. (Etymologically, as we’ll explain later, the verb means to warn or advise.)

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: “to order (a person) to appear before a court or other judicial authority at a specified time; to issue writ of summons against; to serve with a summons.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a witch trial held in Essex County Court at Salem, Mass., on June 28, 1659:

“John Godfrey … shall be legally summonsed thereunto” (cited in Salem Witchcraft , 1867, by Charles W. Upham). Godfrey was charged with being a witch, but later won defamation suits against his accusers.

The dictionary has examples of the verb from every century since the 1600s onward. Here’s one from each century.

“A woman had but to summons her seducer before the judges” (1780, in the English clergyman Martin Madan’s Thelyphthora, a treatise advocating polygamy).

“Say another word, and I’ll summons you” (1839, in Charles Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby).

“The snakey bastard, chasing you off like that. He ought to get summonsed” (1958, in Alan Sillitoe’s novel The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner).

“Occasionally they summonsed people for not having lights on their bicycles at night” (2005, in the Irish writer John McGahern’s Memoir, published in North America in 2006 as All Will Be Well).

The verb “summons,” as the OED says, was derived from the earlier noun “summons,” which originally meant an official order to appear or assemble before some authority. The noun had been borrowed into English around 1300 from French (somonse).

The more familiar meaning of a “summons” today, “an official writ that orders a person to appear in a court of law,” began appearing in the later 1300s, according to Oxford.

Both the noun and the verb “summons” were preceded by the simpler verb “summon,” which came into English from French in the 1200s. Its ultimate source is Latin, summonere (or submonere), derived from monere (to warn or advise).

In classical Latin, summonere meant “to advise privately,” the OED says, but in post-classical times it took on more official meanings, including to command an appearance in court or at an assembly.

At first, the English verb “summon” also had an official flavor, as in some kind of warning to appear. Its earliest meaning, according to Oxford, was “to call authoritatively for (an official group, parliament, council, etc.) to gather or assemble.”

And very early on, around 1300, to “summon” had the same meaning as the later “summons.” It was defined, the OED says, as “to order (a person) to appear before a court or other judicial authority at a specified time; to issue a writ of summons against.”

But less legalistic uses of “summon” also began to emerge: to call for someone or something to come, as in to “summon” help (c. 1300); to muster or rouse, as in to “summon” one’s courage (1581); to conjure, as in to “summon” a ghost or spirit (1619); to evoke or call into existence, as in to “summon” an image (1679).

It may be that those broader and less official senses of “summon” created some ambiguity or confusion with its legal meanings. If so, that ambiguity could have influenced the development of the narrower and more specific verb “summons” in the 1600s. At any rate, “summons” now has a distinct meaning in common usage, and we’d rather be “summoned” than “summonsed” any day!

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A fly in the ointment

Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the earliest example for “a fly in in the ointment” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 19th century. I thought the expression came from Ecclesiastes.

A: The expression was probably inspired by Ecclesiastes 10:1, but as far as we know, that exact phrase—“a fly in the ointment”—doesn’t appear in any English translation of the Bible, nor in any of the Latin, Greek, or Hebrew texts.

In the King James Version of 1611, for example, the verse reads: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”

And here’s Ecclesiastes 10:1 in  the Leningrad Codex, dating from around 1010, the oldest surviving complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible:

זבובי מות יבאיש יביע שמן רוקח יקר מחכמה מכבוד סכלות מעט

The passage could be translated as “Dead flies make the perfumer’s oil stink, as does a little folly a reputation for wisdom and honor.”

When an early version of “a fly in the ointment” appeared in a collection of 17th-century sermons, the expression meant something that spoils what otherwise would have been a success:

“the pharisees did the will of god in giving alms, but that which was a dead fly in the ointment, was, that they did not aim at gods glory, but vain-glory.” From A Body of Practical Divinity (1686), by Thomas Watson, a Puritan preacher. Watson’s use of “dead fly” is clearly an allusion to Ecclesiastes 10:1.

The earliest OED example is from “Poor Relations,” a humorous essay by Charles Lamb (London Magazine, May 1823). We’re expanding the citation here:

“A poor relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature, … —Agathocles’ pot,—a Mordecai in your gate,—a Lazarus at your door,—a lion in your path,—a frog in your chamber,—a fly in your ointment,—a mote in your eye.”

Lamb’s inclusion of “a fly in your ointment” among various expressions derived from the Bible suggests that he too is alluding to Ecclesiastes 10:1.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the expression means “some small or trifling circumstance which spoils the enjoyment of a thing, or detracts from its agreeableness.” Most of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult agree with that general definition, though the circumstance may not be small or trifling.

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The lying origins of ‘belie’

Q: I see usages like “His age belies his strength” when I think it should be “His strength belies his age.” But I’m a bit confused about this. What do you think?

A: The verb “belie” usually means to give a false impression (“His amiable smile belies his toughness”) or to prove false (“The fingerprints belie her claim to have been elsewhere”). All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include those two senses, though some add a slight variation or two.

So in answer to your question, one could say either “His strength belies [gives a false impression of] his age” or “His age belies [gives a false impression of] his strength.”

Of course “belie” can be misused. As Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) points out, it’s sometimes thought to mean disclose or reveal, “a sense almost antithetical” to giving a false impression. The usage guide gives this example of the misuse: a “soft drawl belied his Southern roots.”

As for its etymology, “belie” dates from Anglo-Saxon days, when it meant “to deceive (a person) by lying” or “to tell lies about, to slander or libel (a person),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English, the verb was written as beleogan, formed of the prefix be- (about) plus leogan (to lie or deceive). The earliest example in the OED, dating from the late 9th or early 10th century, uses belogene, the past participle:

“forþon þe we men syndon & beoþ ful oft belogene fram oþrum mannum” (“because we are men we are often belied [deceived] by other men”). From Bishop Wærferð of Worcester’s Old English translation of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, written in Latin over the late 6th and early 7th centuries.

In early Middle English, the verb (written as biliȝhe, beleiȝe, bilye, etc.) meant “to tell lies about; esp. to slander or libel, to calumniate,” the OED says. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation:

“Þe treowe is ofte mis trouwed & þe sakelese biloȝen … for wane of witnesse” (“the faithful are often mistrusted and the innocent belied [lied about] … for want of witness”). From Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoresses), a guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts; the OED dates this one from the early 1200s or perhaps late 1100s.

In the 14th century, the expression “belie the truth” came to mean “misrepresent or pervert the truth,” as in this Oxford example: “Þei lede lordes with lesynges and bilyeth treuthe” (“they lead lords with lies and belie the truth”). From Piers Plowman (1378), by William Langland.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels all these early senses of “belie” as obsolete or rare.

Over the next few centuries, the lying sense of “belie” lessened and the verb took on its modern meanings of to give a false impression and to prove something false.

Here’s an early Oxford example of the false-impression sense: “It is a straunge thing how men bely themselues: euery one speakes well, and meanes naughtily” (from “Of Alehouses,” a 1600 essay by William Cornwallis, an English courtier and member of Parliament).

And this is an expanded OED example of the other sense, to prove something false: “A Neat, spruce, affecting Courtier, one that weares clothes well, and … cares not what Ladies fauor he belies” (from Ben Jonson’s description of Fastidius Briske, in the cast of characters of his satire Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600).

Finally, here are some modern examples from Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary:

“Her gentleness belies her strength.”

“His manner and appearance belie his age.”

“The evidence belies their claims of innocence.”

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No pants, let alone a jacket

Q: An article in the San Francisco Chronicle about takeout meals says, “now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on a jacket, let alone pants.” Shouldn’t “jacket” and “pants” be flipped?

A: Yes, we’d flip “jacket” and “pants” in that passage from the Chronicle (Feb. 16, 2021): “now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on pants, let alone a jacket.”

The phrase “let alone” is used here to emphasize something by contrasting it with something less likely. If you don’t have to wear pants, you’re less likely to dress up in a jacket.

Lexico, an online dictionary using the resources of Oxford University Press, says the usage indicates “that something is far less likely or suitable than something else already mentioned.” It gives this example: “he was incapable of leading a bowling team, let alone a country.”

Another online dictionary, Longman, says the phrase is “used after a negative statement to say that the next thing you mention is even more unlikely.” It cites this example: “The baby can’t even sit up yet, let alone walk!”

The phrase is usually used as a conjunction in “sentences with a negative construction or negative overtones,” where “its sense is close to ‘much less,’ ”  according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Merriam-Webster cites a November 1914 letter in which Robert Frost says “I don’t feel justified in worrying, let alone complaining.”

You might also think of “let alone” as contrasting something relatively simple with something more difficult: “We can’t afford to rent, let alone buy” … “I wouldn’t trust him to drive a car, let alone pilot a plane” … “the disease can’t be treated, let alone cured.”

All ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult say “let alone” is generally used negatively, or cite negative examples of the usage.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the phrase “used colloquially with the sense ‘not to mention,’ ” is from the early 19th century:

“I didn’t hide, nor wouldn’t from any man living, let alone any woman.” From Tales of a Fashionable Life (1812), by Maria Edgeworth.

[Note: A 2012 post discusses the occasional use of the variant “leave alone” in British English, though it says “let alone” is the usual usage in both the US and the UK.]

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Are ‘vote’ and ‘veto’ related?

Q: The words “vote” and “veto” seem so similar, yet opposite. One involves the making of choices, the other the blocking of choices. Do these words have a common origin?

A: Despite their resemblance, “vote” and “veto” are not related etymologically, and they aren’t really opposites. They’re descended from different Latin verbs meaning, respectively, to vow (vovere) and to forbid (vetare).

We’ll start with “vote,” the older of the two words.

It first entered English as a noun in the 15th century, borrowed directly from votum, a Latin noun derived from the verb vovere. The classical Latin noun meant a vow or offering to a god, but in post-classical times it came to mean a choice or a decision.

In English, the noun “vote” has had its choosing or deciding senses from the start. (At various times in the past, both noun and verb have also had meanings related to vowing or pledging, but those are now obsolete.)

The earliest recorded meaning of the noun “vote,” dating from the mid-1400s, was a “formal statement of opinion by a member of a deliberative body on a matter under discussion,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s oldest citation, in Scots English, is from The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland (1458): “haifande wotis in the deliverance of causis” (“having votes in the deciding of causes”).

All the other meanings of the noun “vote”—a collective choice, an individual’s selection of a candidate, a decision by ballot or show of hands, and so on—developed steadily from the late 1400s onward.

The verb “vote” in the political sense emerged a century after the noun, and it also appeared first in Scots English. Here’s the OED definition: “to give or register a vote; to exercise the right of suffrage; to express a choice or preference by ballot or other approved means.” And this is the dictionary’s earliest example:

“swa that monsieur Desse … with the rest off capitainis and gentilmen woittit ilk ane for ther awyn part” (“so that Monsieur Dessé … with the other captains and gentlemen voted every one according to their duty”). From a Feb. 20, 1549, letter by the Scottish clergyman Alexander Gordon to Scotland’s Queen Dowager, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.

(A final note on “vote” before we move on to “veto.” The defunct “vow” senses of “vote” have been replaced by the word “vow.” But old senses related to prayers and vows live on in the related words “devote,” “devotion,” “devoted,” and “devout.” The “de-” is not a negative prefix but means “from.”)

The word “veto,” meanwhile, still echoes what it meant to the Romans. In classical Latin, veto meant “I forbid”; it was the first-person singular present form of the verb vetare (to forbid). As the OED explains, veto was “the word by which the Roman tribunes of the people opposed measures of the Senate or actions of the magistrates.”

The Latin expression veto was borrowed directly into English as the noun “veto” in the 17th century. And the noun’s original English meaning hasn’t changed. This is the OED definition:

“A prohibition having as its object or result the prevention of an act; an instance of rejecting, banning, or blocking an action, proposal, etc. Also: the power to prevent or check action in this way.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from William Mure’s True Crucifixe (1629): “Hee who doth exalt Himselfe to raigne … Dare gainst this Law most impudently stand, And God’s great Veto boldly counter-mand.”

A more specific meaning of the noun soon emerged, and it too is still alive today—the rejection of a legislative or other political measure, as in a presidential “veto.”

The noun in this sense was first recorded in a sermon by a Church of England clergyman, Anthony Farindon, sometime before 1658: “There is a Law staring in our face, like a Tribune with his Veto, to forbid us.”

As for the verb “veto,” it was formed within English in the 18th century, simply by the conversion of the noun into a verb. It’s defined in the OED as “to put a veto on (a legislative or political measure); to stop or block by exercising a veto.”

Oxford’s earliest example: “Letters for degrees (including D.D. for Potter) read in Convocation, but vetoed by the Proctors because they had not been previously acquainted with the contents.” We’ve expanded the citation, from a 1706 letter by the antiquary and diarist Thomas Hearne.

Although “vote” and “veto” aren’t etymologically related, over time they’ve become political bedfellows.

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Lie and lay: the flip side

Q: My English teacher in the ’60s taught me the difference between “I lie” and “I lay.” It now makes my blood curdle to hear people refer to “a lay down” or “the lay of the land.”

A: We’ve written several times on the blog about the verbs “lie” and “lay,” including a post in 2011. However, the nouns “lie” and “lay” are a different species altogether. In the usages you mention, they’re interchangeable.

Both “lie of the land” and “lay of the land” are correct noun phrases meaning how something lies or is laid. And both a “lay-down” and a “lie-down” are correct as nouns meaning a nap or a rest.

You don’t have to take our word for this. The Oxford English Dictionary says those expressions—both versions of them—represent legitimate uses of the nouns “lie” and “lay.”

We’ll discuss the longer expression first. “Lay of the land,” as we briefly mentioned in a 2006 post, is the more common version in American English, “lie of the land” in British English.

All five of the standard American dictionaries we regularly consult include “lay of the land”; two of them also list “lie of the land,” labeling it a British variant. The five standard British dictionaries we use all include both versions, with four of them labeling “lay of the land” an American usage.

In either form, this is a centuries-old idiom that can refer to the topography of a landscape (the literal sense) or to a condition or state of affairs (the figurative sense).

The “lie” in this expression, the OED says, means the “manner of lying; direction or position in which something lies; direction and amount of slope or inclination.” Used figuratively, the dictionary says, it means “the state, position, or aspect (of affairs, etc.).”

And the “lay” in the expression is defined as “the way, position, or direction in which something is laid or lies (esp. said of country),” or the “disposition or arrangement with respect to something.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded example, from the late 17th century, shows the “lie” version (spelled “lye” here): “Nott to alter the proper lye of the Land.” (Minutes of a meeting in Hartford on April 4, 1697, allowing a “Sider house” to continue operating on town property as long as the land was not further altered. From the Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.)

The expression doesn’t appear again until the mid-19th century—this time with “lay”—in a work of Henry David Thoreau: “I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land.” (From “The Allagash and East Branch,” an essay probably written before January 1858 and published posthumously in 1864 as part of The Maine Woods.)

In subsequent uses, both versions appear, according to OED citations:

“Washington, from the lie of the land, can hardly have been said to be centrical at any time” (a comment on the nation’s capital in Anthony Trollope’s North America, 1862).

“The frequent lay of the land in the tea districts … is alternate stretches of low land suitable for rice, and high land fitted for tea” (The Tea Industry in India, by an English planter, Samuel Baildon, 1882).

“The corn rows follow the lay of the land on the contour and the land is strip-farmed” (The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 8, 1943).

“To show the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details” (The Story of Art, a history by Ernst Hans Gombrich, 1950).

Similarly, both “lay-down” and “lie-down” are legitimate nouns. The OED defines a “lay-down” as “an act of lying down, a rest,” and the equivalent of a “lie-down,” which in turn is defined as “a rest (on a bed, etc.).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a “lie” version, from the mid-19th century: “I should be very glad of a lie down but cannot” (from a letter written Oct. 13, 1840,  by Harriett Mozley and published in Newman Family Letters, 1962, edited by Dorothea Mozley).

The earliest “lay” example is from the late 19th century: “Nothing but ‘dub’ fights by novices, with now and then a deliberate ‘lay down’ ” (National Police Gazette, May 26, 1897).

Here are examples of each, used in the sense of a brief nap:

“Yes, Aggie, you go an’ ’ave a lie-down, see, and you’ll be all right” (Four One-Act Plays, by St. John Ervine, 1928).

“What you want is a nice lay-down and a cupper tea” (Busman’s Honeymoon, a 1937 mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers).

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Ask, and it shall be given

Q: I wish you’d talk about the current trend to say “ask forgiveness” instead of “ask for forgiveness.” Is the shorter version acceptable these days?

A: Yes, it’s acceptable and it has been for hundreds of years. Phrases like “ask forgiveness” and “ask mercy” and “ask leave” (with no intervening preposition) have been around since at least the 1300s.

Here’s an early “mercy” example from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Thai ask mercy, bot nocht at ȝow” (“They ask mercy but not of thou”). From The Bruce, 1375, a narrative poem by the Scottish writer John Barbour.

And here’s an early “forgiveness” citation in the OED: “A man schuld all anely ask him forgifnes wham he trespast to.” From Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which the British Library dates at the last quarter of the 14th or first quarter of the 15th century.

The preposition is often unnecessary, especially when “ask” is used in the sense of “request” or “seek.”

Examples: “I’m asking permission” … “Ask him the time” … “He asked the child’s name” … “Let’s ask the price” … “Did you ask the way?” … “Don’t ask the reason” … “I didn’t ask why” … “Never ask her age” … “Can I ask the score?” and many others.

Sometimes the use of a preposition (like “for” or “about”) between “ask” and the object is optional and the choice is up to you. In some cases, though a preposition is always used, as in “We asked after his mother’s health” and “When you arrive, ask for the manager” and “Don’t ask about that.”

Most of this stuff is idiomatic, and there are few hard-and-fast rules. But as the OED says, the use of a preposition here is “more usual when the thing requested is concrete” rather than abstract.

So one would “ask for” a loan or a refrigerator. But one could either “ask” or “ask for” forgiveness; both usages were common in a recent search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books.

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Sex under the arches

Q: I’m curious about the origin of “fornication.” How did we get from arches and vaults to sex between people not married to each other?

A: In ancient Rome, prostitutes used to hang out in vaulted cellars such as those formed by the arches underneath circuses (arenas for sports and other spectacles).

Not surprisingly, fornix, the Latin word for an arch or a vault, came to mean a brothel, and fornicis, its genitive form, begot fornicari, to fornicate, and fornicatio, fornication.

As W. C. Firebaugh explains in notes to his 1922 translation of the Satyricon of Petronius, “The arches under the circus were a favorite location for prostitutes,” who “were always ready at hand to satisfy the inclinations which the spectacles aroused.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology adds that “brothels in ancient Rome were often located in underground basements” and “prostitutes solicited their business under the arches of certain buildings.”

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says early Christian writers identified “vaulted underground dwellings” with prostitution “and employed the term [fornix] with the specific meaning ‘brothel.’ ”

Interestingly, fornix is probably derived from fornus, furnus, or fornax, Latin for oven and a source of “furnace,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Ultimately, the dictionary says, the usage comes from gwher-, a reconstructed prehistoric root meaning to heat or warm.

Standard dictionaries define the noun “fornication” as consensual sexual intercourse between two people who aren’t married to each other.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at sometime before 1300:

“Þis sin has branches fele … fornicacion es an” (“this sin [adultery] has many branches … fornication is one”).

The verb “fornicate” showed up in writing in the 16th century, with an early spelling of the infinitive.The first Oxford citation is from a 16th-century English-Latin dictionary:

“Fornicaten, or commit fornication or lechery, fornicor” (from Abcedarium Anglico Latinum, 1552, by Richard Huloet). Fornicari, source of “fornicate,” is the present active infinitive of fornicor.

The earliest example we’ve seen for the verb with its modern spelling is from the Douay–Rheims Bible of 1582: “Neither let vs fornicate, as certaine of them did fornicate, and there fel in one day three and twentie thousand” (1 Corinthians 10:8).

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Girl Scout kapers

Q: I’m a life Girl Scout who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. I always assumed that the term “kaper” in Girl Scout language was somehow related to “KP” because of the echo and the meaning. But when I Google it now all I get is that it’s a job, not necessarily one involving meals. Can you tell me more?

A: In Girl Scout terminology, a “kaper” is now simply a chore or job, and a “kaper chart” is a list of chores. But as you suspect, the usage probably comes from “KP,” short for “kitchen police,” and the earliest examples we’ve seen involve food preparation and cleanup.

We haven’t found the Girl Scout terms in any standard, etymological, or slang dictionary, but our searches of old newspaper and book databases indicate that the usage showed up in the US during the 1940s. Here are two early examples:

“Girls of Troop No. 1 have made plans for the meeting of June 4th, when Bennett Intermediate Troop will be their guests for the day. Last Monday they planned their menu, and at the next meeting at 10 A. M. on May 28, a ‘Kaper chart’ will be made for dividing the duties.” (From The Adams County News in Aurora, CO, May 29, 1945.)

“The girls have practiced the accepted method of making bed rolls, planning menus and purchasing food. Mrs. Thomas has arranged for a Kaper chart which gives each girl her share of fire building, cooking and cleaning up.” (From an article about a Girl Scout camping trip, in a suburban New York paper, The Bronxville Reporter, May 8, 1947.)

Today, as you’ve noticed, Girl Scouts use the terms “kaper” and “kaper chart” in reference to any chores or jobs, food-related or otherwise. Here, for example, is a description and an image from the website of the Girl Scouts of Southwest Indiana:

“A ‘kaper chart’ is a Girl Scout tradition for dividing up troop responsibilities. A kaper is a job or chore that must be done. A kaper chart indicates all the jobs available and who is responsible for each one.”page1image3956056992

As for “kitchen police,” the term first appeared in the US Army in the 19th century, when it referred to enlisted men “detailed to help the cook, wash dishes, etc.,” according the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation is from Fighting Indians in the 7th United States Cavalry: Custer’s Favorite Regiment (1879), by Ami Frank Mulford:

“The sawmill men would go to the Government mill and saw lumber to be used in the different buildings, the Quartermaster’s men would report at the store-houses, the Stable Police to the stables, Kitchen Police to the kitchens and mess room.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the shorter version, “KP,” is from World War I: “K.P., Kitchen Police. A mild form of punishment.” (Army and Navy Information: Uniforms, Organization, Arms and Equipment of the Warring Powers, 1917, by Maj. De Witt Clinton Falls, National Guard, New York. Falls, an author and artist, rose through the ranks from a private to a brigadier general.)

We’ll end with an OED citation, which we’ve expanded, from Three Soldiers, a 1921 novel about World War I by John Dos Passos:

The men, holding their oval mess kits in front of them, filed by the great tin buckets at the door, out of which meat and potatoes were splashed into each plate by a sweating K.P. in blue denims.”

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Rock around o’clock

Q: The word o’clock is an oddball. Are there any more words in English where a contraction is at the beginning?

A: Yes, o’clock is an odd contraction, but it’s not unique.

Most of the contractions we use in contemporary English were formed by combining two words, with the final word shortened and the missing part replaced by an apostrophe, as in I’ll (I + will), they’re (they + are), and don’t (do + not).

The contraction o’clock is an exception, since the beginning word is the one that’s shortened. The o’ here is a shortening of the preposition of, and o’clock was originally of clock, meaning “of or according to the clock.”

In addition to o’clock, the element o’ appears in some Anglicized Irish surnames (O’Brien, O’Connell, O’Neil, etc.), where it stands for “descendant of.”

And sometimes the first part of an expression is contracted in colloquial writing, as with y’all (you + all), c’mon (come + on), and s’pose (for suppose).

In the past, it was more common to shorten the first part of a contraction or even both parts, as in ha’n’t (have + not), sha’n’t (shall + not), ’tis (it + is), ’twere (it + were), and ’twill (it + will).

And here are a couple of archaic three-word contractions—’twon’t (it + will + not) and ’twouldn’t (it + would + not)—along with one that’s still seen today,  ne’er-do-well (never + do + well).

Some single words were often contracted in older English. In addition to ne’er for never, there was o’er for over and e’er for ever. And some single words are still contracted: forecastle is often written as fo’c’sle or fo’c’s’le, and boatswain as bos’n, bo’s’n, or bo’sun, though bosun is more common. And, as you know, madam is often contracted as ma’am.

Technically, the shortened part of a contraction is a “clitic”; it’s unstressed and normally occurs only in combination with another term. A contracted part at the beginning (like the o’ in o’clock) is a “proclitic” and one at the end (like the ’re in they’re) is an “enclitic.”

Some words that are now considered short forms of longer ones began life as contractions, with the first part replaced by an apostrophe: ’copter (from helicopter), ’cello (from violoncello), and ’gator (from alligator). Eventually the apostrophes dropped away.

Others words showed up first as shortenings (not contractions), but were later occasionally written with apostrophes: flu (from influenza), phone (from telephone), and quake (from earthquake).

Getting back to o’clock, the usage first appeared in the form of clok in the early 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a 1419 proclamation by King Henry V, ordering reinforcements rushed to the British Army in Normandy during the Hundred Years War with France:

“let hem arraye and make hem redy in þe best wyse þat þey can or may, in alle hast, and come to Seint Dunstanes in þe Est, a Monday þat next comeþ, at eyghte of clok.” Cited in A Book of London English, 1384–1425, edited by Raymond Wilson Chambers and Marjorie Daunt (1931).

The term was also written variously as off clok, of clokke, of clocke, of clock, and oclock (as well as a kloke, a clocke, etc.) until the modern spelling emerged in the early 17th century:

“Well, ’tis nine o’clock, ’tis time to ring curfew” (from The Merry Devill of Edmonton, 1608, an anonymous Elizabethan comedy that was once attributed to Shakespeare).

As for the use of O’ in Anglicized Irish names, the OED describes it as “a prefix in Irish patronymic surnames” that indicates “descent from an ancient Irish family.” A patronymic is a name derived from a father or paternal ancestor.

The dictionary says the usage is derived from ó, Irish for a grandson or descendant, and the “apostrophe probably derives from the Irish length-mark” over ó. The mark, a síneadh fada, indicates a long vowel. So O’Brien is an Anglicized version of the modern Irish Ó Briain and the classical Irish Ua Briain.

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Suffrage, then and now

Q: I was surprised by the use of “woman suffrage” rather than “women’s suffrage” in a history textbook. The term seems odd to me. Is “woman suffrage” just a less popular variant?

A: Both forms of the expression are common, “woman suffrage” and “women’s suffrage.” While publishers’ preferences may vary, one is no more “correct” than the other.

In the first version, “woman suffrage,” the noun “woman” is used attributively (that is, adjectivally, as in “man cave”). In the second, “women’s suffrage,” the genitive “women’s” is used to indicate “for whom”—suffrage for women.

While “woman suffrage” has been more common historically, a recent Ngram comparison shows that the two are now almost equal in popularity.

Now for a little history. “Suffrage” in these expressions means the right to vote in political elections. But the word didn’t always have that meaning.

When “suffrage” entered English in the 1300s it had religious meanings associated with the medieval Christian church. Used in the plural, “suffrages” were prayers, petitions, commemorations, pleas for intercession, and so on, often addressed to a particular saint.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, these prayers or petitions were “typically said at the end of one of the daily offices, or incorporated into a book of hours.”

The earliest known use is from Ancrene Riwle (“rule for anchoresses”), an anonymous Middle English guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts, some dating to the early 1200s; this OED citation is from a copy made in the late 1300s:

“On niȝth oiþer in þe Mornynge after þe suffrages seiþ þe commendacioun” (“Either at night or in the morning after the suffrages say the commendation”).

The word was borrowed into English partly from French and partly from Latin, and in those languages it had several meanings, according to the OED.

In Middle French, suffrage or soufrage meant “prayer, intercession, especially for the souls of the dead,” as well as a vote, an act of voting, and “help, support, assistance.”

In classical Latin, suffragium meant a “vote cast in an assembly, expression of approval, action of voting, right of voting, decision reached by voting, favourable influence, help.” Later, in post-classical Latin, it also came to mean “prayer, intercession.”

Though “suffrage” was exclusively a religious term in medieval Britain, it widened in the 16th century to include senses related to voting.

As a political term “suffrage” originally meant “the collective vote of a group of people, esp. that of a nation’s citizens eligible to vote in a political election,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use is from a letter written by the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot in 1531: “either by the acte of the senate, or by the peoples suffrage.”

A few years later, “suffrage” was being used to mean “the action or an act of casting a vote or votes; election by voting.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a treatise by John Aylmer, Bishop of London, in 1559: “to be chosen by lotte, or suffrage.”

The modern meaning of “suffrage” emerged later in the same century. The OED defines it as “the right, privilege, or responsibility of voting in political elections.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Some … were onely admitted into the Citie without suffrage, and for honours sake called Citizens.” (From The Counsellor, a 1598 translation of a political work written in Latin by a Polish bishop, Wawrzyniec Goślicki.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from the South African newspaper Business Day (March 3, 2016): “The women of Saudi Arabia voted for the first time, making the Vatican City the last state on earth in which women do not enjoy any form of suffrage.” [Note: The writer overlooks countries that do not allow elections at all.]

That brings us to the phrases “woman suffrage” and “women’s suffrage,” both dating from the 19th century and defined in the OED as “the right of women to vote in political elections.”

First on the scene was “woman suffrage,” according to OED citations. The earliest example is from a British newspaper:

“Give us the ‘People’s Charter,’ and then if found necessary he would be quite willing to go into the question of Woman Suffrage” (The Northern Star, Leeds, Oct. 24, 1846). The People’s Charter, cornerstone of the Chartist movement, was a manifesto aimed at giving working-class men the right to vote and to stand for election whether they owned property or not.

The first sighting of “women’s suffrage” is from another British newspaper: “A branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage” (The Times, London, May 11, 1868).

Now for a trick question: Which nation, the US or the UK, was first to give women the right to vote?

“In the United Kingdom,” the OED says, “the Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the franchise to women aged 30 and over who met certain property ownership qualifications, and all men over 21 regardless of property ownership. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act conferred voting rights on all women on equal terms to men.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, “sex-based restriction of voting rights was prohibited in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the constitution.”

So Britain first gave women limited voting rights, but the US first gave them full voting rights.

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When ‘next’ is really ‘last’

Q: Seen in the NY Times the other day: “And then there are the voice-overs, each more overwrought than the next.” Isn’t it supposed to be “each more overwrought than the last”? I see this a lot these days.

A: Yes, we’ve noticed this usage too. That dance critic, in reviewing a Netflix series about a fictional ballet school, should have written “than the last,” not “than the next.” She meant that each successive voice-over was more overwrought than the previous one, but she ended up saying the opposite.

Of course, no reader would misunderstand her. Our minds tend to make allowances for small lapses in logic, especially with a familiar idiomatic usage like “each more [better, larger, etc.] than the last.” When someone mistakenly uses “next” instead of “last,” we may not even notice the error, simply because our brains have translated and moved on.

This particular lapse is fairly common, not just in ordinary speech but in writing that’s been edited for publication. Here’s an example from speech: “The wild card is that every day is crazier than the next, and there is no roadmap here” (a banking executive on CNBC, March 17, 2020).

And here’s one from a scientific paper on reproductive patterns of steelhead trout: “For males and females, we found that each subsequent age class is both longer and heavier than the next.” (Graphs and tables show the opposite). From “Life History Variation Is Maintained by Fitness Trade-offs and Negative Frequency-Dependent Selection,” by Mark R. Christie et al., in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 24, 2018.

Several years ago a contributor to the Language Log reduced this problem to a formula: “Each one was more [adjective] than the next.” As he explained, “The speaker means that the phenomenon was growing, but is saying that it was decreasing” (Feb. 24, 2011).

Of course this formula isn’t always wrong. A literal interpretation can be the right one if the phenomenon is lessening instead of growing. Here’s an example from a book: “the first time you taste a new gourmet entrée will always be slightly better than the next time” (The 8-Hour Diet, 2013, by Peter Moore and David Zinczenko).

And the formula can be correct if “next” doesn’t mean following in sequence, but instead describes a hypothetical someone who’s typical or average: “Harvard Business School kind of opened my eyes that no one’s really smarter than the next person” (Jon Peloton quoted in Time, May 26, 2020) … “I like data as much as, or probably more than, the next guy” (Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times, Sept. 7, 2020).

Used in that sense, “the next man” means “the average man” or “a typical person,” or “anybody else,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. This usage, which originated in the US in the mid-19th century, is found “only in comparisons,” the OED adds, and occurs “frequently in the formula as —— as the next man (also person, etc.) according to context.”

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Congregate or congregant care?

Q: Is health-care housing where lots of people live in close proximity “congregant” or “congregate” living? I see both terms used interchangeably, even within the same publication.

A: “Congregate” is overwhelmingly more popular than “congregant” as an adjective to describe group services or facilities for people, especially the elderly, who need supportive care. And it’s the only one of the two usages included in the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

American Heritage, for example, defines “congregate” as a verb meaning “to bring or come together in a group,” and as an adjective meaning “involving a group: congregate living facilities for senior citizens.” It defines “congregant” solely as a noun for “one who congregates, especially a member of a group of people gathered for religious worship.”

Collins, Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World have similar definitions. Lexico has similar definitions in its American English version but doesn’t include “congregate” as an adjective in its British version. Cambridge, Longman, and Macmillan don’t have either the noun “congregant” or the adjective “congregate.”

In the News on the Web corpus, a database from articles in newspapers and magazines on the Internet, the “congregate” usage is significantly more popular than the one with “congregant.”

Here are the results of some recent searches: “congregate living,” 820 examples; “congregant living,” 35; “congregate care,” 579; “congregant care,” 18; “congregate housing,” 95; “congregant housing,” 0.

In searches with Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, “congregant living” barely registered, while “congregant care” and “congregant housing” didn’t show up at all.

As for the etymology, both “congregate” and “congregant” are derived from congregare, classical Latin for to collect together into a flock or company, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Congregate,” the oldest of the two English words, showed up around 1400 as a verb meaning to collect or gather things together. In the 1500s, it took on the modern sense of to gather together into a group of people.

The adjective, which is derived from congregatus, past participle of congregare, appeared soon after the verb in this OED citation: “These men somme tyme congregate schalle goe furthe” (from an early 15th-century translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a 14th-century Latin work of history and theology).

The latecomer, “congregant,” is derived from congregantem, present participle of congregare. It showed up in the late 19th century as a noun that Oxford defines as “one of those who congregate anywhere; a member of a congregation; esp. a member of a Jewish congregation.”

We’ve expanded the dictionary’s first example: “The Bevis Marks synagogue, the only building of genuine historical interest in England which the Jews can boast, is at the present moment threatened with destruction at the hands of a portion of its own governing body, to the dismay of the majority of its congregants and of the community in general” (The Pall Mall Gazette, London, March 24, 1886).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “congregant” used as an adjective. As far as we can tell from a cursory search, the usage showed up in the 20th century, perhaps originally as an eggcorn, a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

Here’s an example from a few decades ago: “Joan is a young woman who does considerable work with older people and serves on the board of a congregant housing facility for the elderly” (from Ministry of the Laity, 1986, by James Desmond Anderson and Ezra Earl Jones).

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Can ‘were’ mean ‘would be’?

Q: I’m curious about W. Somerset Maugham’s use of “were” for “would be” in this passage: “I am eager to know if you still devote upon the ungrateful arts talents which were more profitably employed upon haberdashery.” I find the usage neat, though I suspect that it’s now an archaism.

A: The use of “were” in place of “would be” (as in “He were better dead” instead of “He would be better dead”) was outdated even in Maugham’s youth, when he wrote that sentence.

This “were” is a subjunctive form of the verb “be,” but it’s a particular subjunctive use that’s found only in older writing that would now be considered mannered and formal. (Some subjunctive uses of “were” are alive and well, as we’ve written previously.)

The passage you’re asking about is from The Magician, a Maugham novel written in 1907 and set in fin-de-siècle Paris. Fifty years later, in his Fragment of an Autobiography, he called the writing “turgid” and said he “must have been impressed by the écriture artiste [artistic writing] of the French writers of the time” and had “unwisely sought to imitate them.”

[By the way, as one reader has observed, the “were” in the passage could correctly be read as the simple past tense (not the subjunctive) if the artist being addressed had ever been a haberdasher. But that’s not the case (we read a good part of the novel to make sure). The speaker, a nasty and pompous man, uses “were” subjunctively to say haberdashery would have been a better career choice.]

As we said, even when Maugham wrote the novel that use of “were” was excessively formal. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry W. Fowler mentions the construction only briefly, and as something to avoid.

He cites these examples (the recommended uses in brackets are his): “it were [would be] better to leave the sculpture galleries empty” … “It were [would be] futile to attempt to deprive it of its real meaning.”

Fowler says there’s “nothing incorrect” in those examples, but the subjunctive uses “diffuse an atmosphere of dullness & formalism over the writing.”

The subject is treated even more briefly in the second edition (1965) of Fowler’s work, and is dropped altogether from the third (1996) and fourth (2015). Modern comprehensive grammars of English don’t mention it either. So we can safely call it archaic.

Here are some random examples from writings of the past:

“It were lost sorrow to wail one that’s lost.” (Shakespeare, King Richard III, circa 1593.)

“It were much better for your Lordship not to have vowed at all, then [than] not to perform after you have vowed.” (Miracles Not Ceas’d, a religious tract written anonymously by Sir Kenelm Digby, 1663.)

“From one worthy action, it were credulity, not charity, to conclude a person to be free from all vice.” (Hugh Blair, a minister and professor of rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. From the 5th edition of his Sermons, 1780.)

“ ‘It were different,’ continued the father, after a pause, and in a more resolute tone, ‘if I had some independence, however small, to count on.’ ” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, My Novel: Or, Varieties in English Life, 1853.)

Fowler included the use of “were” for “would be” among subjunctive “survivals,” forms that are no longer “alive” or natural in speech, and added this comment:

“Subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.” (We added the italics for emphasis. The subjunctives recognized as “living” in Fowler’s time are still alive today.)

[Note: This post was updated on March 5, 2021.]

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Whoa!

Q: When did people start using “woah” instead of “whoa”? Is this just a misspelling or is there more to it?

A: The usual spelling now is “whoa,” but several of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult accept “woah” as a variant or less common version. In fact, the word has been spelled all sorts of ways since it showed up in English in the 15th century as a variant of an older interjection, “ho.”

Three of the standard dictionaries (Collins, Dictionary.com, and Lexico) list “woah” as a variant spelling of “whoa.” Meriam-Webster, which doesn’t as of now include “woah” as a variant, has an interesting “Words We’re Watching” article entitled “Is it time to accept ‘woah’ as an acceptable spelling of ‘whoa’?”

M-W’s answer: “Woah is not yet in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as an official spelling variant of whoa, but its usage has increased dramatically in the current century. ‘Whoa’ is still much more common however, so only time will tell if this spelling variant is accepted.”

Our own search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, shows that as of 2019 “whoa” was overwhelmingly more popular than “woah.”

Both spellings have the same pronunciation (rhymes with “woe”), though sometimes the “h” is aspirated at the beginning of the word. The length and emphasis of the pronunciation varies, depending on the way the word is used—to express surprise, wonder, interest, a call to halt, and so on.

How do the lexicographers at a dictionary decide on an acceptable spelling?

As Merriam-Webster explains, “The spelling variants we include in our dictionaries are, like the words and their definitions, based on evidence, and primarily on evidence as found in published, edited text. It’s not that the language as it’s used outside of published, edited text is less effective in communicating; it’s that looking at the language as it’s used in published, edited text provides a scope for our work that is both useful to our readers and possible for our lexicographers.”

“We can’t scan the Facebook threads of millions of speakers of English for variant spellings,” the dictionary adds, “and most of you likely care more about whether a particular spelling has met the editorial standards of the likes of Forbes and The Atlantic than those of your cousin Steve. Is a particular spelling regarded as an error by the people whose jobs it is to consider such things? That’s the question we answer.”

As for the etymology, when the word “ho,” ancestor of “whoa,” showed up in the early 14th century, it was “an exclamation expressing, according to intonation, surprise, admiration, exultation (often ironical), triumph, taunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The earliest OED citation, dated at sometime before 1325, is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem: “ ‘Ho!’ all þan cun þai cri, ‘Qua herd euer sua gret ferli’ ” (“ ‘Ho!’ all then could cry, ‘Who ever heard of so great a wonder’ ”).

By the late 14th century, the interjection “ho” was being used as “a call to stop or to cease what one is doing.” Here’s the earliest OED citation: “Of golde he shulde such plente [plenty] / Receive, till he saide ho.” From Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession,” 1390), a long poem by John Gower.

And by the early 15th century, “ho” was also “an exclamation to attract attention.” The first OED citation is from “London Lickpenny” (circa 1430), a poem by John Lydgate: “Then hyed I me to Belyngsgate; / And one cryed, ‘hoo! go we hence!’ ”

In the early 19th century, “ho” was first used in writing as “a call to an animal to stop or stand still.” The earliest Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), by Noah Webster: “HO, exclam. A word used by teamsters, to stop their teams. … This word is pronounced also whō, or hwō.”

The OED says “whoa” emerged as a “variant of ho.” When “whoa” showed up in Middle English (originally spelled “whoo”), it was a command to either a person or an animal to stop.

In the earliest OED example, recorded around 1467, King Edward IV halts a joust in London when it becomes too violent: “Then the Kyng perceyvyng the cruell assaile, cast his staff, and with high voice, cried, Whoo!” (cited in Excerpta Historica, 1831, by Samuel Bentley).

Over the next few hundred years, according to Oxford citations, the word was spelled “whoo,” “who,” “whoe,” and “whoh” before “whoa” appeared at the beginning of the 19th century: “I could na bide it,—groaned so desperately.—Whoa! whoa! whoa! Jolly” (from an anonymous novel, The Knight and Mason, 1801).

By the end of the 19th century, the OED notes, “whoa” was being “used as a general interjection to command attention or express that one is surprised, impressed, interested, etc.” The dictionary’s first citation is from the lyrics of “Georgia Rabbit,” an anonymous Southern country song:

Georgia Rabbit, whoa, whoa!
Georgia Rabbit, whoa!
Stole my lover, whoa! whoa!
Stole my lover, whoa!

Gwine to git nudder one, whoa, whoa!
Gwine to git nudder one, whoa!
Jes’ like t’udder one, whoa, whoa!
Jes’ like t’udder one, whoa!

As for the “woah” spelling, it’s been around since at least the 18th century, according to OED citations. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is said to describe a 1762 incident in Bristol, England, in which a demon purportedly used the term when asked if it were a witch:

“Mrs. Elmes and the children heard it cry out, ‘Jee, woah,’ as waggoners used to say in driving horses.” From A Narrative of Some Extraordinary Things That Happened to Mr. Richard Giles’s Children (1800), by Henry Durbin. The event is also described in a Jan. 23, 1762, entry in The Diary of William Dyer: Bristol in 1762, edited by Jonathan Barry in 2012 for the Bristol Record Society.

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On and off the grid

Q: I’m curious about the deep root of the word “grid.” Could it come from an old Egyptian language? The reason I’m asking is that I saw grid-like hieroglyphs during a visit to the Ra-Mosa tomb at Luxor.

A: The English word “grid” is a short form of “gridiron,” which was originally a medieval instrument of torture. The etymology is uncertain beyond there, but one theory is that “grid” may ultimately come from a prehistoric Indo-European root that could also have given English the words “crate,” “grate,” “griddle,” “grill,” and “hurdle.”

We’ve seen no evidence that the English word is related to a term in Old Egyptian, which is derived from the reconstructed prehistoric language Proto-Afro-Asiatic. However, some linguists have written of similarities between Proto-Afro-Asiatic and Proto-Indo-European, so an ancient connection is not inconceivable.

When the noun “grid” showed up in English in the early 19th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant “an arrangement of parallel bars with openings between them; a grating.” The OED says “grid” is a back-formation from “gridiron.” A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an old one.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “grid” is from instructions on how to melt glass in a furnace: “A is the pot, resting upon the arched grid b a, built of fire-bricks, whose apertures are wide enough to let the flames rise freely, and strike the bottom and sides of the vessel.” From A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines, 1839, by Andrew Ure.

The older noun “gridiron” (spelled gredire in Middle English) originally referred to a frame of iron bars that held a person over a fire. The earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a 13th-century description of the torture of Saint Lawrence, the Archdeacon of Rome, who was beaten with iron scourges and burned to death on a gridiron, according to this medieval account:

“Strong fuyr he lieth maken and gret: and a gredire þar-on sette, bene holie Man, seint laurence” (“A strong, great fire lies made, and there on a gridiron sits the good holy man Saint Lawrence”). From a manuscript, written around 1290, in The South English Legendary, a Middle English collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures.

In the 14th century, according to OED citations, “gridiron” came to mean “a cooking utensil formed of parallel bars of iron or other metal in a frame, usually supported on short legs, and used for broiling flesh or fish over a fire.”

The dictionary’s first example of the cooking sense of the word (with “gridiron” written as gredyrne) is from a biblical passage on building an altar for burnt offerings: “Thow shalt make … a brasun gredyrne in the manere of a nett” (Wycliffe Bible of 1382, Exodus 27:4). A later Wycliffe version uses gridele, an early spelling of “griddle,” while more recent bibles generally use “grate” or “grating.”

The OED says the term “gridiron” has been used figuratively since the early 15th century for various “objects resembling or likened to a gridiron,” such as the grid-like pattern of streets in a city, tracks in a railroad terminal, or yard lines on an American football field.

The earliest football example we’ve found in searches of old newspaper databases is from an article about a Princeton-Yale game:

“Unlike former Princeton teams, the present one is without a star performer, that hero of the gridiron who is always likely to make a Lamar run or kick a goal from the forty-five yard line as Moffat did five years since.” From the Evening Herald (Shenandoah, Pa.), Nov. 26, 1891.

The OED’s earliest example appeared a little later, in a British article describing football in the US: “The ground here is marked out by white lines … thus giving it the appearance of a gigantic gridiron—which, indeed, is the technical name applied to an American football field.” From the Daily News (London), Dec. 10, 1896.

The words “grid” and “gridiron,” as well as “crate,” “grate,” “griddle,” and “hurdle,” may ultimately come from the Proto-Indo-European root kert- (to turn, entwine), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. A “hurdle” was originally a wickerwork frame used as a temporary fence for farm animals.

Finally, the expression “off the grid” (not connected to an electrical grid or other utilities) showed up in the late 20th century, initially in the adjectival and adverbial form “off-grid,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the full expression used in this sense is from Clicking: 16 Trends to Future Fit Your Life, Your work, and Your Business (1996), by Faith Popcorn and Lys Marigold:

“Mainly right-wing survivalists … basically want to be left alone to live ‘off the grid.’ Or to become nonexistent, as far as the government is concerned.”

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To welsh on a bet

Q: Where does “welsh on a bet” come from? A friend of mine says distrust of the Welsh by the English, but I’m skeptical. This seems too easy.

A: The use of “welsh,” meaning to renege on a bet, is of uncertain origin, but it may indeed have originated as a slur against the Welsh, the people of Wales. Four of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult consider the term offensive to one degree or another.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the usage is perhaps “on account of alleged dishonesty of Welsh people.” The OED notes that the verb “welsh” showed up in the mid-19th century shortly after two similar derogatory terms, the noun “welsher” and the gerund “welshing.”

The dictionary cites this passage from a Nov. 5, 1859, article in the Morning Chronicle (London): “The phrase ‘Welshing book-maker’ seems to owe its origin to a nursery rhyme, commencing with ‘Taffy was a Welshman, &c.,’ and, as we understand, means a dishonest betting man on the turf.”

As far as we know, the earliest example of the nursery rhyme is in Nancy Cock’s Pretty Song Book for All Little Misses and Masters, circa 1780.  Here are the opening lines:

“Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, / Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef.” The name “Taffy” may come from “Dafydd,” a Welsh name related to “David,” and the Taff, the river in Cardiff.

The OED defines the verb “welsh” as “to renege on payment of money owed to (a person) as winnings on a bet.” The word is spelled “welch” in the dictionary’s earliest citation: “The plaintiff denied that he had ever … ‘welched’ a man named Williams at Worcester in 1854” (Racing Times, Jan. 16, 1860).

Oxford defines the noun “welsher” as “a bookmaker at a race meeting who takes money for a bet, but absconds or refuses to pay after a loss.” The dictionary’s first example of the noun is also from the Racing Times (Oct. 19, 1852):

“One of the above fraternity [namely, betting impostors] was observed following his calling, by a former victim. … The ‘Welsher’ sneaked off to another corner of the field.”

And this is the dictionary’s earliest citation for the use of “welshing” to mean reneging on a debt: “The subterfuge and welching of the betting enclosure” (from the Era, a London weekly, June 11, 1854).

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