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

Cue up or queue up a video?

Q: When you’re readying a video for viewing, do you cue it up or queue it up?

A: Although both “cue up” and “queue up” appear in the mainstream media in the sense of to prepare an audio or video recording to play, the language authorities who’ve commented on the issue prefer the phrasal verb “cue up.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “To cue up a videotape, an audio tape, a compact disc, or a DVD is to have it ready for playing at a particular point.” Garner includes these two examples from the news media:

  • “His brother cued up the tape, the rousing theme song from ‘Rocky’ ” (Hartford Courant, Sept. 17, 1996).
  • “You can bet your remote control clicker that every network has already cued up video of the glowering Dole, eyes flitting, hanging that warmonger tag on an astonished Mondale” (Boston Globe, Oct. 4, 1996).

As we’ll show later, this use of “cue up” is at least as old as the 1970s. Of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult, four of them include this sense of “cue up,” while none mention a similar use of “queue up.”

American Heritage says one meaning of the verb “cue” is “to position (an audio or video recording) in readiness for playing.” It gives this example: “cue up a record on the turntable.”

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, says “cue” can mean to “set a piece of audio or video equipment in readiness to play (a particular part of the recorded material).” The dictionary has this example: “there was a pause while she cued up the next tape.”

Longman describes “cue something up” as a phrasal verb meaning “to make a record, CD, DVD etc be exactly in the position you want it to be in, so that you can play something immediately when you are ready.” Example: “The DVD player’s cued up and ready to go!” And Webster’s New World defines “cue” as “to ready (a recording) to play back from a certain point: often with up.”

But, as we said above, both spellings are seen in the media, as in these examples:

  • “It’s why he could cue up the video and manage an uncomfortable smile” (from an article in the July 14, 2020, issue of Newsday on the Yankee pitcher Masahiro Tanaka’s recovery after getting hit in the head by a line drive).
  • “First, queue up the video you want to play and start a Zoom meeting” (from “How to Host a Virtual Watch Party,” Wired, July 4, 2020).

In a recent search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares terms in digitized books, “cue up the video” appeared, but not “queue up the video.” And in searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of terms from online newspapers and magazines, “cue up the video” edged out “queue up the video,” though the results for both were scanty.

In contemporary English, the verb “cue” has several meanings: (1) to use a cue in pool, billiards, or snooker; (2) to prompt someone or something; (3) to insert (usually “cue in”) something in a performance; (4) to prepare (usually “cue up”) a recording to play.

The word “queue” also has several senses today. The verb can mean to arrange or form a queue (a waiting line), and to line up or wait in such a line, a usage that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as chiefly British.

In the computer sense, the OED says, the noun “queue” means “a list of data items, commands, etc. stored so as to be retrievable in a definite order, usually the order of insertion,” and the verb means “to place (data, tasks, etc.) in a queue.”

One could argue, of course, that to prepare a recording to play at a specific time is similar to putting it in a waiting line or a queue of data, which may account for why both “cue up” and “queue up” appear in this sense in some edited publications. For now, though, “cue up” seems to be the preferred usage.

(We wrote a post in 2014 on the use of “queue” in the UK and “line” in the US to mean a line of people. As it turns out, the British once used “line” for what they now call a “queue.”)

As for the etymology, the use of the verb “queue” to mean line up is derived from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French term for a tail (spelled variously keu, kue, que, queue, and so on). In Old French, an animal’s tail was a cue.

When the noun showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant a tail-like band of parchment used to seal a letter. The earliest example in the OED refers to a “dowbylle queue” (a forked or double tail). It’s from “Gregory’s Chronicle” (circa 1475), published in The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (1876), edited by James Gairdner.

The next OED citation refers to a forked tail in heraldry: “Gold ramping Lion queue doth forked hold” (from The True Vse of Armorie Shewed by Historie, and Plainly Proued by Example, 1592, by William Wyrley).

In the early 18th century, the noun “queue” came to mean “a long plait of hair worn hanging down at the back, from the head or from a wig; a pigtail,” according to the dictionary. The earliest known use is from a newspaper advertisement for “All Sorts of Perukes” (wigs) including “Qu-Perukes and Bagg-Wiggs” (Dublin Gazette, Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 1724).

The next Oxford citation has the usual spelling: “The largeness of the doctor’s wig arises from the same pride with the smallness of the beau’s queue” (An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774, by Oliver Goldsmith).

By the early 19th century, the noun was being used to mean a lineup: “That talent … of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes … the French People” (The French Revolution: A History, 1837, by Thomas Carlyle).

When the verb “queue” appeared in the 18th century, it meant to tie up the hair in a pigtail, a usage that the OED describes as obsolete or rare now.

In the early 20th century, the verb took on its modern sense of to form a line or wait in a line. The dictionary’s first example is from the Oct. 7, 1920, issue of the Times (London): “Taxi-Cabs queued up for their supplies of ‘Shell.’ ”

A half-century later, the verb was being used in its computer sense: “checking for transmission errors, and storing and queuing the messages received” (from Interactive Computing in BASIC, 1973, by P. C. Sanderson).

The OED doesn’t have any examples of “queue” used in the sense of preparing an audio or video recording to play. The earliest use we’ve found of the verb spelled this way is from 86’d, a 2009 novel by the American writer Dan Fante: “The rap disc I chose was by a singer named Sam’yall K. I’d never heard of the guy but I queued the disc up and pressed play on low to test my selection.”

As for “cue,” the sense you’re asking about is derived from the word’s use as a noun to mean a theatrical prompt. Originally, according to Oxford, it referred to “the concluding word or words of a speech in a play, serving as a signal or direction to another actor to enter, or begin his speech.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the mid-16th century (note how the word is spelled): “Amen must be answered to the thanksgevyng not as to a mans q in a playe.” (From a 1553 reference, published in Ecclesiastical Memorials, 1721, by the English historian and biographer John Strype.)

The OED says the source of this sense of the noun “cue” is uncertain, but there’s no evidence that it comes from “queue.” A more likely explanation is that it’s derived from the use of “Q,” “q,” and “qu” in the 16th and 17th centuries “to mark in actors’ copies of plays, the points at which they were to begin.” The term is said to be short for the Latin qualis (what) or quando (when).

However, the verb “cue” had nothing to do with prompts when it first appeared in English in the 18th century. It originally meant to twist hair into a pigtail, a usage that did indeed come from “queue.”

The OED cites this passage from an Aug. 20, 1774, entry in the journals of Capt. James Cook about the hair of indigenous people on a Pacific island: “They separate it [their hair] into small locks and wold [wind] or cue them round with the rind of a slender plant.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the verb “cue” took on the sense of to prompt. The first OED example is from the February 1928 issue of Melody Maker, a British music magazine: “The 1st alto had melody cued-in.”

The dictionary’s next citation is a definition from a glossary of early radio terms: “Cue someone, to give a signal indicating ‘proceed with the pre-arranged routine.’ ” (From “Radio Dictionary,” by Leonard Lewis, published first in the April 1937 issue of Printer’s Ink Monthly and later as a booklet.)

As of now, the OED doesn’t have an entry for “cue” or “cue up” used to mean prepare an audio or video recording to play. However, the usage appears in a 1975 citation for the noun “VJ,” someone who introduces and plays music videos: “VJs, or video jockeys, at MTV’s studio cue up as many as 13 videos an hour” (from American Way magazine, June 1983).

We’ve found several earlier examples, including this one from a short story in the November 1974 issue of Boys’ Life: “Pushing aside some debris, he cued up the record, carefully lowered the needle, made a little bow, and stepped back” (“The $20 Guitar,” by A. R. Swinnerton).

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Are you teed off?

Q: I assume that when you’re “teed off” at someone, the usage comes from golf, but I can’t for the life of me see a connection. What’s the story?

A: Yes, the metaphorical use of “teed off” to mean angry or annoyed comes from golf. We’ve seen two theories as to how it got from there to here.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes it among figurative uses of “tee off” (literally, to hit a ball from the tee in golf), and labels the usage North American slang. The OED says the golfing metaphor probably originated as a “euphemistic alteration” of “peed off” used in the sense of “pissed off.”

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary says “teed off” in the sense of angry or annoyed probably comes from the informal verb phrase “tee off on,” which it defines as “to speak about (someone or something) in an angry way.”

In either case, our guess is that people thought whacking a golf ball from a tee was a pretty good figure of speech for being angry.

The figurative use of the verbal phrase “tee off on” showed up in the 1930s as sporting jargon meaning to attack. The first example we’ve found is from a California newspaper: “The Giants teed off on the Mississippi cat, Guy Bush, and his successor, Charlie Root, for six runs in the third inning” (San Bernardino Sun, July 19, 1934).

By the early 1940s, “tee off on” was being used in the sense of a political attack. We found this example in a Texas newspaper: “Attorney General Gerald Mann teed off on both O’Daniel and Johnson” (Borger Daily Herald, June 22, 1941). Mann was a candidate in a special election in which Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel narrowly defeated Rep. Lyndon Baines Johnson for a Senate seat.

The use of the adjectival phrase “teed off” to mean angry appeared a few months later in the diary of an American pilot who served with the Flying Tigers in Burma and China during World War II:

“Apparently the old man was still teed off about Ricketts’s landing yesterday, for no flying was scheduled today.” From a Nov. 19, 1941, entry in A Flying Tiger’s Diary (1984), by Charles R. Bond Jr. with Terry H. Anderson, a Texas A&M historian. (The pilot mentioned had damaged a plane when landing with the wheels only half down.)

The use of “tee” for the wood or plastic peg from which a ball is hit at the start of each hole in golf began life in Scottish English in the early 17th century. It was originally spelled “teaz” and referred to a small heap of earth or sand.

The earliest OED citation is from a Latin grammar book using sporting examples: “Statumen, the Teaz” (statumen is Latin for a support). From Vocabula cum Aliis Latinae Linguae Subsidiis, written sometime before 1646 by David Wedderburn, a schoolmaster at Aberdeen Grammar School.

The dictionary’s first example with the usual spelling, which we’ve expanded, is from an early 18th-century Scottish poem: “Driving their baws frae whins or tee / There’s no nae gowfer to be seen” (“Driving their balls from rough or tee, / There’s nary a golfer to be seen”). From “An Ode to Ph—” (1721), by Allan Ramsay.

The OED describes “tee” as “apparently a clipped form of teaz, used in 17th cent., the origin of which is not ascertained.” The dictionary compares the development of “tea” from “teaz” to that of “pea” from “pease,” a subject we discussed in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions:

The singular “piose” (from the Latin pisum) entered English in Anglo-Saxon days, eventually becoming “pease,” as in this 1580 quotation: “As like as one pease is to an other.” But people began mistaking “pease” for a plural, so a singular had to be invented. That’s how “pea” burst from its pod in the 1600s. The old “pease” lives on, however, in a nursery rhyme many of us remember from childhood:

Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old.

Split-pea soup is a relative of pease porridge (or pease pudding), a thicker dish made from dried peas, boiled and mashed. It’s often served in northeastern England and Newfoundland.

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On the status of status quo

Q: As a judge, I would like to know about the origins of “status quo” and statu quo, the former in English and the latter in French legal language.

A: “Status quo” and statu quo, English and French terms meaning “the present state of affairs,” are both believed to come from an expression in post-classical Latin, in statu quo.

In Latin, status and statu are different forms of the same noun. As a subject (in the nominative case), it’s status; as an object of a preposition (in the ablative case), it’s statu.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, status quo (Latin for the state in which) showed up in the fifth century in the writings of Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine), and was “probably extrapolated from in statu quo” (in the state in which).

Although “status quo” is the usual spelling of the phrase in English whether it’s a subject or an object, “statu quo” is sometimes seen in English writing in the expressions “in statu quo” and “in statu quo ante,” prepositional constructions that are generally used adverbially. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) defines both as “in the same state of affairs that existed earlier.”

The OED says a subject version of that last construction, “status quo ante” (the former state of affairs), was “perhaps formed within English, by clipping or shortening” the expression status quo ante bellum (modern Latin for the state of affairs before the war) or perhaps by extrapolation from the post-classical Latin in statu quo.

All of the dictionary’s early English examples for “status quo” and its relations italicize the expressions. In the OED’s first citation for “in statu quo,” from the early 17th century, it’s part of the expression “in statu quo prius” (in the same as the prior state of affairs):

“The seculars are but in statu quo prius, and cannot be in a worse then they are in at this present.” From Decacordon of Ten Quodlibeticall Questions (1602), a religious treatise by William Watson, an English Roman Catholic priest who was executed for treason in 1603. (A “decachord” is a 10-stringed musical instrument; “quodlibetical” means purely academic.)

The OED’s earliest English example for the phrase “status quo” is in a collection of British trial records from the late 14th to the early 18th century. The passage cited is from the 1678-85 impeachment proceedings against Thomas, Earl of Danby, for high treason:

“The Impeachments, Appeals, &c. and the Incidents … should stand in Statu Quo; so that (as is already observed) the Status Quo (as to him) he again said, was to put him into a State of Liberty.” From A Compleat Collection of State-Tryals and Proceedings Upon Impeachment for High Treason and other Crimes and Misdemeanours (1719). Danby was imprisoned in the Tower of London for five years.

The first Oxford citation for “status quo ante” is from an anonymous play printed at the beginning of the 19th century: “I know nothing I can do, but give security, on my estates in Andalusia, for, I fear, it is too late to expect the status quo ante.” From The Systematic or Imaginary Philosopher: A Comedy, in Five Acts (1800).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “status quo ante bellum” is from an 18th-century political tract by the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke about divisions among Whigs in Britain over the French Revolution:

“My Lord Grenville [William, Baron Grenville] truly described the relative state of the Contracting Parties, when he made the uti possidetis the basis of the Negotiation on the part of the French, whilst the British were obliged to submit to the status quo ante bellum.”

In Burke’s 1791 tract, An Appeal From the New to the Old Whigs, the Latin uti possidetis is short for uti possidetis, ita possideatis (as you possess, so may you possess), a principle in international law that territory held at the end of a war remains with the possessor, unless otherwise stipulated by treaty.

The OED cites several other modern Latin expressions that may have influenced the development of “status quo,” including in eum statum quo ante bellum fuerant (in the conditions that had existed before the war, 1625 or earlier) and quo ante bellum fuerant (which had been before the war, 1772 or earlier),

Finally, here are a couple of relatively rare humorous terms cited in the dictionary: “statu quo-ism” (“partiality for, or inclination to maintain, the existing state of affairs,” 1834) and “statu quo-ite” (“a person who favours the existing state of affairs; spec. one who believes that human society remains in more or less the same state throughout history, neither progressing nor deteriorating”).

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Can sex or gender be ‘assigned’?

Q: The terms “gender assignment” and “sex assignment” give me pause. The use of the verb “assign” and noun “assignment” in this sense strikes me as off-pitch. Assigning is what the Sorting Hat does in sending a Hogwarts student to one of the school’s four Houses. Is there an interesting story here?

A: The use of the terms “sex assignment” and “gender assignment” for designating the sex of a newborn child is relatively rare, though an etymological case could be made for this sense of “assignment.”

We’ve found only 42 examples of “sex assignment” and 100 of “gender assignment” in recent searches of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present.

None of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have entries for “gender assignment” and only one includes “sex assignment.” Dictionary.com, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines it as “the determination or assignment of a baby’s sex, based on the appearance of external reproductive organs, and, sometimes, chromosomal testing.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include either term, though it has examples dating back to the 14th century of the verb “assign” used to mean determine, designate, specify, classify, categorize, and so on. Here are a few examples:

“And til seynt Iames be souȝte þere, I shal assigne / That no man go to Galis” (“And till Saint James be sought there, I shall assign [specify] that no man go to Galicia” (Piers Plowman, 1377, by William Langland). We’ve expanded the OED citation.

“Folke whom I neyther assigne bi name, nor as yet knowe not who they be” (The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance, 1533, by Thomas More).

“Who all assign its Altitude to be but about 27 inches” (Experimental Philosophy, 1664, by Henry Power).

And here are a few examples from contemporary standard dictionaries:

“assigned the new species to an existing genus” (American Heritage).

“However, further investigations are needed before assigning these Mexican specimens to a new status” (Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online).

“Though assigned male at birth, she appears most comfortable and in her element wearing a skirt and high-heeled sandals when riding a big-wheel or playing with a tea set” (Merriam-Webster). The dictionary includes this among examples in which “assign” means to “fix or specify.”

The use of “sex assignment” or “gender assignment” for determining the sex of a newborn is relatively new. And the subject can be controversial, especially when the evidence is ambiguous, as in the earliest example we’ve found. This passage was published in the 1950s in a medical paper on intersexuality, having both male and female sexual organs or characteristics:

“Equally clearly the medical practitioner and the paediatrician need to be helped to form a correct opinion in the first place on the sex assignment and rearing of the intersexed infant.” From “Psychosexual Identification (Psychogender) in the Intersexed,” by Daniel Cappon, Calvin Ezrin, and Patrick Lynes, in the Canadian Psychiatric Journal, April 1959.

The first example we’ve seen for “gender assignment” uses the phrase in the linguistic sense—that is, in reference to languages that use gender to classify nouns, pronouns, and related words:

“Of course there may be dialect differences in the gender assignment of nouns” (from Plains Cree: A Grammatical Study, by the linguist H. Christoph Wolfart, published in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, November 1973).

And here’s the earliest example we’ve seen of “gender assignment” used in the sense you’re asking about: “Gender assignment is based on the existing anatomy and a full understanding of the pathologic and endocrinologic reasons for the ambiguity” (Practical Gynecology, 1994, by Allan J. Jacobs and ‎Michael J. Gast).

By the way, all but one of the standard dictionaries we consult have entries for “sex reassignment” or “gender reassignment,” commonly known as “sex change.” Some add the word “therapy” or “surgery” to the term.

The OED defines “gender reassignment” as “the process or an instance of a person adopting the physical characteristics of the opposite sex by means of medical procedures such as surgery or hormone treatment.”

The earliest Oxford example is from the late 1960s: “After gender reassignment surgery, some previously rejecting fathers become very affectionate” (“The Formation of Gender Identity,” by Natalie Shainess, Journal of Sex Research, May 1969).

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss words of the pandemic.

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Dead-on balls accurate

Q: My friend uses the phrase “dead-on balls accurate,” which I looked up because of its ridiculousness. I know it was in My Cousin Vinny. Do you guys have any idea when “balls” was added? Was it in the movie or sometime before that?

A: As far as we can tell, “dead-on balls accurate” showed up for the first time in My Cousin Vinny. In the 1992 comedy, Mona Lisa Vito (played by Marisa Tomei) uses the expression in an argument with Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) over whether she’s properly closed a dripping faucet. We’ll have more on the film later.

In fact the “balls”-free version, “dead-on accurate,” apparently appeared in print only 15 years before the movie, though “dead” had been used to mean utterly or absolutely since the 16th century and “dead-on” to mean quite certain or sure since the 19th.

Your friend isn’t the only person to use the longer version, which shows up every once in a while in various contexts. Here, for instance, is the headline of a Jan. 1, 2019, customer review on Amazon.com: “Dead on balls accurate! Excellent thermometer!”

The word “balls” in the expression is an intensifier, a word that adds emphasis, like “absolutely,” “extremely,” or “incredibly.” You can see this more clearly if we replace “balls” with a more common vulgar slang intensifier: “dead-on fucking accurate.”

As it turns out, the intensive use of “balls” is relatively rare. We couldn’t find it in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.  However, the collaborative Wiktionary defines “balls” used adverbially as “(slang) Very, Intensifier,” and has this example: “It is balls cold out there.”

None of our etymological or slang dictionaries have entries for the use of “balls” as an intensifier, but several include entries for the phrase “balls naked,” where “balls” is used intensively to mean completely.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for example, cites Somebody Up There Likes Me, a 1955 memoir by the middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano, written with Rowland Barber: “I’m on the scales, balls naked.”

And Random House notes a similar and much earlier usage in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), where “bollock,” a term for testicle that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, is used as an intensifier: “See them there stark bollock-naked.”

The earliest example for “balls naked” in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from Go-Boy! Memories of a Life Behind Bars, a 1978 prison memoir by Roger Caron: “The two rascals disappeared … emerging a moment later balls naked.”

Green’s has an earlier, expanded version of the expression from The Run for Home, a 1958 novel by Leland Frederick Cooley, who once wrote and produced The Perry Como Show: “I see this miserable shit, balls-ass naked, hanging by his hands from an overhead beam.”

When the noun “ball” first appeared in writing in the 12th century, spelled bal in early Middle English, it meant a hill or a spherical object in a game. This ball-playing example in the OED is from the Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Al þe wa of þis world is ieuenet to helle alre leaste pine, al nis bute bal plohe” (“all the woe of this world compared to the very least pain of hell is nothing but ball play”).

By the 13th century, “ball” was being used to mean a testicle. The first OED citation, which we’ll expand here, is from a plainspoken passage in The Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice written in verse around 1250:

“Þe maide þat ȝevit hirsilf alle / oþir to fre man, oþir to þralle / ar ringe be ſet an honde, / and pleiit with þe croke and wiþ þe balle, / and mekit gret þat erst was smalle, / Þe wedding got to sconde. / ʒeve þi cunte to cunnig, and crave affetir wedding, quod hending” (“the maid that giveth herself all / either to free man or thrall [serf] / ere ring be set on hand, / and playeth with the crook [penis] and with the ball, / and maketh great what once was small, / the wedding is a shame. / ‘give thy cunt with cunning / and crave after wedding,’ quoth Hending”).

In other words, a woman should wait for Mr. Right to say “I do.”

Getting back to the movie, Vinny isn’t Mr. Right and Lisa hasn’t waited, but she’s cunning about getting what she craves. Here’s a transcript of the scene in which Vinny and Lisa squabble over whether she’s properly turned off a dripping faucet:

Vinny: Is that a drip I hear?
Lisa: Yeah.
Vinny: Weren’t you the last one to use the bathroom?
Lisa: So?
Vinny: Well, did you use the faucet?
Lisa: Yeah.
Vinny: Why didn’t you turn it off?
Lisa: I did turn it off.
Vinny: Well, if you turned it off, why am I listening to it?
Lisa: Did it ever occur to you that it could be turned off and drip at the same time?
Vinny: No, because if you turned it off, it wouldn’t drip.
Lisa: Maybe it’s broken.
Vinny: Is that what you’re saying? It’s broken?
Lisa: Yeah, that’s it; it’s broken.
Vinny: You sure?
Lisa: I’m positive.
Vinny: Maybe you didn’t twist it hard enough.
Lisa: I twisted it just right.
Vinny: How can you be so sure?
Lisa: If you will look in the manual, you will see that this particular model faucet requires a range of 10 to 16 foot pounds of torque. I routinely twist the maximum allowable torquage.
Vinny: How can you be sure you used 16 foot pounds of torque?
Lisa: Because I used a Craftsman model 1019 Laboratory edition, signature series torque wrench. The kind used by Cal Tech high-energy physicists and NASA engineers.
Vinny: In that case, how can you be sure that’s accurate?
Lisa: Because a split second before the torque wrench was applied to the faucet handle, it had been calibrated by top members of the state and federal Departments of Weights and Measures, to be dead-on balls accurate. Here’s the certificate of validation. (She tears a page from a magazine)
Vinny: Dead-on balls accurate?
Lisa: It’s an industry term.

[Note: The appearance of “cunt” in the Proverbs of Hendyng is the first written example of the word used for the female genitals. But as we say in a 2014 post, the term was used earlier within surnames and street names in red-light districts.]

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A vast minority?

Q: John Campbell, a YouTube celebrity offering Covid advice, has said a “vast minority” of young people are not observing social distancing. Although “vast majority” is a common collocation, I had never heard “vast minority” before. Did Campbell invent it, or does it have a history?

A: No, Campbell didn’t coin the phrase “vast minority.” It appeared in writing more than two centuries earlier.

The oldest example we’ve found is from an anonymous 19th-century religious tract ridiculing a writer who had referred to Roman Catholics as “a large portion of the inhabitants” of Ireland:

“you ought to have called the Papists, at once, the vast minority of the inhabitants: you could not gain less credit.” (A Vindication of the Most Rev. John Thomas Troy, D.D., Roman Catholic Archbishop in the Church of Dublin, 1804, by “a Roman Catholic of Dublin.”)

And here’s an example from a letter in the October 1839 issue of the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine that uses the expression in reference to Protestants:

“The press in Baltimore, with but few exceptions is a political press, and yet under the guise of preserving the peace of the city, they advocate the cause of the minority; yes a vast minority, a minority of more than three hundredths, for the protestants in wealth and number exceed the sum of the Catholics as a hundred to three.”

In a more recent appearance, the expression describes fans of the singer Mel Tormé: “Carlos Gastel, his longtime manager, told Tormé in 1947, ‘you will never be the mass star you want to be, but there is a vast minority of people out there who will always support your work.’ ”

(From an article by Terry Teachout in Commentary, December 2014. The phrase was also in the title and text of a March 9, 1981, profile of Tormé in the New Yorker.)

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have a citation for “vast minority.” The dictionary’s first example of “vast majority” is from the early 18th century:

“The People of the Earth, that is, a vast Majority of Mankind, are represented by Moses, as voluntarily journeying from one part of the Earth to another.” (The Original and Institution of Civil Government, Discuss’d, 1710, by Benjamin Hoadly.)

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Black sheep

Q: You say the phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century. That might be true, but it’s only the result of an even earlier meaning. “Black sheep” is actually a very old weaving term. Black sheep were considered unlucky because you couldn’t dye the wool any other colors.

A: We haven’t found any evidence of “black sheep” used as a weaving term, either before or after the phrase came to mean a disreputable member of a group.

In fact, today the undyed wool of so-called “black sheep” (they actually come in various shades of black, brown, and gray) is prized for its beauty and its natural qualities.

However, in earlier times the difficulty of dyeing their wool may have contributed to the “disreputable” usage, along with a biblical reference to black sheep and a negative sense of “black” that dates from Anglo-Saxon days.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “black sheep” meaning a bad character is from a 17th-century religious treatise about the conversion process in Congregational churches of New England:

“Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.” From The Sincere Convert (1640), by Thomas Shepard, an English-born minister of the First Church in Cambridge, MA, and of Harvard College.

We’ve seen several earlier examples of “black sheep” used negatively, though not quite so strongly. An anonymous satirical ballad believed written in the 16th century, for example, uses the term to attack mendicant friars.

Here’s the refrain: “The blacke shepe is a perylous beast; / Cuius contrarium falsum est.” (The Latin means “Which nobody can deny.”)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the negative use of “black sheep” may originally have alluded to passages in English or German translations of Genesis in the 16th century.

It describes the usage as “perhaps originally with allusion to Genesis 30:32, where Jacob selects ‘all blacke shepe amonge the lambes’ ” (from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 English translation of the Bible), or perhaps after the German “alles, was schwartz ist vnter den lemmern” (from Martin Luther’s earliest draft of the passage in 1523), or “alle schwartze schafe [vnter den lemmern]” in Luther’s final 1545 German Bible. We added the bracketed German.

The passage from Genesis refers to Jacob’s offer to care for Laban’s flock of sheep if he can keep all the black and spotted lambs as payment. Laban accepts, apparently believing black sheep to be less valuable than white. The passage is translated differently in other versions of the Bible. The King James Version, for example, has it as “all the brown cattle among the sheep.” (“Cattle” was once a collective term for cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and other domestic animals.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed., 2013), by Christine Ammer, suggests that the use of “black sheep” for a disreputable person “is based on the idea that black sheep were less valuable than white ones because it was more difficult to dye their wool different colors.”

Writers have commented since classical times on the difficulty of dyeing the wool of black sheep (a more accurate description might be dark sheep).

The earliest remark we’ve seen on the subject is from Historiae Naturalis, an encyclopedic work by the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder: “lana ovis nigrae, cui nullus alius color incursaverit” (“black sheep whose wool will be dyed no other color”).

Pliny’s work was well known among English scholars. A 17th-century dictionary of English and Latin terms, for example, translates the passage above as “the wool of a black sheep mixed with no other colour” (A Copious Dictionary in Three Parts, 1678, by Francis Gouldman).

Among the various theories about how “black sheep” became a negative term, the pejorative use of the word “black” in English may have played a significant role.

As we’ve said, “black” has had negative connotations since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage that the OED describes as “widespread in other European languages, frequently in an antonymic relationship with senses of words meanings ‘white.’ ”

The dictionary says this usage “became particularly strong in the medieval Christian tradition” and would “proliferate in the early modern period … probably connected in part with negative cultural attitudes towards black people prevalent in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.”

As we say in a 2009 post (“The light and dark of language”), the word “black” may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. A prehistoric Indo-European root has been reconstructed as bhleg (“burn”).

In Old English, the adjective “black” could mean “very evil or wicked; iniquitous; foul, hateful,” according to the dictionary. The earliest Oxford citation is from a scientific and theological treatise written by a Benedictine cleric in the late 10th century:

“Hig ne þicgeað þæs lambes flæsc þe soð Crist ys, ac þæs dracan þe wæs geseald þam blacan folce to mete, þæt ys þam synfullum” (“they [the faithless] don’t partake of the flesh of the lamb, the truth of Christ, but the Devil was given to provide for those black people that are sinners”). From the Enchiridion (Manual) of Byrhtferð, a monk and priest at  Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire.

Finally, here’s a Middle English example, which we’ve expanded, that uses “black flocks” (“blake flokkes”) much as “black sheep” was later used:

“Whanne þe Romayns were a goo, þanne breke out blake flokkes of Scottes and of Pictes, as wormes brekep out of here holes aʒeinst þe hete of þe  sonne” (“When the Romans were gone, then the black flocks of Scotts and Picts broke out, as snakes break out of their holes anticipating the heat of the sun”). From Polychronicon, John Trevisa’s translation, written sometime before 1387, of a 14th-century Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden.

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How nasty is ‘mean-spirited’?

Q: I’ve always thought “mean-spirited” meant petty or selfish. Increasingly, I’ve seen it used to mean nasty. Is this an American usage?

A: The phrase “mean-spirited” is defined variously as malicious, small-minded, selfish, inconsiderate, and so on in standard American and British dictionaries.

We don’t see a significant difference in the way the dictionaries treat the phrase, though the adjective “mean” by itself tends to be nastier in the US references.

The 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) define “mean” variously as selfish, petty, small-minded, unkind, unpleasant, spiteful, cruel, malicious, violent, offensive, nasty, troublesome, etc. US dictionaries are more likely to use the harsher definitions, though some UK dictionaries include them too.

An essay on Merriam-Webster’s website (“How ‘Mean’ Became Nasty”) notes that the nasty sense of “mean” has “become so widespread in American English” that it is “without question the most frequently used today.”

We suspect that the nastiness of “mean” in the US is influencing the way Americans use “mean-spirited.” However, the “nasty” sense of the phrase hasn’t yet made its way into definitions of “mean-spirited” in US dictionaries.

Interestingly, the selfish, nasty, and violent senses of “mean” all showed up around the same time in the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And all three appeared first in American English.

Etymologically, there are three distinct words spelled “mean” in English: (1) a verb with the sense of intend or signify; (2) an adjective or noun for a mathematical average as well as average people or things; (3) the adjective you’re asking about, the one with all those senses mentioned earlier.

We’ll limit ourselves here to “mean” #3. We’ll get to current usage in a while, but let’s look first at how the adjective arrived at its modern senses.

When the adjective “mean” first appeared in early Old English writing (spelled gemæne), it meant minor, lesser, or inferior, and was used to describe a minor rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the statutes of a religious guild, or prayer group, in medieval Exeter:

“And se mæssepreost a singe twa mæssan … & ælc gemænes hades broður twegen salteras sealma” (“and let the mass priest sing two masses … and every brother of mean condition two psalters of psalms”). From Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici, a collection of charters dated from as far back as the 6th-century reign of King Æthelbert of Kent, edited by Benjamin Thorpe (1865).

An aphetic form of the adjective (that is, minus the first syllable) showed up later in Old English as mæne, and referred to things held in common or jointly. The first OED citation is from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:

“Swa forð andlangas þæs broces forð þæt hit cymð to hryxies mæne weig” (“so forth along that it comes to the island of rushes held in mean way”). From Charters of Burton Abbey, published by Peter Hayes Sawyer (1979).

In Middle English, the senses of inferior and common broadened, perhaps influenced by the disparaging use of average in “mean” #2 above, according to the OED. As a result, “mean” came to describe people of inferior social status, ability, or education, as well as things considered inferior, second-rate, or contemptible. Here are some Oxford examples:

“Þe grete … in þe gaiest wise, & menere men as þei miȝt” (“the great … in their most ornate fashion, and the mean [common] men as they might be”). From William of Palerne (circa 1350), an English translation of a French romance.

“Þe comyn lettre of Mathew is ful skars, for mene men myȝte vnderstonde” (“the Gospel of Matthew is one that mean [unlearned] men might scarcely understand”). From John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a Latin work of history and theology.

“ ‘Suffre hem lyue,’ he seyde, ‘and lete hem ete with hogges, / Or elles benes and bren ybaken togideres, / Or elles melke and mene ale’ ” (“ ‘Suffer them to live,’ he said, ‘and let them eat with hogs, / Or else beans and bran baked together, / Or else milk and mean [second-rate] beer’ ”). From Piers Plowman (circa 1378), by William Langland.

(In the last citation, which we’ve expanded, Piers is referring to shirkers who would rather sing and drink ale than plow. Beans and bran were fed to pigs, and poor people sometimes added beans to grain when not enough grain was available for baking bread.)

In the 17th century, according to the OED, the adjective turned even more negative and came to describe someone “lacking moral dignity, ignoble; small-minded.” The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand here, warns that those in high positions are in danger of acting immorally and of despising the immorality of less important people:

“as a throne exposes those that sit on it to peculiar temptations to vice, so …. the sublimity of such a condition would make any soul, that is not very mean, despise many mean things, that too often prevail upon inferiour persons.” From Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects (1665), by the Anglo-Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle.

As we’ve said above, the selfish, nasty, and vicious senses of “mean” all first appeared around the same time in 19th-century American English, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s first example for the stingy or miserly sense is from the July 1840 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. A letter from Salonica, Turkey (now Thessaloniki, Greece), says no one can live in the city without a Jewish agent: “And you may depend it is a trial to Christian patience: for ‘as mean as the Jews of Salonica’ is an Eastern proverb.”

The earliest OED example for the nasty sense appeared a year later: “One [girl] thought me real mean for uttering such super-diabolical sentiments.” From Short Patent Sermons (1841), by Dow, Jr., pseudonym of Elbridge G. Paige. The book is a collection of Paige’s columns for the Sunday Mercury in New York.

The first Oxford citation for the vicious sense refers to an uncontrollable horse: “He’s a monstrous mean horse, gentlemen.” From Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, &c., in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835), by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest example in which “mean” is used for vicious people: “He [a cowboy] gets all-fired mean sometimes when he’s full.” From Saddle and Mocassin (1887), by Francis Francis Jr.

Getting back to the phrase “mean-spirited,” the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded here, uses it to mean half-hearted—in this case, not fully committed to living a Christian life:

“Away then with that mean spirited Religion which thus lessens and confines our Happiness; let us unfold our Hands, and pluck them out of our Bosoms, and encourage our selves in a vigorous Pursuit of an excellent Piety.” From Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Saviour (1694), by Francis Bragge, a vicar in Hertfordshire in southern England.

The next OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, uses “mean-spirited” in the sense of impudent or ill-mannered: “I mentioned to him one day that I was of the opinion he very seldom spoke the truth. What do you think he did? he kissed my hand! Impertinent, meanspirited wretch!” From a letter written on Jan. 3, 1825, by Jane Baillie Welsh to Thomas Carlyle. (They were married in 1826.)

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “mean-spirited” used in the sense you’re asking about (ungenerous, petty or selfish), but we’ve found many in searches of digitized books, including this one from the early 18th century:

“That these of Publick Employments should be of publick Spirits, it is a shame to be mean Spirited, and taken up with self interest.” From a sermon delivered Nov. 24, 1700, by John Hamilton, an Edinburgh clergyman.

The use of “mean-spirited” for nasty appears to have shown up in the late 20th century. The earliest example we’ve found refers to the news media:

“The watchdog role of the free press can often appear as mean-spirited. How do the government and public protect themselves from its excesses?” From “The Role of the Media in a Democracy,” an article by George A. Krimsky, a former AP editor, published in Issues of Democracy, a journal of the United States Information Agency, February 1997.

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Independence ‘of’ or ‘from’?

Q: In an essay on teaching, Bertrand Russell says it’s hard for teachers to maintain their “independence of” the people who pay them. Shouldn’t that be “independence from” those people?

A: In that essay, “The Functions of a Teacher,” Russell uses the phrase “independence of” in a way that was common in the past but is less so today.

He argues that teachers need freedom to follow their intellectual impulses “but in the realm of the mind it is becoming more and more difficult to preserve independence of the great organised forces that control the livelihoods of men and women.”

(The essay appeared originally in the June 1940 issue of Harper’s magazine, and was reprinted in Unpopular Essays, 1950.)

In the past, the noun “independence” was used in such constructions with the prepositions “on,” “upon,” “of,” and “from.” Of those prepositions, “from” had apparently been the least common.

At least that’s what we assume from this comment in the Oxford English Dictionary’s “independence” entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1900: “Const. on, upon, of, rarely from.” Here are a few OED examples:

“The dignified clergy … pretended to a total independence on the State” (David Hume, The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Accession of Henry VII, 1761-62).

“A pretence of independence upon secular power” (Oliver Goldsmith, The History of England, From the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, 1771).

“Our habitual independence of conventional rules” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, 1852).

We wouldn’t say Bertrand Russell’s use of “independence of” is wrong or even unusual, but it’s less common these days and modern readers might find it jarring or perhaps confusing.

Today, “independence from” would be the usual construction, as in this Merriam-Webster example: “She asserted her independence from her parents by getting her own apartment.”

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‘Buck naked’ or ‘butt naked’?

Q: Thanks for your recent post about “butt” and “buttock.” How about “butt naked” and “buck naked”? Everyone I’ve asked claims “buck naked” is correct, but that makes no sense to me.

A: The older term is “buck naked,” first recorded just before World War I. The variant “butt naked” appeared half a century later.

Both versions are widely used, and neither should be considered incorrect. In fact, “butt naked” may be the more popular term today, as we’ll show later. No doubt many people feel, like you, that it makes more sense than “buck naked.”

Most standard dictionaries label the two adjectives “informal,” though a few regard the “butt” version as “slang.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels them “colloquial,” meaning they’re more likely to be found in common speech than in formal English.

The dictionary gives them nearly identical definitions: “buck naked” is “completely without clothing; stark naked,” and “butt naked” is “completely naked, stark naked.” It says the two terms originated and are chiefly used in North America.

Over the years, etymologists and lexicographers have puzzled over the meaning of “buck” here. The OED suggests two possibilities:

It may be derived from the “buck” that means a male animal, like a deer or goat, a usage that dates back to Old English. Or it “may allude to the resemblance of the smooth and pale skin of the buttocks to buckskin.”

In a similar way, the dictionary points out, the word “buff” has been used since the 17th century as a colloquial term for a person’s bare skin (“in the buff” still means naked). The term “buff” originally referred to leather of a light brownish yellow called “buff-skin” or “buff leather.”

But the use of “buck” could have more sinister origins. It may perhaps allude to “the common practice of stripping slaves naked for inspection by potential buyers,” Oxford says.

In the 19th century, the dictionary notes, the noun “buck” was also a racial slur used for a male Native American, African-American, or Australian Aborigine.

However it developed, “buck naked” was first recorded in early 20th-century American newspapers. Keep in mind, though, that colloquial expressions are used in conversation long before they make it into print. This is the OED’s oldest published example:

“A negro Adam, buck naked and believing himself to be in the Garden of Eden, was tried. … After hearing the evidence, the case was turned over to an insanity commission.” (The Daily Times Enterprise, Thomasville, GA, Dec. 6, 1913.)

And we found this example in an anecdote, rendered in black dialect, explaining the meaning of the word “tact”:

“ ’Tother day I’m visitin’ in a house an’ I goes to the bath room an’ opens de door—taint locked—and dere in de tub sits a woman, buck naked. Right away quick I slams dat door and yells: ‘ ’Scuse me, SUH!’ Dat’s tact!” (The Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, AZ, Dec. 19, 1919.)

The newer “butt naked” appeared several decades later. The OED’s earliest example is presented as only a possible sighting:

“Leaping out to confront her bare-butt naked might lead to misunderstandings” (from Aaron Marc Stein’s 1959 novel Never Need an Enemy).

The dictionary’s first definite example is from the late 1960s: “You read a National Geographic and there is some far off native girl standing butt-naked for the cameraman” (Melvin Van Peebles’s 1968 novel A Bear for the FBI).

The Dictionary of American Regional English says that from 1966 to 1970 its field researchers recorded uses of “butt naked” in Arkansas and New York and “butt nekkid” in Michigan. However DARE doesn’t include the dated quotations.

The older term, “buck naked,” was more popular until recently. However, “butt naked” seems to be the more popular term today.

A recent search of the NOW Corpus, a database of 4.3 billion words in web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present, shows these results: “butt naked,” 314 examples; “buck naked,” 187.

A less up-to-date comparison of the two terms with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books, has “buck naked” still ahead as of 2010, but shows “butt naked” closing the gap.

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Working hard or hardly working?

Q: I’m curious about the use of “hard” and “hardly” in that old play on words, “Are you working hard or hardly working?” Do the two usages have the same derivation or are they from different sources?

A: In Old and Middle English, “hardly” was an adverb meaning energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely. And “hard,” which was an adverb as well as an adjective, had similar adverbial meanings.

But today in Modern English, as you know, “hardly” usually means scarcely, probably not, certainly not, or with great difficulty, while “hard” (a bare or flat adverb with no “-ly” ending) still has those Old and Middle English adverbial senses.

The meaning of “hardly” began changing in the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though some of its old senses still show up once in a while.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t explain why the meaning of “hardly” changed so dramatically. Our guess is that the “-ly” adverb evolved from emphasizing the energy needed to cope with a difficult situation to emphasizing the difficulty of the situation itself.

In Old English, the adverbs “hardly” and “hard” were heardlice and hearde (-lice and -e were adverbial endings). Both can be traced to hardu-, a root reconstructed from prehistoric Germanic, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The ultimate source was apparently the Proto-Indo-European root kar- or ker- (hard).

The earliest OED citation for “hardly” is from an Old English translation of a Latin passage in which the fifth-century historian Paulus Orosius tells Romans that they were as hard as whetstone when Carthage was crushed, but had become as soft as malmstone (a flinty sandstone) under Christianity. In this excerpt, heardlice (that is, “hardly”) is used the way we now use the adverb “hard”:

“Hit biþ … geornlic þæt mon heardlice gnide þone hnescestan mealmstan æfter þæm þæt he þence þone soelestan hwetstan on to geræceanne” (“It is necessary that a man rub hardly if he intends to turn the softest malmstone into the best whetstone”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), by Orosius.

The earliest OED example for the adverb “hard” is from Crist III, an anonymous Old English poem about the Last Judgment: “Nis ænig wundor hu him woruldmonna seo unclæne gecynd … hearde ondrede” (“It is not any wonder how hard he dreaded the unclean nature of man on earth”).

In the 16th century, English writers began using “hardly” to mean “to an insignificant degree; scarcely, barely; not quite; almost not at all,” according to the dictionary, which describes this as “now the usual sense.”

The first OED example is from Glasse of Truthe, an anonymous 1532 work supporting Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Scholars believe the king either wrote it or directed its writing. Here’s the relevant passage:

“Hit is hardelye possible for any man to endite [put into words] or conuey any worke of suche sorte, that no man shall fynde a faute therin specially captious folke & maligners.”

Thus the two adverbs went their separate ways. The OED says the Old English and Middle English senses of “hardly” (energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely) are now archaic, obsolete, or rare.

We’ll end with a rare sighting from Original Sin, a 1994 novel by P. D. James: “He was ashamed of the Ilford House and ashamed of himself for despising what had been so hardly won.”

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Running low on champagne

Q: Stress can weaken the immune system, while humor can strengthen it. So when friends call to ask how we’re coping with the coronavirus, I reply, “We’re running low on champagne, but otherwise we’re OK.” Now, why do I say “running low on” something that’s running out?

A: The verb phrase “to run low on” combines a usage from the late 16th century (“to run low,” meaning “to become scarce”) with one from the early 20th (“low on,” meaning “short of”).

The story begins in the 12th century when English adopted the adjective “low” (the opposite of “high”) from various Scandinavian languages. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, with “low” spelled lah in early Middle English, is from a homily about Jesus at Cana in Galilee:

“Þær wass an bennkinnge lah” (“there was a low row of benches”). From the Ormulum, a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk who identifies himself as Orm in one place and Ormin in another.

In the 16th century, according to OED citations, writers began using the adjective to describe “a supply of something: almost exhausted; running out. Frequently in to run low.”

At first, the adjective referred to liquids, as in this example of wine running out: “For wyne wherof they spende Gooth lowe, and draweth fast vnto an ende.” From “The Fyftene Ioyes [Joys] of Maryage” (1509), an English translation of a work by the French writer Antoine de La Sale.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb phrase “to run low” also describes a diminishing supply of wine: “When that the wine, hath ronne full lowe, / Thou shalt be glad, to drinke the lyes [lees].” From A Pleasaunte Laborinth Called Churchyardes Chance (1580), a collection of verse by Thomas Churchyard.

And here’s a 17th-century monetary example: “It will bee a reasonable vsefull pawne at all times, when the current of his money falles out to run low.” From The Guls Horn-Booke (1609), a portrait of young men of fashion in London by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Dekker.

At the beginning of the 20th century,  the phrase “low on” appeared, meaning “short of, deficient in,” according to Oxford citations. Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “I’m low on coin … but I know where I can get plenty more to-morrow.” Confessions of a Criminal: True Stories of Dick Lane Told by Himself (1904).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the longer expression “to run low on” appeared a couple of years later: “If one knows that he is running low on water there is little danger to be apprehended.” Standard Mechanical Examinations on Locomotive Firing and Running (1906), edited by W. G. Wallace.

The OED’s only citation for the full expression appears within its entry for the phrase “to run low”: “Human beings began as nomads, upping sticks whenever they ran low on food or water.” The New Statesman (April 7, 2003).

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Shedding a little night light

Q:  To quote James Taylor, would you please “shed a little light” on this? Is the fixture a “night light,” “night-light,” or “nightlight”?

A: It depends on which standard dictionary you consult.

The word is hyphenated, “night-light,” in four US dictionaries: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged).

However, it’s two separate words, “night light,” in Webster’s New World and in a British dictionary, Collins. And it’s a single unhyphenated word, “nightlight,” in these four British dictionaries: Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Macmillan, Cambridge, and Longman.

Our vote goes to the British foursome, and “nightlight.” As we’ve written several times on the blog, most recently in 2019, many compounds start out as two words, then acquire a hyphen, and finally become a single word.

We predict that as time goes on, the form “nightlight” will become more widely adopted in standard dictionaries.

When the term entered English, hyphenated at first, it didn’t mean something plugged into an electrical outlet, or even using candlelight. It meant “the faint natural light perceptible at night,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED, which gives the term as “night light,” cites this 17th-century example as the earliest known use in writing: “Nachtlicht, night-light, Night-shine” (from a 1648 Dutch-English dictionary by Henry Hexham).

Elizabeth Barrett (before she married Robert Browning) used this sense of “nightlight” poetically in her verse play A Drama of Exile (1844), rhyming the line “In the sunlight and the moonlight” with “In the nightlight, and the noonlight.”

But by that time, “nightlight” had also become a household item. The OED defines this sense as “a light source designed to provide faint illumination in a room at night; spec. a small, thick, slow-burning candle or an electric light of low power, used in the bedroom of a child or sick person.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a long poem by Robert Bloomfield, Good Tidings, first published in London in 1804. Here he describes a mother at her son’s sickbed: “Hour after hour, when all was still beside, / When the pale night-light in its socket died, / Alone she sat.”

Such a useful word was bound to survive into the age of electricity. This OED citation is from the late 20th century: “The light’s meager appetite for electricity … makes it the most environmentally sensible night-light around.” (From a British magazine, Harrowsmith Country Life, Dec. 14, 1994.)

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San fairy ann: Why a duckboard?

Q: During World War II, my soldier brother used to say “san fairy duckboard” instead of “san fairy ann” when he meant “it doesn’t matter.” I asked him once why he replaced “ann” with “duckboard,” and he said duckboards were everywhere in the army. Do you have any information about this usage?

A: The expression “san fairy ann,” meaning “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s nothing” or “never mind,” originated as a World War I infantryman’s version of the French phrase ça ne fait rien.

And “duckboard,” another WWI term, was what soldiers called the slatted flooring placed in muddy trenches and camps.

We haven’t found a single published example that combines the terms into “san fairy duckboard,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used in speech by the American doughboys, British Tommies, Australian diggers, and other English speakers who fought in the war.

And assuming they used the phrase, we can guess what it meant—something like “it doesn’t mean duckboard” or “it’s not worth duckboard” or “it doesn’t matter any more than duckboard.” In such an expression, “duckboard” could have been a euphemistic substitute for an obscenity.

We do know that another word familiar from trench warfare, “sandbag,” was merged with “san fairy ann.” The phrase “sandbag Mary Ann” was used as a variation on “san fairy ann.” Well, the French used by English-speaking soldiers may have been wanting, but their English was certainly inventive.

The OED’s entry for “san fairy ann” calls it a “jocular form representing French ça ne fait rien ‘it does not matter,’ said to have originated in army use in the war of 1914–18.” The dictionary defines it as “an expression of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase, spelled somewhat differently, is from Walter Hubert Downing’s Digger Dialects (1919), a collection of Australian soldier slang:  “San ferry ann … it doesn’t matter.”

As for “duckboard,” the OED says that during WWI it was used, generally in the plural, to mean “a slatted timber path laid down on wet or muddy ground in the trenches or in camps.”

The dictionary’s earliest use is from a British wartime magazine: “Walking wounded are helped along the duck-boards that flank the light railways.” (The War Illustrated, March 17, 1917.)

In short, soldiers familiar with both “san fairy ann” and “duckboard” may very well have combined the expressions, even though we can’t point to a published example.

The original “san fairy ann” has had many variants, according to findings in the OED as well as our own researches.  The first element can be “san” or “son”; the second “fairy,” “faery,” or “ferry”; and the third “Ann,” “Anne,” “Anna,” “Han,” or “Aunt.”

It’s also been mushed together as “sanfairyann” and “sanferriens.” And besides the aforementioned “Sandbag Mary Ann,” we’ve seen “Sally fair Ann,” “Aunt Mary Ann,” and “Send for Mary Ann.” Finally, as the OED says, it’s been shortened to the simple “Fairy Ann.”

While “san fairy ann” originated during WWI and was mostly used a century ago, it survived into the WWII era and beyond, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED includes a 1956 example from a story by the novelist Frederick B. Vickers, who served in the Australian armed forces during WWII. We’ll quote a slightly different part of the passage to clarify the speaker’s meaning: “ ‘Don’t mention it, Joe,’ I said. … ‘San ferry ann, Joe.’ ” (From “Make Like You,” published in the story collection Coast to Coast, 1956.)

And this example, also cited in the OED, is from a British novel: “ ‘I wish you’d thought of my ulcer before you—’ he began, and then broke off. ‘Oh, san fairy anne!’ ” (It’s a Free Country, 1965, by Leonard Brain.)

Finally, Oxford quotes a 1970s newspaper advertisement: “San fairy Ann. … It doesn’t matter to us.” (The Times, London, June 22, 1973.)

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Drunk as a skunk

Q: I wonder about the derivation of “drunk as a skunk” and other skunkish expressions.

A: Through no fault of its own (or none that it can help), the unfortunate skunk has inspired many expressions, none of them complimentary.

But we believe that “drunk as a skunk,” an American expression that originated in the 1920s, is merely rhyming slang and has no real connection with skunkdom.

We say this because for more than 600 years, the inebriated have been described as “drunk as a” something-or-other, animate or inanimate. And generally the noun of comparison has little to do with alcohol consumption.

The formula “drunk as a …” began appearing in the late 14th century “in various proverbial phrases and locutions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original version was “drunk as a mouse,” the OED says. This is from “The Knight’s Tale” (1385), the first of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and we’re expanding the Oxford citation to add context:

“We fare as he þt dronke is as a Mous / A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous / But he noot which the righte wey is thider” (“We act like one that is drunk as a mouse. / A drunk man knows well that he has a house, / But he does not know which is the right way there”).

We found another use by Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “If that I walke or pleye unto his hous. / Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous” (“If I go for amusement to his house, / You come home as drunken as a mouse”).

The association of mice with drunkenness may have begun with an ancient fable about a tipsy mouse who’s rescued by a cat after becoming trapped in a vessel of wine or beer. Versions of the fable, first recorded in Latin by Odo of Cheriton in his Parabolæ in the early 1200s, was much repeated in various collections during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it may be that “mouse” was chosen simply to rhyme with “house.” In several songs and poems after Chaucer’s time, lines ending “drunk as a mouse” rhymed with “house” or “alehouse.”

But as we mentioned, the expression “drunk as a …” has accommodated a Noah’s Ark of animals. Since Chaucer’s time,  according to slang dictionaries, “mouse” has been joined by “swine,” “hog,” “sow,” “pig,” “duck,” “owl,” “dog,” “cat” “kit,” “rat,” “monkey,” “jaybird,” “loon,” “bat,” “coon,” “fish,” “fly,” “fowl,” “tick,” “donkey,” “coot,” “goat,” and of course “skunk.”

Humans have also joined the inebriated crew, and “drunk as a …” has included “lord,” “earl,” “emperor,” “pope,” “fiddler,” “beggar,” “bastard,” “piper,” “poet,” “sailor,” “cook,” “parson,” “porter,” and “tinker.”

And let’s not forget inanimate objects: “drum,” “sack,” “besom” (a broom), “log,” “wheelbarrow,” “top,” and “little red wagon.” We can certainly imagine a couple of those wobbling erratically.

In this long litany of inebriation, many of them hundreds of years old, “skunk” is a latecomer. The OED’s earliest use of “drunk as a skunk” is less than a century old: “O Dan, you’re drunk! You’re drunk as a skunk!” (From The Heart of Old Kentucky, collected in New Plays for Mummers, 1926, by Glenn Hughes.)

Our bet is that earlier uses of “drunk as a skunk” will turn up, because the “drunk”/“skunk” rhyme scheme had already suggested itself generations earlier. We found a couple of 19th-century examples:

“My wife she is a hateful scold, / And when I am half drunk, / She will begin to fret and scold, / And call me a dirty skunk.” (From “Soliloquy of a Drunkard,” published in the Philadelphia Scrap Book, April 26, 1834.)

“Ter see a man come home so drunk / It makes her loathe him like a skunk.” (From a temperance poem in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, January 1876.)

So much for skunks and alcohol. You asked about other “skunkish expressions,” and most of them have to do with things (or people) that are to be avoided or scorned.

Since the early 19th century, the OED says, “skunk” has been a colloquial noun for “a dishonest, mean, or contemptible person,” a usage the dictionary describes as “chiefly North American.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is about politics: “There were five skunks, who apostatized from Republicanism, within a few months back, and voted the Federal ticket on Monday last” (the Maryland Republican, Annapolis, Oct. 12, 1813).

And the adjectives “skunk-like” (1815) and “skunkish” (1831), the OED says, have meant “dishonest, mean, or contemptible” … “reminiscent of a skunk, esp. in odour or appearance” … “resembling or suggestive of a skunk.”

The word has also been a verb since the 19th century. To “skunk” someone means to defeat or get the better of (1832), as in “I skunked her at backgammon.” It can even mean to swindle or defraud someone (1867), as in “He skunked me out of $10.” Both senses are also used passively, and to be “skunked” is to be unsuccessful or to be cheated.

“Skunk” is also etymologically interesting. The animal is a native of the Americas, and its name is thoroughly American too.

As the OED says, it was borrowed into English from a “Southern New England Algonquian language.” And it’s apparently connected to the notion of a urinating fox.

Though the original Algonquian source is uncertain, the word has cousins in related languages: Western Abenaki (segôgw), Unami Delaware (šká:kw), and Meskwaki (shekâkwa), the last of which consists of the Algonquian elements shek– (to urinate) and wâkw– (fox).

In English, the word was first recorded as “squuncke” in 17th-century New England, the OED says. The earliest known use is in a list of animals likely to rob a henhouse: “The beasts of offence be Squunckes, Ferrets, Foxes” (from New Englands Prospect, 1634, by William Wood).

[Note: An Australian reader of the blog writes on June 19, 2020, with a courtroom quip attributed to the early 20th-century British statesman and lawyer Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead: “Smith (to the Court): At the time, my client was as drunk as a judge.  Judge (interjecting): Mr. Smith, I think you’ll find the phrase is ‘as drunk as a lord.’ Smith: As your lordship pleases.”]

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Wrapped around the axle

Q: I learned the expression “don’t get wrapped around the axle” from my husband, and I frequently use it as a less vulgar way of saying “don’t get your panties in a twist.” He now tells me that the axle expression comes from an exceedingly vulgar joke that I won’t repeat here. I am mortified if this is true. I’m an old lady who gives garden talks, not one prone to jokes in poor taste. Please set me straight.

A: The phrase “wrapped around the axle” conjures up the image of a frustrated wagon driver whose reins have gotten tangled in the undercarriage. In fact, that pretty accurately evokes its literal meaning in days gone by.

Originally, the phrase was used to describe things like reins, straps, drive belts, baling wire, articles of clothing—even mangled bodies—that had literally become wrapped around the axles of wheels on horse-drawn vehicles, railway cars, or industrial machinery.

Today the expression has a much less dramatic meaning. Though it’s not found in any of our slang dictionaries, we did a find couple of definitions online. These were provided by contributors to Urban Dictionary: “to be confused by something, to the point of paralysis,” or “to be extremely or overly upset.”

We’ve also seen it used on few leadership and self-help websites, where “don’t get wrapped around the axle” seems to mean don’t get sidetracked by small issues or caught up in bureaucracy.

The earliest example we’ve seen of the phrase in its original sense is from a 19th-century account of a mishap at a California woolen mill. The accident happened when a belt driving a piece of machinery, broke and “became wrapped around the axle or shaft of the wheel” (Sacramento Daily Union, Dec. 16, 1867).

And we like this account of a plucky Nebraska woman who eventually stopped a team of runaway horses: “When the lines, by some fortunate circumstance, became wrapped around the axle tree of the buggy in such a position as to bring them within her reach by leaning out over the dash board, she promptly did so, and while she could not loosen them, so guided the team as to keep them in the road, and probably saving her own life” (the Columbus Journal, May 17, 1882).

We will spare you the dozens of 19th- and early 20th-century examples that had less happy endings, most of them involving people killed by trains.

As far as we can tell, figurative uses of “wrapped around the axle” didn’t appear until the 1970s, when the phrase meant rule-bound or tangled in bureaucracy. Servicemen apparently were early adopters. Both of the following examples are from weeklies published at Fort Hood in Temple, Tex.

One is a complaint about an officious hospital nurse, “a civilian who’s so wrapped around the axle of routine that she’s forgotten about serving soldiers” (the Armored Sentinel, May 26, 1972).

Another is from a humorous column about the overuse of clichés: “We’re behind the power curve already and if we don’t get our feet on the ground it might fall through the crack or get wrapped around the axle” (the Fort Hood Sentinel, Jan. 6, 1977).

Both the literal and the figurative uses of “wrapped around the axle” are still around today.

Literal uses show up in news items about materials caught in the axles of everything from bicycles and tractors to 18-wheelers.

This is from a car-racing site: “Johnson hit the wall early and went three laps down making initial repairs after the tire carcass wrapped around the axle” (Frontstretch, Aug. 11, 2019).

Not surprisingly, figurative uses in recent news items are mostly about Covid-19 and its many anxieties. This example is from an Omaha weekly: “While it’s easy to get wrapped around the axle of all that seems to be going wrong, a lot of Omaha is righting itself in profound and beautiful ways” (the Reader, April 7, 2020).

Getting back to your question, your husband may have been referring to the slang use of “axle” to mean the penis and the slang phrase “getting his axle greased” to mean having sex with a woman.

However, those slang usages have no connection to “wrapped around the axle.” We haven’t found any examples of “wrapped around the axle” used in reference to sex.

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Depart … or depart from?

Q: My impression is that we used to “depart from” a location but that now, under the influence of airline-speak, we just “depart.” Example: “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland.” I’m a copy editor. Should I put that “from” back in, or is it acceptable without it?

A: The verb “depart” can properly be used with or without “from,” though it’s more often found with the preposition.

The two versions represent different uses of the verb—one transitive and the other intransitive. Both forms of “depart” have been in use since the 14th century, and both are still recognized as standard English.

In “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland,” the verb is being used transitively—that is, with a direct object.

Here are some other examples: “the train departed the station” … “the enemy has departed our shores” … “the judge has no plan to depart the bench” … “she departed this life in 1902” … “he departed the office of ombudsman last year.”

Used intransitively—without a direct object—the verb may or may not be followed by a prepositional phrase (like “from the Port of Oakland”). The prepositional phrase is used adverbially.

Here are other intransitive examples, using different prepositions or none at all: “he departed for home” … “the boat departs in 15 minutes” … “the bus departs at 5 p.m.” … “we departed on time” … “they’re ready to depart” … “the ship departs soon.”

You’ve probably noticed that the first bunch of examples, the transitive ones, have a somewhat formal or literary feeling—a jargony one in in the case of the ship’s departure. (Airlines in particular seem to prefer “depart” without “from” or “at,” as in “Flight 202 will depart Gate 5” and “it now departs 12:45.”)

The intransitive “depart,” used with “from” (or “at”), seems more natural to us than the transitive use without the preposition. But as we’ve said, both transitive and intransitive uses have been around since the Middle Ages.

The intransitive use was known earlier. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s implied in a 12th-century manuscript, though more definite sightings showed up in the 14th century.

A few examples, with and without prepositions: “we fra þe depart” (“we from thee depart,” c. 1300); “departed well erly from Parys” (1490); “yff I depart” (1526); “depart from Portsmouth” (1817); “the train departs at 6.30” (1895).

The transitive version of “depart”—with a direct object and without “from”—has been used to mean “to go away from, leave, quit, forsake” since about the mid-1300s, according to OED citations.

A range of examples: “departe vs nouȝt” (“depart us not,” circa 1340); “departed their company” (1536); “to depart the toune [town]” (1548); “may depart the Realm” (1647); “to depart Italy” (1734); “to depart the kingdom” (1839).

The dictionary says the transitive use is “now rare except in to depart this life.” But the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it hasn’t “fully updated” its entry for “depart” since it was published in 1895. And none of the examples—for any senses of the verb—go beyond the 1800s.

We don’t agree that the transitive “depart” is rare, and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “If the transitive was rare at the end of the 19th century, it no longer is,” the usage guide says, adding that “it seems common enough in American English.”

However, it may be that the use has declined in British English over the years. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2015), says “except in the formal or literary phrase departed this life, the construction no longer forms part of the standard language in Britain.”

Opinion is mixed in current standard dictionaries. The ten that we usually consult—five American and five British—all recognize the transitive “depart” as standard English. However, three of the five British dictionaries label it a North American usage. Apparently, a use that once was ordinary in both varieties of English has fallen off in the UK but survives in the US.

Nevertheless, some American news organizations have discouraged the use of “depart” without a preposition since at least as far back as the 1970s.

The revised 1977 edition of a stylebook adopted jointly by the Associated Press and United Press International has an entry for “depart,” with examples, saying it must be followed by a preposition. The entry concludes, “Do not drop the preposition as some airline dispatchers do.”

The most recent editions of the AP stylebook still have that entry for “depart,” identical except for the admonition at the end. The entry now reads, “Follow it with a preposition: He will depart from LaGuardia. She will depart at 11:30 a.m.

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Is ‘least favorite’ most disliked?

Q: The phrase “least favorite” has the literal meaning of something that’s liked, but not at the top of the list. Despite that, it’s often used idiomatically for something that’s actually disliked. Any thoughts?

A: Yes, “least favorite” refers literally to the bottom of a sequential list of favorite people or things, and that’s the way it seems to have been used when it showed up in English in the 19th century.

But as you’ve noticed, today the phrase is often used idiomatically as the opposite of “favorite”—that is, in reference to the top of a list of items disliked the most.

We couldn’t find a discussion of the expression in any standard dictionary, usage guide, or etymological dictionary. However, the entry for “unfavourite” in Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “least favourite” or “most disliked.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, discusses “least best,” a similar usage with contradictory literal and idiomatic meanings.

In its entry for “least,” the OED defines “least best” as “last in order of preference out of a group or set of options which are all considered to be good or desirable.”

However, the dictionary adds that “least best” is also “used ironically” to mean “worst,” a usage that showed up at the end of the 20th century, according to Oxford citations.

The expression “least favorite” showed up in the mid mid-19th century, according to our searches of newspaper and book databases. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a review of a book about the US by a Scottish politician:

“Among the many varieties of industry to which the versatility of American genius has been applied, the rearing of stock has hitherto been the least favourite” (Edinburgh Review, October 1847, on John MacGregor’s The Progress of America, published earlier that year in London). Up to that time, the reviewer says, raising cattle, sheep, and other farm animals in the US had been “chiefly confined” to New England and New York.

The idiomatic use of “least favorite” to refer ironically to someone or something most disliked apparently appeared in the second half of the 20th century, though it’s often hard to tell from the written examples we’ve found whether the phrase is being used literally or ironically.

Here’s a likely early example from a newspaper article about the likes and dislikes of kindergarteners: “Spinach used to be the all-time least favorite food. It has now been replaced by cooked celery, mushrooms and steamed beans” (from the Coronado [CA] Eagle and Journal, March 12, 1970).

And here’s another example from a California newspaper: “Her least favorite film was also a horror movie, or it was intended to be, though she thinks of it simply as a horror” (Santa Cruz Sentinel, Oct. 17, 1979). The movie, Night of the Lepus, is about giant mutated rabbits that threaten civilization.

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Why a black swan is a rara avis

Q: Lately I have seen several references to “black swan” meaning an unexpected event or an anomaly. Is this new or just new to me? I can guess how it originated but would love to hear from you about it.

A: The use of the phrase “black swan” to mean a rare or unexpected occurrence ultimately comes from a passage in the Satires of the Roman poet  Juvenal. The Latin passage is also the source of another English term for a rarity, “rara avis.”

In Satire VI,  Juvenal describes a wife with what he considers all the right qualities—looks, charm, money, fertility, and ancestry—as “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” (“a bird rare on earth and similar to a black swan”).

When Juvenal was writing in the late first and early second centuries, Romans believed that all swans were white, so a black swan would have been an impossibility. We know now, though, that black swans (at least mostly black ones) do indeed exist. More on this later.

When the phrase “black swan” first showed up in Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used in contrast to emphasize the whiteness of the European swan:

“The swan hatte signus in latyn and olor in grew [Greek] for he is al white in fetheres, for no man findiþ [findeth] a blak swan.” (From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.)

In the 16th century, the OED says, the usage took on the sense of “something extremely rare (or non-existent); a rarity, rara avis.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a sermon denouncing sensuality: “Captaine Cornelius is a blacke Swan in this generation.” (Earlier, the virtuous captain’s deeds are praised as “musicke to God.”) From a sermon on Easter Tuesday, 1570, by Thomas Drant at St. Mary Spital, a priory and hospital (lodging for travelers) in Spitalfields, London.

The next Oxford example is from a play that satirizes the theater: “The abuse of such places [ancient Roman theaters] was so great, that for any chaste liuer [liver] to haunt them, was a black swan, & a white crow” (from Schoole of Abuse, 1579, by Stephen Gosson).

In the late 17th century the term “black swan” appeared literally, in reference to Cygnus atratus, a swan that’s native to Australia. It’s mostly black, with a red bill and some white wing feathers.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1698 report in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: “Black Swans, Parrots and many Sea-Cows were found there.” The sightings were in Australia, known at the time as Hollandia Nova, New Holland, or Nieuw Holland, a usage introduced by the Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman in 1644.

As for “rara avis,” when the phrase appeared in English in the early 17th century it meant “a person of a type rarely encountered; an unusual or exceptional person; a paragon,”  according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford example is from The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, a 1607 play George Wilkins: “And by that, thou hast beene married but three weekes, tho thou shouldst wed a Cynthia rara avis, thou wouldest be a man monstrous: A cuckold, a cuckold.”

In the mid-17th century, the phrase came to mean “that which is seldom found, a rarity; an unusual, exceptional, or remarkable occurrence or thing.”

The earliest OED example is from a 1651 issue of the Faithfull Scout, a London weekly:  “Moderation, which may well be intituled the Rara avis of these times.”

Today, according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged, “rara avis” means “a rare person or thing.” The dictionary gives this example from the Atlantic: “that rara avis of politics, a disinterested man.”

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Even so, amen

Q: Merriam-Webster says “even so” means “nevertheless” or “in spite of that.” I’m puzzled by its use in this passage from the King James Version: “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”

A: Although the phrase “even so” means “nevertheless” or “in spite of that” today, it has had several other senses that are now considered archaic.

When the phrase showed up in Old English as efne swa, perhaps as far back as 1,200 years ago, it meant “in the very same way; likewise, similarly,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED citation is from Christ I, a collection of anonymous poems about the coming of Christ:

“Þu eart þæt wealldor, þurh þe waldend frea / æne on þas eorðan ut siðade, / ond efne swa þec gemette, meahtum gehrodene, / clæne ond gecorene, Crist ælmihtig” (“You are the door in the wall; through you the all-wielding Lord / only once journeyed out into this world, / and even so [in that way] he found you, adorned with powers, / chaste and chosen, Almighty Christ”).

The 12 poems of Christ I are in The Exeter Book, a 10th-century collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry. In Critical Studies in the Cynewulf Group (1949), the Swedish scholar Claes Schaar suggests that Christ I may have been written around 800 AD, though not, as some have speculated, by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf.

In Middle English, according to OED citations, “even so” came to be an intensifier “expressing emphatic agreement: ‘exactly so,’ ‘yes indeed.’ ” The dictionary’s first example is from an early 15th-century sermon:

“For lik as oure princes and lordes spoyleth and robbeþ þer suggettus … euen so God suffreþ þe ethen princes to robb and spoile oure lordes” (“For like as our princes and lords despoil and rob their subjects … even so [exactly so] God allows the heathen princes to rob and despoil our lords”). From a sermon written circa 1415 and collected in Middle English Sermons (1940), by Woodburn O. Ross.

In the passage you cite from Revelation 1:7 in the King James Version (written from 1604 to 1611), “even so” is used in the “exactly so” or “yes indeed” sense:

“Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”

The OED cites another example from the King James Version. Here “even so” is used in its “similarly” sense: “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (John 17:18).

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Sea chantey or shanty?

Q: Hello, my hearties. My husband, who had a recording company for years, was writing about an album of sea chanties he recorded when his spellchecker changed it to “sea shanties.” Surprised, he typed “sea chantey or sea shanty?” in Google and was told the proper spelling was “shanty.” How does this kind of nonsense take hold?

A: You’d better batten down the hatches before reading on. All 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult consider “shanty” an acceptable spelling of the word for a sailor’s song.

All five of the American dictionaries have entries for “chantey,” with standard variant spellings given as “chanty,” “shanty,” and “shantey.” All five British dictionaries list “shanty” as the only standard spelling, though one includes “chantey” as an “archaic North American” usage.

No matter how it’s spelled, the musical term is usually pronounced the same, SHAN-tee, in the US and the UK, according to the dictionaries.

Interestingly, the word was spelled with both “ch-” and “sh-” when it showed up in English in the mid-19th century. Here are the two earliest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence:

“The anchor came to the bow with the chanty of ‘Oh, Riley, Oh’ ” (Seven Years of a Sailor’s Life, 1867, by George Edward Clark).

“Sailors’ Shanties and Sea-Songs” (an article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, Dec. 11, 1869).

As for the origin of the spelling, the OED says the musical terms “shanty,” “chanty,” and “chantey” are “said to be a corruption of French chantez, imperative of chanter to sing.” The dictionary defines the usage as “a sailor’s song, esp. one sung during heavy work.”

Why is an English word derived from the French chantez often spelled “shanty”? Perhaps because “shanty” comes closer than “chantey” to the pronunciation of the French word: shahn-TAY.

However, it’s natural for English words of foreign origin to take on new spellings, pronunciations, meanings, forms, and so on.  For example, why should an English speaker now spell and pronounce “afraid” as effrayé because both terms ultimately come from the Old French verb esfreer?

As for the word meaning a small, crudely built shack, all 10 standard dictionaries agree that it should be spelled “shanty.” It’s also believed to come from a French word beginning with “ch”—in this case, chantier, Canadian French for a hut in a lumber camp.

The OED cites this English translation from the chantier entry in Dictionnaire Canadien-Français (1894), by Sylva Clapin: “an establishment regularly organized in the forests in winter for the felling of trees; the head-quarters at which the woodcutters assemble after their day’s work.”

The first Oxford example, which we’ll expand here, is from the journal of Zerah Hawley, a Connecticut doctor who spent a year in Ohio in the early 19th century.

In an entry dated Oct. 7, 1820, Hawley describes visiting “a child sick of the intermittent fever, whose parents with two children, lived in what is here called a shanty. This is a hovel of about 10 feet by 8, made somewhat in the form of an ordinary cow-house.”

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The singularity of Mother’s Day

[Note: In recognition of Mother’s Day, we’re republishing a post that originally appeared on May 10, 2013.]

Q: Which is correct, Mother’s Day or Mothers’ Day? I have a customer who wants to use the name as an imprint on promotional gifts for the holiday. I think of Mother’s Day as singular possessive, my mother, but in this case is it correct?

A: We also think it’s Mother’s Day, and so do the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult—five American and five British.

More to the point, Anna Jarvis, the woman primarily responsible for the modern holiday honoring mothers, thought so as well, according to a dissertation by the historian Katharine Antolini.

In “Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Defense of Her Mother’s Day,” Antolini says Jarvis wanted the singular possessive to emphasize that the day was to honor one’s own mother, not mothers in general.

As for common usage, “Mother’s Day” is the overwhelming favorite, according to our searches of online databases, though you’ll find many examples of the plural-possessive “Mothers’ Day” and the apostrophe-free “Mothers Day.”

Although the modern holiday originated in the US in the early 20th century, people have been celebrating mothers in one way or another since ancient times.

The specific term “Mother’s Day,” however, didn’t show up in print until the 19th century. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the June 3, 1874, issue of the New York Times:

“ ‘Mother’s Day,’ which was inaugurated in this City on the 2d of June, 1872, by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, was celebrated last night at Plimpton Hall by a mother’s [sic] peace meeting.” (We’ve gone to the Times archive to expand on the citation.)

The OED points out that Howe saw Mother’s Day not as a day to honor mothers (the modern sense) but as a “day on which mothers met to advocate peace, as by the dissolution of a standing army, etc.”

Howe, an abolitionist and social activist, is perhaps best known for writing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (The music is from the song “John Brown’s Body.”)

Like Howe, Anna Jarvis’s mother—Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis—was an activist who organized women for various social causes.

After the death of her mother on May 9, 1905, Anna Jarvis organized several “Mother’s Day” services and began a campaign, with the help of the Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker, to make Mother’s Day a national holiday.

The first two services—on May 12, 1907, and May 10, 1908—were held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Jarvis’s mother had taught Sunday school.

The national campaign got off to a bumpy start. On May 9, 1908, Senator Elmer Burkett, a Nebraska Republican, introduced a resolution to recognize the following day as Mother’s Day.

But as an article in the May 10, 1908, issue of the New York Times reports, the resolution inspired “a number of witty sallies” in the Senate and was referred to the Judiciary Committee where “it will be permitted to sleep peacefully.”

Interestingly, Burkett’s resolution used the plural possessive, according to an OED citation from the Congressional Record for May 9, 1908: “Resolved, That Sunday, May 10, 1908, be recognized as Mothers’ Day.”

Jarvis pressed ahead with her Mother’s Day campaign, writing letters and sending pamphlets to public officials. Two years after the Burkett resolution was put to rest, she had her first victory.

In 1910, William Glasscock, the Governor of West Virginia, proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and soon the holiday spread to other states.

In 1912, Jarvis trademarked the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May,” and established the Mother’s Day International Association to promote the holiday around the world.

On May 8, 1914, the US Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and on May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day.

The American holiday inspired Mother’s Day observances around the world, but the date of the celebration varied from country to country.

In Britain, for example, where the holiday is also called Mothering Sunday (a name with roots in a religious ceremony dating back to the 16th century), it’s celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

A final note: Anna Jarvis, who was childless, began campaigning in the 1920s against the commercialization of Mother’s Day. She denounced confectioners, florists, and other commercial interests that she accused of gouging the public.

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Textured hair

Q: What is textured hair? And how do I say it in Albanian?

A: We don’t get many requests to translate English phrases into Albanian, but you came to the right place.

As it happens, we know a hair stylist of Albanian origin, so he not only speaks Albanian but he knows all about textured hair. (Pat was one of his clients a few years ago when we lived in Connecticut.)

“There are a few Albanian translations,” says the stylist, Sabit Vrzivoli. The most likely, he suggests, are flok te dredhura (wavy hair) or flok kacurrela (curly hair).

“ ‘Textured hair’ is the description of the curl pattern of the hair, like curly or wavy,” he says. “It’s defined by how tight the curl is. ‘Coarse’ or ‘fine’ describes the thickness or texture of the hair strand.”

The phrase “textured hair” is relatively new, since we haven’t found any published examples older than 1990. It apparently originated in the African-American press and was first associated with black styles, but it has since acquired wider usage in the hair-care industry.

Dictionaries are a bit behind the curve (or wave) on “textured hair.” There’s nothing about it in any of the 10 standard online dictionaries we regularly consult.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no entry for the phrase and no examples of its use. However, the OED does say that in today’s English, the adjective “textured” used without a preceding modifier means “provided with a texture, esp. as opposed to smooth or plain.”

So apparently “textured hair” simply means any hair that isn’t straight. And as the British hair stylist Vernon François has written, that definition takes in a lot of territory.

In a HuffPost UK article entitled “What Is Textured Hair?” (Dec. 9, 2016, updated Sept. 13, 2017), François says there’s been some confusion about the term.

“What I mean when talking about ‘textured hair’ is hair that has some kind of curl pattern to it,” he says. “Basically, hair that is not straight.” He adds that the phrase “is effectively an umbrella term, which can then be broken down into kinky, coily, curly and wavy.”

As we mentioned above, the phrase “textured hair”—with “textured” specifically meaning some degree of curly—is a relatively recent usage.

The oldest example we’ve found is from an African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder (June 30, 1990). Here the phrase is used adjectivally: “When you choose your new hair style, keep in mind that your hair is growing out of the relaxer. Try mini-braids or one of the new textured hair styles.”

In early use, as in these examples from the black press, the phrase was sometimes preceded by “Afro-” or “African”:

“Syreeta [Scott, a Philadelphia hair stylist] used Afro-kinky textured hair to create this look” (Essence, May 2003) … “cultural hair stylists who specialize in grooming African textured hair” (New York Amsterdam News, March 12, 1994) … “these processes have given women the ability to do more with their African textured hair” (Michigan Chronicle, Feb. 22, 1995) … “the special needs of melanin skin and textured hair” (Amsterdam News, Sept. 14, 1996).

But over time the phrase has become more universal, as in this example from the Washington Times, March 8, 2000, about new quarters issued by the US Mint: “The front of the quarter shows George Washington’s stony profile, as usual, but his head is shrunken a bit with more textured hair.”

A September 2016 article in Glamour (“5 Things Every Woman With Textured Hair Should Know”) quoted the New York hair stylist Mia Emilio: “Sixty-six percent of people have some texture in their hair. And the range of curls varies greatly, from wavy all the way to super curly.”

To return to Vernon François and his HuffPost article: “People from all walks of life, all countries, can and do have textured hair. The ‘textured hair community’ is a global one.”

Finally, let’s look at the origins of “textured,” a word that has its etymological roots in weaving. It ultimately comes from Latin, in which textūra means a weaving and texĕre means to weave.

The adjective has existed in written English for only about two centuries. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1888 (“light-textured homespuns”), but we’ve found many uses from earlier in the 19th century. We’ll cite just a couple:

“Thin chalky land, covered with a fine textured turf interspersed with wild thyme, small wild clover, and eyebright, is that which produces the finest wool” (a column of news from England published in a Sydney newspaper, the Australian, Feb. 10, 1825).

“Look in at the ‘Senior’ [a London men’s club], and the broad, coarse, weather-beaten, sail-cloth textured face of Sir John Ross will meet your glance” (an article in the Boston Atlas, reprinted in the Alexandria [VA] Gazette on Aug. 12, 1845).

The adjective was derived from the now obsolete verb “texture,” first recorded in the 17th-century when it meant to weave or to construct as if by weaving. The defunct verb, the OED says, came in turn from the noun “texture,” which meant “the process or art of weaving” when first recorded in the 1400s.

That original sense of the noun is long dead, but it lives on today in meanings that began to appear in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is why we speak of the “texture” of a work of literature, music, or fine art, or say it is “textured”—that is, composed of various strands as if woven.

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Guilty as charged

Q: Do you know the history of the statement “guilty as charged”? I have not been able to find anything relevant from a Google search, so I would love to hear what you can uncover.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language, is no help here. The OED doesn’t have an entry for “guilty as charged” and the expression doesn’t appear in citations given for any other terms.

We haven’t found an entry for the phrase in legal dictionaries either, though some use it in defining such terms as “conviction,” “no contest,” and “reasonable doubt.” However, two of the ten online standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include the usage.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “having committed the crime one is accused of committing,” and gives this example: “The state will prove that the defendants are guilty as charged.”

Cambridge has two definitions—one uses the term in its legal sense and the other uses it more broadly, often to make light of the so-called charge:

(1) “responsible for doing something illegal that you have been accused of in court: They were guilty as charged and fairly tried, and therefore justice was served.”

(2) “used to admit that what someone has been accused of is true, often when you think this is not really bad: Guilty as charged! I am an Elvis fan!

As far as we can tell, the expression was first used in reference to moral or doctrinal accusations rather than formal legal charges decided in a court.

The earliest example we’ve seen, which uses similar though not identical wording, appeared in a defense of Quakers:

“We are not guilty of idolatry, as charged by our adversary.” (From The Invalidity of John Faldo’s Vindication of His Book, a 1673 treatise by William Penn. Faldo’s book, Quakerism No Christianity, had been published earlier that year.)

Here’s the first written use we’ve found for the exact expression, from a passage arguing that historians are tough on innocent people and easy on guilty ones:

“If these great Men were innocent and honest, they had the hardest Measures that can be received from Historians; but, if guilty as charged, their Memory cannot be too much loaden with Infamy” (The History of Scotland, 1732, by William Gordon).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the term used in reference to a court proceeding appeared in the late 18th century in a libel case involving a newspaper:

“I have no difficulty in saying, that if I had in my soul the slightest idea that they were guilty as charged in the information, of malicious and wicked designs, I should leave the talk of defending them to others” (The Case of Libel, the King v. John Lambert and Others, Printer and Proprietors of the Morning Chronicle, 1794, published by John Debrett).

Finally, our searches indicate that the figurative use of “guilty as charged” to make light of an accusation showed up in the late 19th century.

The earliest example we’ve found is from the March 12, 1898, issue of the Weekly Messenger in St. Martinville, LA. An article on page one dismisses handbills (“dodgers”) claiming that a local boycott is driving a five-and-dime (“racket store”) out of business:

“Murder! said the dodgers of a racket store lately opened in the lower part of Main street. And ‘Guilty as charged’ is the next line. In our estimation if this business is murdered by our home people it is because he is ‘guilty’ of an unpardonable mistake. … He circulated dodgers that were printed in New Iberia when there are two printing offices in St. Martinville.”

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‘The coronavirus’ or ‘coronavirus’?

Q: It’s everywhere but how do we say it? It’s “a coronavirus,” but many people refer to it as “the coronavirus.” It seems obvious that we shouldn’t use the definite article. We also need to consider that the virus is actually SARS-CoV-2.

A: Scientists and the general population often use different terms for the same thing. In fact, scientists themselves often use a clipped form of a cumbersome technical term.

The name of the virus, “SARS-CoV-2,” for example, is an abbreviated version of “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.” And the name of the disease, “Covid-19,” is short for “coronavirus disease 2019” (the year it emerged).

However, in general, nontechnical English, as you’ve noticed, the disease and the pathogen that causes it are often referred to as “the coronavirus.”

We see this as simply an elliptical, or shortened, way of saying “the new [or novel or 2019] coronavirus.” Using the article makes the noun particular, so that it means the one of current concern.

Neither the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, nor any standard dictionary comments specifically on the use of articles with the noun.

However, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) consistently uses “the coronavirus” in an explanatory essay: “a pandemic like the coronavirus” … “words related to the coronavirus” … “the difference between the coronavirus and the plague,” and so on.

You have to recognize that the nontechnical usage is still a work in progress. News organizations have reported on the current pandemic for only a few months, sometimes using “the coronavirus” and sometimes only “coronavirus.”

A search of newspaper and news agency archives suggests that we’re now seeing a preference for “the.” In the April 25 edition of the New York Times, for instance, we found many more noun uses of “the coronavirus” than just “coronavirus.” Here’s a small sampling:

“deaths linked to the coronavirus” … “the coronavirus has added danger” … “without catching the coronavirus” … “died of complications of the coronavirus” … “the fallout of the coronavirus” … “the fight against the coronavirus” … how the coronavirus behaves.”

As you know, there are dozens of pathogens called coronaviruses, and different ones cause different diseases, also called coronaviruses. These illnesses range from the common cold to SARS and now Covid-19.

When people use the term “coronavirus,” it’s often difficult to tell which is meant, the disease or the virus. But in most cases that makes little practical difference.

Again we’re talking here about nontechnical English, as opposed to the more specific terms used in scientific language (which we’ll get to in a moment). But nontechnical doesn’t mean nonstandard English.

Nearly all American and British dictionaries recognize “coronavirus” as standard English for a virus of this kind. And two of them have recently expanded their definitions to include a disease caused by such a virus.

Right now there are entries for “coronavirus” in nine out of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. All nine (five American and four British) define it as a noun meaning one of the family of viruses known as coronaviruses.

And two (one American, one British) add that it also means a disease caused by one of those viruses. Here, for instance, are Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “coronavirus”:

“1: any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19.”

“2: an illness caused by a coronavirus, especially COVID-19.”

The British dictionary Macmillan also has both definitions. For #2, it says the word appears “in general use to refer to the disease Covid-19 that is caused by a novel type of coronavirus.”

We expect that as time goes by, more standard dictionaries will recognize definition #2, with “coronavirus” meaning a disease, especially Covid-19. (On our blog, we capitalize only the “C,” as do many news organizations, including the New York Times.)

For now, the OED has only the virus definition. Its entry was last updated in 2008.

Oxford defines “coronavirus,” as “any member of the genus Coronavirus of enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses which have prominent projections from the envelope and are pathogens of humans, other mammals, and birds, typically causing gastrointestinal, respiratory, or neurological disease.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a scientific report in the journal Nature (Nov. 16, 1968): “In the opinion of the eight virologists, these viruses are members of a previously unrecognised group which they suggest should be called the coronaviruses, to recall the characteristic appearance by which these viruses are identified in the electron microscope.”

Viewed microscopically, the viruses are roundish and have projections forming a “corona” like that seen during a solar eclipse (the Latin noun corona means a crown or wreath).

In scientific as opposed to general English, “coronavirus” isn’t normally used by itself, without any modifiers, to mean the virus or the disease of the current pandemic.

The virus’s official name, announced on Feb. 11, 2020, by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” abbreviated as “SARS-CoV-2.”

As for the disease, its official name, announced the same day by the World Health Organization, is “COVID-19,” an abbreviation of “coronavirus disease 2019.”

The two international agencies, according to the WHO, “were in communication about the naming of both the virus and the disease.” But in its own communications with the public, the WHO says it won’t use the official taxonomic name of the virus (“SARS-CoV-2”), instead using more general terms like “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus.”

The agency decided this in part, it says, because “using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.”

The disease SARS (for “severe acute respiratory syndrome”) is now inactive. But outbreaks of MERS (officially “Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus,” or “MERS-CoV”), were still being reported in late 2019 in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, according to WHO reports.

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A flight of chardonnays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers!

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When Harry met ‘high maintenance’

Q: Someone mentioned to me that the terms “high maintenance person” and “transitional relationship” come from the film When Harry Met Sally. I find no confirmation of this. Do you have any information about it?

A: No, those expressions didn’t originate with the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally. In fact, the 1988 screenplay, by Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, and Andrew Scheinman, doesn’t include the exact phrase “high maintenance person” or “transitional relationship.” But the film, directed by Reiner, uses similar wording and may have helped popularize the two usages.

In the film, Harry (played by Billy Crystal) says, “There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.” Sally (Meg Ryan) later asks, “Which one am I?” And Harry responds, “The worst one. You’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”

In another scene, Sally tells her friend Marie (Carrie Fisher): “Look, there is no point in my going out with someone I might really like if I met him at the right time but who right now has no chance of being anything to me but a transitional man.” Later, Sally tells Harry that her ex-boyfriend is marrying a paralegal in his office: “She’s supposed to be his transitional person, she’s not supposed to be the one.”

The phrase “high maintenance” has been used adjectivally since the early 1980s to describe someone “requiring a great deal of care or attention; esp. very demanding or fussy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation refers to a child with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder in which bones break easily: “An O.I. child is a high-maintenance child” (from People Weekly, April 19, 1982).

The first Oxford example for the expression used to describe a demanding adult is from an essay on friendship: “None is what I think of as a high-maintenance friend—someone, that is, who requires regular ministering to in the form of visits, daily telephone calls, or lengthy letters” (from “A Former Good Guy and His Friends,” an essay by Joseph Epstein, writing under the name Aristides in the spring 1985 issue of American Scholar).

The OED doesn’t include the expression “transitional relationship,” nor does it have any citations for “transitional” used to modify “man,” “woman,” or “person,” as the adjective is used in When Harry Met Sally. However, we’ve found two examples for “transitional person” from well before the movie opened:

“A transitional person performs the same role as the confidant, but sticks around longer. It can be a lover, a child, a lawyer or a good friend. No matter what, they’re on your side” (from “The Stages of Splitting Up,” Washington Post, Sept. 30, 1986).

“Eventually, the initiator may find a ‘transitional person,’ someone helpful in the separation process. ‘Usually people think of the transitional person as a lover, but it also may be an acquaintance, a counselor or therapist, a minister or even a brother or sister,’ Dr. [Diane] Vaughan said” (from “Drifting Apart: A Look at How Relationships End,” New York Times, Dec. 8, 1986).

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression “transitional relationship” used in the sense we’re discussing is from a self-help book on romantic relationships, published the year the movie opened:

“The distinguishing characteristic, then, of the transitional relationship is that it reflects growth, often profound growth. It allows a great leap ahead, that clear forward movement toward the close-to-perfect, enduring, perhaps permanent love” (Choosing Lovers, 1989, by Martin Blinder).

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Link, a bendable word

Q: There was a headline describing something as “linked with” cancer. I thought it should have said “linked to” cancer. But I am not sure why or if both are permissible.

A: Both prepositions are acceptable. You can link something “to” or “with” something else. In fact, the “with” usage is somewhat older, though writers have used both prepositions for hundreds of years.

Before we discuss the prepositions, let’s look at the history of “link,” which is ultimately derived from kleng-, a reconstructed prehistoric root meaning to bend or turn, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

That ancient Proto-Indo-European term gave Old English the noun hlęnce (plural hlęncan), meaning armor or a coat of mail.

Then it gave Middle English (by way of Old Norse) the word lynk, lynke, linke, etc., a noun for a section of a chain, and in the plural, chains or fetters.

Finally, lynk and its variations led to the Middle English verb linken, meaning to bind or fasten things together.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the bending sense of the prehistoric root “implies ‘joints’ and ‘links,’ and this is the meaning which the word is presumed to have had when it passed into Old Norse as hlenkr—from which English acquired link.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have any Old English citations for hlęnce or hlęncan used to mean armor, but here’s an example and a translation from the Boswell-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:

“Moyses bebeád … frecan árísan habban heora hlencan … beran beorht searo” (“Moses bade the warriors arise, take their coats of mail, bear their bright arms”). From a retelling of Exodus in the Junius Manuscript, believed written in the late 900s. We’ve added ellipses to show where words in the original manuscript are missing from the Boswell-Toller citation.

The first OED citation for the noun “link” is from a poem based on an Aesop fable: “Thinkand thairthrow to lok him in his linkis” (“Think and thereby lock him in his chains”). From “The Fox, the Wolf and the Husbandman,” in The Morall Fabillis of Esope, circa 1480s, by the Scottish poet Robert Henryson.

In the 16th century, the noun took on the more general sense of a connecting part, whether literal or figurative. In the first Oxford example, “link” refers to a political marriage: “A conuenient mariage … whiche should be a lincke necessary, to knit together the realme of Scotlande and England.” From The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall.

As for the verb “link,” the OED says it’s derived from the noun “though recorded somewhat earlier.” In other words, the verb appeared first in writing but it’s believed to have come from the earlier use of the noun in speech.

The earliest citation for the verb is from a poem about the friendship between two merchants: “In love he lynketh them that be vertuous.” From “Fabula Duorum Mercatorum” (“Tale of Two Merchants”), written sometime before 1412 by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.

Getting back to your question about prepositions, the earliest OED example for “link with” is from a poem by Lydgate about the rise and fall of Troy: “So was malice linked with innocence” (Troy Book, written from 1412 to 1420).

The first “link to” citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an allegorical poem in which spiders and flies stand for opposing Protestants and Roman Catholics during the 16th-century reign of Queen Mary I:

“Our chaine / That lingth [linketh] vs to credence: is not auctoritie [authority], / But good vse of auctoritie, by honestie” (The Spider and the Flie, 1556, by John Heywood).

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Is the pun in the pudding?

Q: In your discussion of “the proof is in the pudding,” you seem to have missed the pun. Puddings, as in doughs, etc., require proofing before baking.

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but there are several problems with your suggestion.

First of all, the word “proof” in bread baking means to make dough rise by means of yeast. And yeast is not normally an ingredient in puddings—even ones that are baked.

Second, that old proverb—“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”—dates from the early 1600s, as we wrote in our 2012 post. There, “proof” is a noun meaning something like a test. But “proof” in the culinary sense, a verb, wasn’t recorded until the second half of the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And third, “pudding,” a word dating from the Middle English of the late 13th century, originally meant a kind of sausage—that is, an animal’s stomach or intestine, stuffed with various ingredients and boiled.

This sense of “pudding” survived into the late 19th century, as we wrote in a 2016 post (even today, the Scottish dish haggis is sometimes referred to as a “pudding”). So the “proof of the pudding” proverb was probably about sausage.

Over time, of course, “pudding” was also used for other sorts of savory and sweet dishes. But it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that it arrived at its most common meanings in American and British English today.

In the US, it means a sweet dessert of a custard-like consistency, a sense first recorded in the 1890s.

In the UK, it means any sweet dessert, a usage first recorded in the 1930s. An unsweetened exception is Yorkshire pudding, a dumpling-like side dish made of batter (not dough), and no yeast.

So if puddings aren’t made with yeast, what does “proof” mean in the old proverb? Well, it’s not about baking.

As the OED explains, the noun as used in the proverb originally meant a “test” but is “now sometimes understood” to mean “evidence.” And “the proof of the pudding”—a popular phrase derived from the longer proverb—means “that which puts something to the test or (in later use) proves a fact or statement.”

As we mentioned earlier, the kitchen use of “proof” is much more recent than the proverb. This baking term (as in “to proof dough”) appeared in the 1870s, a couple of decades after a similar use of “prove” (as in “the dough proved quickly”).

“Proof” here is a transitive verb (one requiring an object) while “prove” is an intransitive verb (one that doesn’t require an object).

The OED defines “prove” in the baking sense this way: “Of bread or dough: to become aerated by the fermentation of yeast prior to baking; to rise. Occasionally also of yeast: to cause such aeration.”

Here’s Oxford’s earliest example: “The whole of the flour is … left about an hour … to prove” (from Charles Tomlinson’s Cyclopædia of Useful Arts, 1852).

The OED defines “proof” in this sense as  “to aerate (dough) by the action of yeast before baking.” This is the dictionary’s first example:

“After this laborious process the finished dough is covered over for some time … during which fermentation again begins, and the mass is ‘proofed’ ” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition, Edinburgh, 1875).

Those early examples of “prove” and “proof” in baking were probably printed in italics and quotation marks because the usages were unfamiliar to 19th-century readers.

To conclude, when that old proverb appeared there was no pun intended.

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Courting a honey or a heartache

Q: “Court” seems to be an incredibly adaptable word—a royal court, a tennis court, a court of law, courting a beau or a client, heartache or disaster. Where did it all begin?

A: All those senses of “court” (in law, romance, diplomacy, sports, etc.) ultimately come from cohors, classical Latin for an enclosed area—what we’d now call a courtyard.

As cohors evolved in Latin, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “it came to stand for those assembled in such a yard—a crowd of attendants or company of soldiers; hence the meaning of cohort familiar today.”

“But both in its original sense and as ‘retinue’ the word took another and rather more disguised path into English,” Ayto writes.

While the English word retained “the underlying notion” of an enclosed area, he says, it added a judicial sense because of “an early association of Old French cort [a judicial tribunal] with Latin curia [a legal tribunal or sovereign’s assembly].”

The respect and attention that one offers at a judicial court led to the diplomatic, romantic, and summoning senses of the term, while the sports sense comes from the original meaning of cohors in Latin as an enclosed area.

When “court” first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a meeting of a ruler with his retinue as well as the place where such a meeting was held.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the term (spelled “curt” here) in the sense of “a formal assembly held by the sovereign at his residence” with “his councillors and great lords, for purposes of administration”:

“Þa he to Engle land com. þa was he under fangen mid micel wurtscipe. and to king bletcæd in Lundene on þe Sunnen dæi. be foren midwinter dæi and held  þær micel curt” (“When he came to England, he was received with great honor. He was consecrated King in London on the Sunday before Christmas Day, and then he held a great court there”).

The passage is from an 1154 entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the death of King Stephen, the arrival from France of Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, and his consecration in London as King Henry II.

The next Oxford example, which we’ve also expanded, uses the term in the sense of “the place where a sovereign (or other high dignitary) resides and holds state, attended by his retinue.” This comes from a parable in the Cotton Vespasian A. Homilies, dated at sometime before 1175:

“þat an rice king wes. strang and mihti. his land gélest wide and side. his folc was swiðe ærfeð-telle … and he nam him tó rede þat heom wolde ȝearceon anæ grate laðienge. and þider ȝeclepíen all his underþeód. þat hi bi éne féce to his curt come sceolde and sette ænne déȝie” (“there was a rich king who was strong and mighty; his land stretched far and wide; his people were numerous … and he decided to prepare a great feast and call all his subjects thither so that they should come at the same time to his court”).

The word took on its legal sense in the late 13th century when “court” came to mean “an assembly of judges or other persons legally appointed and acting as a tribunal to hear and determine any cause, civil, ecclesiastical, military, or naval.”

The first OED citation is from a treatise in Middle French that sets forth the laws of England (early legal works in England were in Latin or French): “en dreit de nous mesures et de nostre Curt” (“with regard to ourselves and our Court”). From Britton, 1292, a work whose origin and author are in dispute; some early sources say John le Breton, bishop of Hereford, wrote it at the direction of King Edward I.

The first Oxford example that’s written in Middle English is from a 1297 entry in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history: “The king wolde, that in is court the ple solde be driue” (“The king willed that the plea be pursued in his court”).

In the early 16th century, “court” took on the sense of  “an enclosed quadrangular area, uncovered or covered, with a smooth level floor, in which tennis, rackets, or fives are played.” (In fives, an English sport, players use bare or gloved hands to hit a ball against the walls of a court with three or four sides.)

The first OED citation uses the term in reference to a court for lawn tennis: “Hen. Smith, for ceiling the great armoury house at Greenwich, the Friar’s wharf, the tennis court at Richmond, and other places, 200l.” From a March 1519 entry in King Henry VIII’s Book of Payments. At the time, the verb “ceil” meant to add a canopy.

In the late 16th century, the noun “court” took on the sense of “homage such as is offered at court,” specifically as “attention or courtship shown to one whose favour, affection, or interest is sought.” The earliest OED example uses the term in its diplomatic sense: “Him the Prince with gentle court did bord [address]” (from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, 1590).

The verb “court,” which showed up in the early 1500s, originally meant to live at a royal court or spend a lot of time there. But by the late 1500s it was being used in its romantic sense.

The first Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is also from The Faerie Queene: “And in the midst thereof vpon the floure, / A louely beuy [bevy] of faire Ladies sate, / Courted of many a iolly Paramoure, / The which them did in modest wise amate.”

In the early 1600s, the use of the verb began expanding to include the seeking of things other than romance, such as power, friendship, publicity, or popularity: “Never would he have had the face to have courted the Crown Imperiall” (The Historie of the Holy Warre, 1639, by Thomas Fuller).

And by the mid-19th century, according to our searches, the verb broadened even more to include inviting or provoking something negative. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book of homespun philosophy:

“Therefore, in the first, saints and martyrs have fulfilled their mission, / Conquering dangers, courting deaths, and triumphing in all” (Proverbial Philosophy, 1843, by Martin Farquhar Tupper).

The verb phrase “court disaster” showed up a dozen years later, according to our searches: “Gladwyn discouraged the enterprise, conceiving it, doubtless, as rash and perilous to court disaster” (History of American Conspiracies, 1863, by Orville J. Victor).

Over the years, many other descendants of the Latin cohors have appeared in English, including “courtier” (circa 1290), “courtesy” (before 1200), “courtly” (c. 1450), “courthouse” (1483), “cohort” (1489), “courting” (1530), “curtsy” (noun, 1513; verb, before 1556), “courtyard” (1552), “courtesan” (1549), “courtship” (1597), “pay [or make] one’s court” (1667), and “courtroom” (1677). (In a 2017 post, we discussed “courtesy” and “curtsy.”)

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An etymological valentine

(Note: In observance of Valentine’s Day, we’re repeating a post that originally appeared on Feb. 23, 2012.)

Q: I wished a colleague happy Valentine’s Day earlier in the month and was told there is no apostrophe plus “s” in the name of the holiday. There is, isn’t there?

A: Yes, there is an apostrophe + “s” in “Valentine’s Day.” The longer form of the name for the holiday is “St. Valentine’s Day.”

And in case you’re wondering, the word “Valentine’s” in the name of the holiday is a possessive proper noun, while the word “valentines” (for the cards we get on Feb. 14) is a plural common noun.

“Valentine’s Day” has the possessive apostrophe because it’s a saint’s day. In Latin, Valentinus was the name of two early Italian saints, both of whom are commemorated on Feb. 14.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the phrase “Valentine’s Day” was first recorded in about 1381 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English poem The Parlement of Foules:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (In Chaucer’s time, possessive apostrophes were not used.)

Chaucer’s lines would be translated this way in modern English: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird comes here to choose his mate.” (The title means a parliament or assembly of fowls—that is, birds.)

As a common noun, “valentine” was first used to mean a lover, sweetheart, or special friend. This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in 1477, according to OED citations.

In February of that year, a young woman named Margery Brews wrote two love letters to her husband-to-be, John Paston, calling him “Voluntyn” (Valentine).

As rendered into modern English, one of the letters begins “Right reverend and well-beloved Valentine” and ends “By your Valentine.” (We’re quoting from The Paston Letters, edited by Norman Davis, 1963.)

In the mid-1500s, the OED says, the noun “valentine” was first used to mean “a folded paper inscribed with the name of a person to be drawn as a valentine.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, adds Oxford, that “valentine” came to have its modern meaning: “a written or printed letter or missive, a card of dainty design with verses or other words, esp. of an amorous or sentimental nature, sent on St. Valentine’s day.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from Mary Russell Mitford’s book Our Village (1824), a collection of sketches: “A fine sheet of flourishing writing, something between a valentine and a sampler.”

This later example is from Albert R. Smith’s The Adventures of Mr. Ledbury and his Friend Jack Johnson (1844): “He had that morning received … a valentine, in a lady’s hand-writing, and perfectly anonymous.”

What could be more intriguing than that?

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All het up

Q: The other day I came across the phrase “all het up” and wondered if it’s dialect for “all heated up.” Is this worthy of an expansive look?

A: The colloquial expression “all het up,” meaning angry, upset, or worried, can be traced back to an old use of “het” as the past tense and past participle of the verb “heat.” As odd as this use of “het” for “heated” may seem now, similar forms are standard with some other verbs, like “meet” (“met”), “feed” (“fed”), and “lead” (“led”).

The past tense and past participle forms of “heat” have been spelled all sorts of ways since the verb first appeared in Old English as hǽtan, haten, hatten, and so on. In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the past was hǽtte or hætte, while the participle was gehǽt, gehǽted, or gehǽtt. In Middle English, spoken from roughly 1250 to 1500, the past was hatte, hette, het, etc., while the participle was hatte, hette, het, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes het among the usual past tenses and participles of “heat” in Middle English, but adds that it was considered dialectal from the 19th century on. As the OED explains, “The past tense and participle underwent in Middle English various shortenings, some of which are still dialectal; the literary language now recognizes only heated.”

Old English inherited the verb “heat” from prehistoric Germanic, a language reconstructed by linguists. The earliest Oxford example is from the Épinal manuscript in The Épinal-Erfurt Glossary, a Latin-English glossary that the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.” In Latin, calentes is a participle of caleo (to be hot). In Old English, haetendae means heated.

The earliest example in the OED for “het” used as the past tense of “heat” is from a medieval Scottish life of St. Thomas the Apostle: “[He] in þe fyre gert het þam wele” (“[He] in the great fire heated them well”). From Legends of the Saints in the Scottish Dialect of the Fourteenth Century, edited by William M. Metcalfe in 1896 for the Scottish Text Society.

The dictionary’s first example of “het” used as a participle is from a Middle English translation of a collection of spurious letters supposedly written by Aristotle to Alexander the Great:

“Hit ys cold and nedith to be het” (“It is cold and needs to be heated”). From Secret of Secrets, circa 1400, a translation of the Latin Secreta Secretorum. Scholars believe the work originated in Arabic in the 10th century and was translated into Latin in the 12th century. In Arabic, it’s known as Kitāb Sirr al-Asrā.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the terms “het,” “het up,” and “all het up” appeared as colloquial or dialectal adjectives meaning angry, upset, or excited. The earliest example we’ve found for “het” used alone in this sense is from a poem by James Russell Lowell:

“Don’t you git het: they thought the thing was planned; / They’ll cool off when they come to understand.”  From The Biglow Papers, Second Series, London, 1862. The OED has an abbreviated version from the 1867 American edition.

The first Oxford example of “het up” used adjectivally, which we’ll expand here, is from “A Walking Delegate” (1894), a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her [a horse-drawn carriage] under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.” The story appeared first in the Century Magazine (December 1894) and later in Kipling’s collection The Day’s Work (1898).

The longer term you’re asking about, “all het up,” showed up in the early 20th century, Oxford says: “But you mustn’t get yourself all ‘het up’ before you take the plunge” (Letters From a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, a 1902 novel by George Horace Latimer).

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Not a man but felt this terror

Q: I have a question about the strange use of “but” in the following letter of Emerson to Carlyle: “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.” I see no modern definition of “but” that fits here. Is the usage archaic?

A: Yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of “but” is archaic in that sentence, but the usage is still occasionally seen in contemporary historical novels.

The sentence is from a letter Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle on Oct. 30, 1840. In it, Emerson refers to the plans of American social reformers to set up utopian communities inspired by the ideas of the French social theorist Charles Fourier.

The passage is especially confusing because it has principal and subordinate clauses with elliptical, or missing, subjects. The “but” is being used to replace a missing pronoun (the subject) in the subordinate clause and to make the clause negative.

Here’s the sentence with all the missing or substitute parts in place: “There is not a reading man who has not a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “but” is being used here “with the pronominal subject or object of the subordinate clause unexpressed, so that but acts as a negative relative: that … not, who … not (e.g. Not a man but felt this terror, i.e. there was not a man who did not feel this terror, they all felt this terror). Now archaic and rare.”

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a medieval romance: “There be none othir there that knowe me, but wold be glad to wite me do wele” (“There are none there that know me who would not gladly expect me to act well”). From The Three Kings’ Sons, circa 1500. Frederick James Furnivall, who edited the manuscript in 1895 for the Early English Text Society, suggested that David Aubert, a French calligrapher for the Duke of Burgundy, may have been the author.

The most recent Oxford example for this use of “but” is from a 20th-century historical novel for children:

“There is scarce one among us but knows the fells as a man knows his own kale-garth” (“There is scarce one among us who doesn’t know the hills as a man knows his own cabbage garden”). From The Shield Ring, 1956, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

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Doing hard time

Q: What’s the difference between “doing time” and “doing hard time”?

Both expressions mean serving a stretch in the slammer. “Doing time” means serving an unspecified term in prison, but “doing hard time” implies that the term is a long one for a serious crime.

The word “time” has had prison associations since the late 18th century. In the prison sense, “time” means “a term of imprisonment,” says the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives this as the earliest known example:

“The answer you gave to the convict who came to tell you his time was expired—‘Would to God my time was expired, too!’ ” (From a 1790 entry in the Historical Records of Australia, published in 1914.)

The verb phrase “to do time,” the OED says, was “originally Criminals’ slang” meaning “to spend time in prison for an offence.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from trial testimony reported in a mid-19th-century British newspaper:

“He continued, ‘I had nothing to do with the shawl robbery … nor Johnson’s—I was doing time (meaning, I was in prison).’ ” (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Feb. 26, 1865. It’s not clear whether the parenthetical explanation was added by the witness or the reporter.)

The phrase “do time” has been used this way steadily ever since. The OED’s most recent example is from the Atlantic Monthly (March 2010): “A former member of NAMBLA [North American Man/Boy Love Association] … doing time at Limon [in Colorado] for sexual exploitation of a child.”

Finally we come to “hard time,” a noun phrase that the OED says is found “frequently in to do (also serve) hard time.” The dictionary says “hard time” originated as “U.S. slang” in the late 19th century and means “time spent in prison, esp. as part of a long sentence served for a serious crime.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an Iowa newspaper, the Burlington Hawk-eye (Dec. 30, 1896): “Oscar Barrett produced five pantomimes this year, and any criminal doing hard time had an easier December than this man.”

Here’s an example that neatly illustrates how “doing time” and “doing hard time” differ: “Men and women who are doing time—some of them hard time for serious crimes” (from a Texas newspaper, the Paris News, March 10, 1989).

However, to “do time” doesn’t necessarily imply incarceration. As the OED says, it can mean “to spend a period of time in a specified situation or position (typically doing a job or task), esp. one regarded as obligatory but unpleasant.”

This sense, too, dates back to the late 19th century. Here is Oxford’s earliest known use: “Mr. Griffith’s leading character is a revivified mummy. … The women of the book, one of whom has also done time as a mummy, are superfluous.” (From a fiction supplement to a London weekly, The Academy, July 3, 1897.)

The dictionary’s latest example is from New York magazine (Sept. 6, 2004): “Did you do your time in two-bedroom apartments you shared with three actors, two magazine fact-checkers, and a crystal-meth-addled pastry chef?”

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