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

On ‘giving’ and ‘giving back’

Q: Charitable giving is often characterized as “giving back,” which has a connotation of paying something owed.  My wife and I make substantial donations. I think of this as freely giving, not paying a debt.

A: We’ve also made quite a few charitable donations over the years, and done many hours of volunteer work. And like you, we see this as giving freely of our savings and our time rather than repaying a debt to society.

Merriam-Webster defines the phrasal verb “give back” in this sense as “to provide help or financial assistance to others in appreciation of one’s own success or good fortune,” and has this example: “The community had people with time to volunteer and give back.”

We’d add that the way charities now use the term strikes us as marketing jargon that conveys a sense of obligation to contribute, as well as guilt for not doing so.

A less promotional version of the usage dates back to the 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a speech given Dec. 27, 1877, by W. M. Brooks, president of Tabor College, at a meeting in Cedar Rapids of the State Teachers’ Association of Iowa:

“I believe in general it is true, both of private and State schools, that they are doing their work so faithfully as to give back to the community vastly more than enough to repay the outlay.” In that example, “give back” is used literally (“to repay the outlay”).

We especially like this example from “Problems of Property,” an article by George Iles in The Popular Science Monthly, July 1882:

“It used to be thought that the sons or grandsons of rich Americans could be relied upon to give back to the community their inherited wealth through demoralization and incompetence; but that reliance is proved baseless in a noteworthy proportion of cases in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.”

And here’s a turn-of-the-century example from “The University and the City,” a speech by Seth Low, president of Columbia University, given at the University of Rochester on Oct. 11, 1900:

“The cities can justify themselves, in thus absorbing the population of the land, only by demonstrating that they have the capacity to give, as well as to take. If they take the people out of the country, they must not only give to these individuals enlarged opportunity and greater happiness, but, through them and through their own sons, they must give back to the country in a thousand ways what they have taken from it.”

The sense of repaying an obligation is even clearer in a Jan. 27, 1964, speech by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine at the Women’s National Press Club in Washington.

One reason she decided to seek the Republican nomination for President, she says, “is that women before me pioneered and smoothed the way for me to be the first woman to be elected to both the House and the Senate—and that I should give back in return that which had been given to me.”

The use of the term was relatively rare until the 1980s, according to a search for “give back to the community” in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.

Business executives began using the expression at the time in describing charitable contributions by their companies, as in this example from a business forum in The New York Times, Jan. 3, 1988:

“The challenge in business is to find a socially responsible niche where you can effectively give back to the community in which you operate and in which you have prospered” (M. Anthony Burns, chairman of Ryder Systems).

The term is now often used by businesses, public figures, charities, and volunteers in connection with the Giving Tuesday movement, begun in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York and the United Nations Foundation:

“Giving Tuesday 2023: 27 brands giving back: Giving Tuesday is a day for people and businesses to give back after Black Friday and Cyber Monday—here’s how to participate this year” (from the website of NBC News, Nov. 28, 2023).

In looking into the usage, we found an article in which Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, says the “demand that wealthy should ‘give back’ is heard mostly from progressive or leftist voices.”

In “Giving vs. ‘Giving Back’ ” (Philanthropy Daily, Jan. 4, 2012), Merrill says the “Harvard political theorist John Rawls gave expression to this view in his highly influential A Theory of Justice (1971).”

However, Rawls doesn’t use the term “give back” in his book about distributive justice, the fair allocation of resources. And we’ve seen no indication that people using the expression are particularly progressive, leftist, or aware of his work.

We’ll end with a passage from the book Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country (1990), by William F. Buckley Jr. In discussing the impossibility of repaying our cultural inheritance, he gives several examples, including this one about our musical heritage:

“If you listen, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in May of every year, to four hundred musicians performing the St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach, it becomes numbingly plain that there is simply no way in which one can ‘repay’ the musical patrimony we have inherited.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin Writing

The first exclamation point!

Q: You wrote recently about the increasing use of exclamation points. When did this overused punctuation mark first appear and who was responsible for it?

A: The exclamation point or exclamation mark first appeared in Medieval Latin in the 14th century, but its parentage is somewhat uncertain.

It was originally called a puncto exclamativus (exclamation point) or puncto admirativus (admiration point), according to the British paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes.

In Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993), Parkes notes that the Italian poet Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed in 1360 to have invented the exclamation point:

“ego vero videns quod exclamativa vel admirativa clausula aliter soleat quam continuus vel interrogativus sermo enunciari, consuevi tales clausulas in fine notare per punctum planum et coma eidem puncto lateraliter superpositum.”

(“Indeed, seeing that the exclamatory or admirative clausula was otherwise accustomed to be enunciated in the same way as continuing or interrogative discourse, I acquired the habit of pointing the end of such clausulae by means of a clear punctus, and a coma placed to the side above that same punctus.”)

The translation is by Parkes, who found the citation in “Di un Ars Punctandi Erroneamente Attribuita a Francesco Petrarca” (“On a Punctuation Erroneously Attributed to Petrarch”), a 1909 paper by Franceso Novati for the Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere.

The passage cited by Novati is from “De Ratione Punctandi Secundum Magistrum Iacopum Alpoleium de Urbesalia in Forma Epistole ad Soctorem Quendam Salutatum” (“On the Method of Punctuation According to the Teacher James Alpoleius de Urbasalia in the Form of an Epistle to a Certain Teacher Salutatum”).

The first actual example of an exclamation point in Pause and Effect is from De Nobilitate Legum et Medicinae (“On the Nobility of Laws and Medicine”), a 1399 treatise by that “certain teacher” mentioned above, Coluccio Salutati, a Florentine scholar and statesman. The slanting exclamation point can be seen here, just after the word precor near the end of the second line:

This is the relevant passage in clearer Latin, with our English translation. It begins with the last three words of the first line:

“Ego temet et alios medicos obteso et rogo. repondete michi precor!” (“I am afraid and entreat you and other doctors, answer me, I pray!”).

As for the English terminology, the Oxford English Dictionary says the “punctuation mark (!) indicating an exclamation” was originally referred to as a “note of exclamation” or “note of admiration.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation uses both: “A note of Exclamation or Admiration, thus noted!” (from The Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail’d, 1656, by the Anglican clergyman John Smith).

As far as we can tell, the term “exclamation point” first appeared in the early 18th century in a work by a British grammarian, classicist, and mathematician:

“! Exclamation-point is us’d in admiring, applauding, bewailing, &c.” (English Grammar Reformd Into a Small Compass and Easy Method for the Readier Learning and Better Understanding, 1737, by Solomon Lowe).

The term “exclamation mark” appeared a century later. The earliest example we’ve seen is from A Third Book for Reading and Spelling With Simple Rules and Instructions for Avoiding Common Errors (1837), by the American educator Samuel Worcester:

“How long do you stop at a comma? – at a semicolon? – at a colon? – at a period? – at an interrogation mark? – at an exclamation mark?”

The OED’s first example for “exclamation mark” is from A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by the English lexicographer and grammarian Henry W. Fowler:

“Excessive use of exclamation marks is, like that of italics, one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.”

In other words, the overuse of exclamation points that you mention in your question and that we discuss in our 2023 post is apparently nothing new.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Gob on a stick

Q: As a retiree, I often check out the website Ask a Manager to marvel at what goes on in the workplace these days. A post from a Brit described a job recruiter as a “typical gob on a stick.” I’m not familiar with the expression, but the poster was using it playfully, not snidely.

A: The slang expression “gob on a stick” is relatively new in British English, dating from the late 20th century, and hasn’t yet made its way into standard or slang dictionaries.

The word “gob” here is an old term for the mouth, so the expression literally means a “mouth on a stick.” It’s generally understood in the UK to be to someone who talks a lot, especially a broadcast “talking head.”

How did “gob” come to mean mouth? The usage likely originated in Celtic and migrated into English from Ireland and Scotland, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original Celtic gob was “probably expressive” in origin, the dictionary says—in other words, it was pronounced with a gaping jaw and evoked the thing it described.

The usage originally appeared in “Scottish, English regional (northern), and Irish English,” the OED says, and now survives in slang, mostly British.

When “gob” first appeared in the 14th century, it was a noun that meant “a mass, lump, or heap,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first citation is from the Wycliffe Bible of the early 1380s:

“Who heeng vp with thre fingris the gobbe of the erthe” (“Who held up the mass of the Earth with three fingers,” Isaiah 40:12). The passage is from the early version of the Wycliffe Bible. In the more scholarly later version, “gobbe” is “heuynesse” (heaviness or weight).

In the 16th century, “gob” came to mean a mouth or a slimy substance like phlegm. We’ll skip the phlegm and get to the mouth. The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an anonymous Middle Scots poem about a brawl at a country fair:

“Quhair thair gobbis wer vngeird / Thay gat vpoun the gammis / Quhill bludy berkit wes thair beird” (“When their mouths were unguarded / They got upon the games / Until their beards were covered with blood”). From “Christis Kirk on Grene” (1568).

Here’s an example from a 16th-century flyting, a literary duel in which Scottish poets traded insults. In this passage, a kite (a bird of prey) is used figuratively to mean a person who preys on others:

“Meslie kyt, and þow flyt deill dryt in thy gob” (“Leprous kite, and thou spew devil’s dirt from thy mouth” (from “Flyting with Montgomerie,” before 1585, a poem by Patrick Hume of Polwarth about a flyting with Alexander Montgomerie.

And here’s a 17th-century OED citation from a list of dialectal words in northern England: “A Gob, an open or wide mouth” (“North Countrey Words,” in A Collection of English Words Not Generally Used, 1691, by the naturalist John Ray).

As for the modern slang usage you’re asking about, the expression “gob on a stick” apparently showed up in the 1990s. The earliest example we’ve found is from an article about the Scottish author, broadcaster, and journalist Muriel Gray:

“She’s more than a gob-on-a-stick. She has opinions” (from The Scotsman, Sept. 30, 1994).

Although the expression can be negative when used generally for a talkative person, it’s often used in a humorous, self-deprecating manner by broadcasters speaking of themselves.

A Dublin newspaper, for example, comments on a BBC broadcaster’s comically modest reference to himself: “Terry Wogan on BBC2: ‘I’m only a gob on a stick’ (some gob. some stick). ‘I’m not a barrister’ ” (from the Sunday Independent, Aug. 31, 1997).

We’ll end with the closing words of the British football commentator Simon Hill in his 2017 memoir, Just a Gob on a Stick: The Voice Behind the Mic:

“I’ve been very blessed, and if I don’t know where my real home is, I do know I feel at home when surrounded by football. Not a bad place to be, for someone who is still, and will always be, just a gob on a stick.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Dog days: Are you pooped?

Q: How did the expression “dog days” change from meaning the hottest time of the year to a period of sluggishness or stagnation?

A: When “dog days” first appeared in English in the 16th century, it referred to the hottest part of summer in the Northern hemisphere, a period once considered unhealthy and evil.

Because of the lethargy caused by the heat or fears of malignant influences, the term came to mean a period of stagnation and inactivity. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “dog days” as “the hottest part of the summer, associated in ancient times with the heliacal rising of the Dog Star in the Mediterranean area, and formerly considered to be the most unhealthy period of the year and a time of ill omen.”

The expression has its roots in Greek mythology, where Sirius is the name of the hunter Orion’s dog. In the Iliad (Book XXII), Homer refers to the star as κύν᾽ Ὠρίωνος (kun Orionos, Orion’s dog).

English borrowed the phrase from the post-classical Latin caniculares dies (dog days), which was borrowed in turn from the Hellenistic Greek κυνάδες ἡμέραι (kunades hemerai, dog days).

When the phrase first appeared in English the 16th century, it referred to the hottest days of summer. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght (1538):

“Canicula, a lyttell dogge or bytche. Also a sterre, wherof canicular or dogge days be named Dies caniculares.”

The dictionary says the phrase soon took on the figurative sense of “an evil time; a period in which malignant influences prevail.” The earliest citation for this sense is from a letter by a Protestant clergyman (and later martyr) to a fellow inmate at Newgate Prison in London:

“Neither that any giddy head in these dog-days might take an ensample [example] by you to dissent from Christ’s true church” (from a 1555 letter by John Philpot in The Examinations and Writings of John Philpot, 1842, edited by Robert Eden).

The OED says the evil figurative usage is seen “now (in weakened sense): a period of inactivity or decline.”

It’s not uncommon for the sense of a usage to strengthen or weaken over time, as we note in a 2021 post. A linguist might refer to weakening as “semantic loss” or “semantic reduction.”

It’s unclear when the weakened sense of “dog days” first appeared in English, though this Oxford citation may be an early sighting or a perhaps an indication of things to come:

“What then shall wee now expect in these dogge-dayes of the worlds declining age?” (Achitophel; or, the Picture of a Wicked Politician, 1629, three sermons by the philosopher and Anglican clergyman Nathanael Carpenter).

The dictionary’s first clear example of the weakened sense, which we’ve expanded, is from a July 12, 1992, article in The New York Times about mid-level bosses being laid off in troubled economic times:

“One possibly beneficial byproduct of the managerial dog days may be that it will prepare younger people for the job- and career-jumping likely to be their lot.”

And here’s the OED’s most recent example: “In the dog-days of The Beatles, one of Paul’s plans for holding it all together had been for the world’s most fabled band to just go out and play” (“The Beatles: Stoned, sloppy—shelved!” Mojo, February 2002).

Oxford notes that “the dog days have been variously reckoned, as depending on either the Greater Dog Star (Sirius) or the Lesser Dog Star (Procyon), and on either the heliacal rising or the cosmical rising (which occurs at an earlier date).”

The heliacal rising of a star occurs when it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise. The cosmical rising occurs when it rises in the morning at the same time as the sun.

“The timing of these risings depends on latitude, and they do not occur at all in most of southern hemisphere,” the OED says, adding that “very different dates have been assigned for the dog days,” with their beginning “ranging from 3 July to 15 August, and their duration varying from 30 to 61 days.”

In the Calendar of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, the dog days run from July 7 to Sept. 5. In current calendars, Oxford says, “they are often said to begin on 3 July and end on 11 August (i.e. the 40 days preceding the cosmical rising of Sirius at the latitude of Greenwich).”

The dictionary says the usage “arose from the pernicious qualities of the season being attributed to the ‘influence’ of the Dog Star; but it has long been popularly associated with the belief that at this season dogs are most liable to go mad.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Why we’re in cahoots

Q: I don’t know if you care about older columns, but you may want to update your 2011 item about “cahoot.” It seems silly to say, as your source does, that this Western Americanism descends from French. Many (most?) Westernisms come from Mexican Spanish.

A: The term “cahoot” first appeared in the American Southeast in the early 19th century and didn’t show up in the West until decades later, so it’s unlikely that the usage comes from Mexican Spanish.

In the early days, the word was singular (“cahoot”) and could refer to either a legitimate partnership or a devious collaboration. It’s now used primarily in the scheming sense in plural constructions such as “in cahoots” and “in cahoots with.”

The first known use of the term, tracked down by the linguist Ben Zimmer, is from “Barney Blinn,” an anonymous sketch in a Georgia newspaper about a fictional backwoods orator:

“I ha’nt read newspapers for nothing–Gin’ral Government and the ministration are going in cahoot to undermine and overrule the undertakings of the free People of Georgia” (The Augusta Chronicle, June 20, 1827).

We found the following example, which appeared a year later in a public notice in a Mississippi newspaper:

“I have reason to beleve, that a certain clan, cahoote of connexion, and othrs residing in the vicinity of my residence are predisposed to create, unnecessary and illegal liabilities on me, thro, the agency of my wife, LOUISA HOLMES” (Statesman & Gazette, Natchez, July 24, 1828).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, is from a list of “provincialisms and vulgarisms” in “Md. Va. Ky. or Miss.,” with “improper” examples followed by “corrected” ones:

“Hese in cahoot with me. He is in partnership with me” (Grammar in Familiar Lectures, 1829, by Samuel Kirkham).

This South Carolina example, found by the language researcher Pascal Tréguer, is from a list of “cracker” slang: “Co hoot—Copartnership” (City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser, Charleston, May 14, 1830).

And here’s an example from a February 1839 speech on the floor of the House of Representatives by Rep. Alexander Duncan, a Democrat from Ohio:

“Only think of this! A rank Abolition Whig from the North in ‘cahoot’ with a rank anti-Abolition Whig from the South” (from the Congressional Globe, predecessor of the Congressional Record).

The OED cites a different passage from the same speech: “I will splice the member from North Carolina to you, and for a short time will consider you one person, or in ‘cahoot.’ ”

The first Oxford citation for the plural “cahoots” is from a manuscript diary of G. K. Wilder (1862): “Mc wished me to go in cahoots in a store.” And “cahoots” it’s been ever since.

In his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), John Russell Bartlett describes “cahoot” as a term used in “the South and West to denote a company or union of men for a predatory excursion, and sometimes for a partnership in business.”

However, the only Western example cited by Bartlett is from what we would now consider the Midwest. The passage, from a humorous newspaper sketch, describes an encounter on a Mississippi steamship:

“One day, the confidential hoosier took him aside, told him that there was a ‘smart chance of a pile’ on one of the tables, and that if he liked, he (the hoosier) would go in with him—in cahoot!” (from “A Resurrectionist and His Freight,” by J. M. Field, in The St. Louis Reveille, March 9, 1846).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “cahoot” used in the region now considered the West is from a newspaper in the Oregon Territory:

“I’m much obleeged to ye, sir; but old Betsey Baker (Betsey Baker was the name he gave to his own rifle) hev ben so long in cahoot together, that I hev a kind of efiction for the old lady” (from the Oregon Spectator, Oregon City, Oct. 18, 1849).

As for the origin of “cahoot,” the OED, an etymological dictionary updated regularly online, says the term is “probably a borrowing” from cahute, French for a hut or shack, and notes that “cahute” meant a cabin in the Scottish English of the 1500s.

The dictionary has two 16th-century citations (the earliest is from 1508 and describes a “foule cahute,” or foul cabin, on a ship).

Other modern etymological references are more hesitant than the OED to link cahute and “cahoot.” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, for example, says “cahoot” is “of uncertain origin; occasionally thought to be borrowed from French cahute cabin.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and Green’s Dictionary of Slang have similar entries. Green’s also has the French term cohorte, which gave English the word “cohort,” as a possible source of “cahoot.”

The OED doesn’t indicate how an obsolete Scottish term of French origin came to mean a partnership or conspiracy in the American South of the 19th century. The idea perhaps is that the cabin suggests people working together in private.

We’ve searched newspaper and book databases for the use of “cahoot” in various spellings by Scottish and Latin American immigrants  in the late 18th century and early 19th.

We also checked such sources as Dictionaries of the Scots LanguageDiccionario Etimológico Castellano En Línea, and Dictionary of American Regional English for hints of a possible Spanish or Scottish connection to the American usage. No luck.

We’d describe the origin of “cahoot” as uncertain.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

The rustle of a print dress

Q: Sometimes in books set in the 1920s and ’30s, mainly in Agatha Christie’s books, I’ll see a reference to a maid wearing a “print dress,” but the dress actually seems to be a solid color. Can you shed any light on this?

A: As far as we can tell, the term “print dress” has always meant a garment made of a fabric with a printed design, though it’s often used without describing the design or the color.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adjective “print” here has referred to a garment “made of printed fabric” or a fabric “bearing a printed pattern or design” since the usage first appeared in the mid-19th century.

The OED’s earliest citation for the phrase “print dress,” which we’ve expanded, is from Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe:

“Fanny herself was arrayed in a very pretty print dress, which her father had brought home in a recent visit, with a cape of white muslin.”

The dictionary includes an earlier example of “print” used to describe curtains: “a cylinder fall writing desk, sets of modern cotton print window curtains, 2 chimney glasses” (from an ad listing property “of a Gentleman quitting his residence,” The Times, London, May 8, 1820).

In the 17th century, “print” was used as a noun in a similar sense, which Oxford defines as “a printed (usually cotton) fabric; a piece of such fabric; the pattern printed on the fabric. Also: a garment or other article made from printed fabric.”

The dictionary cites a list of items in a 1679 probate inventory: “36 tufted fringe … 5 score and 13 yards of print … 8 Hand fringes” (from Probate Inventories of Lincoln [England] Citizens, 1661-1714, edited by J. A. Johnson in 1991).

Middle English borrowed the noun from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, where preinte referred to an “impression or imprint made by the impact of a seal or stamp.”

Getting back to your question, in The Body in the Library (1942), Agatha Christie uses “print dress” without any additional information in describing the early morning household noises as Mrs. Bantry awakens at Gossington Hall:

“They would culminate in a swift, controlled sound of footsteps along the passage, the rustle of a print dress, the subdued chink of tea things as the tray was deposited on the table outside, then the soft knock and the entry of Mary to draw the curtains.”

But when additional information is given in some other Christie works, the dress is clearly made of a fabric with a printed pattern, as in these examples:

“A real chambermaid looking unreal, wearing a striped lavender print dress and actually a cap, a freshly laundered cap” (At Bertram’s Hotel, 1965).

“ ‘My dear,’ he exclaimed, ‘do you see what she’s got on? A sprigged print dress. Just like a housemaid–when there were housemaids’ ” (“Greenshaw’s Folly,” a short story in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, 1960).

We couldn’t find examples of the phrase “print dress” in Christie’s novels from the 1920s or ’30s, but here’s one from Sweet Danger (1933), by Margery Allingham:

“Her costume consisted of a white print dress with little green flowers on it, a species of curtaining sold at many village shops. It was cut severely, and was rather long in the skirt.”

When one color is mentioned, it probably refers to the background or the predominant color. Here’s an example from Jacob’s Room (1922), by Virginia Woolf: “Not that any one objects to a blue print dress and a white apron in a cottage garden.”

A design is assumed even if no color or pattern is described: “Poor Cecily! To go to church in a faded print dress, with a shabby little old sun-hat and worn shoes!” (The Golden Road, 1925, by Lucy Maud Montgomery).

The OED’s most recent example for “print dress” is from Timebends: A Life, a 1987 memoir by the playwright Arthur Miller. In this passage, Miller describes the dress worn by the grandmother of his first wife, Mary Slattery, at their wedding reception in 1940:

“She wore a flowered blue cotton print dress, high-crowned tucked bonnet of the same material with a visor ten inches deep.” (We’re quoting from the hardcover original; Oxford cites a shorter version in the 1988 paperback.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

The purple haze of autumn

Q: I’ve always assumed that the expression “purple haze” (a variety of marijuana) comes from the 1967 Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze.” But I recently saw the phrase in Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons and I can’t tell what it means there.

A: For hundreds of years, the expression “purple haze” has been used literally to describe the sky at twilight, the air in autumn, and other atmospheric conditions.

The earliest example we’ve seen describes the evening sky: “As far as the eye could reach, mountains overtopped mountains, till the summits were undistinguishable in the purple haze of approaching night” (Sketches of India, 1750, by Henry Moses).

And here’s an example from Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794): “The sun was now sunk behind the high mountains in the west, upon which a purple haze began to spread, and the gloom of twilight to draw over the surrounding objects.”

This description of the atmosphere at sea when gale winds begin to wane is from “Marine Scenery,” an account in The Naval Chronicle (January-June 1799), edited by James Stanier Clarke and John McArthur:

“When a gale of wind has in some degree abated, I have generally noticed a beautiful effect to arise from the purple haze which is cast around, and is finely contrasted with the dark clouds that are going off in sullen majesty.”

And this passage is from Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations (1861): “There was the red sun, on the low level of the shore, in a purple haze, fast deepening into black.”

As for the use of “purple haze” in The Magnificent Ambersons, we assume Booth Tarkington is describing the smoky air from the burning of autumn leaves in his fictional Midwestern city:

“When Lucy came home the autumn was far enough advanced to smell of burning leaves, and for the annual editorials, in the papers, on the purple haze, the golden branches, the ruddy fruit, and the pleasure of long tramps in the brown forest.”

The phrase took on several figurative senses later in the 20th century, including its use for LSD and marijuana.

In an entry for “purple haze,” the Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase as a slang term for “Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), used as a recreational drug.”

The dictionary cites the 1967 sheet music for the Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze” as the earliest recorded example of the usage: “Purple haze was in my brain, / Lately things don’t seem the same.”

However, the lyrics on the single (March 17, 1967) are somewhat different from the sheet music cited by the OED: “Purple haze all in my brain / Lately things just don’t seem the same.”

It’s uncertain what Hendrix meant by “purple haze.” As Harry Shapiro and Caesar Glebbeek explain in Jimi Hendrix: Electric Gypsy (1995), “Every time he was asked about this song, he gave a different answer.” Here are a couple of examples given:

“I dream a lot and put a lot of dreams down as songs. I wrote one called ‘First Around the Corner’ and another called ‘The Purple Haze,’ which was all about a dream I had that I was walking under the sea” (New Musical Express, Jan. 28, 1967).

“He likes this girl so much that he doesn’t know what he’s in, ya know. A sort of daze, ah suppose. That’s what the song is all about” (Dundee Recorder, April 7, 1967, from an interview after an April 6 performance at the Odeon Cinema in Glasgow).

Shapiro and Glebbeek also cite “purple haze” references in works of science fiction and mythology that influenced Hendrix, and conclude that the song “was almost certainly a pot-pourri of ideas that parcelled up into one song.”

No matter what Hendrix meant by “purple haze,” many listeners thought it referred to a psychedelic experience, and the phrase came to be a slang term for LSD.

The March-April 1970 issue of Microgram, a journal of the US Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, includes “purple haze LSD” in “a glossary of ‘street’ names for drugs and related products.”

The OED notes that the amphetamine Drinamyl (dextroamphetamine and amylobarbitone) had earlier been called “purple heart” in British slang, a reference to its color and shape.

The earliest Oxford citation for the British usage describes Drinamyl as “a Schedule 1 poison known in the trade as ‘purple heart’ ” (The Guardian, March 23, 1961).

Getting back to “purple haze,” the phrase is now also a slang term for various strains of marijuana known for their high THC content and purple or purplish leaves.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from “The Lehigh Drug Subculture,” an article published May 7, 1993, in The Brown and White, the student newspaper at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

The phrase appears in a list of terms associated with cannabis, including “bong, hit, hooch, doobie, grass, gange, take, smoke, marijuana, kind, northern lights, Seattle, tasty buds, purple haze, blunt.”

The earliest example we’ve found where “purple haze” is clearly described as a variety of marijuana, is in “Epidemiologic Trends in Drug Abuse,” a June 1999 report for the National Institute of Drug Abuse:

“Several varieties of marijuana are plentiful on the streets of New York, including ‘hydro,’ ‘brown chocolate,’ ‘Cambodian-red,’ and ‘purple-haze.’ They vary in type of cultivation, color, and point of origin. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels are reportedly rising in Atlanta and high in Houston and Los Angeles, where sinsemilla with a THC level of 25-30 percent continues to be common.”

In Green’s Dictionary of Slang, the lexicographer Jonathon Green lists “purple haze” with two senses: “1. LSD” and “2. a strong variety of cannabis.”

The collaborative online dictionary Wiktionary defines the marijuana sense as “one of numerous strains of cannabis known for their high THC content and recognizable by the color of their leaves, which vary from solid purple to flecked violet.”

We’ll end with a picture of purple haze from “A Rainbow of Cannabis: What Different Colors Tell Us About a Strain” (Oct. 16, 2020), an article on the website of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, WA:

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Upon my word!

Q: In the 1940 movie of Pride and Prejudice, the phrase “upon my word” is used repeatedly to mean “I can’t believe what I just heard.” How did those three words amount to a statement of incredulity?

A: It’s been a while since we saw the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice, with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as Elizabeth and Darcy, but as we recall the screenplay took quite a few liberties with Jane Austen’s novel.

With that in mind, we searched for “upon my word” in two online versions of the novel, an 1894 edition from Ruskin House and a 1900 edition from Odhams Press, both published in London.

The expression appears eight times in each version, occasionally used in its original sense of an assurance of truth or good faith, but primarily in its later sense of an exclamation of surprise or strong emotion—the meaning you describe as incredulity.

In this example of the original sense from chapter 16, Elizabeth assures Wickham that she’d express her dislike of Darcy anywhere in Hertfordshire except at the house where he’s staying:

“ ‘Upon my word I say no more here than I might say in any house in the neighbourhood, except Netherfield.’ ”

And in this exclamatory example from chapter 29, Lady Catherine expresses surprise and annoyance at Elizabeth’s outspokenness:

“ ‘Upon my word,’ said her Ladyship, ‘you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person.’ ”

When the usage appeared in the late 16th century (originally as “upon his word”), it was “an assertion, an affirmation, a declaration, an assurance; esp. as involving the veracity or good faith of the person who makes it,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED citation is from a guide to English language and culture: “Doth not Euripides saie & Phorphyrie vpon his word, that a bodie of presence is best worthie to rule?” (Elementarie, 1583, by Richard Mulcaster). Phorphyrie refers to the third-century philosopher Porphyry of Tyre.

And here’s the first “upon my word” version for this sense: “Madam, upon my word I will not rob you of your Jewel, I freely resign him to you” (from The Humorists: a Comedy, 1671, by the playwright and poet Thomas Shadwell).

The dictionary says the usage came to mean “assuredly, certainly, truly, indeed” in the late 16th century. The expression is “of my word” in the first Oxford example for this sense:

“Of my word, she is both crabbish, lumpish, and carping” (from Endimion, the Man in the Moone, 1591, a comedy by the Elizabethan playwright John Lyly).

The OED’s earliest “upon my word” version for this sense is from a report to the British Parliament in the mid-17th century about a rebellion in Ireland:

“Upon my word your Lordship is little beholding to him” (from A Declaration of the Commons Assembled in Parliament; Concerning the Rise and Progresse of the Grand Rebellion in Ireland, July 25, 1643).

In the early 18th century, the expression came to be “a simple exclamation of surprise or strong emotion,” a usage Oxford describes as “now somewhat archaic.”

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Beaux Stratagem (1707), a comedy by the English playwright George Farquhar:

Lady Bountiful: Let me see your arm, sir — I must have some powder-sugar to stop the blood. — O me! an ugly gash; upon my word, sir, you must go into bed.”

As for now, standard dictionaries define “upon my word” variously as meaning indeed, really, assuredly, and as an exclamation of surprise or annoyance.

Merriam-Webste, for instance, defines it as “with my assurance: indeedassuredly,” and gives this example: “upon my word, I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

And Cambridge says it’s “used to express surprise or to emphasize something.” The dictionary has an example from chapter 2 of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

In this expanded version, Mr. Dashwood agrees with his wife that he doesn’t have to give his mother and her daughters three thousand pounds, as he originally planned, despite his late father’s request that he take care of them:

“ ‘Upon my word,’ said Mr. Dashwood, ‘I believe you are perfectly right. My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say. I clearly understand it now, and I will strictly fulfill my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described.’ ”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Word origin Writing

On ‘cul de sac’ and ‘dead end’

Q: I’m curious if/when “dead end” replaced “cul de sac” as a street with an entrance but no outlet. Is this traditionally an American usage?

A: No, “dead end” is not an Americanized version of “cul-de-sac.” In the US as well as the UK, either term can refer to a street that’s closed at one end.

When the two expressions first appeared in English, “dead end” was a plumbing term for the closed end of a pipe, while “cul-de-sac” was an anatomical term for a pouch branching off a hollow organ like an intestine. Each term later developed the sense of a street with no outlet.

English borrowed the oldest of the two terms, “cul de sac,” from French, where it meant “bottom of a sack” literally and “street without exit” figuratively.

The English usage first appeared in an 18th-century medical treatise, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this passage, it describes an abnormal pouch, or diverticulum, near where the colon joins the abdominal wall:

“An Infundibuliform [funnel-shaped] Cul de Sac or Thimble-like cavity” (from “Miscellaneous Remarks on the Intestines,” by Alexander Monro, in Medical Essays and Observations, 1738).

In the early 19th century, the term took on the sense of “a street, lane, or passage closed at one end, a blind alley; a place having no outlet except by the entrance,” the OED says.

However, the earliest OED example uses the term figuratively in describing the difficulty of sending a diplomatic letter by courier from Palermo:

“This is such a cul de sac that it would (be) ridiculous to attempt sending you any news. Perhaps, indeed, from Malta you might receive it as fresh from hence as any other place” (from a letter written May 10, 1800, by Sir Arthur Paget to Sir Charles Whitworth, and published in The Paget Papers, 1896, edited by Sir Augustus Paget).

The first Oxford citation for the street sense is from an April 19, 1828, entry in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (1941), edited by John Guthrie Tate: “Coming home, an Irish coachman drove us into a cul de sac, near Battersea Bridge.”

(Although cul de sac can still mean a dead-end street in French, the more common terms are impasse and voie sans issue.)

The expression “dead end” showed up two decades later, in the mid-19th century. The OED defines it as “a closed end of a water-pipe, passage, etc., through which there is no way.”

The earliest examples we’ve found are in an 1851 report to the General Board of Health in London on the sewers, drains, and water supples of Halifax in Yorkshire.

The term is used here in a description of a drain: “No. 6 a branches from No. 6 at the upper end of the bridge, and passes by the churchyard, where it terminates in a dead end.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries “dead end” developed several figurative senses, such as a policy, plan, or road that leads nowhere.

The earliest figurative example we’ve seen is from an anonymous 1874 pamphlet, “A Voice From the Signal Box: or Railway Accidents and Their Causes,” by “a Signalman.”

The author suggests that the trains of engine drivers who ignore signals at dangerous junctions should be forced “into a dead end, blocked up with ballast, and interlocked with the main line signals.”

The earliest roadway example we’ve found refers to the end of a road: “Franklin street from Washington avenue south to dead end” (from a March 27, 1901, Philadelphia ordinance to repave several roads).

Finally, “dead end” here refers to an entire road: “Cannon Street is a dead end—it don’t lead nowhere” (from “An Eddy of War,” a short story by Charles Vickers and Ernest Swinton in Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1907).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

A double-edged sword

Q: How did the expression “double-edged sword” come to mean something that has both positive and negative results?

A: The expression ultimately comes from the use of “two-edged sword” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the Bible to mean something very sharp, like a weapon or piercing words.

Here are a few examples we’ve found for “two-edged sword” in Hebrew (חרב פיפיות), Greek (μαχαιρας διστομου), and Latin (gladio ancipiti) from the Old and New Testaments:

• “רוממות אל בגרונם וחרב פיפיות בידם” (“Praise of God in their mouths and a two-edged sword in their hand”). From the 10th-century Aleppo Codex of the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 149:6 (thought to have originated around 1000 BCE).

• “υστερον μεντοι πικροτερον χολης ευρησεις και ηκονημενον μαλλον μαχαιρας διστομου” (“Later however you will find her [an immoral woman] more bitter than gall and sharper than a two-edged sword”). From the Septuagint, Proverbs 5:4, believed translated in the second century BCE.

• “vivus est enim Dei sermo et efficax et penetrabilior omni gladio ancipiti” (“for the word of God is living and powerful and more penetrating than any two-edged sword”). From the Vulgate, Epistle to the Hebrews 4:12, dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries of the Common Era.

(The medieval Jewish scholar Rashi [1040-1105] interprets Psalm 149:6 figuratively in the first example above: “With paeans to God in their throats, and these same are like two-edged swords in their hands.” Rashi’s Commentary on the Psalms, 2004, translated by Mayer I. Gruber.)

Why is the expression “two-edged sword” used in the Bible to describe the word of God? Perhaps because the Hebrew noun for “edge” here, פה, can also mean “mouth,” among other things.

The plural of פה is פיות (“edges” or “mouths”) and the construct state, or genitive, is פיפיות (“of edges” or “of mouths”). So חרב פיפיות (“a sword of edges,” usually translated as “two-edged sword”) could also mean “a sword of mouths”—that is, a source of sharp words.

Similarly, when the phrase “two-edged sword” first appeared in English, it was used to describe the word of God. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Hebrews 4:12 in William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament:

“For the worde of god is quycke and myghty in operacion and sharper then eny two edged swearde.”

As far as we can tell, the sense of “two-edged sword” as something with both good and bad consequences appeared a few decades later.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an English translation of a Latin sermon about the Apocalypse by the Swiss pastor, reformer, and theologian Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75):

“For a sharpe two edged sworde commeth out of the Lordes mouth. This swearde is the worde of God … And it is two edged, sharpe and pearsing, as well as in the heart of the Godly unto saluation, as well as in the heartes of the wycked to payne and condemnation.” (From A Hundred Sermons Vpo[n] the Apocalips of Iesu Christe, 1561, John Daus’s translation of Bullinger’s sermons.)

Getting back to “double-edged sword,” the usual wording now, the expression is used literally for an actual weapon in the earliest example we’ve found:

“And in their mouths let be the actes of God the mighty Lord / And in their hands let them beare a double edged sword” (Psalms 149:6, The Whole Books of Psalmes, 1581, by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others).

The first example we’ve found with the phrase used figuratively in its good-bad sense is from a sermon that says the Gospel has both “the power of God to salvation” and “the power of God to confusion”:

“It is a double-edged Sword, and giues, vel vitamvel vinditam, either instruction, or destruction” (from A Divine Herball Together With a Forrest of Thornes in Five Sermons, 1616, by the English clergyman Thomas Adams).

As for the ultimate origin of the “good/bad” sense of “double-edged sword,” suggests that it “seems to be based on an idea that a sword with two edges poses a danger of bouncing back and cutting its own wielder.” However, we’ve seen no evidence to support this idea.

We’ve also seen no evidence that the English expression is ultimately derived from the Arabic term for a two-edged sword, سلاح ذو حدين, as suggested by the collaborative dictionary Wiktionary.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Steal a march

Q: I was wondering how the expression “steal a march” came to mean get an advantage over somebody.

A: When the verb “steal” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times it had the word’s usual modern meaning—to take something dishonestly, especially in secret.

That sense of acting secretly led to the use of the expression “steal a march” in the 18th century to mean get a secret advantage over a rival. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original sense of the verb as “to take away dishonestly (portable property, cattle, etc., belonging to another); esp. to do this secretly or unobserved by the owner or the person in charge.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham’s loose Old English translation, circa 1000, of Genesis in the Latin Vulgate:

“þæt feoh, pe we fundon on ure saccum, we læddon to þe of Chanaan lande. wenst þu, þæt we þines hlafordes gold oððe his seolfor stælon” (“That money, which we found in our sack, we brought to thee out of the land of Canaan. Think thou that we should steal thy lord’s gold or his silver?”). Genesis 44:8.

The verb “steal” has had many related meanings over the years, as in to steal happiness (circa 1374), steal a kiss (1390), steal writing (1544), steal a heart (1587), and steal a glance (1794).

The expression “steal a march” was originally used in a military sense, meaning to “succeed in moving troops without the knowledge of the enemy,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter dated March 27, 1716, by the Town Council of Edinburgh in praise of the Duke of Argyll, commander of British forces in Scotland during the Jacobite uprising of 1715:

“We saw him with incredible celerity steal a march for our preservation; And when, by his surprising Expedition he had chas’d the enemy from our gates.”

The OED says the expression soon came to be used more generally to mean “to get a secret advantage over a rival or opponent.” In this example, which we’ve also expanded, it refers to one theater company’s getting an advantage over another:

“After we had stolen some few Days March upon them, the forces of Betterton came up with us in terrible order.” (From An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, 1740, by Cibber, an actor and theater manager, as was Thomas Betterton.)

The dictionary’s next example is from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), by Tobias Smollett. In this expanded citation from the novel, the husband-hunting Tabitha Bramble tries to get a jump on her niece Lydia Melford:

“You must know, she yesterday wanted to steal a march of poor Liddy, and went to breakfast in the Room without any other companion than her dog, in expectation of meeting with the Baronet.”

We’ll end with an example from “The Oblong Box” (1844), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe: “He evidently intended to steal a march upon me, and smuggle a fine picture to New York, under my very nose.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Bobby pins, bobby socks, and bobbies

Q: What is the origin of the “bobby” in “bobby pins”? Is it related to the one in “bobby socks” or the “bobby” walking a beat in London?

A: The “bobby” in “bobby pins” and “bobby socks” (or “sox”) is believed to come from the use of “bob” and “bobbed” in reference to something shortened.

“Bobby pins” originally referred to sprung pins used with bobbed hair, while “bobby socks” referred to ankle socks, presumably because they were a shortened, or bobbed, version of knee socks.

The slang term for a police officer is understood to come from the given name of Robert Peel, who was England’s Home Secretary when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed in the early 19th century. In fact, bobbies are also called “peelers.”

As for the etymology, the noun “bob” first appeared in Middle English when it meant a bunch of leaves, flowers, fruit, and so on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a chivalric romance written in the late 1300s:

“Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe, Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare” (“But in one hand he held a bunch of holly, that is greatest in green when groves are bare”).

That early sense of “bob” evolved over the centuries to mean, among other things, bobbed hair.

In the 17th century, the OED says, it referred to “a knot or bunch of hair such as that in which women sometimes do up their back hair.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation refers to a wig with “the side or bottom locks turned up into Bobs or Knots, tied up with Ribbons” (from The Academy of Armory, 1688, by Randle Holme).

In the 18th century, “bob” came to mean “a horse’s tail docked short; a short knob-like tail.” The first Oxford example refers to “a high bob unusual in Horses” (The London Gazette, Dec. 1, 1711).

A century later, the OED says, the verb “bob” took on the sense of “to dock, cut short (a horse’s tail, etc.).” The dictionary cites this 1822 example describing feral horses:

“Two of them must have been in Hands [domesticated], as their tails were Bobed short” (from The Journal of Jacob Fowler, edited by Elliott Coues and published in 1898).

In the early 20th century, the noun “bob” took on the modern sense of “a style of cutting women’s hair short and even all round,” as well as “hair cut in this way,” the OED says.

The OED’s earliest citation is from The Silver Spoon (1926), one of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte novels: “Her hair, again in its more natural ‘bob’, gleamed lustrously under the light.”

Getting back to your question, Oxford defines a “bobby pin” as “a kind of sprung hair-pin or small clip, originally for use with bobbed hair.” It says the etymology is uncertain, but points readers to the verb for docking a horse’s tail.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a newspaper in Nyack, NY: “Her locks have just reached that trying length that require the existence of a ‘bobby pin’ ” (Rockland County Evening Journal, Oct. 2, 1928).

The OED’s first citation is from a novel published a few years later: “She wondered whether she had lost all the bobby-pins from her marcelled hair” (If I Have Four Apples, 1936, by Josephine Lawrence).

As for “bobby socks,” the OED defines them as “socks reaching just above the ankle, esp. those worn by girls in their teens.” It describes the etymology as uncertain, but again points readers to the verb for docking a horse’s tail.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a California newspaper: “Any bobby socks around school all week?” (from “The Hatchet,” a column about La Habra Grammar Schools in La Habra Star, May 29, 1929).

Oxford’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, describes the scene at a Frank Sinatra concert: “In CBS’s Manhattan playhouse, at the Paramount, at the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, hundreds of little long-haired, round-faced girls in bobby socks sat transfixed” (Time magazine, July 26, 1943).

Finally, we come to the constabulary “bobby.” Oxford defines it as “a slang nickname for a policeman” that’s “probably in allusion to the name of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Robert Peel, who was Home Secretary when the new Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1828.”

The dictionary’s first example, which we’ve expanded, is from testimony in a burglary case tried June 10, 1844, at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court:

“I heard her say something, but could not understand what it was exactly—I could not understand whether it was ‘a crush’ or ‘a bobby’—I cannot swear that I heard any words of that kind—I heard her say something—it was a signal to let them know a policeman was coming” (from Old Bailey Proceedings Online).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

‘Pit road’ or ‘pit row’?

Q: Lately I have noticed some news items using the term “pit road.” Even Nascar uses it on Twitter. I’m in my 80s and have always thought the area where race cars are serviced at the track is called “pit row.” Am I wrong?

A: As far as we can tell, the motor-racing terms “pit road” and “pit row” showed up in writing around the same time in the early 1960s.

The earliest example we’ve found for “pit road” is from a report that appeared June 3, 1963, in The San Bernardino Sun in California about a race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina:

“The crowd of 55,000 already was on its feet as [Junior] Johnson came out of the third turn to complete the 397th lap. Suddenly, his racer swerved noticeably and lost its speed. The left rear tire was in shreds as he came into the pit road, where his alert crew put on a new one.”

And the earliest written example we’ve seen for “pit row” is from the July 3, 1964, issue of the same newspaper:

“ ‘He was the greatest.’ That was the accolade heard most along pit row yesterday as Daytona International Speedway prepared to run its Firecracker 400 stock car race—one of the favorite events of Glenn (Fireball) Roberts. Roberts, of Daytona Beach, died in a Charlotte [NC] hospital early yesterday of complications from burns he received in a three-car pile-up there May 24.”

The two terms may have appeared earlier in motor-sports magazines, but we couldn’t find any older examples in the racing magazine archives we were able to search.

As for present usage, “pit road” is more popular than “pit row,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks terms in digitized books.

The gap is even wider in searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present. The results: “pit road,” 2,976 hits, versus “pit row,” 166.

However, the Ngram and NOW corpus results may be a bit off because some streets, especially in rural areas, have names like “Sand Pit Road” and “Gravel Pit Road.”

Interestingly, we couldn’t find either “pit road” or “pit row” in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, doesn’t have an entry for “pit row” either, and its first definition of “pit road” is “any of the network of passages in a coal mine.”

The OED adds a second sense of “pit road” as a variant of “pit lane,” the usual racing term in the UK for “a side road parallel to a course which leads into and out of the pits.”

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “pit lane” is from an article in the April 2, 1956, issue of Sports Illustrated about a race at the Sebring International Raceway in Florida:

“After five laps, the [Mike] Hawthorn Jaguar came roaring back up the pit lane.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Rhetorically speaking

Q: My wife (not a native English speaker) gets irked when I (native Canadian English speaker) start a question with “Why don’t you.” She finds it rude, a way of saying she isn’t doing something she should be. Am I being rude?

A: No, you’re not being rude. English speakers often use the idiomatic “Why don’t you” to introduce a proposal or a helpful suggestion in the form of a rhetorical question.

It’s not a criticism, but might sound that way to someone who hasn’t heard it from childhood.

The two of us, a married couple, often use it ourselves:  “Why don’t you look under the bed or in the closet?” … “Why don’t you pick up the dry-cleaning on your way?”

This device is also used with “I” or “we,” as in “Why don’t I lift that for you?” … “Why don’t we order pizza and watch a movie?” The same suggestions might be made with “Let me” instead of “Why don’t I” and “Let’s”  instead of “Why don’t we.”

Again, these are rhetorical questions, not real questions. They’re ways of suggesting or proposing something in an indirect way.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “Why don’t you” as an idiom that’s “used to make a suggestion.” The dictionary illustrates with “Why don’t you come with us?”

In explaining this usage, the Oxford English Dictionary says the adverb “why” is used “with the negative form of the simple present tense in formulating a positive suggestion, as ‘why don’t I (we, etc.) …?’ ”

We’ve found examples dating from the early 17th century, before the contraction “don’t” became common and the idiom was “why do you not.”

This passage, for instance, is from a moral dialogue published in 1608: “Why do you not now take your plesure & ease, and feast, and be merrie with your friends? This you may do now, nothing hindreth you” (A Warning for Worldlings, by Jeremy Corderoy).

Contracted “don’t” examples of the expression date from the 1660s onward. The earliest we’ve found are from Restoration comedies.

In John Tatham’s Knavery in All Trades, or, The Coffee-House (1664), a wife suggests to her husband, “Why don’t you come to bed?”

And in another 1664 comedy, one lady advises another about a young lord she might seduce: “Why don’t you try Lonzartes?” (Pandora, by Sir William Killigrew).

The usage has been fairly common ever since. The OED’s most recent example is from a British thriller set in the 1930s: “Why don’t I stop by her compartment … and see how she is?” (Richard Doyle’s Havana Special, 1982).

Your wife is correct in thinking that some rhetorical questions beginning with “Why don’t you” are not meant to be kindly or helpful. “Why don’t you get lost?” is another way of saying, “Get lost!” The same is true of “Why don’t you mind your own business?” and “Why don’t you shut up?”

Context is everything!

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Was ‘it don’t’ once good English?

Q: I just finished Little Women, where the use of “don’t” for “does not” is the rule, even in the mouths of educated people. Any comment?

A: In the original text of Little Women, which Louisa May Alcott published in two parts (1868 and 1869), “does not” is contracted as “don’t” as well as “doesn’t,” but “don’t” is used more often, as in this comment from Jo to Mrs. March: “It was an abominable thing, and she don’t deserve to be forgiven.”

As it turns out, “don’t” was the usual contraction of “does not” for more than two centuries, but Little Women was written when the usage was shifting, and many a “don’t” was changed to “doesn’t” in later editions.

As Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary explains in a usage note, “Don’t is the earliest attested contraction of does not and until about 1900 was the standard spoken form in the U.S. (it survived as spoken standard longer in British English).”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage adds that the use of “don’t” for “does not” had “unimpeachable status” from the 17th century through the 19th.

However, we should point out that some prominent 19th-century writers were hesitant to use “don’t” as an all-purpose contraction, as we’ll show later.

The M-W usage guide’s earliest written example of “don’t” used as a contraction of “does not” is from Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676), a Restoration comedy by George Etherege:

Old Bellair: No matter for that; go, bid her dance no more, it don’t become her, it don’t become her. Tell her I say so.”

But we’ve found several earlier appearances, including this one from a sermon by William Bridge, an independent minister in England:

“If there be a stamp set upon silver, or gold, the mettal remains as it was before: But if a stamp be set upon brasse, it don’t make it silver” (The Works  of William Bridge, Sometime Fellow of Emanuel Colledge in Cambridge; Now Preacher of the Word of God at Yarmouth, 1649).

We’ve seen quite a few examples from the 18th and 19th centuries in which respected writers use “don’t” as a contraction of “does not,” including these:

“I hope so too, but if it don’t, it must be the Lords doing, and it will be marvellous in our Eyes” (A Dialogue Between a Dissenter and the Observator, 1703, by Daniel Defoe).

“Well then, said the Gentleman, I can’t answer for her Negligence, if she don’t; but she will send a Letter to you, Mrs. Jervis” (Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, 1740, by Samuel Richardson).

“But never mind;—‘God save the king!’ and kings! / For if he don’t, I doubt if men will longer—” (Don Juan, Canto VIII, 1823, by Lord Byron).

“ ‘You needn’t be afraid of him, Jack.’ And the Colonel gave a look, as much as to say, ‘Indeed, he don’t look as if I need’ ” (The History of Henry Esmond, 1852, by William Makepeace Thackeray).

“I like to hear you speak well of your commanding officer; I daresay he don’t deserve it, but still it does you credit” (W. S. Gilbert’s libretto of HMS Pinafore, 1878).

However, some writers were apparently hesitant to use “don’t” as a contraction of “do not.” In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Jane Austen occasionally contracts “do not” as “don’t” in dialogue, but never contracts “does not.”

As for “doesn’t,” M-W Usage says the contraction first appeared in print in the early 19th century, and cites this example from The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), a verse satire by Thomas Moore:

“ ‘This must be the music,’ said he, ‘of the spears, / For I’m curst if each note of it doesn’t run thro’ one!’ ” (The passage refers to the piercing notes of opera music.)

We’ve found several earlier examples, though, including this one from The Dramatic History of Master Edward (1743), by George Alexander Stevens: “Yes; but who reads them for you? your landlord, doesn’t he?”

Although Merriam-Webster online says “don’t” was the standard spoken contraction of “does not” until the 20th century, some well-known 19th-century writers did indeed use “doesn’t” in dialogue. Here are a few examples:

“If you don’t rejoice at it, if it doesn’t make you happy, if you don’t encourage me, I shall break my heart” (Barchester Towers, 1857, by Anthony Trollope).

“ ‘Mr. Dick is a sort of distant connexion of mine—it doesn’t matter how; I needn’t enter into that” (David Copperfield, 1850, by Charles Dickens).

“It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth,” Jo says about selling her hair for $25 (Little Women, First Part, 1868).

In the second half of the 19th century, some language writers, especially in the US, began attacking the use of “don’t” as a contraction of “does not” and favoring “doesn’t” instead, according to the linguist Karl W. Dykema.

Dykema cites many of these criticisms in his paper “An Example of Prescriptive Linguistic Change: ‘Don’t’ to ‘Doesn’t’ ” (The English Journal, September 1947). Here are a few:

“I am piteously entreated, by more than one correspondent, to say that ‘he don’t’ is bad English, and therefore I say it. But ‘he don’t’ for ‘he doesn’t’ is, I suspect, an example rather of phonetic degradation than of ignorance or defiance of grammar” (Everyday English, 1880, by Richard Grant White).

Don’t. Everybody knows that don’t is a contraction of do not, and that doesn’t is a contraction of does not; and yet nearly everybody is guilty of using don’t when he should use doesn’t” (The Verbalist, 1881, by Alfred Ayers).

Don’t for doesn’t, or does not. Even so scholarly a divine as the Rev. Dr. Bellows, of New York, employs the vulgarism four times in an article in the ‘Independent’ ” (Words: Their Use and Abuse, 1892, by William Mathews).

Dykema blames prescriptivist American grammarians of the late 19th century for the loss of “don’t” as an all-purpose negative contraction:

“The moral, I hope, is clear: We have through enormous effort accomplished something utterly useless. We have cast out from the standard language a construction which fulfilled the primary function of language—communication—with efficiency and propriety.”

Finally, why did “don’t” become a contraction for “does not” in the first place? The story begins in the 17th century, at a time when all forms of the verb “do” were unsettled, to say the least.

For one thing, “does” and “doth”—both spelled in a variety of ways—were competing for prominence, as M-W Usage points out.

For another, some writers used the bare (or uninflected) “do” as the third person singular. The usage guide cites Samuel Pepys, writing in 1664: “the Duke of York do give himself up to business,” and “it seems he [the king] do not.”

M-W suggests that the use of the uninflected “do” for “does,” as in the Pepys citations, may have influenced the use of “don’t” as a contracted “does not.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

A riot in the garden

Q: I asked ChatGPT to create a Midjourney prompt for an image with many flowers. The prompt, or text phrase, asked for “a riot of flowers.” When did a “riot” come to mean many things as well as a violent disturbance?

A: The noun “riot” has meant an extraordinary profusion, often of brilliant colors, for more than three centuries.

That sense of the term, first recorded in the early 18th century, refers to “an impressively large or varied display of something, esp. a vivid display of colour,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise on art that discusses the story of Hercules at the crossroads as a possible subject for a painting:

“Such a Confusion, Oppugnancy [conflict], and Riot of Colours, as wou’d to any judicious Eye appear absolutely intolerable” (from A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules, 1713, by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury).

The next OED citation, also expanded, is from an essay that compares the “ghost-like” white (or opium) poppy to the “fuller-blooded” red poppy:

“A riot of scarlet on gold, the red poppy of our native fields tosses heavy tresses with gipsy abandon” (from “White Poppy,” in Pagan Papers, 1894, an essay collection by Kenneth Grahame).

When “riot’ first appeared in early Middle English in the 12th century, it meant “waywardness” or “contrariness,” a sense that’s now obsolete or rare, the OED says.

The first Oxford example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200. This passage describes someone who’s guilty of the sin of contumacy, or stubborness:

“fet hwa se is anewil i þing þet ha haueð undernume to donne, beo hit god, beo hit uuel, þet na wisure read ne mei bringen hire ut of hire riote” (“she is so obstinate at whatever thing she has undertaken to do—be it good, be it evil—that no wiser counsel can bring her out of her riot [waywardness].”

In the early 14th century, the OED says, “riot” came to mean “an instance or course of riotous living; esp. an act of noisy, wanton revelry; a riotous or unruly feast or revel.”

The first Oxford example is from The Seven Sages of Rome (circa 1330), a Middle English collection of stories concerning Florentin, son of the Roman Emperor Diocletian:

“He scholde nowt in Rome bilaue, For Burgeis, maiden, oþer knaue Miȝte him in som riot sette Þat al his lore he scholde lette” (“He should not stay in Rome because a burgher, maiden or other knave might lead him into some riot that should make him forsake all his learning”).

In the early 15th century, according to OED citations, “riot” took on its usual modern sense of “a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd; an outbreak of violent civil disorder or lawlessness.”

The first Oxford example for this use of “riot,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 1433 entry in the Rolls of Parliament during the reign of King Henry VI:

“in eschuyng of Riotes, Excesses, mysgovernances and disobeissances ayenst the Kynges astate.” (Two earlier Oxford examples for this usage have a somewhat different meaning.)

Oxford explains that the sense of “riot” as an impressive display was “originally an extended use” of the riotous living usage, but it’s “now often interpreted in the light of” the violent disturbance sense.

In other words, an expression like “a riot of colors” now suggests the wildness of both—riotous living as well as riotous violence.

Finally, here’s a recent example of the usage from a headline in Sky & Telescope magazine about the James Webb Space Telescope (Nov. 18, 2022):


And this is the image:

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

‘Ask, and it shall be given you’

Q: I direct my Philosophy of Ethics students to your page about the distinction between morals and ethics. I was wondering about Matthew 7:7, specifically the object: “Ask, and it shall be given you.” Why isn’t it “given to you”?

A: It depends on which translation of Matthew 7:7 you’re looking at. Some do say “given to you.” However, the passage in the earliest Old English translation of the Gospels doesn’t use either “given you” or “given to you.”

This is the wording in the Wessex Gospels, copied around 1175 in a West Saxon dialect of Old English and believed to date from the late 10th century: “Byddeð. & eow beoð ge-seald” (“Biddeth, and you shall be given”).

And here’s an archaic spelling of “given to you” in the Wycliffe Bible, written in Middle English in the 1380s under the direction of the theologian John Wycliffe:

“Axe ȝe, and it ſhal be ȝouen to ȝou” (“Ask ye, and it shall be given to you”). From Maþeu, Capitulum VII (Matthew, Chapter 7).

The King James Version of 1611 has an early Modern English form of the passage you’re familiar with (“Aske, and it shalbe giuen you”), while the New King James Version of 1982 has a contemporary update (“Ask, and it will be given to you”).

The two clauses, “it shall be given you” and “it shall be given to you” mean the same thing semantically but differ grammatically. In the first clause, “you” is an indirect object; in the second, “to you” is a prepositional phrase that serves a similar purpose.

As we’ve said many times before on the blog, the use of prepositions is highly idiomatic in English and has varied widely over the years. At times, one form or another may be more common in American than in British usage, or vice versa.

In contemporary English, for example, one would usually say “give it to you” or “give you it.” However, “give it you” is often heard in British English, though the usage is sometimes described as informal or nonstandard.

In a 2009 post, we discuss the use of prepositional phrases and objects with “give,” “write,” “pass,” and several other verbs.

These verbs are now commonly used without prepositional phrases when they’re immediately followed by an indirect object (like “me” in “give me the book” or “write me a letter”).

But if a direct object (“the book” or “a letter”) comes first, a prepositional phrase is used (“Give the book to me” or “Write a letter to me”).

The use of the verb “write” differs in the US and the UK when the only object is an indirect object, as in “Have you written your mother?” or “Write me.” That usage, once standard on both sides of the Atlantic, is now frowned upon in the UK though still fine in the US.

Only when both objects are present and the indirect object comes first (as in “Have you written your mother a thank-you note?” or “Write me a letter”) do British speakers omit the preposition now.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

‘Time to get up, you lot!’

Q: Do you think the British use of “you lot” as a second person plural pronoun has a link to the American use of “y’all”?

A: The Southern American regionalism “y’all” and the British colloquialism “you lot” are similar in that both can be used to mean “you all” in its traditional sense: “all of you.” However, the two usages differ in several ways.

As we say in a 2023 post, the uncontracted “you all” first appeared in Old English as eow ealle and referred to all of the people being addressed.

The “you all” spelling showed up in the 16th century and the contracted “y’all” in the 17th century with the same “all of you” sense, though the contraction was rarely used.

The regionalism “y’all” or “you-all” first appeared in the American South in the early 19th century and could refer to one or more people as well as others associated with the people addressed.

The British colloquialism “you lot” (often “all you lot”) appeared a century later, with the noun “lot” used to stress the plural sense of the pronoun “you.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “lot” here is used “to indicate or emphasize plural reference (in contrast to simple you, which may have either singular or plural reference).” Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation:

“When the guard came to the top to collect the fares the girls there tendered their pennies. The guard declined them, explaining, ‘Your mother has paid for all you lot’ ” (The Manchester Guardian, Feb. 9, 1907).

The OED doesn’t directly link “you lot” to “y’all,” but it suggests that readers compare the British usage with the regionalisms “you-all” and “yous.” We’ve discussed “yous” and “youse” in several posts, most recently in 2011.

As for the noun “lot,” it has referred to a group of people since at least the 12th century. Here’s an example we’ve found in the Ormulum (circa 1175), a collection of early Middle English homilies:

“Þe maste lott tatt heȝhesst iss Iss þatt lærede genge” (“The great lot that is highest is the legion of the learned”).

The OED says this use of “lot” now usually refers to “a number of people associated in some way by the speaker or writer. The dictionary says the usage is “now colloquial and often depreciative.”

Getting back to “you lot,” the phrase is often negative, as in the second Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, from D. H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers (1913):

“ ‘An’ is it goin’ to be wasted?’ said Morel. ‘I’m not such a extravagant mortal as you lot, with your waste. If I drop a bit of bread at pit, in all the dust an’ dirt, I pick it up an’ eat it.’ ”

We’ll end with a recent example of the usage that we found in a novel about the life of a young schoolteacher in a poor area of Birmingham in the 1930s:

“ ‘Time to get up, you lot!’  Mr Belcher had swung open the barn door and dusty rays streamed in. Joey could see the man’s round face beneath the brim of his hat, pink in the warmth. ‘Come on–shake a leg!’ ” (Miss Purdy’s Class, 2011, by Annie Murray).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why we rely on a ‘go-to’

Q: When did people start using the phrase “go-to” as a noun? I don’t recall having heard it when I lived in the States (1953-1975).

A: The use of the noun and earlier adjective “go-to” for a dependable or reliable person or thing showed up in the late 20th century as an American sports usage.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun as “a person who or thing which may be consulted or relied upon; a preferred or favoured option.”

Similarly, the OED says the adjective refers to someone or something “that may be consulted or relied upon; frequently chosen, utilized, or sought out in a particular situation.”

The adjective came first, in a description of reliable basketball players as “go-to guys.” In the earliest Oxford citation, Don Chaney, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, refers to the NBA guard Derek Smith:

“Derek is one of my go-to guys—players who want the ball in crucial situations” (United Press International, April 4, 1985).

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun is from another basketball article. The reporter quotes Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls on the subject of Patrick Ewing’s teammates on the New York Knicks:

“ ‘Wannabe stars’ is how Dennis Rodman sized up Ewing’s supporting cast. Now those wannabes are going to make the quantum leap to ‘go-tos’?” (Daily News, New York, Dec. 23, 1997).

Interestingly, a now-archaic version of the noun “go-to” appeared in the mid-19th century, when it was used in the phrase “at one go-to,” meaning in one attempt or without stopping. (Today, one would say “at one go.”)

The OED has this example from a horsey travel memoir: “I am tired with writing it all at one go-to” (Las Alforjas, or, The Bridle-Roads of Spain, 1853, by George John Cayley). Alforjas are saddlebags.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Religion Usage Writing

Not to mention Paul

Q: Thank you for your article on “not to mention,” a funny phrase since the writer goes on to mention it anyway. Are you aware that the phrase is in Paul’s letter to Philemon (verse 19) and evidently much older than the 1644 example from Milton you cite?

A: You’re right that this use of “not to mention” appeared in English before the Oxford English Dictionary citation that we mention in our 2007 post, which we’ve now updated. But it didn’t show up quite as early as your biblical example suggests.

We’ve found several earlier 17th-century uses, including this one from a treatise on the Anglican liturgy that criticizes the servants of “Don Beel-zebub” for encouraging equivocation and deception:

“Not to mention here their vnsufferable correcting, yea corrupting of all Authors” (An Exposition of the Dominicall Epistles and Gospels Used in Our English Liturgie, 1622, by John Boys, Dean of Canterbury).

As far as we can tell, the use of “not to mention” in the Epistle to Philemon appears in only modern translations of the New Testament, not in older ones.

Here, for example, is Philemon 19 in the New King James Version (1982): “I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.”

But this is the passage in the original King James Version (1611): “I Paul haue written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I doe not say to thee how thou owest vnto me euen thine owne selfe besides.”

And here is Filemon 19 in the Wycliffe Bible, written in Middle English in the early 1380s:

“Y Poul wroot with myn hoond, Y schal yelde; that Y seie not to thee, that also thou owist to me thi silf” (“I, Paul, wrote this with my hand, I shall repay it; that I say not to thee, that also thou owest me thy self”).

That Middle English translation is in keeping with early Greek versions of Paul’s epistle. Here’s the relevant Greek passage: “ἵνα μὴ λέγω σοι” (“that not I say [or “may say’] to you”).

Although “Y seie not to thee” in the Wycliffe version has the same meaning as “not to mention” in modern translations of Philemon 19, the two usages are not etymologically related.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

The laundry list, itemized

Q: What’s a “laundry list” anyway? Do people itemize their dirty socks? Even when I go to a laundry, they give me a receipt with a per-pound price, not any kind of list. “Grocery list,” yes. “Laundry list,” wha…?

A: The term “laundry list” has been used literally since the 1860s and figuratively since the 1930s. Here’s a literal example from the old Hotel Astor at Times Square:

As Merriam-Webster explains in an etymological note, the expression first appeared in the 19th century with the rise of commercial laundry services.

“When you took your laundry to a commercial laundry establishment,” the dictionary says, “you had to make a record of what you’d sent; this ensured both that you got back what you’d sent, and that you paid for what got washed. And that is where the laundry list comes in.”

By the 1860s, the dictionary says, “some enterprising souls had seen fit to create laundry lists that itemized all the varieties of potentially dirty articles with a place for the user to enter the tally for each item.”

The dictionary cites this description from the March 4, 1871, issue of The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu):

“Mr. W. M. Wallace has got up a very neat and convenient card for laundry lists, which on examination will at once strike one as useful as well as novel. The different articles of clothing sent to the wash are by an ingenious arrangement numbered each under its separate head, without the bother of writing or making figures. There are separate lists for ladies, gentlemen, and families, and every ordinary article of clothing that requires washing has its separate place, from one piece up to twelve. We are confident that on trial it will be found of indispensable use in every household, and a valuable source of economy.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the term “laundry list” used literally is from “The Art of Travel in Europe,” a review of tourist guides in the July 1863 issue of The National Review, a short-lived British quarterly.

In discussing the organization of foreign words and phrases in various categories, the authors say “the chief articles of dress occur in two, the toilette and the laundry list.”

As for the figurative sense of the expression that’s often seen now, Merriam-Webster says “a laundry list is ‘a usually long list of items,’ and it’s used to refer to lists of varying kinds.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a headline in The Illinois State Journal, Springfield, May 9, 1938: “Girl Should Make Laundry List of Marriage Factors, Then Proceed to Pick Man.”

Finally, we should mention that a predecessor of the literal “laundry list” was a “washing bill,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a statement of laundry-charges.”

The first OED citation for the earlier usage, which we’ve expanded, is from Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, completed in 1803 but published posthumously in 1817.

Catherine Morland, the young protagonist, discovers a roll of paper in a  cabinet in the bedroom where she’s staying on a visit to the Abbey. She imagines that she’s found a precious manuscript but then learns otherwise:

“Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false? An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Let’s liven things up

Q: Are “enliven,” “liven,” and “liven up” equally acceptable? Is one preferred? “Liven up” seems a little colloquial for written communication.

A: The verbs “enliven” and “liven” and the phrasal verb “liven up” are all acceptable English and have been for hundreds of years. The two verbs showed up in the early 1600s and the phrasal verb in the early 1800s.

All 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include the three terms as standard English. Not one labels “liven up” as colloquial, informal, casual, or conversational.

Although “liven up” does strike us as somewhat more relaxed than “enliven,” we wouldn’t hesitate to use the phrasal verb in all kinds of writing.

Some of the dictionaries say “liven” is “usually” or “often” used with “up.” In fact, all the examples for “liven” in the 10 dictionaries include “up”—sometimes directly after the verb and sometimes after whatever is livened (as in “liven it up”).

Although “liven up” is more popular now than “liven” by itself, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, has contemporary examples for both usages.

The OED notes one significant difference in the use of the three terms: “enliven” is used only transitively (with an object) while “liven” and “liven up” can also be used intransitively (without an object).

The first of the terms to appear in writing was “enliven,” which originally was spelled “inliuen” (“inliven”) and meant “to give life to; to bring or restore to life,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Contemplatio Mortis, et Immortalitatis (“A Contemplation of Death and Immortality”), 1631, by Henry Montagu, Earl of  Manchester:

“Consider Death originally or in his owne nature, and it is but a departed breath from dead earth inliuened first by breath cast vpon it.”

The OED says “enliven” soon came to mean “to give fuller life to; to animate, inspirit, invigorate physically or spiritually.” The dictionary’s first citation for this sense in from a treatise comparing theological and legal righteousness:

“The Divinity derives itself into the souls of men, enlivening and transforming them into its own likeness” (Select Discourses, 1644–52, by the English philosopher and theologian John Smith).

At the beginning of the 18th century, Oxford says, “enliven” took on the sense of “to make ‘lively’ or cheerful, cheer, exhilarate.” The earliest example is from a treatise on theology and science:

“Their eminent Ends and Uses in illuminating and enlivening the Planets” (The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation, 1701, by John Ray, an English naturalist, philosopher, and theologian).

When “liven” first appeared in the 17th century, the OED says, it was used transitively in the sense of “to brighten or cheer, to animate; to bring energy and interest into.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The New Covenant; or, the Saints Portion, a treatise by the Anglican theologian John Preston, written sometime before his death in 1628:

“Things liuened by the expression of the speaker, sometimes take well, which after, vpon a mature review, seeme eyther superfluous, or flat.”

The verb was first used intransitively in the early 18th century. The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a July 24, 1739, letter in which the English poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone describes a conversation with his housekeeper, Mrs. Arnold:

“ ‘Why, Sir, says she, the hen that I set last-sabbath-day-was-three-weeks has just hatched, and has brought all her eggs to good.’ ‘That’s brave indeed,  says I.’ ‘Ay, that it is, says she, so be and’t please G—D and how that they liven, there’ll be a glorious parcel of ’em.’ ”

When “liven up” first appeared in the early 19th century, the OED says, it was used transitively in the figurative sense of “to give life to, put life into.”

The earliest example given is from “The Angel Message,” a poem in Recreations of a Merchant, or the Christian Sketch-Book (1836), by William A. Brewer:

“Hadst thou a thousand lives to live … and garden-sweat to tinct, / Or Calvary’s gore to liven up the sketch … ’twere vain indeed, / To attempt a lively portraiture of man / Freed from the guilt and power of sin.”

A few decades later, the phrasal verb took on the transitive sense of “to brighten, cheer, animate.” The first OED citation is from the novel  Bellehood and Bondage (1873), by Ann Sophia Stephens:

“If she isn’t too knowing, and don’t put on beauty airs, perhaps it might do. … This girl may liven up the establishment a little.”

Finally, the first Oxford citation for the intransitive “liven up” is from the January 1863 issue of The Continental Monthly: “Thus refreshed, although soaked to the skin, Francesco livened up.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin Writing

Did ‘y’all’ originate in England?

Q: An article in the online magazine Atlas Obscura suggests that “y’all” may have originated in 17th-century England, not the American South of the 19th century. Do you think so too?

A: The regional “y’all” of the American South isn’t quite the same as the earlier contraction used in England, which has roots in Anglo-Saxon times.

The older usage is simply a contracted form of “you all” and means “all of you.” That sense of “you all” has been acceptable English for a thousand years, but has seldom been contracted.

The related regional “y’all” or “you-all,” perhaps the most recognized feature of Southern American speech, is more flexible and may have been influenced by the speech of slaves from Africa or Scotch-Irish immigrants.

The story begins in Anglo-Saxon days when Old English writers began giving the pronoun “you” a more specific sense by adding “all.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the subject or object pronoun “you” was “defined or made precise by a qualifying word or phrase.”

In the dictionary’s earliest citation for this usage, the Old English eow (you) is made more inclusive by adding ealle (all). In the following passage, eow ealle refers to all the people addressed:

“Ic for Cristes lufe forlæt eow ealle, and middaneardlice lustas swa swa meox forseah” (“I for Christ’s love abandoned you all, and despised the lusts of the world as dung”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.

And here’s the dictionary’s first example of “you all” with its modern spelling: “I longe after you all, from the very hart rote [heart rooted] in Iesus Christ.” From a 1549 translation, by Myles Coverdale and others, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament.

The contracted form “y’all” showed up a century later with the same inclusive sense of “you all.”

Here’s an expanded version of the passage that was cited in “The Origins of ‘Y’All’ May Not Be in the American South,” a Jan. 9, 2023, article in Atlas Obscura by David B. Parker, a professor of history at Kennesaw State University in Georgia:

The captiue men of strength I gaue to you,
The weaker sold; and this y’all know is true,
The free-borne women ransom’d, or set free
For pittie sake, the seruile sort had yee.

From The Faire Æthiopian, William Lisle’s 1631 translation of Αἰθιοπικά (Aethiopica, Ethiopian Story), an ancient Greek romance by Heliodorus of Emesa.

The article originally appeared on Nov. 29, 2022, on The Conversation, a website that publishes the work of academic researchers, and had a less etymologically startling headline: “ ‘Y’all,’ that most Southern of Southernisms, is going mainstream–and it’s about time.”

It’s clear from our expanded excerpt that Lisle contracted “you all” to maintain the iambic pentameter (a line of five metrical feet, each with one unstressed and one stressed syllable). He also contracted the “-ed” ending of “ransomed,” which was formerly pronounced as a separate syllable.

Here’s a conversational example we’ve found in The Goblin, a comedy by Sir John Suckling, first performed in 1638 and published in 1646:

“A race of criples are y’all, Iffue [if you] of Snailes, he could not else have escaped us?”

We’ve seen other early examples of “y’all” used to mean “all of you,” but the contraction was relatively rare in the past.

As for the colloquial Southern usage, the Dictionary of American Regional English describes “you-all” or “y’all” as “a second person pl pron, often including in its scope others known or assumed to be associated with the person or persons addressed.”

For example, a Southerner might say “How are you-all (or y’all)?” in asking a couple, or even a single person, about themselves as well as their family—a wider usage than the earlier “all of you” sense in speaking to a group of people.

(DARE, the OED, and standard dictionaries use the hyphenated “you-all” for the uncontracted Southern regionalism.)

The earliest example of this colloquial “you-all” in DARE is from an 1816 letter written by a New England clergyman on a trip to Virginia:

“Children learn from the slaves some odd phrases; as … will you all do this? for, will one of you do this?” (Letters From the South and West, 1824, by Henry Cogswell Knight).

The first DARE citation for the contracted “y’all” is from a fictional account of life in the rough-and-tumble days of the Republic of Texas. The speaker here is addressing two people: “Ar y’all alive and kickin’ in thar?” (The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha, 1856, by Alfred W. Arrington).

And here’s a DARE citation for the singular usage, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education (March 1869):

“The Tennessee lady says … to a friend, as she bids her good-bye … ‘Won’t you all come and see me?’ or, on meeting her, ‘How do you all do?’ meaning only the one addressed.”

DARE notes that “you-all” or “y’all” is also sometimes used attributively, or adjectivally, as in this citation from a letter written during the Civil War:

“I wish this war would end so you all soldiers could get home one more time” (Corpus of American Civil War Letters, 2007, by Michael B. Montgomery and Michael Ellis).

And the regional dictionary says the usage, especially the contraction, is sometimes “used with a preceding qualifier, as all, any, both, some, without of,” as in this example:

“All y’all jes stand back” (from “Ole ’Stracted,” a short story by Thomas Nelson Page, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1886).

Linguists have suggested that the Southern usage may have been influenced by the speech of slaves from Africa or immigrants from Scotland or Ireland.

In “Y’ALL in American English: From Black to White, From Phrase to Pronoun,” John M. Lipski suggests the influence of Black English on the usage (in the journal English World-Wide, January 1993).

And in “The Etymology of Y’all,” Michael Montgomery suggests the influence of the Scotch-Irish phrase “ye aw” (in Old English and New, 1992, edited by Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane, and Dick Ringer).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Good, best, or well wishes?

Q: I’m mystified by what seems to be the recent use of “well wishes” rather than “good wishes” or “best wishes.” Is “well wishes” really correct? Shouldn’t the modifier be an adjective, not an adverb?

A: The usual expression is “good wishes” or “best wishes,” but “well wishes” has been used for hundreds of years in the same sense.

All three were first recorded in the late 16th century. A search with Google’s Ngram viewer of digitized books indicates that “good wishes” and “best wishes” have alternated in popularity over the years, while “well wishes” has been a distant third.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “well wishes” as “an instance of wishing well to someone or something.” The dictionary says the expression was formed by combining the adverb “well” and the noun “wish.”

Interestingly, “well” has been used adjectivally since Anglo-Saxon times in various constructions indicating good fortune.

In this expanded OED example from the epic poem Beowulf, dating back to as early as 725, the Old English wel is used in the sense of fortunate:

“Wel bið þæm þe mot æfter deaðdæge drihten secean / ond to fæder fæþmum freoðo wilnian” (“Well be he who in death can face the Lord and find friendship in the Father’s embrace”).

The earliest OED citation for “well wishes,” which we’ve also expanded, is from an English translation of a 15th-century Spanish poem about an old man’s reflections on love:

“Thou art that spirit that S. Powle, / Did feele to wrestle with his soule, / And pray’d our Lord to set him free / From such a peeuish enemie of his wel-wishes.” (From Loues Owle, an Idle Conceited Dialogue Betwene Loue, and an Olde Man, 1595, Anthony Copley’s translation of Rodrigo de Cota’s Dialogo Entre el Amor y un Caballero Viejo.)

Oxford adds that the expression is usually plural and “now less common than best or good wishes.” The dictionary also notes the earlier verb “well-wish” (1570), noun “well-wishing” (1562), and adjective “well-wishing” (1548).

As for the more common “best wishes,” the OED defines it as “an expression of hope for a person’s future happiness or welfare, often used formulaically at the end of a letter, card, etc.”

The first citation is from a letter written by the Earl of Essex on Oct. 16, 1595: “This … is … accompanyed with my best wishes, from your lordship’s most affectionate cosin and friend, Essex.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary, doesn’t have an entry for  “good wishes,” and neither do the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an analysis of Psalm 129 in a 16th-century treatise on the Book of Psalms:

“Vers. 8. Teacheth vs, that it is a testamonie of Gods great curse vppon vs to want either the prayers or good wishes of the godly, howsoeuer the world make no account of the one or the other” (A Very Godly and Learned Exposition, Upon the Whole Booke of Psalmes, 1591, by Thomas Wilcox).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Better half (the whole story)

Q: I’m curious about “better halves.” When did the term come to mean spouses?

A: When “better half” appeared in the mid-16th century, it meant “the larger portion of something” or “more than half,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a religious treatise defending the Roman Catholic Church against criticism by the Church of England:

“it woulde well lacke the better halfe of jx. yeres [nine years].” From A Return of Untruths (1566), by the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Stapleton, responding to a treatise by John Jewel, the Church of England’s Bishop of Salisbury.

The usual sense now, which the OED defines as “a person’s husband, wife, or (in later use) partner,” appeared in the late 16th century.

The first citation is from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published posthumously in 1590, four years after the author’s death:

“My deare, my better halfe (said hee) I finde I must now leaue thee” (the dying Argalus is speaking here to his wife Parthenia).

The dictionary doesn’t have any citations for plural versions of “better half.” The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of digitized books are from the 18th century. Here are two of them:

  • “ ‘I am happy to acknowledge, that, though we have no gods to occupy a mansion professedly built for them, yet we have secured their better halves, for we have goddesses to whom we all most willingly bow down.’ ” From Evelina (1778), by the English novelist Fanny Burney. (Lord Orville is speaking to Captain Mirvan.)
  • “I trust the example of our better halfs will tempt the ladies all to emulate those virtues which have made us for ever renounce the follies of fashion, and devote our future lives to that only real comfort which heaven has bestowed on mortals—virtuous, mutual, wedded love.” From The Ton; or Follies of Fashion (1788), a comic play by the Scottish author Eglantine Wallace. (Lord Raymond is speaking to Lady Raymond.)

In case you’re wondering, both “better halfs” and “better halves” were common in the late 18th century, but “better halves” has been the usual plural for the last two centuries,  according to a comparison with Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The OED says the phrase “better half” has had two other senses, “a close and intimate friend” (1596) and “a person’s soul” (1629), but the first is now rare and the second obsolete.

We should add that in the spousal sense, “better half” is often used affectionately or in a semi-humorous way.

Finally, here are a few other alternatives for “husband” or “wife,” and the dates of their earliest OED citations: “spouse” (before 1200), “partner” (1577), “helpmate” (1815), and “ball and chain” (1921).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

The ‘it’ in ‘lording it over’

Q: I’ve always felt that you need “it” in a sentence like “He lorded it over them.” But I sometimes see the usage without it. Is this permissible, or are people just not getting the idiomatic use of “it”?

A: The verb “lord” is used in three different ways when it means to act in a superior or domineering manner: (1) “He lorded over them,” (2) “He lorded it over them,” and (3) “He lorded himself over them.”

search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books, indicates that the first two are about equally popular, while the third appears much less often..

The verb is intransitive in #1 and transitive in #2 and #3. A transitive verb is one with a direct object. In #2 the object is “it,” while in #3 the object is a reflexive pronoun.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “it” here as “a vague or indefinite object of a transitive verb,” and adds that the transitive use has “the same meaning as the intransitive use.”

When “lord” first appeared as a verb in the 14th century, it meant “to have the status of a lord; to govern, rule; to have a presiding authority or influence,” a sense that’s now obsolete, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession,” circa 1390), a long Middle English poem by John Gower: “On [One] lordeth, and an other serveth.”

In the 16th century, “lord” came to mean “to act in the supposed manner of a lord; to behave in an arrogant, disdainful, or dissipated manner; to rule tyrannically; to dominate.” The verb was used at the time both with and without “it” (but not with “over,” which didn’t appear in the usage until a century later).

The first OED example for “lord” used without “it” is from a sermon by Hugh Latimer, a Church of England reformer who was burned at the stake outside Balliol College, Oxford, and is one of the three Oxford Martyrs of Anglicanism:

“For they [the Apostles] preached and lorded not. And nowe they lorde and preache not” (“A Nota­ble Sermō of Ye Re­uerende Father Maister Hughe Latemer, Whi­che He Preached in Ye Shrouds at Pau­les Churche in Londō, on the .XVIII. Daye of January. 1548”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb “lord” used with “it” is from a book about Christian martyrs: “Suche Byshoppes as minister not, but lorde it” (Acts and Monuments, 1563, by the English historian John Foxe).

In the 17th century, versions with “over” began appearing, and the OED says it’s usually present today. Here are the first examples, both with and without “it”:

  • “Lording it over the Consciences of the people” (A Treatise of the Confession of Sinne, 1657, by the English theologian Thomas Aylesbury).
  • “Had Judah that day join’d, or one whole Tribe, / They had by this possess’d the Towers of Gath / And lorded over them whom now they serve.” (We’ve expanded this citation from Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes, 1671. Gath was a major Philistine city.)

The earliest OED citation for the verb “lord” used with a reflexive pronoun is from a religious tract responding to the writings of George Fox and other Quakers of the 17th century. Here’s an expanded version:

“G F. hath remembred the Affliction of Joseph, and doth not Lord himself over the Light of God in others; this is false, and R. R. might have applyed it at home” (from Something in Answer to a Book Printed in 1678, Called, The Hidden Things Brought to Light, 1679, by Robert Rich, a Quaker who often challenged other Quakers).

Finally, here are the most recent OED citations for “lord over,” “lord it over,” and “lord oneself over”:

  • “The Manchus, from their own separate world, lorded over and indeed lived off the Han” (Manchus & Han, 2000, by Edward J. M. Rhoads). We’ve expanded the citation.
  • “Lording it over them was one of the pleasures of my father’s old age” (The Times Literary Supplement, London, March 11, 2005).
  • “It smacked of colonialism, patriarchy, bad white men lording themselves over voiceless minions” (The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2011).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Christmas English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Gentlemen, God rest you merry!

Q: Which is the more traditional version of this Christmas carol: “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” or “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”? I see it both ways, but the one with “you” looks better to me.

A: You’re right—“you” makes more sense than “ye” in this case, as we’ll explain later. In fact, the original pronoun in that early 18th-century carol was “you.”

But that isn’t the only misunderstanding associated with the song. There’s that wayward comma too. Here’s the story.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, English speakers used “rest you” or “rest thee” with a positive adjective (“merry,” “well,” “tranquil,” “happy,” “content”) to mean “remain in that condition.” (The verb “rest” is used in a somewhat similar sense today in the expressions “rest assured” and “rest easy.”)

In the earliest and most common of such expressions, the adjective was “merry,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And at the time, “merry” had a meaning (happy, content, pleased) that’s now obsolete.

So in medieval English, the friendly salutation “rest you (or thee) merry” meant remain happy, content, or pleased. The OED explains it more broadly as “an expression of good wishes” that meant “peace and happiness to you.”

The form “rest you merry” was used in addressing two or more people, while “rest thee merry” was used for just one. This is because our modern word “you,” the second-person pronoun, originally had four principal forms: the subjects were “ye” (plural) and “thou” (singular); the objects were “you” (plural) and “thee” (singular). The expression we’re discussing required an object pronoun.

The OED’s earliest example of the expression, in 13th-century Middle English, shows a single person being addressed: “Rest þe [thee] murie, sire Daris” (the letter þ, a thorn, represented a “th” sound). From Floris and Blanchefleur (circa 1250), a popular romantic tale that dates from the 1100s in Old French.

As early as the mid-1200s, according to OED citations, “you” began to replace the other second-person pronouns. By the early 1500s, “you” was serving all four purposes in ordinary usage: objective and nominative, singular and plural.

As a result, the usual form of the old expression became “rest you merry” even when only one person was addressed. And it was often preceded by “God” as a polite salutation, with the meaning “may God grant you peace and happiness,” the OED says. The dictionary cites several early examples of the formula:

  • “o louynge [loving] frende god rest you mery.” From an instructional book, Floures for Latine Spekynge Gathered Oute of Terence (1534)by Nicholas Udall. (The English is presented as a translation of the Latin greeting Amice salue.)
  • “God rest you mery bothe and God be your guide.” From Like Wil to Like (1568), a morality play by Ulpian Fulwell.
  • “God rest you merry sir.” From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c. 1600).

Soon after Shakespeare’s time, we find the formulaic “rest you merry” addressed to “gentlemen.” In plays of the 17th century in particular, it’s often spoken by a character in greeting or parting from friends.

The popular playwright John Fletcher, for example, used “rest you merry gentlemen” in at least two of his comedies: Wit Without Money (c. 1614) and Monsieur Thomas (c. 1610-16).

It also appears in several other comedies of the period, including works by the pseudonymous “J. D., Gent” (The Knave in Graine, 1640), Abraham Cowley (Cutter of Coleman-Street, 1658), Thomas Southland (Love a la Mode, 1663), and William Mountfort (Greenwich-Park, 1691).

In most of the 17th-century examples we’ve found, there’s no comma in “God rest you merry gentlemen.” When a comma does appear, it comes after “merry,” not before: “Rest you merry, gentlemen.”  This is because “rest you merry” is addressed to the “gentlemen.”

In his comedy Changes: or, Love in a Maze (1632), James Shirley has “Gentlemen, rest you merry,” a use that more clearly illustrates the sense of the expression and removes any ambiguity.

This brings us to the Christmas song “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”— the title as given in The Oxford Book of Carols and other authoritative collections. The oldest existing printed version of the song was published around 1700, though the lyrics were probably known orally before that.

As the OED says, “rest you merry” is no longer used as an English expression; it survives only in the carol. But the syntax of the title, the dictionary adds, “is frequently misinterpreted, merry being understood as an adjective qualifying gentlemen.” So the comma is often misplaced after “you,” as if those addressed were “merry gentlemen.”

In fact, the carol originally had no title. The words first appeared, as far as we can tell, in a single-page broadsheet entitled Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays with only a generic designation—“Carol  I. On Christmas-Day.” The broadsheet had no music, either; the words were sung to a variety of tunes.

The sheet was probably published in 1700 or 1701, according to the database Early English Books Online. Some commentators have said the lyrics existed earlier, but we haven’t found any documents to show this. The other three songs on the sheet are designated “Carol II. On St. Stephen’s-Day,” “Carol III. On St. John’s-Day,” and “Carol IV. On Innocent’s-Day.”  Here’s a facsimile of the front side, with “Carol I” at left.

“God rest you merry Gentlemen” (without a comma) is the first line of “Carol I,” and it later became used as the title. It appeared as the title in some printings of the carol by the late 1700s.

But well into the 19th century the song was sometimes referred to simply as “Old Christmas Carol” (in Sam Weller, a play by William Thomas Moncreiff, London, 1837) or “A Christmas Carol” (in The Baltimore County Union, a weekly newspaper in Towsontown, MD, Dec. 23, 1865).

For the most part, music publishers over the years have printed the title with “you” (not “ye”) and with the comma after “merry,” a form that accurately represents the original meaning. But in books, newspapers, and other writing the title has also appeared with “ye,” a misplaced comma, or both.

Why the misplaced comma? Apparently the old senses of “rest” and “merry” were forgotten, and the title was reinterpreted in ordinary usage. It was understood to mean that a group of “merry gentlemen” were encouraged to relax and be jolly.

The OED’s earliest example of the misconception dates from the early 19th century, where Samuel Jackson Pratt refers to “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” as “a time-embrowned ditty” (Gleanings in England, 2nd ed., 1803).

And why the shift from “you” to “ye”?  Our guess is that it represents an attempt to make the carol sound older or more “traditional.” (Not coincidentally, “ye” began appearing in place of “you” in 18th- and 19th-century reprints of those old comedies we mentioned above, as if to make them more antique.)

We’ve found scores of “ye” versions of the carol dating from the 1840s onwards in ordinary British and American usage.

A search of Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “you” versions were predominant in books and journals until the mid-20th century. But in the 1960s, “ye” versions began to rise, and by the ’80s they had surpassed the “you” versions. (Placement of the comma isn’t searchable on Ngram.)

Today, both the “ye” and the misplaced comma are ubiquitous in common usage, despite the way the title is printed by most music publishers and academic presses.

Perhaps the music of the carol bears some of the blame for the wayward comma. While the song has had several different musical settings, it’s now sung to music, most likely imported from Europe, that some scholars believe was first published in Britain in 1796. And the tune doesn’t allow for a pause before “gentlemen,” so the ear doesn’t sense a comma there.

As the music scholar Edward Wickham writes, “The comprehension of whole sentences of text, when sung, relies in part on the perception of how those sentences are segmented and organised.”

“The music to the Christmas carol ‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen,’ ” Wickham says, “makes no provision for the comma and thus is routinely misunderstood as ‘God rest you, merry Gentlemen.’ ” (“Tales from Babel: Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing,” a chapter in Experimental Affinities in Music, 2015, edited by Paulo de Assis.)

One final observation. All this reminds us of an entirely different “ye” misunderstanding—the mistaken use of “ye” as an article. This misconception shows up in signage of the “Ye Olde Gift Shoppe” variety, an attempt at quaintness that we wrote about in 2009 and again in 2016.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

When ‘pomp’ met ‘circumstance’

Q: An article about the ceremonies following Queen Elizabeth’s death referred to the “pomp and circumstance” involved. “Pomp” I get, but what’s with “circumstance”? It doesn’t have the usual meaning (fact, condition, event).

A: An archaic meaning of “circumstance” refers to a ceremony or public display at an important event, a usage that survives in the phrase “pomp and circumstance.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines that sense of “circumstance” as “the ‘ado’ made about anything; formality, ceremony, about any important event or action.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the “The Knight’s Tale,” the first of The Canterbury Tales (1386) of Chaucer: “His sacrifice he dide and that anon fful pitously with alle circumstance.”

The OED says the expression “pomp and circumstance” echoes Othello’s farewell to “Pride, pompe, and circumstance of glorious warre” (from Shakespeare’s Othello, written in the early 1600s and first published in 1623).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the exact wording “pomp and circumstance” is from The Bashful Lover, a play by Philip Massinger written sometime before 1640: “The Minion of his Prince and Court, set off / With all the pomp and circumstance of greatness.”

The dictionary adds that “the prevalence of the particular form pomp and circumstance is probably due to the popular military marches composed (from 1901) by Edward Elgar with this subtitle.”

As for the earlier etymology, the noun “circumstance” ultimately comes from the Classical Latin circumstantia (standing around, surrounding condition). The Latin term is the present participle of circumstare (to stand around), which combines circum (around) and stare (to stand).

When the word showed up in Middle English, it was used in the plural to mean the surroundings or conditions in which an action takes place. The earliest Oxford example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:

“Abute sunne liggeð six þinges. þet hit hulieð. o latin circumstances. on englis totagges muȝe beon icleoped. Persone. stude. time. Manere. tale. cause” (“About sin there lie six things that conceal it: person, place, time, manner, telling, cause—in Latin circumstances, in English, they may be called trappings that obscure”).

Many other senses have appeared over the years, including “circumstances” that make an act more or less criminal (1580), an incident or “circumstance” in a narrative (1592), living in easy or reduced “circumstances” (before 1704), and something that’s a mere “circumstance” (1838).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

On ‘thrice’ and ‘trice’

Q: Are “thrice” and “trice” related? If so, “in a trice” might be construed as “in triple time.”

A: No, they’re not related. “Thrice” is an old way of saying three times, while the phrase “in a trice” means in a moment or very quickly.

Although both usages are found in standard dictionaries, “thrice” is often labeled “old-fashioned,” “dated,” “mainly archaic,” and so on.

 When “thrice” appeared in Middle English (spelled “þriȝes,” “þriȝess,” etc.), it was an adverb meaning “three times (in succession); on three successive occasions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The runic letter “þ” (a thorn) at the beginning sounded like “th,” and the runic “ȝ” (a yogh) in the middle sounded like “y.”

The OED says “þriȝes” is ultimately derived from þri or thrie, Old English for three, and its prehistoric ancestors, the Proto-Germanic þrijiz and the Proto-Indo-European treies.

The dictionary’s earliest “thrice” example, which we’ve expanded, is from the Ormulum (circa 1175), a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk identified as Orm in one part of the manuscript and Ormin in another:

“& ure Laferrd Jesu Crist / Badd hise bedess þriȝess” (“and as the Lord Jesus Christ bade, they prayed thrice”).

As for the “trice” of “in a trice,” it apparently began life in the late 14th century as a verb meaning “to pull; to pluck, snatch, draw with a sudden action.” The OED says Middle English adopted the verb from the Middle Dutch trîsen (to hoist).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb is from “The Monk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386): “By god, out of his sete I wol hym trice” (By God, out of his throne I will snatch him [Nero]”).

In the 15th century, “trice” came to mean a pull or a tug in the expression “at a trice,” meaning “at a single pluck or pull; hence, in an instant; instantly, forthwith; without delay.” Oxford says “trice” here is apparently a noun formed from the verb.

Although “at a trice” is now obsolete, the usual version of the expression, “in a trice,” evolved from it in the 17th century. The first OED citation is from a book about Queen Elizabeth I:

“True it is, he [Sir Walter Raleigh] had gotten the Queenes eare in a trice” (Fragmenta Regalia, or, Observations on the Late Queen Elizabeth, Her Times and Favorits, 1641, by Sir Robert Naunton).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check outour books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Getting down to the bone

Q: In Joe Biden’s first visit to the Mideast as president, he said the connection between the Israeli and American people was “bone-deep.” Is that another Scrantonism?

A: No, “bone-deep” is not a Scrantonism from President Biden’s early childhood in Pennsylvania. Nor is it an American regionalism. Although the term was first recorded in New England, it has appeared in writing in the US and the UK since the 19th century.

Interestingly, two similar expressions are much older, “to the bone,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, and “skin-deep,” which showed up in England in the early 17th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bone-deep” literally as “to a depth that reaches or exposes a bone” and figuratively as “to the core” or “very deeply.”

When the term first appeared, it was an adverb used figuratively. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a Jan. 28, 1839, letter by H. W. Green, a former editor of The Eastern Argus in Portland, ME, to Francis O. J. Smith, a congressman from Maine.

In response to a letter from Smith to another Maine newspaper, The Frankfort Intelligencer, Green says he’s “branding bone-deep upon your forehead, if the records of infamy already written there have left space sufficient, a word which I would never use in controversy with a gentleman—the word LIAR!”

The dictionary’s next adverbial citation, another figurative use, is from “Modern Logicians,” an 1861 article by Sir William Hamilton in The British Controversialist and Literary Magazine, London:

“The trenchant weapon of the consummate analyst is pointed to the flaw in the mailed armour of his opponents, and he cuts bone-deep into the seemingly secure harness.”

The OED’s first example for “bone-deep” used adjectivally is figurative too. We’ve expanded the citation to give it context:

“We who were in and of the army could feel an instant and bone-deep change in the men around us when it became known that Field-Marshall Lord Roberts was coming out to take command” (The Times of India, June 12, 1900).

The OED says “bone-deep” is “frequently figurative and in figurative contexts.” Most of the dictionary’s examples are figurative.

The earliest literal usage cited is from The Illinois Medical Journal, August 1904: “A bone-deep incision is carried from the femoral vein along the pubic ramus to the origin of the pubic spine.”

As for “to the bone,” the OED defines the expression this way: “right through the flesh so as to reach the bone. Frequently hyperbolical, or in figurative contexts.”

The first Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English letter by Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham that includes what it describes as the torture of the Apostle John by the Roman Emperor Domitian:

“Domicianus hatte se deoflica casere, þe æfter Nerone þa reðan ehtnyssa besette on þam cristenum, & hi acwealde mid witum. Se het genyman þone halgan apostol & on weallendum ele he het hine baðian, for ðan þe se hata ele gæð in to ðam bane.” (“Domitian, the most devilish emperor after Nero, cruelly persecuted the Christians and reigned over them with torments. He commanded this holy Apostle to be taken & bathed with boiling oil, for hot oil pierces to the bone.”) From Ælfric’s Letter to Sigeweard, written in the late 10th or early 11th century.

The earliest figurative use of the expression in the OED is from The Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice written in verse around 1250: “Betere is þe holde loverd þen þe newe, þat þe wole frete and gnawe / To þe bare bone” (“Better is the old lover than the new, who will devour and gnaw to the bone”).

Finally the dictionary defines “skin-deep” as “penetrating no deeper than the skin; on the surface only; superficial, shallow.” When the term first appeared in the early 17th century, it was an adjective used proverbially to indicate the limits of beauty.

The earliest OED citation is from “A Wife,” a poem by Thomas Overbury describing the qualities a young man should look for in a wife: “All the carnall Beautie of my wife, / Is but skinne-deepe.” The poem was published in 1614, a year after the author’s death.

The dictionary’s first literal example describes a schoolchild’s injuries in playground brawls: “His wounds are seldome aboue skin deepe” (from New & Choise Characters With Wife, a collection of sketches by Overbury and others that were published in 1615 along with his poem).

We’ll end with a historical note: Overbury, who was a secretary, close adviser, and friend to Robert Carr, a favorite of King  James I, wrote the poem in an attempt to persuade Carr not to marry Frances Howard, the estranged wife of the Earl of Essex.

She and her family, led by the Duke of Norfolk, are said to have plotted against Overbury, resulting in his imprisonment in the Tower of London, where he died on Sept. 14, 1613. The Essex marriage was annulled 11 days later, and she married Carr, then Earl of Somerset, two months after that.

In 1615, a Yorkshire apothecary’s assistant confessed on his deathbed that Frances Howard had paid him £20 for poison to murder Overbury in prison. She, her husband, and four others were eventually convicted of the murder. The King pardoned the couple; the four others were executed.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

As to ‘as to’

Q: Would you tackle the ubiquitous use of “as to” as the go-to substitute for “about”? I’ve noticed it among the students in my college writing class who are trying to sound “professional” (the current word for “formal” in the lingo of pre-professionals).

A: The phase “as to” has been used since the 14th century by many admired writers—including Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Henry James—to mean with respect to, concerning, or about.

We see nothing wrong with the usage and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which says “it is a common compound preposition in wide use at every level of formality.”

The earliest citation for the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Ayenbite of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), a 1340 Middle English translation by the Benedictine monk Dom Michelis of Northgate of a Middle French treatise on morality:

“Þe ilke þet hateþ his broþer, he is manslaȝþe ase to his wylle and zeneȝeþ dyadliche” (“he that hateth his brother, he is a man-slayer as to his will, and sinneth deadly”). We’ve expanded the citation, which is from a translation of La Somme le Roi (“A Survey for a King,” circa 1395), written for the children of Philip III by the Dominican Friar Laurent d’Orléans, the king’s confessor and his children’s tutor.

The usage is ultimately derived from the Old English eall swa (“all so”), an intensification of “so” and an ancestor through “progressive phonetic reduction” of the Modern English “as,” “so,” “also,” “as for,” and “as to,” according to the OED.

As far as we can tell, nobody was troubled by the usage until the early 20th century, when H. W. Fowler complained in The King’s English (1907) about the use of compound prepositions and conjunctions, notably “the absurd prevailing abuse of the compound preposition as to.”

Fowler was especially troubled by the use of “as to” before the conjunction “whether,” arguing that “if as to is simply left out, no difference whatever is made in the meaning.”

But in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Fowler acknowledged that the phrase “has a legitimate use—to bring into prominence at the beginning of a sentence something that without it would have to stand later (As to Smith, it is impossible to guess what line he will take).”

Other usage writers have criticized “as to” as legalese and wordy as well as redundant before conjunctions like “how,” “why” and “whether.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Usage notes that the phrase is not legalese and is less wordy than some proposed alternatives, like “concerning” and “regarding.” In fact, M-W says, “If we replace it with about, we have five letters, no space, two syllables. How much have we gained? Nothing.”

Yes, “as to” is often unnecessary, but we’re among the many writers who use it. We feel a phrase like “as to whether” may sometimes be less abrupt or more clear than “whether” itself. Here are a couple of Merriam-Webster examples that we’ve expanded:

“My uncertainty as to whether I can so manage as to go personally prevents me from being more explicit” (from an April 7, 1823, letter by Lord Byron).

“There ensued a long conversation as they waited as to whether waiters made more in actual wages than in tips” (from “May Day,” a short story in Tales of the Jazz Age, 1922, by F. Scott Fitzgerald).

And here are a few of the many M-W citations (some of them expanded) for “as to” used in other ways:

“As to the old one, I knew not what to do with him, he was so fierce” (Robinson Crusoe, 1719, by Daniel Defoe).

“Fanny had by no means forgotten Mr. Crawford when she awoke the next morning; but she remembered the purport of her note, and was not less sanguine as to its effect than she had been the night before” (Mansfield Park, 1814, by Jane Austen).

“And so you don’t agree with my view as to said photographer?” (from an April 1, 1877, letter by Lewis Carroll).

“There still remained my relation with the reader, which was another affair altogether and as to which I felt no one to be trusted but myself” (The Art of the Novel, 1934, by Henry James. From a collection of prefaces originally written for a 1909 multivolume edition of James’s fiction).

“When women were first elected to Congress, the question as to how they should be referred to in debate engaged the leaders of the House of Representatives” (The American Language, 4th ed., 1949, by H. L. Mencken).

As Merriam-Webster explains, “As to is found chiefly in four constructions: as an introducer (the use approved by Fowler and his followers) and to link a noun, an adjective, or a verb with following matter.”

The usage guide cites these four examples from conversations of the 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson (cited in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, 1791):

“He would begin thus: ‘Why, Sir, as to the good or evil of card-playing—’ ‘Now, (said Garrick,) he is thinking which side he shall take.’ ” Johnson is speaking here with the actor David Garrick.

“Sir, there is no doubt as to peculiarities.”

“For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.”

“We are all agreed as to our own liberty.”

In the opinion of the M-W editors, “All of the constructions used by Dr. Johnson are still current. You can use any of them when they sound right to you.”

We agree, though some other usage guides have various objections. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), for example, says “as to is an all-purpose preposition to be avoided whenever a more specific preposition will do.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Can you break a phrasal verb up?

Q: I often encounter a construction like this: “Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed through Congress a law overturning the 1820 Missouri Compromise.” Is “pushed a law through Congress” incorrect? It seems crisper, less contorted.

A: Some writers, probably influenced by the old “split infinitive” myth, are reluctant to break up a phrasal verb like “push through,” and this sometimes leads to contorted sentences.

However, we don’t think that’s the issue here. Our guess is that the writer of the passage (“Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed through Congress a law overturning the 1820 Missouri Compromise”) simply wanted to keep the noun “law” close to its description.

We agree with you that “pushed a law through Congress” is usually more straightforward than “pushed through Congress a law,” but we think the passage is more effective as written.

A phrasal verb, as you know, is made up of a verb and one or more other words, typically adverbs or prepositions: “break up,” “carry out,” “shut down,” “find out,” “give up,” “put off,” “try on,” etc.

There’s nothing wrong with breaking up a phrasal verb as long as it still makes sense: you can “shut down a computer” or “shut a computer down.” It’s a question of style, not grammar.

The phrasal verb “push through,” meaning to carry out something to its conclusion, showed up in late 19th-century writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, breaks up the phrase:

“If it is not pressing, neither party, having other and nearer aims, cares to take it up and push it through” (from The American Commonwealth, 1888, by the British historian and statesman James Bryce).

Finally, we’ve written several times on our website about the so-called “split infinitive,” a misleading phrase, since “to” isn’t part of the infinitive  and nothing is being split.

As we note in a 2013 post, when “to” appears with an infinitive, it’s generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle.” When an infinitive appears without “to,” it’s described as a bare, simple, or plain infinitive.

On the Language Myths page of our website, we note that writers have been putting words between the infinitive and its particle since the 1300s. It was perfectly acceptable until the mid-19th century, when Latin scholars—notably Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English—objected to the usage.

Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians’ slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can’t divide an infinitive. The so-called rule was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check outour books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

There, there, don’t cry

Q: I teach EFL and was asked about the origin of using “there, there” to comfort someone. I was unable to find this online. Not one single iota as to where it came from. Can you help?

A: The word “there” has gone in many different directions since it first appeared in Anglo-Saxon days as þara, an adverb indicating location or position, as in this example from a medieval English version of a 5th-century Latin chronicle:

“swiðe earfoðhawe, ac hit is Þeah Þara” (“very hard to perceive, yet it is still there”). From the Old English Orosius, a late 9th- or early 10th-century translation of Paulus Orosius’s Historiarum Adversum Pagano Libri VII (“Seven Books of History Against the Pagans”).

We’ll skip ahead now to the 16th century, when the adverb “there” started being used in multiples as an interjection to express vexation, dismay, derision, satisfaction, encouragement, and so on.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “there, there” to express satisfaction: “They gape vpon me with their mouthes, sayenge: there, there; we se it with oure eyes” (from the Coverdale Bible of 1535, Psalms 35:21; the King James Version of 1611 has “Aha, aha” instead of “there, there”).

The next OED example uses “there” four times to express dismay: “Why there, there, there, there, a diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats” (from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, believed written in the late 1590s).

The earliest example we’ve found for the adverb used to comfort someone is from the early 19th century: “There, there, my dear fellow—nay, don’t cry—it will be all well with you yet” (“Incident at Navarino,” The London Saturday Journal, Oct. 19, 1839).

Oxford’s first citation for the comforting usage appeared several decades later: “ ‘There, there,’ my poor father answered, ‘it is not that’ ” (from Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual of 1872).

The dictionary’s next use, which we’ve expanded, is from Damon Runyon’s short story “Butch Minds the Baby” (1938): “He lays down his tools and picks up John Ignatius Junior and starts whispering, ‘There, there, there, my itty oddleums. Da-dad is here.’ ”

The most recent OED citation for the usage has “there-there” as a verb meaning to soothe or comfort: “Joyce took the baby … and lovingly there-thered his raucous cries” (from The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, a 1977 crime novel by Colin Dexter).

It’s possible that the comforting sense of “there, there” may have originated in its use with children, though we haven’t found any evidence to support this. Parents use many fully or partly reduplicative expressions in talking to young children: “choo-choo,” “dada,” “itty-bitty,” “mama,” “pee-pee,” “teeny-weeny,” “tum-tum,” “wee-wee,” and so on.

Although “there, there” and the similar expressions “there now” and “now, now” are often used in a comforting way, all three can also be used to express disapproval: “There, there, stop that” … “Now, now, that’s enough” … “There now, watch your language.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Weak in the knees

Q: Can you write about the expression “weak in the knees”? I know it has to do metaphorically with fear or apprehension, but as someone who suffers from literal weak knees I’d like to know more about it.

A: The image of weak or unsteady knees as a metaphor for vacillation—being indecisive or afraid, lacking faith, not standing firm—came into English from biblical writings. It can be found in ancient Hebrew and Greek versions of the Bible and in later Latin translations.

The imagery was preserved in early English translations of the Bible, where the knees of people lacking spiritual stamina were first described as “trembling” and “feeble” (1300s) and later as “weak” (1500s).

And in wider, secular use, irresolute or faint-hearted people went from having “weak knees” to being “weak in [or at] the knees” (1700s) or “weak-kneed” (1800s).

Here’s a closer look at the history.

As we mentioned, the metaphoric equivalent of “weak knees” was known in biblical Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The noun “knee” in Hebrew is ברך (berek), in Greek γόνατο (gonato), and in Latin genu. The adjectives used in the metaphor can be translated as feeble, weak, trembling, unable to move, and so on.

In Hebrew, various Old Testament figures who are struck with terror or who are unsteady in their faith are said to have weak or feeble knees, as in ברכים כרעות (birkayim karaot,  Job 4:4) and ברכים כשלות (birkayim kashalot, Isaiah 35:3).

This imagery was passed along in Greek translations of the Old Testament and of the New Testament as well.

For example, in Hebrews 12:12 in the New Testament, where the people are admonished to bear up and keep their faith, the Greek phrase used in describing their vacillation is παρaλυτα γόνατα (paralya gonata), literally “paralyzed knees.” Biblical scholars say the Greek verb παραλύειν (paralyein, paralyze) is used idiomatically here, so that to “lift up one’s paralyzed knees” means to gain courage, be unafraid, stand firm.

Biblical translations in Latin used similar imagery to express fear or faithlessness; genua trementia confortasti (strengthen trembling knees) in Job 4:4; genua debilia roborate (strengthen feeble knees) in Isaiah 35:3; soluta genua erigite (lift up weak knees) in Hebrews 12:12; omnia genua ibunt aquae (all knees will be weak as water) in Ezekiel 7:17.

By the way, the image of weak or trembling knees as a metaphor for fear was known earlier in Greek mythology and in Latin lyric poetry. It can be found, for example, in the Greek legend of Tiresias, whose knees shake in terror before the king, and in the Odes of Horace, where Chloe’s knees tremble in fear.

But we won’t dwell on the earlier literary sources, since the metaphor found its way into English via the Bible.

The earliest English version, the Wycliffe Bible, was made in Middle English in 1382 from late fourth-century Latin versions. And in rendering that metaphor, it has “knees tremblynge” (Job 4:4), “feble knees” (Isaiah 35:3), and “knees shall tremble” (Ezekiel 7:17).

As far as we know, the earliest example of the exact phrase “weak knees” used figuratively is in a translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale, published in 1534. Here’s Tyndale’s rendering of Hebrews 12:12, made from Greek and Hebrew texts: “Stretch forthe therfore agayne the hondes [hands] which were let doune & the weake knees.”

Tyndales’s work was completed and greatly enlarged by Miles Coverdale, whose 1535 translation from Greek and Hebrew was the first English version with both Old and New Testaments. Here’s how Coverdale rendered that passage: “Life [lift] vp therfore the handes which were let downe, and the weake knees.”

This image became a familiar theme of sermons and commentaries from the later 16th century onwards. For instance, John Calvin evoked it in a sermon delivered in January 1556: “It is the ministers charge to strengthen the weake knees.”

The figurative use of “weak knees” as a religious device became more or less official when the Anglican priest and scholar Thomas Wilson included it his popular book A Christian Dictionarie (1612), his attempt to define English words as used in the Old and New Testaments. Wilson defined “weak knees” as meaning “feeble, remisse, and slothfull mindes” (citing Hebrews 12:12).

Wilson’s dictionary went through many editions. A 1661 printing, edited after his death, added the literal condition of “weak knees” and also expanded the figurative meanings to include “dejected in courage, and faint-hearted,” “fearful and dejected in minde,” and “sluggish in the way of godliness” (citing Job 4:4, Isaiah 35:3, and Hebrews 12:12).

By the mid-1600s, “weak knees” was in secular use as well, meaning not only fearful and irresolute but disloyal. The earliest example we’ve found is in John Ford’s play The Chronicle Historie of Perkin Warbeck (1634), about a foiled plot to overthrow King Henry VII.

Here Sir Robert Clifford, a leader of the plot, has decided to plead for his life in return for betraying his co-conspirators:  “Let my weake knees rot on the earth, / If I appeare as leap’rous in my treacheries, / Before your royall eyes; as to mine owne / I seeme a Monster, by my breach of truth.”

The longer phrase “weak in the knees” didn’t appear in writing until the late 18th century, as far as we can tell. The earliest example we’ve found is in a work of astrology, where it’s listed among character faults attributed to people born under the sign of Capricorn:

“weak in the knees, not active or ingenious, subject to debauchery and scandalous actions; of low esteem, &c. amongst his associates.” (From Astronomy and Elementary Philosophy, Ebenezer Sibly’s 1789 translation of a Latin work written in 1650 by the Italian scholar Placidus de Titis.)

The variant phrase “weak at the knees” followed a half-century later. The oldest use we’ve found is from an anonymous collection of Irish verse: “What an ease to the minds of the mighty J.P.s, / Who felt chill at their hearts and grew weak at the knees” (The Lays of Erin, 1844).

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entries for “weak knees” or “weak in [or at] the knees.” But it does have an entry for the adjective “weak-kneed,” which it defines as “having weak knees,” and says is a “chiefly figurative” expression meaning “wanting in resolution or determination.”

We found this example in a Missouri newspaper: “So come out, you weak-kneed false-tongued slanderer of the Whig press of Missouri.” (From the Hannibal Journal, May 12, 1853, quoting a dispatch in the St. Louis News.)

The OED’s earliest example appeared a decade later: “But we must forego these comforts and conveniences, because our legislators are too weak-kneed to enact a tax law.” (From the Rio Abajo Press, Albuquerque, Feb. 24, 1863.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Bomb cyclone: A blast from the past

Q: Is “bomb cyclone” a new term? I don’t remember seeing it in the past. Who decides when a new weather term will be used?

A: No, “bomb cyclone” isn’t new. Since 1980, scientists have used “bomb” as a meteorological term for a large, rapidly growing cyclone storm system. The related terms “bomb cyclone” and “weather bomb” emerged in the mid-1980s, but only recently made their way into popular journalism.

Two MIT scientists, Frederick Sanders and John R. Gyakum, gave these intense and rapidly growing cyclone storms the name “bomb.”

In their paper “Synoptic-Dynamic Climatology of the ‘Bomb,’ ” Sanders and Gyakum define a “bomb” as a cyclone storm in which the barometric pressure at the center falls by at least 1 millibar per hour for 24 hours—a very steep and sudden drop.

The authors also described the “bomb” as a “predominantly maritime, cold-season event,” and said the “more explosive bombs” develop over the Atlantic (Monthly Weather Review, October 1980).

A phrase meaning the same thing, “weather bomb,” appeared in 1986, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines it as as a rapidly developing severe storm “in which barometric pressure at the centre of the storm drops by at least 24 millibars over a 24-hour period at or north of 60˚ latitude.”

Here’s the OED’s earliest example: “In this positive feedback process, the storm rapidly intensifies into a weather bomb” (Science News, May 17, 1986).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “bomb cyclone” is from a 1987 scientific paper that uses the phrase “bomb cyclone case study” in reference to a 1984 paper by Gyakum. (“Rapid Surface Anticyclogenesis: Synoptic Climatology and Attendant Large-Scale Circulation Changes,” by Stephen J. Colluci and J. Clay Davenport, Monthly Weather Review, April 1987).

It should be noted here that the terms “bomb” and “Nor’easter” are not interchangeable. Not all Nor’easters become “bombs,” and not all “bombs” are Nor’easters, though the two weather patterns sometimes converge. A “bomb” is not a hurricane either, though in their 1980 paper Sanders and Gyakum said that “bombs” often have “hurricane-like features in the wind and cloud fields.”

In an interview Gyakum, who is now a professor of atmospheric science at McGill University, explained why “bomb” was used in the 1980 paper:

“I was a graduate student at the time [at MIT], and my adviser, who was the lead author, Frederick Sanders, actually coined the term. He had quite a bit of experience making forecasts for cyclones in the North Atlantic that were developing very rapidly. Oftentimes, we’d even say explosively. Given their explosive development, it was an easy path to take to just call these systems ‘bombs.’  … The name isn’t an exaggeration—these storms develop explosively and quickly” (The Washington Post, Jan. 24, 2018).

But even before large intense cyclone systems were called “bombs,” scientists had been using terms likening them to explosions.

For example, “cyclogenesis” (dating from the early 1920s) means the formation of a cyclone storm around a low-pressure area. And “explosive cyclogenesis” (early ’50s) refers to the kind in which pressure drops so steeply and rapidly—24 millibars in 24 hours, by definition—that the storm becomes what’s now called a “bomb.”

Even the term “bombogenesis,” another name for “explosive cyclogenesis,” was known to science in the late ’80s but didn’t show up in popular journalism until around 2015.

Here are Oxford’s earliest examples of the three terms—“cyclogenesis,” “explosive cyclogenesis,” and “bombogenesis”:

“Let us emphasize that any discussion of the so-called wave-theory of cyclogenesis will remain futile as long as the mathematical treatment of the subject is as incomplete as at present” (from the Swedish journal Geografiska Annaler [Geographical Annals], 1925).

“Wintertime conditions when the primary planetary wave activity is often initiated by explosive cyclogenesis in the troughs” (Meteorological Monographs, 1953).

“Climatology shows that a high frequency of ‘bombogenesis’ occurs over the ocean.” (From “Anatomy of a ‘Bomb’: Diagnostic Investigation of Explosive Cyclogenesis Over the Mid-West United States,” a master’s thesis by Michael E. Adams, North Carolina State University, 1989.)

Finally, “cyclone” came into English in the mid-19th century from the Greek words κύκλος (kyklos, circle) or κυκλῶν (kykloun, moving in a circle, whirling around), the OED says. It’s been used in three ways in English, the dictionary explains:

As first used, in 1848, “cyclone” was “a general term for all storms or atmospheric disturbances in which the wind has a circular or whirling course.”

Beginning in 1856 “cyclone” was also used in a more specific sense, for “a hurricane or tornado of limited diameter and destructive violence.”

The term as used in science today was first recorded in 1875, the OED says. The National Weather service, in its glossary, defines “cyclone” this way: “A large-scale circulation of winds around a central region of low atmospheric pressure, counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.”

We wrote a 2018 post about the etymology of “bomb,” so we won’t repeat ourselves. We’ll just add its meteorological definition, courtesy of the National Weather Service: “Popular expression of a rapid intensification of a cyclone (low pressure) with surface pressure expected to fall by at least 24 millibars in 24 hour.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.