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The coast is clear

Q: We were wondering about “the coast is clear.” Smugglers? Invaders? As kids, we used it to mean “no adults around to say us nay.”

A: The expression dates from the seafaring days of the mid-1500s, when it literally meant the seashore is free of enemies. But the first written examples use the phrase metaphorically in much the same way you did as kids.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the literal usage refers to a seacoast being clear of “enemies who would dispute an attempt to land or embark.” When used figuratively in its various forms. it means “the way is open for an operation, event, etc.”

The earliest OED citation is from a pamphlet published in 1567 that warns the public against con men and tricksters. We’ll expand on the citation to provide context:

“Thus fedinge this old man with pleasaunt talke, vntyll they were one the toppe of the hyll, where these rufflares [rogues] mighte well beholde the coaste aboute them cleare. Quiclye stepes vnto this poore man, and taketh holde of his horse brydell, and leadeth him in to the wode, and demaundeth of him what and how much monye he had in his purse.” (From “A Caueat [Caveat] for Commen Cursetors,” by Thomas Harman. The obsolete noun “cursitor” meant a tramp or vagabond.)

We’ve found a couple of usages from the 1570s, including this one about the efforts of Eleanor of Aquitaine to secure the throne of England for her youngest son (King John):

“In the end winning al the nobilitie wholye vnto hir will, and seeing the coaste to be cleare on euery side.” (The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, by Raphael Holinshead, 1577.)

Our searches of historical databases turned up many other 16th-century uses of the phrase and its variants: “the coast is [or was] clear,” “if the coast be clear,” “no sooner cleered was the Coast,” “seeing the coast cleare,” and so on. And like those already cited, the majority have nothing to do with the sea.

Here, on the other hand, are a couple of the literal ones, referring to actual landings or embarkations:

“perceyuing [perceiving] the coaste cleare … they [the Corinthians] tooke seas forthwith.” (From an English version, published in 1579, of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes. The reference is to the coast of ancient Rhegium, now Reggio Calabria, Italy.)

“wee laded her [a ship] with all the speed we could, for as then the coast was cleare of Englishmen.” (Iohn Huighen van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into ye Easte & West Indies, a memoir published by the Dutch trader Jan Huygen van Linschoten in London in 1598. The coast here is that of the island of Terceira in the Azores.)

The OED quotes Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, in which “the coast is clear” is called “a proverbial expression” meaning “the danger is over, the enemies have marched off.”

Johnson provides two examples from literature: “seeing that the coast was cleare” (Sir Philip Sidney, circa 1580) and “when now the Coast was clear” (John Dryden, 1587). In both uses, the references are to spying, sneaking about, and slipping unseen from place to place, not to real seacoasts.

Though the phrase (along with its variations) has shown up in literal, seafaring uses since the 16th century, it has mostly appeared as a proverbial expression.

It seemed made to order for the Restoration comedies and amoral novels of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with their bawdy rakes and loose women on the lookout for a chance to behave badly.

This, for example, is from The Art of Cuckoldom, or, The Intrigues of the City-wives, published anonymously in 1697: “One Evening at the end of the Week, the Ladies Maid came to his Lodging from her Mistress, to tell him, That the morrow Morning following, the Coast would be clear, for her Husband was to be out the whole Forenoon: And therefore she desired his Company.”

Some uses, though, are more comic than licentious. We’ll conclude with this passage from a translation done around 1700 of Cervantes’s Don Quixote:

“Here Sancho got up without speaking a Word, laid his Finger on his Lips, and with his Body bent, crept cautiously round the Room, lifting up the Hangings, and peeping in every Hole and Corner: At last, finding the Coast clear, he return’d to his Seat. Now, quoth he, Madam Dutchess, since I find there’s no Body here but our-selves, you shall e’en hear, without Fear or Favour, the Truth of the Story.”

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Tossing and turning

Q: Inspired by your discussion of “mix and match,” I wonder if you can comment on “toss and turn.” As the comedian Demetri Martin says, he often turns in his sleep, but he doesn’t toss stuff all over his bedroom.

A: Yes, the verb “toss” has many meanings and you can have a lot of fun with them. You can toss a baseball, a salad, a coin, a party, an old newspaper, your head, or your cookies. You can toss down a drink, toss around an idea, or toss off a blog post. You can be tossed off a horse, tossed out of a game, or tossed into the slammer.

When the verb first appeared in English in the early 16th century, it meant to be thrown about at sea by waves or wind, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the diary of Sir Richard Guildford’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1506:

“Soone after midnyght the grete tempest byganne to swage [ease] and wex lasse [wax less]. Howbeit the wroughte sees tossyd and rolled vs ryght greuously.” Guildford, who served King Henry VII of England in many senior roles, died on Sept. 6, 1506, in Jerusalem. The diary, written by Guildford’s unnamed chaplain, was published in 1511.

By the end of the 16th century, the verb “toss” had most of its modern senses, including the one you’re asking about, which the OED defines as “to fling or jerk oneself about; to move about restlessly.” The dictionary’s first example is from a biblical passage: “I am euen ful with tossing to and fro vnto the dawning of the day” (Geneva Bible, 1560, Job 7:4).

But when “toss” and “turn” first appeared together, with the two words reversed, the verb phrase referred to turning and tossing hay, wool, grain, etc., to loosen it.

The first Oxford citation describes the shelling of “peason,” or field peas: “by turning & tossing, they shed as they lie” (Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry, 1573, by Thomas Tusser).

The earliest example we’ve found for “toss and turn” used in its modern sleepless sense is from an 18th-century travel journal kept by an Annapolis, MD, physician during a trip up the East Coast to New England:

“My rest was broken and interrupted, for the Teague [an obsolete nickname for an Irishman] made a hideous noise in coming to bed, and as he tossed and turned, kept still ejaculating either an ohon [an expression of grief] or sweet Jesus” (Itinerarium, 1744, by Alexander Hamilton).

The phrase appeared a few years later in the erotic novel popularly known as Fanny Hill: “after tossing and turning the greatest part of the night, and tormenting myself with the falsest notions and apprehensions of things, I fell, through mere fatigue, into a kind of delirious doze” (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1749, by John Cleland).

Finally, here’s a transcript of the “toss and turn” routine that Demetri Martin tweeted on Feb 24, 2020:

When people don’t sleep well, they say they tossed and turned. And I’ve definitely had rough nights where I turned a lot in my sleep, know what I mean? But I’ve never slept so poorly that I ended up, like, lightly throwing things around the room. It’s four in the morning, and I’m like, “Oh, shit. I’m tossing. Stop it. The hell am I doing? Go to sleep, man. Stop it. You’re tossing. Stop it.” You wake up the next day and there’s this crap everywhere. I’m like, “Oh, my God. I slept very poorly. And why do I own so many beanbags? This is making it worse.”

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Let’s be negative

Q: Your recent “Let’s you and him fight” article brings to mind another expression, “don’t let’s,” as in “Don’t let’s go to the movies.” Do you know the origin of that construction?

A: There are three ways of making the contraction of “let us” negative: “(1) let’s not,” (2) “don’t let’s,” and (3) “let’s don’t.”

As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage explains, #1 is “widely used,” #2 is “chiefly found in British English,” and #3 is “typical of speech and casual writing” in American English.

Some language writers have criticized #3 as nonstandard because the “let’s” in “let’s don’t” cannot be read as a contraction of “let us” (it functions as a single word introducing a negative first-person plural imperative phrase, such as “let’s don’t go”).

Technically, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “let and ’s have fused syntactically as well as phonologically, and are no longer analysable as verb + object: they form a single word that functions as marker of the 1st person inclusive imperative construction.”

So is the American usage legit? We say yes. It’s standard informal English in the US. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees, labeling it “U.S. colloquial.” A colloquial usage, the OED says, is “characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

As for the etymology, “let’s not” was the first of these negative usages to appear in English. The earliest example we’ve found is from Volpone, a satirical play by Ben Johnson that was first performed in 1605: “And, reuerend fathers, since we all can hope, Nought, but a sentence, let’s not now despaire it.”

The first example we’ve found for “don’t let’s” is from the mid-19th century: “Don’t let’s have any deception” (from The Love Match, an 1845 novel by the English author Henry Cockton).

The “let’s don’t” version appeared a decade later. The earliest OED example contracts it in an odd way: “A shabby trick! Let’s do n’t” (from Blondel, an 1854 play by George Edward Rice based on a legend about Richard the Lionheart and his minstrel, Blondel).

The first example we’ve found with the usual “let’s don’t” spelling is from an essay in an American magazine: “ ‘Now let’s don’t talk and be jolly,’ would give us no very high idea of the social qualities of the most respectable people” (“Thoughts About Talking,” by “A Lady of Augusta, Georgia,” Scott’s Monthly Magazine, February 1866).

The Merriam-Webster usage guide, in defending “let’s don’t,” cites this example of its use by “one of the most resolutely literary men” of the 20th century: “In all events, let’s don’t celebrate it until it has done something” (from a letter written Jan. 26, 1918, by the New Yorker critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott).

We’ll end by citing a less literary, more political source: “So our crowd said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and their crowd said, ‘Let’s don’t’ ” (from remarks by President Bill Clinton at a  Democratic National Committee luncheon on July 24, 1999, in Aspen, CO).

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Cut and dried … or dry?

Q: I saw the expression “cut and dry” the other day on the legal scholar Jonathan Turley’s blog. I had always thought it was “cut and dried,” a distinction I learned by a correction in a high school biology paper—in 1961, as I recall. Any thoughts about this?

A: The expression as it first appeared in the mid-17th century was “cut and dried.” But the other version, “cut and dry,” was also used early on, and it’s not incorrect. Most standard dictionaries accept both forms, giving “cut and dry” as a variant or less common version.

To say that something is “cut and dried”—a decision, speech, proposal, etc.—means that it’s been decided or settled in advance. Some dictionaries add that it can mean clear and unambiguous.

The phrasal adjective is figurative, but it was adapted from a literal notion: herbs already harvested, dried, and prepared for sale in herbalists’ shops, “as contrasted,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “with growing herbs.”

Thus, the dictionary defines the figurative “cut and dried (also cut and dry)” as “ready-made and void of freshness and spontaneity,” or “ready shaped according to a priori formal notions.” The phrase is used mostly in reference to “language, ideas, schemes or the like,” the OED adds.

The dictionary’s examples begin in the early 18th century, but in searches of historic databases we found earlier ones from the mid- to late 17th century. The oldest examples are preceded by “ready,” and some use “dried” (spelled various ways) while some use “dry.”

The two oldest we’ve found appear in the same pamphlet (note how the author is careful to define his meaning):

“I being informed of their Intentions or Determinations before, I made this Reply to them, I did know that it was ready cut and dryed; my meaning was, that it was ready done to their hands.” He repeats the expression later in italics: “I soberly answered, It was ready cut and dryed; that is, to speak after the smilitude, it was ready done to their hands.” From “The Cause of the Innocent Pleaded, His Accusers Pretended Charge Confvted,” by Samuel Bradley (1664).

We’ve found several more in pamphlets and books of the later 1600s:

“a Catholick Answer ready cut and dried to all Indictments drawn up against them” (“The Tragical History of Jetzer,” by Sir William Waller, 1679).

“those Informations, which they kept ready cut and dryed for service upon all occasions” (“An Exact and Faithful Narrative of the Horrid Conspiracy [etc.],” by Titus Oates; written April 1679, published 1680).

“the whole Scheme of the Project ready cut and dry’d” (“The Character of a Papist in Masquerade,” by Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1681).

“the Excuses which I had always ready cut and dry’d” (A Late Voyage to Constantinople, John Philips’s translation from the French of Guillaume-Joseph Grelot, 1683).

“presented unto the Council ready cut and dry” (The History of the Eucharist, John Walker’s translation from the French of Matthieu de L’Arroque, 1684).

The OED’s first citation is dated 1710: “Your Sermon was ready Cut and Dry’d” (Letter to Sacheverell, a poem by Joseph Addison, pseudonymously signed “J.B.”).

As we mentioned above, “cut and dried” is more common than “cut and dry,” a preference that’s demonstrated by a comparison on Google’s Ngram viewer.

Why does “cut and dry” persist? It may have been reinforced in the early 18th century, when smokers began referring to tobacco as “cut and dry.” As the OED says, “cut and dry” was a noun phrase used elliptically to mean “cut and dried tobacco.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrasal noun is from a letter written to Jonathan Swift by his good friend Dr. John Arbuthnot (Jan. 30, 1718). The OED quotes only a line of Arbuthnot’s letter, but we think his anecdote is entertaining enough to quote in its entirety:

I knew a pretty young Girl in a Country Village, who, over-fond of her own Praise, became a Property to a poor Rogue in the Parish, who was ignorant of all Things but Fawning. This Fellow us’d to wait on Mrs. Betty every Morning, and she being a Shopkeeper, his usual Salutation was, Lord love your Heart, Mrs. Betty, you be main handsome, will you give me a Pipe of Tobacco? Am I, Isaac? (answers Mrs. Betty) let me see your Box; and then she fills it. Thus Isaac extolls her out of a Quartern of Cut and Dry every Day she lives; and tho’ the young Woman is really handsome, she and her Beauty are become a By-word, and, all the Country round, she is call’d nothing but Isaac’s Best Virginia.”

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Who was that masked-up man?

Q: Our governor in Michigan uses the phrase “mask up” a lot, but it sounds off to me. What do you think about it?

A: In our opinion, “mask up” was an inevitable usage. To “mask up” is to put on a mask, just as to “suit up” is to put on a uniform, to “saddle up” is to put a saddle on a horse, and to “lawyer up” is to put a lawyer on the case.

Several phrasal verbs formed with “up” imply preparing for something, with “up” used emphatically to imply that the preparation is necessary or important.

With people arming themselves against Covid-19, “mask up” was bound to emerge. In addition, many states, counties, and cities have joined the “Mask Up” campaign launched last summer by the American Medical Association. That and other influences have made the phrase fairly common.

So far, not one of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult has an entry for “mask up.” However, Merriam-Webster’s entry for the verb “mask,” in the sense of “to put on a mask” or “to cover the face with a mask,” says it’s “often used with up.”

The British publisher Macmillan has no entry for “mask up” in its standard dictionary either. But last July it added one to its crowdsourced Open Dictionary with this definition:  “to wear a mask or face covering.” The example given: “That’s why we are asking all Hoosiers to mask up—and speak up about how wearing your mask can save lives” (from an announcement by Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana, July 1, 2020).

When “mask up” was featured last summer as a “Word of the Day” on Macmillan’s blog, this explanation was given:

“The phrasal verb mask up is formed from the verb ‘mask’ and the adverb ‘up.’ ” The blog continued: “Although mask up isn’t new, you may have seen it around quite a bit recently. Mask up, like suit up or gown up, implies preparation for some particular activity, the ‘up’ part occurring in many phrasal verbs that indicate getting ready for something.”

Another British dictionary, Collins, says that “mask up” was submitted last September as a “new word suggestion” and that the term’s approval for the dictionary is “pending investigation.”

Later we’ll discuss some of the other phrasal verbs formed with “up,” but first a little more about “mask,” a word that probably comes from Arabic. Here’s the story.

In English, the verb “mask” was derived from the noun, both of which first appeared in English in the early 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun was borrowed into English from the French masque (a face covering), which in turn came from the Italian maschera (a mask), though the OED says any “further etymology [is] uncertain.”

However, Oxford and other sources suggest two possibilities for the origin of maschera in Italian. The less likely is that it came from the post-classical Latin masca (a specter or evil spirit), but that word too is of unknown ancestry.

A more probable source, and one that’s widely accepted, is the Arabic noun maskhara (a buffoon, joke, masquerade, or object of ridicule), derived from the verb sakhira (to ridicule or mock). In fact, many etymologists believe that maskhara is also the ultimate source of “masquerade” and “mascara” (the cosmetic).

Today the noun “mask” means a face covering, and that’s what it principally meant when it came into English in the early 1500s. But around the same time, a variant of the word was also used for a courtly entertainment in which masked participants danced and so forth. Early on, different spellings emerged for the two senses—“mask” for the first and “masque” for the second.

This is the earliest entry for the face-covering sense of “mask” in the OED: “The vices that they brought [from Asia] to Rome. … The patritiens [patricians] bearyng Measques, the Plebeyens usynge smelles [aromatic scents], and the emperours to weare purple.” John Bourchier’s translation from the Spanish of The Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius, by Antonio de Guevara, translated sometime before Bourchier’s death in 1533.

Here’s how the OED defines the original meaning of the noun: “A covering worn on or held in front of the face for disguise, esp. one made of velvet, silk, etc., and concealing the whole face or the upper part of it (except the eyes), worn at balls and masques.”

The verb “mask” came into English around the same time. Originally, in the 1520s, it meant to take part in a masque or masquerade, and later in the 1500s, to be disguised or to wear a mask.

These are the dictionary’s earliest citations for the verb meaning “to cover (the face or head) with a mask; to disguise with a mask,” both from Shakespeare:

“Where now I haue no one to blush with me … To maske their browes and hide their infamie” (Lucrece, 1594) … “The Trompet soundes, be maskt, the maskers come” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1598).

Over the centuries, both the noun and the verb have had dozens of meanings, literal and figurative. We’ll skip to the protective senses that concern us today.

The OED’s definition of the noun “mask” in this sense is “a covering worn over the mouth and nose in order to reduce the transmission of infectious agents, or to prevent the inhalation of pollutants and other harmful substances.”

The dictionary’s earliest example: “It is absolutely necessary for important operations … to use a mask, which will filter the expired air” (a paper by Dr. Henry Lewis Wagner, presented before the Medical Society of California, April 19, 1900).

This later Oxford citation looks more familiar: “Jefferson and colleagues … advise public health measures like frequent handwashing, quarantining infected people, and wearing masks and gowns” (HealthFacts, the monthly newsletter of the Center for Medical Consumers, Feb. 5, 2006).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, hasn’t yet caught up to the verb “mask” as found today—to use a protective cover for breathing. Standard dictionaries, however, are on the case.

For instance, Merriam-Webster defines this use of “mask” as “to put on a mask” or “to cover the face with a mask” and gives this example: “As workplaces reopen, employees must mask and wash hands frequently.”

As we mentioned earlier, M-W also says the verb is “often used with up.” It gives this example: “On a recent weekend, we masked up and went for a bicycle ride in Tokyo” (New York Times, June 7, 2020).

We can’t tell you when “mask up,” meaning to put on a protective breathing mask for medical reasons, first appeared. But we did find this late 20th-century example:

“In the 80’s, we made dentists aware of the need to glove and mask up for protection from AIDS and hepatitis B” (from an interview with a marketer of health-care products, New York Times, June 30, 1996).

Finally, a few other phrasal verbs that use “up,” along with definitions and the earliest OED citations:

“Saddle up,” meaning “to put a saddle on (a horse or other animal),” or “get in the saddle”; later (like “mount up”) it acquired an extended sense, to get ready or get going. Earliest use: “He sadled vp his horse, and roade in post away” (Tragicall Tales, 1587, G. Turberville’s translations of Italian poems).

“Suit up,” meaning to dress in or provide someone with “a set of clothes or garment (such as a spacesuit, wetsuit, etc.) designed or required for a particular activity or occupation”; or to dress smartly or in a suit. Earliest use: “Last year the team looked like a bunch of rag muffins and the University and students should see to it that the Baker team is suited up in the right manner this year” (from a Kansas newspaper, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, Feb. 28, 1912).

“Gown up,” meaning “to put on a surgical gown, esp. before taking part in an operation.” Earliest use: “My staff recognize my work even if they don’t actually see my face. But, of course, they did see it, before I gowned up” (P. D. James’s novel A Taste for Death, 1986).

“Lawyer up,” meaning “to request a lawyer when being questioned by the police” or, more generally, “to hire a lawyer.” Earliest use: “What really spooks the … detectives on ‘N.Y.P.D. Blue’ is the prospect of a suspect ‘lawyering up’ ” (New York Times, Feb. 23, 1995).

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The first wordsmith in chief

[Note: In observance of Presidents’ Day, we’re reprinting a post from Feb. 18, 2019.]

Q: I’ve read that Thomas Jefferson, our third president, liked to coin new words. He thought neologisms kept a language fresh. For Presidents’ Day, please write about some POTUS contributions to the English language.

A: Yes, Thomas Jefferson coined scores of new words, including “neologize.” He commented on the practice in an Aug. 15, 1820, letter to John Adams: “I am a friend to neology. It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.”

And Jefferson wasn’t the only wordsmith in chief. We can thank US presidents for coining or popularizing many of our most common words and phrases. George Washington was particularly inventive, so let’s focus today on his many neologisms.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites dozens of the first US president’s lexical firsts. Here are some of them:

  • “average” (verb): “A fat wether—it being imagind … would average the above weight” (from a note in Washington’s diary about a 103-pound castrated ram, February 1769).
  • “baking” (adjective): “The ground, by the heavy rains … and baking Winds since, had got immensely hard” (from a diary entry, May 9, 1786).
  • “commitment”: “If Mr Gouv’r Morris was employed in this business, it would be a commitment for his employment as Minister” (diary, Oct. 8, 1789).
  • “district court”: “The District Court is held in it [Salisbury, N.C.]” (diary, May 30, 1791).
  • “facilitated” (adjective): “It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions” (from a speech, Sept. 17, 1796).
  • “fox hunt” (verb): “Rid up to Toulston in order to fox hunt it” (diary, Jan. 24, 1768).
  • “heat” (sexual excitement in dogs): “Musick was also in heat & servd promiscuously by all the Dogs” (diary, June 22, 1768).
  • “indoors”: “There are many sorts of in-doors work, which can be executed in Hail, Rain, or Snow, as well as in sunshine” (from a letter to James Anderson, manager of the farms at Mount Vernon, Dec. 10, 1799).
  • “logged” (adjective): “A Logged dwelling house with a punchion Roof” (dairy, Sept. 20, 1784).
  • “out-of-the-way”: “They have built three forts here, and one of them … erected in my opinion in a very out-of-the-way place” (from a letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Governor of Virginia, Oct. 10, 1756).
  • “paroled” (adjective): “I cannot consent to send them to New York, as with an old Balance and those who have gone in with paroled officers, the enemy already owe us 900 Men” (from a letter to Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, Oct. 13, 1782).
  • “off-duty”: “The General earnestly expects every Officer and Soldier of this Army will shew the utmost alertness, as well upon duty, as off duty” (from orders issued on March 9, 1776, during the final days of the British siege of Boston).
  • “rehire” (noun): “Nor ought there to be any transfer of the lease, or re-hire of the Negros without your consent first had & obtained in writing” (from a letter written June 10, 1793, to his niece Frances Bassett Washington, offering advice on renting out an estate of hers).
  • “rent” (verb): “The Plantation on which Mr. Simpson lives rented well—viz. for 500 Bushels of Wheat” (diary, Sept. 15, 1784).
  • “riverside” (adjective): “Has 2 Pecks of sd. Earth and 1 of Riverside Sand” (diary, April 14, 1760).
  • “tow path”: “A tow path on the Maryland side” (diary, June 2, 1788).

Happy birthday, George.

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When maitre d’s are possessive

Q: I have an arcane punctuation question for you. Would the singular possessive of maître d’  be maître d’s or maître d’’s? And if there are several maître d’s, would the plural possessive be maître d’s’ or maybe maîtres d’s?

A: We’ll begin with the usual singular and plural forms of the contracted noun and its fuller version (in contemporary English the circumflexes are optional and italics aren’t used).

  • Singular: “maitre d’ ” … “maitre d’hotel”
  • Plural: “maitre d’s” … “maitres d’hotel”

Those are the recommended singulars and plurals given in all 10 of the standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult.

In the plural of the contracted form, “s” is simply added to the end of the singular. In the plural of the longer form, the noun “maitre,” not the adjectival “d’hotel,” gets the plural inflection (“s”), which is the usual rule for forming the plurals of English compounds. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 7.7) illustrates with the examples “fathers-in-law,” “chefs d’oeuvre,” “coups d’etat,” and “masters of arts.”

Dictionaries do not provide the possessive forms of nouns. Here are the possessive forms we recommend for the singular nouns, and the reasons why:

  • Singular possessive: “maitre d’s” … “maitre d’hotel’s”

In the shorter noun, there’s no double apostrophe (’’); a single apostrophe serves both to contract the term and to form its possessive. This is consistent with the usual rule for not using two identical punctuation marks together; one can do double duty if needed, as when an abbreviation like “etc.” falls at the end of a sentence.

In the longer noun, the final element gets the possessive inflection (apostrophe + “s”), which is the usual rule for forming the possessives of English compounds. The Chicago Manual (section 7.24), gives the example “my daughter-in-law’s address.”

Finally, these are the possessive forms we recommend for the plurals, and our reasons why:

  • Plural possessive: “maitre d’s” …  “maitres d’hotel’s”

In the shorter noun, we see no reason to add another apostrophe to the plural (“maitre d’s”) and create a monster (“maitre d’s’ ”). We adhere to that well-known edict of copy editors everywhere: Don’t follow a rule if it leads you off a cliff. We advise letting the first apostrophe + “s” do double duty, as both the plural and the possessive inflection. Another choice is to use “of” with the plural, making it attributive rather than possessive—as in “He designs the uniforms of maitre d’s” (rather than “He designs maitre d’s uniforms”). Here’s the Chicago Manual again: “If ambiguity threatens, use of to avoid the possessive” (7.20).

In the longer noun, the final element of the compound gets the possessive inflection, which is the usual rule for forming the possessives of English compounds whether they’re singular or plural. Again we’ll cite the Chicago Manual (section 7.24): “In compound nouns and compound phrases, the final element takes the possessive form, even in the plural.” Its examples include “parents-in-law’s message” (section 5.20) and “my sons-in-laws’ addresses” (7.24).

One more point about punctuation before we move on. When the singular “maitre d’ ” comes at the end of a sentence or clause, the period or other mark goes outside the apostrophe: “The restaurant has a new maître d’.” The apostrophe is considered part of the word, and no other mark should come between them (Chicago Manual, 6.118).

Why all this effort to answer a few simple punctuation questions? Well, “maitre d’ ” is an abnormality in English, a noun ending in an apostrophe. Naturally, that apostrophe makes the plural and the possessive abnormal too. Now let’s move on to some etymology.

The word “maitre d’ ” was formed in the US in the early 20th century as a contracted version of “maitre d’hotel,” which had come into English in the 16th century. We’ll begin with the original.

In French, maître d’hôtel dates back to the 13th century and literally means “master of the house.” It originally was used for the major-domo, overseer, or head steward at a mansion or townhouse, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (This was a time when the noun hôtel meant a large private home or a nobleman’s residence.)

When this term was borrowed into English in the 16th century, it meant what it did in French, the OED says: “a major-domo, a steward, a butler.” Here’s the OED’s earliest citation for its use in written English:

“Tannagel, the maistre d’hostell with vij [seven] persons.” From a letter written in 1540 and cited in Original Letters, Illustrative of English History: 3rd Series (1846), edited by Sir Henry Ellis, then head librarian at the British Museum.

This sense of “maitre d’hotel,” as a butler or chief servant in an affluent home, persisted even into the 20th century. Here’s an OED citation from Rebecca West’s novel The Thinking Reed (1936): “She [a woman of great wealth] had sent both the chef and the maître d’hôtel off on a holiday.”

The more familiar, commercial senses of “maitre d’hotel”—defined in the OED as “a hotel manager” but now usually “the manager of a hotel dining room” or a headwaiter—emerged in both French and in English. The dictionary’s earliest English example is from the 19th century:

“A venerable maître d’hôtel in black cutting up neatly the dishes on a trencher at the side-table, and several waiters attending.” From William Makepeace Thackeray’s article “Memorials of Gormandising,” published in the June 1841 issue of Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country. (We’ve expanded the passage, in which Thackeray describes a sumptuous dinner for 10, priced at 15 pence a head.)

The contracted “maitre d’,” which is used only for a headwaiter or the head of a dining room, was formed in the US in the early 20th century but soon spread to Britain. The apostrophe is a sign of contraction showing that part of the original was omitted.

(As the OED notes, a contraction also appeared in French in 1975, maître d’hô. There, the first apostrophe shows the contraction of de, and no second apostrophe is added to show the omission of tel.)

The earliest examples of “maitre d’ ” that we’ve found in our searches of old newspaper databases are from the 1930s.

Here’s the oldest: “The sophomores, in signing the Winton for the Case Mid-year Hop, had to do some tall talking because the maitre d’ there remembered the famous all-Case bun-throwing banquet last spring and wanted a breakage deposit.” From the Campus Gossip column in a student newspaper, Case Tech, Cleveland, Jan. 22, 1930.

And here’s a second example from the ’30s, found in an ad announcing a California restaurant opening: “The Maitre d’ Greets You.” From the Coronado Citizen, Nov. 3, 1938.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the 1940s, in an article about a Hollywood restaurant: “Marcel, a plump and smiling Frenchman, is Earl-Carol’s maitre d’. … Marcel guesses he is the only combination psychoanalyst and maitre d’ in the business” (Oakland Tribune, Feb. 24, 1942).

And this British citation from the OED shows the plural form that’s still recommended today: “Maître d’s give her their best tables” (Sunday Express Magazine, Jan. 18, 1987).

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Ding-dong, ‘the which’ is dead

Q: I’m puzzled by “the which” in this comment about love in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann: “It was, he said, the most unstable, the most unreliable of man’s instincts, the most prone of its very essence to error and fatal perversion. In the which there was nothing that should cause surprise.”

A: What’s puzzling to us is that an archaic English expression would be used in Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter’s 1927 translation of the novel, which was originally published in German in 1924.

John E. Woods, whose 1995 translation is in our library, used one sentence instead two: “Of all our natural instincts, he said, it was the most unstable and exposed, fundamentally prone to confusion and perversion—and no one should be surprised at that.”

In older English, “the which” was sometimes used in place of “which” alone, a usage dating from the early 1300s. Essentially, for a few hundred years “the which” competed with “which” as a relative pronoun and a relative adjective.

Relatives relate to and add information about a preceding sentence or clause. Some modern examples: “His firing was announced Thursday, which we all expected” (relative pronoun) … “His firing was announced Thursday, by which time he’d already left” (relative adjective). In centuries past, a writer might have used “the” before “which.”

Your second sentence, “In the which there was nothing that should cause surprise,” amounts to a relative clause. Here the relative pronoun “the which” refers to the preceding sentence—that love is unreliable, prone to error, and so on. A contemporary author might write “In which there was nothing surprising,” or simply “Which was no surprise.”

Linguists say “the which” was common in the early Modern English period (late 1400s to late 1600s) but had fallen out of use by the late 1700s. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it’s archaic.

The OED’s earliest uses of “the which” in writing, as both a relative pronoun and a relative adjective, are from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem believed written sometime before 1325. At the time, “the which” was written a variety of ways: “Þe quilk,” þe whilk,” “Þe whiche,” etc.

Here’s the first citation for the relative pronoun: “How god bigan þe law hym gyfe Þe quilk the Iuus in suld life” (“How God began to give him [Moses] the law the which the Jews should live by”).

And here’s the first citation for the relative adjective: “þe first law was cald ‘of kinde,’ þat es to say, kindly to do all þat him was bidden to. Þe toþer has ‘possitiue’ to name, þe whilk lawe was for-bed Adam, Forto ete þat fruit” (“The first law was called ‘of nature,’ that is to say, naturally to do all that he was bidden to. The other was named ‘positive,’ the which law forbade Adam to eat of that fruit”).

Uses of “the which” were uncommon after the late 18th century, as we said above, but they occasionally appeared afterward, mostly in poetic or historical writing. Here are a couple of late OED citations:

Relative adjective: “Begun April 4th, 1820—completed July 16th, 1820—finished copying August 16th-17th, 1820; the which copying makes ten times the toil of composing.” From a notation Byron made, probably later that year, on the manuscript of his play Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (published in 1821). We’ve expanded the citation.

Relative pronoun: “He holp [helped] the King to break down our castles, for the which I hate him.” From Tennyson’s Becket, a historical drama written in the 1870s and published in 1884. It’s set in the 12th century and deliberately uses archaic language.

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Prior analytics

Q: Has the use of “prior” as an adverb gained acceptance? I am seeing it more and more, as in this example from a book on chess: “Why did I play in the Los Angeles Open a month later? I’d said I would, a year prior.”

A: That use of “prior” by itself as an adverb is not recognized in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

The dictionaries consider “prior” an adverbial usage only as part of the preposition “prior to,” as in “He made the will prior to his marriage.” In that sentence, “prior to” introduces a prepositional phrase (“prior to his marriage”) that modifies the verb “made.”

As we wrote on our blog in 2007, “prior to” is a preposition that can function as either an adjective or an adverb. We used these examples: “Construction prior to [adjective] 1900 is reviewed prior to [adverb] demolition.” In either case, “previous to” or “before” could be substituted for “prior to.”

So the adverbial use you mention, “I’d said I would, a year prior,” would be more acceptable in this form: “I’d said I would, a year prior to that.”

We’ll have more about “prior to” a bit later. As for “prior,” it’s sometimes used as a noun—meaning a religious official or as short for “prior conviction” or “prior arrest.” But in the sense you’re asking about, it’s defined in standard dictionaries as an adjective (not an adverb).

A usage note in American Heritage has this to say about the use of “prior” as an adjective:

“Though prior usually modifies a noun that comes after it, as in prior approval, it sometimes modifies a noun for a unit of time which precedes it, as in five years prior. These constructions are marginally acceptable when the combination serves as the object of a preposition, as in A gallon of gasoline was $4.29, up 10 cents from the week prior. In our 2014 survey, 51 percent of the Panelists accepted the sentence, with many commenting that they would prefer from the prior week or from the week before.”

The usage note goes on to add this about “prior” as an adverb: “The construction is even less acceptable when it acts as an adverbial modifier: only 29 percent of the Panel approved My cellphone was stolen. I had just bought it two days prior.

Getting back to “prior to,” American Heritage and Merriam-Webster define the phrase as a preposition synonymous with “before.” M-W says this in a note:  “Sometimes termed pompous or affected, prior to is a synonym of before that most often appears in rather formal contexts, such as the annual reports of corporations.” (Longman’s labels the “prior to” usage “formal.”)

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language includes “prior” in a class of words that are prepositions when their complements are preceded by “to,” as in “prior to this.” Other such prepositions, according to the Cambridge Grammar, include “according,” “subsequent,” “pursuant,” “preparatory,” “next,” “previous,” “owing,” “contrary,” and several more. “For the most part,” the book says, “the to phrase complement is obligatory when these items are prepositions.”

As for its etymology, “prior” was adopted in the early 17th century from the classical Latin prior. To the Romans, the OED says, prior meant “in front, previous, former, earlier, elder, superior, more important.”

In English, Oxford says, “prior” was first used as an adjective, meaning “that precedes in time or order; earlier, former, anterior, antecedent.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from 1607: “Learned Magitian, skild in hidden Artes, / As well in prior as posterior parts” (The Diuils [Devil’s] Charter, a play by Barnabe Barnes).

In examples like that, the adjective “prior” is attributive—that is, it appears before the noun. But it can also be predicative (appearing after the noun) and in those cases it’s chiefly used “with to,” Oxford says.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest such use: “I & my predicessouris [predecessors] be indouttitlie [undoubtedly] prior to thame in richt & place of dignitie” (The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, 1641).

The adverbial use of “prior to” appeared later in the same century and means “previously to, before, in advance of,” Oxford says. This is the dictionary’s earliest example:

“It was clear, that there was a former Trade, and correspondence betwixt them, prior to the Sons Infeftment.” (From Observations, 1675, Sir George Mackenzie’s commentaries on various Scottish parliamentary acts. “Infeftment” is a term in Scots law, similar to “enfeoffment” in English law, having to do with the investing of a feudal estate or fee.)

In our opinion, both “prior” alone and “prior to” have a lofty, formal sound, and for ordinary use there are better terms, both adjectives and adverbs: “previous,” “previously,” “before,” “earlier,” “in advance,” “preceding,” and so on. Usually, nothing is lost in translation.

However, Merriam-Webster compares the adjectives “prior” and “previous” and detects a slight difference: “previous and prior imply existing or occurring earlier, but prior often adds an implication of greater importance,” and it contrasts the uses with these examples: “a child from a previous marriage” versus “a prior obligation.”

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To “the,” or not to “the”

Q: I was reading The Magician’s Nephew, a 1955 Narnia novel by C. S. Lewis, and I saw this sentence: “ ‘That was the secret of secrets,’ said the Queen Jadis.” Why does the writer put a “the” before “Queen Jadis”?

A: The definite article “the” was once common before a high title preceding a personal name, as in “the Queen Jadis,” but the usage isn’t seen much now.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the 12th to the 20th century of “the” used before “higher titles of rank identified by a following personal name.” The dictionary’s examples include “the Emperor Napoleon,” “the Grand Duke Michael,” and “the Empress Josephine.”

Today, the dictionary says, “except in formal use, the is not now usual with higher titles when followed by the personal name, as King George, Prince Edward, Duke Humphrey, Earl Grey, Earl Simon, etc.”

However, the old convention survives with other kinds of titles, like those identified by a following place name or title of office (OED examples include “the Duchess of Windsor,” “the Lord Privy Seal,”  “the Queen of the Netherlands”), and courtesy titles (“the Right Honourable,” “the Honourable,” “the Reverend”).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the definite article used in front of a high title (with “the” written as þe in early Middle English), is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written sometime before 1200:

“Þe abbed an horse leop; & æfter Uortiger rad & sone gon of-ærne þe eorl Uortigerne” (“The abbot leaped upon his horse and rode after Vortigern, and soon began to overtake the earl Vortiger”). Vortigern was a fifth-century king of the Britons, according to some medieval accounts.

We’ve found quite a few examples of the usage in Shakespeare, such as this remark by Polonius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “You go to seek the Lord Hamlet; there he is” (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2, circa 1600).

In the OED’s latest example, the usage is clearly formal: “Her Majesty’s Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms under the command of the Lord Denham” (from the Nov. 5, 1981, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several posts about the definite article, including one in 2008 about its idiomatic use, one in 2009 about its pronunciation (THEE vs. THUH), and one in 2018 about its use with a foreign article.

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When ‘damn’ became a swear word

Q: What is the origin of the expression “don’t give a damn”? Was it ever expletive free?

A: Let’s begin with “damn.” When the word showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, “damn” was a verb meaning to condemn. It wasn’t until the 16th century that “damn” was used profanely.

English borrowed the term from Old French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin damnāre or dampnāre, meaning to damage or condemn. (In fact, “condemn” ultimately comes from the same Latin source as “damn.”)

In Middle English, according to Oxford English Dictionary citations, “damn” had three related meanings: (1) to doom to eternal punishment; (2) to pronounce a sentence; (3) to denounce or deplore.

Here’s an OED example for sense #1 from a homily dated at around 1325: “Sain Jon hafd gret pite / That slic a child suld dampned be” (“John the Baptist had great pity / That such a child should be damned”). Collected in English Metrical Homilies (1862), edited by John Small.

We’ve expanded this OED’s citation for sense #2: “For, sir, hit is no maystrie for a lord / To dampne a man with-oute answere of word” (“For, sire, it is no triumph for a lord / To condemn a man without answering a word”). The Legend of Good Women, circa 1385, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

And here’s an example for #3: “For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, / Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales, circa 1386, by Chaucer).

The OED says the verb “damn” began to be “used profanely” in the late 16th century “in imprecations and exclamations, expressing emphatic objurgation or reprehension of a person or thing, or sometimes merely an outburst of irritation or impatience.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an anonymous religious tract attacking critics of the Anglican hierarchy: “Hang a spawne? drowne it; alls one, damne it!” From Pappe With Hatchet (1589), believed written by John Lyly or Thomas Nashe.

In the early 17th century, according to OED citations, “damn” showed up as a noun used “as a profane imprecation”—that is, a curse.

The earliest example is from Monsieur Thomas, a comedy by the English playwright John Fletcher, believed written between 1610 and 1616: “Rack a maids tender eares, with dam’s and divels?”

And here’s an early 18th-century example in the OED: “What! he no hear you swear, curse, speak the great Damn.” From The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe.

But by the mid-18th century—and here’s where your question comes in—the profane sense of “damn” began weakening as it was “used vaguely (in unconventional speech) in phrases not worth a damn, not to care a damn, not to give a damn,” the OED says.

The earliest such phrase, according to the dictionary, is of the “not to care a damn” variety. Here’s the first known use:

“Not that I care three dams what figure I may cut.” From Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762), a novel in the form of letters purportedly written by a Chinese traveler and offering an outsider’s views of Britain.

In searches of old newspaper databases, the earliest example we’ve found for “not give a damn” is from a late 18th-century American newspaper:

“Burk … exclaimed, that he believed it was true, and if so that he would not give a damn for the Federal villains in this country.” From the Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, July 6, 1798.

As for “not worth a damn,” the earliest use we know of is cited in Green’s Dictionary of Slang: “To play second fiddle to Brougham … would not be worth a dam.” From a letter written by the English politician Thomas Creevey on Oct. 18, 1812.

Interestingly, the noun “curse” was once used in similar constructions. Here are the earliest known appearances—at least in Modern English—of the corresponding “curse” expressions, all cited in the OED:

“I do not conceive that any thing can happen … which you would give a curse to know” (in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 20, 1763).

“For, as to wives, a Grand Signor Need never care one curse about them!” (Thomas Moore’s Intercepted Letters, 1813).

“The Chapter on Naval Inventions is not worth a curse” (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1826).

Oxford says the use of “curse” in such expressions “possibly comes down from the Middle English not worth a kerse, kers, cres” (those are medieval spellings of “curse”). The Middle English usage dates from the late 1300s, according to Oxford citations.

But if there is a link between “not worth a curse” and the medieval “not worth a kerse,” it’s not traceable. As the dictionary adds, “historical connection between the two is not evidenced, there being an interval of more than 300 years between the examples of the Middle English and the modern phrase.”

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Getting our ducks in a row

Q: What’s the history behind the expression “to get one’s ducks in a row”? And did anyone ever get ducks to line up?

A: We’ll answer your second question first. Yes, a mother duck does somehow manage to get her ducklings to line up in a row and follow her. Did this inspire the usage? Well, it’s one of several theories, but we haven’t found much evidence to support any of them.

As far as we can tell, the expression “to get [put, have, etc.] one’s ducks in a row,” meaning to be well prepared or organized for something, first appeared in late 19th-century American usage.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from a 19th-century African-American newspaper in Detroit: “In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong” (the Plaindealer, Nov. 15, 1889).

The next example is a newspaper headline in South Carolina: “His Ducks in a Row” (Watchman and Southron, Sumter, July 22, 1891). The article describes “the extensive and handsome improvements” made by a businessman to increase “his space as well as his usefulness and activity” for “the accommodation of those who desire to be well served.”

A few months later, this headline appeared on an advertisement for a clothing sale: “Getting Our Ducks in a Row” (The Evening Visitor, Raleigh, NC, Nov. 20, 1891). After a list of items in the sale (“Ladies all wool vests, white, 50c,” “Men’s heavy undershirts, 17c,” etc.), the ad says these are “only a few stray shots and will be followed by the heavy sharp shooting and cannonading in quick succession.”

The use of firearm metaphors here raises the possibility that the usage may have originated as a figurative reference to the “duck shoot” attraction at fairgrounds, carnivals, and amusement parks, where visitors fire at a row of mechanical ducks. However, that’s pretty speculative. We haven’t seen any other etymological evidence to support the “duck shoot” theory.

We’ve also seen little or no evidence for two other theories about the source of the expression: (1) a row of real ducklings following their mom, or (2) duckpin bowling, a sport with pins that are smaller and squatter than those in the more common ten-pin bowling.

In fact, duckpin bowling first appeared in the early 1890s, after the expression showed up in Detroit. And we’ve seen no evidence that references in 19th-century books and newspapers to a row of real ducks inspired the figurative usage.

However the expression originated, it reminds us of Make Way for Ducklings (1941), Robert McCloskey’s book for children, which helped popularize the image of a mother duck leading a row of ducklings.

We’ll end, however, with an example from an earlier children’s book, Goodrich’s Fifth School Reader (1857), by Samuel Griswold Goodrich. Here a mom is teaching her ducklings how to walk in a straight line to a pond:

“Yes,” said the ducklings, waddling on. “That’s better,” said their mother;

“But well-bred ducks walk in a row, straight, one behind the other.”

“Yes,” said the little ducks again, all waddling in a row.

“Now to the pond,” said old Dame Duck—splash, splash, and in they go.

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Time and again

Q: I have long been familiar with the expression “time and time again,” but in the last week I have heard it truncated to “time and again.” What’s going on here? Is the latter simply a shortened form with the same meaning, or is it meant to convey something different?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but “time and again” isn’t a truncated version of “time and time again.” The longer expression is an inflated version of the shorter one.

The expression appears to have originated in early 19th-century America. The earliest examples we’ve found in historical databases are from newspapers published in Virginia and Massachusetts.

The oldest mention we’ve seen is from a criticism of England’s Prince Regent (and later King George IV), credited to the Boston Patriot, and reprinted in the Richmond (Va.) Enquirer, April 28, 1812:

“This right illustrious personage is adding with careless prodigality to the vast circle of misery and ruin, by incurring obligations which he has no means of discharging, by rioting on the wealth of industry and labor, and calling time and again on the honest farmer and the plodding mechanic to pay for his thoughtless riots and unbounded profusion.”

And this sighting appeared a few years later: “The government has time and again been called upon, to adopt measures to render our commerce secure, and to prevent the violation of our neutrality.” From the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Sept. 7, 1818.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, also has the shorter “time and again” version:

“Application was made, time and again, relative to the College, and no change could be obtained, when it was necessary” (from a Nov. 24, 1820, speech at an 1820-21 constitutional convention in Massachusetts).

The next citation in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, appeared a decade later (note the plural): “It has been recommended, times and again, not to give horses grain unbroken on this account” (New England Farmer, Feb. 23, 1831).

The first Oxford example for the longer version showed up in print four years later, and we haven’t found any earlier ones: “We know that this has been reported of it time and time again” (Baltimore Southern Pioneer and Richmond Gospel Visiter, March 28, 1835).

The shorter version is not only earlier, but it’s apparently more popular. “Time and again” has been the more common form since the usage first appeared in the early 19th century, according to a search in Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

The OED’s most recent citation is for the original version: “Time and again she had to make difficult decisions about disputed words and phrasing.” From “Towards a Scholarly Edition of Samuel Beckett’s Watt,” an essay by Chris Ackerley in Textual Scholarship and the Material Book (2009), edited by Wim van Mierlo.

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One of the only

Q: Are you as upset as I am over the growing use of the meaningless phrase “one of the only”? I keep seeing it used by journalists and other professional writers! Do you know how it started? I’m guessing it was coined by an advertising copywriter trying to impart exclusivity to his client’s pedestrian product.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but we see nothing wrong with “one of the only” followed by a plural noun. It’s not unusual and it’s not new either, since it’s more than 400 years old.

Perhaps you object because you think “the only” implies just one, but that’s not the case. In some constructions, “only” is used legitimately in a plural sense to mean very few.

For instance, if “only three people” know a secret, they’re “the only three people” who know it. And if Jack is among them, then he’s “one of the only three people” who know it. Nothing wrong there, either grammatically or logically.

Merriam-Webster Online, in its entry for “one of the only,” says it’s an idiom meaning “one of very few” or “one in a small class or category.”

The dictionary gives two examples: “That was one of the only times I ever saw my father cry” and “This is one of the only places in the world where the plant is found.”

M-W is the only standard dictionary with a separate entry for the phrase “one of the only.” But others include the plural sense of “only” in their definitions of the adjective (we’ve underlined the plural senses):

Cambridge: “We use only as an adjective to mean that there is just one or very few of something” … Dictionary.com: “being the single one or the relatively few of the kind” … Lexico: “Alone of its or their kind” … Webster’s New World: “alone of its or their kind; by itself or by themselves” … Macmillan: “used for showing that there are no other things or people of the same kind as the one or ones that you are mentioning” … Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “being one or more of which there exist no others of the same class or kind.”

As we mentioned, “one of the only” isn’t a recent construction. The earliest example we’ve found is from a book on exploration published in 1599:

“From thence passing many dayes trauell, I came vnto a prouince [province] called Casan, which is for good commodities, one of the onely prouinces vnder the Sunne.” From The Principal Nauigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. (The passage translates the Latin account of a Franciscan friar’s travels to the East. The friar, Odoric of Pordenone, dictated the memoir on his deathbed in 1330.)

And this example was recorded a few years later: “he was one of the only men that sought the ouerthrow of their Dominion.” From The Historie of Iustine (1606), George Wilkins’s translation of the Latin original by the Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus.

In old book and newspaper databases, we’ve found many other examples from every century since then. Here’s a smattering of examples, and as you’ll notice, “one of the only” is often followed by a number plus a plural noun:

“one of the onely three supposed to haue preached” (1633); “one of the only three honest, valuable men in England” (1770); “a piece of Roman architecture; one of the only pure pieces perhaps in England” (1772); “one of the only two genera which constitute this order” (1819); “one of the only four surviving patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence” (1820); “one of the only two candidates that have ever been seriously thought of” (1824); “one of the only two ships” (1825); “one of the only two persons on board” (1827); “one of the only three brethren who could preach to the natives” (1832).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no separate entry for “one of the only.” But the phrase appears in a few of the dictionary’s citations for other words and phrases.

This one is found in an OED entry for the noun “Clarisse,” the name of an order of nuns: “One of the only two nunneries of the Clarisses in Scotland existed at Aberdour” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1879).

And the dictionary’s entry for “static” has this: “J. H. de Magellan, writing in 1779, said that he had seen a static barometer started by Sisson (one of the only two such instruments in Europe at the time).” From English Barometers 1680-1860 (2nd ed., 1977), by Nicholas Goodison.

In short, “one of the only” has been an established usage for centuries, in literary and scientific writing as well as everyday English.

No one, as far as we can tell, objects to the phrase without “the,” as in “one of only three dissenting voices” or “one of only four survivors.” But judging from comments on the Internet, many people are bothered by the phrase with the article, whether or not a number follows, as in “one of the only three dissenting voices” or “one of the only survivors.”

However, we see nothing wrong, grammatically or logically, with those constructions. If a litter of puppies includes two girls and eight boys, there’s nothing illogical in the sentence “We reserved one of the only two females.” In other words, “Of the only two females, we reserved one.”

Of course, without “the,” that sentence would still make sense (“We reserved one of only two females”). But “the” doesn’t make it wrong or illogical. In fact, we think “the only two” is more emphatic than “only two.” The presence of the article emphasizes the smallness (or fewness) of the number of girls in the litter.

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A degenerate gambler?

Q: It seems that “degenerate” is now the only term that the media applies to a long-time gambler. In the past, the more common, almost stock, term was “inveterate,” or sometimes “unregenerate.”  Of course, many dedicated gamblers can be degenerates, but the prior terms seem more apropos.

A: Any of those adjectives—“degenerate,” “inveterate,” or “unregenerate”—could legitimately be used to describe a gambler. But we agree with you that someone who gambles habitually and perhaps addictively is best described as “inveterate” or “unregenerate.”

“Inveterate” means long-established or habitual, and “unregenerate” means unable or unwilling to change. When used to modify “gambler,” both suggest that the gambling is long-established, hard to stop, and so on. Those adjectives are largely meaningless if used alone: “He’s inveterate” … “He’s unregenerate.” An inveterate or unregenerate what?

Unlike those words, “degenerate,” which means debased or corrupt, is a character trait in itself. It can be used alone: “He’s degenerate.” When used to modify “gambler,” it describes an incidental characteristic of a gambler. In other words, “He’s a degenerate gambler” would mean “He’s not only a gambler, but also degenerate.”

A comparison of the three phrases in Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “inveterate gambler” is by far the most common. It gets about three times as many hits as the runner-up, “degenerate gambler.” Trailing distantly in last place is “unregenerate gambler,” which barely registers. (Probably because it’s not a very common word.)

Here are examples of each from newspapers:

“He had been invited to join the poker table of that inveterate gambler—and big-time cheat—King Farouk” (Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2015).

“Las Vegas shooter was a degenerate gambler” (New York Post headline, Oct. 2, 2017).

“Anyone who saw [Jackie] Robinson play has to laugh when Pete Rose, the unregenerate gambler, is held up as the paragon of hustle” (Washington Post, April 8, 2004).

All the adjectives are derived from Latin and came into English in the early 1500s.

We’ll start with “inveterate,” from the Latin adjective inveteratus (grown old, of long standing, chronic), derived from the verb veterare (to make old). Here the in- prefix is an intensifier.

The English term was first recorded in writing in 1528, when it meant “full of obstinate prejudice or hatred; embittered, malignant; virulent,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. That’s no longer a standard usage.

Later in the 1500s, “inveterate” acquired a new sense: “firmly established by long continuance; long-established; deep-rooted; obstinate,” uses the dictionary says now apply mostly to “things evil.” And a couple of centuries later it was also being used more mildly, to mean “settled or confirmed in habit, condition, or practice; habitual, hardened, obstinate.” Those are the common meanings today.

A few examples of both senses: “huyrmongyn [whoremongering] inveterat” (1563); “inueterate malice” (1597); “inveterate, sinfull Habits” (1692); “an inveterate prejudice” (1735); “inveterate sportsman” (1832); “an inveterate smoker” (1859).

By the way, the word “veteran” is related, since it’s derived from the Latin vetus (old, long-established, belonging to the past). As the OED says, the classical Latin veteranus was a noun for an experienced or mature person and an adjective meaning mature or experienced, with the adjective used “especially of troops.”

Consequently, “veteran” (both noun and adjective) had military meanings upon entering English in the 1500s. The noun (1509) originally meant “a person with long experience in military service or warfare,” the OED says, and the adjective (1548) meant “having long experience in military service or warfare.” The other meanings, involving maturity or long experience in general, came later.

Moving on to the other two adjectives, “degenerate” and “unregenerate,” they have in their genes the Latin gener-, from genus (race or kind).

To be “degenerate” in the early 1500s was to depart from some virtue or quality that one would be expected to have. The OED’s definition: “having lost the qualities proper to the race or kind; having declined from a higher to a lower type; hence, declined in character or qualities; debased, degraded.”

The adjective was first recorded in the phrase “degenerat & growen out of kynde” (1513).

A more current use of the word is illustrated in this later OED example, a reference to Roman Catholic bishops: “The degenerate representatives of a once noble institution” (The History of England From the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, 1856, by James Anthony Froude).

And an example in Merriam-Webster Online—“a degenerate schemer”—illustrates what M-W calls an especially common definition: “having sunk to a lower and usually corrupt and vicious state.”

As for “unregenerate,” it didn’t come straight from the Romans but was formed within English. It was modeled on the earlier adjective “regenerate” (reborn, reformed), which the OED says did come from Latin and was first recorded around 1435.

When “unregenerate” was first noted in writing in 1561, it meant “not regenerate or reformed, spiritually or (now usually) morally or intellectually,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s most recent citation: “A currency whose strength would be undiluted by unregenerate profligates and spendthrifts in Ireland and in Club Med” (Daily Telegraph, Nov. 17, 2010).

Both adjectives, “degenerate” and “unregenerate,” developed noun forms later in the same century—“degenerate” (a person who fits the description) in 1555, and “unregenerate” (ditto) in 1578. The first also became a verb in that century. To “degenerate” (1545) means, in a general sense, “to decline in character or qualities, become of a lower type,” Oxford says.

The Latin gener- and degener- have given English a tremendous number of words, all ultimately traceable to a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as genə– (to give birth or beget), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Derivatives of this root generally have to do with “aspects of procreation” as well as with “familial and tribal groups,” American Heritage says. Here are some of the better-known English offspring of this ancient root, many of which reflect phonic alterations over the centuries:

benign, cognate, congenial, congenital, engender, engine, gendarme, gender, gene, genealogy, general, generate, generation, generic, generous, genesis, genial, genital, genitive, genius, genre, genocide, genotype, gent, genteel, gentile, gentle, gentry, genuine, genus, germ, German, germane, germinate, gingerly, gonad, kin, kind, kindred, king, heterogeneous, impregnate, indigenous, ingenious, ingenuous, innate, jaunty, kindergarten, malign, miscegenation, nada, naive, nascent, natal, nation, native, nature, née, neonate, Noël, pregnant, progeny, puny, renaissance, wunderkind.

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Try and stop us!

Q: How old is the use of “and” in place of “to” to join infinitives?  For example, “He wants to try and kill her” instead of “He wants to try to kill her.” I heard the usage on British TV, so it’s not just American.

A: The use of “and” to link two infinitives is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. And as you’ve discovered, it’s not just an American usage. In fact, the use of “try and” plus a bare, or “to”-less, infinitive (as in “He wants to try and kill her”) is more common in the UK than in the US.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “and” is being used here for “connecting two verbs, the second of which is logically dependent on the first, esp. where the first verb is come, go, send, or try.” With the exception of “come” and “go,” the dictionary adds, “the verbs in this construction are normally only in the infinitive or imperative.”

In other words, the “come” and “go” versions of the usage can be inflected—have different verb forms, such as the future (“He’ll come and do it”) or the past (“He went and did it”). But the “try” version is normally restricted to the infinitive (“He intends to try and stop us”) or the imperative (“Try and stop us!”).

The earliest example of the construction in the OED is from Matthew 8:21 in the West Saxon Gospels, dating from the late 900s: “Drihten, alyfe me ærest to farenne & bebyrigean minne fæder” (“Lord, let me first go and bury my father”). The verbs “go” (farenne) and “bury” (bebyrigean) here are infinitives.

The dictionary’s first citation for a “try” version of the construction is from the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh. A 1599 entry reports that the council “ordanis the thesaure [orders the treasurer] to trye and speik with Jhonn Kyle.”

However, we’ve found an earlier “try” example in the Early English Books Online database: “they are also profitable for the faithfull / for they trye and purefye the faith of goddes [God’s] electe.” From A Disputacio[n] of Purgatorye, a 1531 religious treatise by John Frith, a Protestant writer burned at the stake for heresy.

In the 19th century, some language commentators began criticizing the use of “try and” with a bare infinitive. For example, George Washington Moon chided a fellow British language authority, Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, for using “try and” in a magazine article based on Alford’s A Plea for the Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling (1863):

“Near the end of a paragraph in the first Essay occurs the following sentence, which is omitted in the book:— ‘And I really don’t wish to be dull; so please, dear reader, to try and not think me so.’ Try and think, indeed! Try to think, we can understand. Fancy saying ‘the dear reader tries and thinks me so’; for, mind, a conjunction is used only to connect words, and can govern no case at all” (The Dean’s English: A Criticism on the Dean of Canterbury’s Essays on the Queen’s English, 1865).

Moon was apparently bugged by Alford’s use of “try and think” because the phrase couldn’t be inflected. But as we’ve shown, English writers had been using “try and” phrases this way for hundreds of years before any commentator raised an objection.

Although some later language authorities have echoed Moon’s objection to the usage, others have said it’s acceptable, especially in informal English.

As Henry W. Fowler says in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), “It is an idiom that should not be discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.” It meets “the proper standard of literary dignity,” he writes, though it is “specially appropriate to actual speech.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the fourth edition of Fowler’s usage guide, expands on those comments from the first edition, adding that the “choice between try to and try and is largely a matter of spontaneity, rhythm, and emphasis, especially in spoken forms.”

In Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner describes “try and” as a “casualism,” which he defines as “the least formal type of standard English.” And Pat, in her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I (4th ed.), recommends “try to” for formal occasions, but says “try and, which has been around for hundreds of years, is acceptable in casual writing and in conversation.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which has dozens of examples of “try and” and similar constructions used by respected writers, says, “About the only thing that can be held against any of these combinations is that they seem to be more typical of speech than of high-toned writing—and that is hardly a sin.” Here are few of the usage guide’s “try and” citations:

“Now I will try and write of something else” (Jane Austen, letter, Jan. 29, 1813).

“ ‘Stand aside, my dear,’ replied Squeers. ‘We’ll try and find out’ ” (Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, 1839).

“The unfortunate creature has a child still every year, and her constant hypocrisy is to try and make her girls believe that their father is a respectable man” (William Makepeace Thackeray, The Book of Snobs, 1846).

“to try and soften his father’s anger” (George Eliot, Silas Marner, 1861).

“We are getting rather mixed. The situation entangled. Let’s try and comb it out” (W. S. Gilbert, The Gondoliers, 1889).

“If gentlemen sold their things, he was to try and get them to sell to him” (Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, 1903).

Some linguists and grammarians describe the “and” here as a “quasi-auxiliary,” and its use in “try and” constructions as “pseudo-coordination,” since “and” is functioning grammatically as the infinitive marker “to,” not as a conjunction that coordinates (that is, joins) words, phrases, or clauses.

Getting back to your question about the usage in American versus British English, Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, discusses this in The Prodigal Tongue (2018). She cites two studies that indicate “try and” is more popular in the UK than in the US.

One study found that the British “used try and (where they could have said try to) over 71% of the time in speech and 24% of the time in writing,” Murphy writes. “The American figures were 24% for speech and 5% in writing.” (The study she cites is “Try to or Try and? Verb Complementation in British and American English,” by Charlotte Hommerberg and Gunnel Tottie, ICAME Journal, 2007.)

Another study, Murphy says, shows that older, educated people in the UK “prefer try to a bit more, but those under forty-five say try and 85% of the time, regardless of their level of education.” (The study here is “Why Does Canadian English Use Try to but British English Use Try and?” by Marisa Brook and Sali A. Tagliamonte, American Speech, 2016.)

In a Dec. 14, 2016, post on Murphy’s website, Separated by a Common Language, she has more details about the studies. She also notes a theory that some people may choose “try and get to know” over “try to get to know” because of a feeling that the repetition of “to” in the second example sounds awkward. Linguists refer to the avoidance of repetition as horror aequi, Latin for “fear of the same.”

Some grammarians and linguists have suggested that there may be a difference in meaning between the “try and” and “try to” constructions. But the linguist Åge Lind analyzed 50 English novels written from 1960 to 1970 and concluded: “If a subtle semantic distinction exists it does not seem to be observed” (from “The Variant Forms Try and/Try to,” English Studies, December 1983).

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A precipitous drop for the better?

Q: I keep seeing “precipitous decline” used for a drop that’s beneficial. For example, “a precipitous decline in the deficit” during the Obama administration (Daily Kos), or “a precipitous decline in Covid-19 cases” in New York (USA Today). Isn’t a drop that’s “precipitous” supposed to be alarming or dangerous?

A: In our opinion, “precipitous” describes a decrease that’s both steep and negative. Like you, we’ve occasionally seen news stories that use “precipitous” in a positive way, but we think a better word for a beneficial decrease would be “dramatic” or “sharp” or “steep.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, is on our side. “The core, literal meaning of precipitous is ‘sheer like a precipice; dangerously high or steep,’ ” Fowler’s says. “Derived from this is a metaphor to describe a change for the worse in a situation or condition, i.e., meaning ‘dramatic.’ ”

Notions of disaster are built into the word. Etymologically, as we’ll explain, someone or something whose fall is “precipitous” has been thrown off a cliff.

Of course, a word’s etymological meanings don’t always survive into modern times or influence how it’s used now. But we think that even today, a “precipitous” fall implies a change for the worse, not for the better.

The word came into English in the early 1600s when it was borrowed from French (precipiteux), the Oxford English Dictionary says. The French adjective had two general senses—(1) rash, impetuous, abrupt, and (2) steep or vertical.

It was derived from the Latin adjective praeceps, meaning not only steep but also headlong. (The literal sense of the Latin word is “head first”; it’s formed from the prefix prae- for “before” and caput for “head.”)

The OED’s earliest written example of “precipitous” is from 1646, but we’ve found more than a dozen earlier ones, all used in the sense of impetuous, rash, ill-advised, overly hasty, and so on. A few of the early sightings, including the first one, imply danger as well as haste.

Here’s the oldest use we’ve found so far: “Mankind runneth head longe to sinne when it is forbidden him; For euen as a torrent or land-floud [flood] running a violent and precipitous course, and meeting with any stop by the way becomes the more furious, and with redoubled force makes selfe way, and beareth downe al before it.” From The First Part of a Treatise Concerning Policy, and Religion (1606), by Thomas Fitzherbert.

Here are a few more of the early uses we’ve found: “rash & precipitous censure” (1609); “an act of extreme impiety or precipitous arrogancie” (1612); “so precipitous & inconsiderate” (1620); “Folly, lightnesse, unadvisednesse, and a precipitous nature” (1622); “the precipitous nature of the Prince, and the ill offices he had done already” (1632); “not precipitous a whit to attempt any thing unadvisedly” (1632); “the assaultes of a most precipitous Death” (1632); “a precipitous torrent, which when it rages, over-flows the plaines” (1640); “their precipitous hastinesse” (1644).

A slightly earlier form of the word was “precipitious” (sometimes spelled “praecipitious”), which was borrowed from the classical Latin adjective praecipitium (precipice-like). Originally, in the early 1600s, “precipitious” had dual meanings, according to the OED: (1) “acting or done in excessive haste; rash, unthinking”; (2) “involving risk of sudden fall or ruin; dangerous, precarious.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from 1612, but we found an earlier one in a book about the sin of pride. The author warns against boasting of great bodily strength, because strength is slow in ascending to its height, “but the descent is precipitious” (The Arraignment of Pride, 1600, by William Gearing).

And in this 1613 example, “precipitious” seems to mean disastrous: “glory and honour to the victor, euer deare and honest to the winner, precipitious and shamefull to the looser” (Sir Antony Sherley His Relation of His Trauels Into Persia, 1613).

We’ve also found an early use of “precipitously,” the adverb derived from “precipitous.” This appeared in a 1619 translation, from Italian, of the life of the Florentine Carmelite nun Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi: “For sometimes the Diuell [Devil] strocke her ouer the head, sometymes he cast her downe precipitously.”

In fact, “precipice” itself once had twin meanings. In its earliest uses, the OED says, it meant (1) “a headlong fall or descent,” used mostly in a  figurative way for “a fall into a disastrous situation or condition” (1606), and (2) “a high and vertical or very steep rock face; a crag, a cliff” (1607).

However, we’ve found an earlier use from 1603, in which the word (spelled “praecipice”) is used figuratively to mean the brink of disaster: “the deere Lord and treasure of my thought … / To such a headlong praecipice is brought.” (From The Tragedie of Darivs [Darius], a drama in verse by the Scottish poet William Alexander, first Earl of Stirling.)

It’s no surprise that “precipice” meant disaster early on, since it had that meaning in the languages it came from.

It was borrowed into English partly from Middle French and partly from Latin. In Middle French in the 1500s, précipice meant danger or disaster as well as a steep place. And in classical Latin, the noun praecipitium meant both a “steep place” and a “fall or jump from a great height,” the OED says, while in post-classical Latin it also meant ruin or disaster.

A couple of other English words starting with “precip-” had ominous beginnings, “precipitation” and “precipitate.” Both come from the Latin verb praecipitare, meaning to cast down or throw headlong.

In the 1400s, “precipitation” was a form of murder or capital punishment; it meant throwing someone (or being thrown) from a great height. In the 1500s, it took on other meanings, like abruptness and rashness; the weather senses—rain, snow, and so on—came along in the late 1600s.

And in the 1500s, to “precipitate” someone meant to throw him over a cliff, while the participial adjective “precipitate” meant “hurled downwards, as over a precipice,” the OED says. (In the same century, the verb and adjective “precipitate” also had meanings related to haste, speed, and rashness, similar to the senses they still have today.)

So as you can see, English words descended from Latin and beginning with “precip-” have long had a dual sense, implying both a sheer vertical drop and a hasty, headlong fall. And “precipitous” has retained those dual connotations, which is why you found it jarring when used to describe a sharp change for the better.

But what do current dictionaries say? Is a “precipitous” decline necessarily a bad one?

In their entries for “precipitous,” all of the 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult include definitions like overly hasty, abrupt, or done without thought. And all but one of the dictionaries indicate either directly or indirectly that a “precipitous” change is also dangerous or bad.

Three British dictionaries are the most specific about the negativity of “precipitous.” In their definitions, Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include “dangerously high or steep,” and Lexico adds: “(of a change to a worse situation or condition) sudden and dramatic.” Collins says it can mean “very steep and often dangerous” as well as “sudden and unpleasant.”

Six of the remaining seven dictionaries say something “precipitous” resembles a “precipice,” which in addition to its literal meaning of a steep rock face or high cliff is described as a dangerous situation in the following definitions:

“a greatly hazardous situation, verging on disaster” (Webster’s New World); “the brink of a dangerous or disastrous situation” (American Heritage); “a dangerous situation that could lead to harm or failure” (Cambridge); “a situation of great peril” (Dictionary.com); “the brink of disaster” (Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged). Collins, mentioned earlier, has a similar reference to “precipice.”

By the way, we sometimes see “precipitous” used to describe a steep rise (as opposed to a drop). Is this legit? Well, it’s a little odd but we haven’t found any evidence that it’s not acceptable in standard English.

Most dictionaries don’t address that question in their definitions, though their examples almost always describe falls, declines, drops, decreases, slides, and collapses. (Two examples to the contrary illustrate increases that are changes for the worse: “the precipitous cost increases at state universities,” in Longman, and “a precipitous increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce,” in Lexico.)

The definitions in only a couple of dictionaries specifically say that rises as well as falls can be “precipitous.”

Here’s Merriam-Webster, which seems to accept “precipitous” rises in only a literal (that is, geological) sense: “very steep, perpendicular, or overhanging in rise or fall” … “having a very steep ascent” (our underlining). All the examples given apply to a place or a geological feature. So clearly, you could justify saying that a street or slope or rock face had a “precipitous” ascent (or rose “precipitously”) to a great height.

Cambridge goes further and accepts figurative rises in its definition: “If a reduction or increase is precipitous, it is fast or great.” But no examples of precipitous increases are given.

A final word. For over 400 years, the adjectives “precipitous” and “precipitate” have been used to mean overly hasty or ill-considered. No one objected to this use of “precipitous” until the 1920s, so if you’ve heard such objections, ignore them. All ten standard dictionaries say “precipitous” and “precipitate” can be used synonymously.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Jiggs dinner

Q: I would be interested to know where the term “Jiggs dinner” comes from. I grew up in Newfoundland, where it referred to a boiled salt-beef dinner, though my family never used the term.

A: The expression “Jiggs dinner” comes from Bringing Up Father, a comic strip created by the cartoonist George McManus in the early 20th century. The strip, which ran from Jan. 12, 1913, to May 28, 2000, featured Jiggs and Maggie, an Irish-American couple. Jiggs’s favorite meal, corned beef and cabbage, became known as a “Jiggs dinner.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines the terms “Jiggs” and “Jiggs and Maggie” as “corned beef and cabbage,” and says the usage was popularized in the comic strip. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a Wisconsin newspaper: “ ‘Jiggs’—corned beef and cabbage” (Waukesha Freeman, Jan. 24, 1940).

However, we’ve found several earlier examples, such as a produce ad in a Colorado newspaper for “ ‘Jiggs’ Dinner Necessaries,” including “Cabbage, per lb., 5c,” “Parsnips, 4 lbs., 25c,” “Rutabagas, 8 lbs., 25c,” and “Carrots, 7 lbs., 25c” (Montrose Daily Press, Jan. 22, 1920).

The Canadian Encyclopedia website says “Jiggs’ dinner is a staple of outport (rural) Newfoundland cuisine. It is also called boiled, cooked or Sunday dinner, as it is usually served on Sunday.” It adds that “Jiggs” here “is a reference to the protagonist” of Bringing Up Father.

“Jiggs was an Irish immigrant living in America who regularly ate corned beef and cabbage, a precursor to the Newfoundland dish,” the dictionary says. “Much of the settlement in Newfoundland came from Irish immigration, so it is not surprising that so much of the food and culture has Celtic ancestry.”

The encyclopedia includes this recipe for Jiggs dinner with pease pudding, or porridge, on the side:

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