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

Better half (the whole story)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ‘it’ in ‘lording it over’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentlemen, God rest you merry!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When ‘pomp’ met ‘circumstance’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On ‘thrice’ and ‘trice’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Getting down to the bone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As to ‘as to’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can you break a phrasal verb up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There, there, don’t cry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Weak in the knees

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

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

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

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

Here’s a closer look at the history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bomb cyclone: A blast from the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How a clotheshorse became chic

Q: I’m curious about why somebody who lives to dress fashionably is referred to as a “clotheshorse.” What’s horsey about fashion?

A: The fashionable meaning of “clotheshorse” is derived from the term’s original sense of a frame for hanging wet or musty clothes inside a house.

When the usage first appeared in the early 19th century, it referred to “an upright wooden frame standing upon legs, with horizontal bars on which clothes are hung out to dry or air,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Miseries of Human Life (1807), a book by the English clergyman James Beresford about the indignities of everyday life: “You look like a clothes-horse, with a great-coat stretched out upon it, just ready for the rattan.”

The next OED example is from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836). We’ve expanded the citation to give readers more of the Dickensian flavor: 

“We keep no horse, but a clothes-horse; enjoy no saddle so much as a saddle of mutton; and, following our own inclinations, have never followed the hounds.  Leaving these fleeter means of getting over the ground, or of depositing oneself upon it, to those who like them, by hackney-coach stands we take our stand.”

In the mid-19th century, Oxford says, “clotheshorse” took on the figurative sense of “a person whose main function is or appears to be to wear or show off clothes.” It cites a political pamphlet that explains why “plain Tom and Jack” may be better qualified than “Lord Tommy and the Honourable John” for parliamentary duties:

“Tom and Jack have been at least workers all their days, not idlers, game-preservers and mere human clothes-horses.” We’ve expanded the citation, which is from Thomas Carlyle’s Latter-day Pamphlets (1850).

The next OED example is from Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In the citation, which we’ve also expanded, the narrator criticizes England’s choice of people to memorialize:

“With the spirit of prophecy upon me, I could look into the future and see her erect statues and monuments to her unspeakable Georges and other royal and noble clothes-horses, and leave unhonored the creators of this world—after God—Gutenburg, Watt, Arkwright, Whitney, Morse, Stephenson, Bell.”

As for “clothes” and “horse,” the nouns had the meanings you’d expect when they showed up in Old English writing. As the OED says, claoas meant “covering for the person; wearing apparel; dress, raiment, vesture.” And hors meant “a solid-hoofed perissodactyl quadruped (Equus caballus), having a flowing mane and tail, whose voice is a neigh.”

So how did “clotheshorse” come to mean a frame for hanging clothing, first a wooden one and later a fashionable human one?

Over the years, Oxford says, the noun “horse” was used figuratively for “things resembling the quadruped in shape, use, or some characteristic real or fancied,” such as in the sense of a sawhorse (1718), vaulting horse (1785), and iron horse or steam locomotive (1874).

As we’ve said, the term “clotheshorse” first appeared in the early 19th century in the sense of a wooden frame for drying clothing. However, “horse” by itself was used a century earlier with the same meaning.

The OED cites an entry for “horse” in an early 18th-century dictionary that includes this sense: “Also a wooden Frame to dry wash’d Linnen upon” (The New World of Words, 6th ed., 1706, compiled by Edward Phillips and edited by John Kersey).

We’ll end with an example we found in a London newspaper, using “clotheshorse” to describe a member of the British royal family who isn’t particularly known for her sense of fashion:

“Princess Anne, 71, is the only daughter of the Queen, 95, and is regularly described as the hardest-working member of the Royal Family. She has become known as a workhorse as opposed to a clotheshorse like other female royals” (Daily Express, March 7, 2021).

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Orthographic origins

Q: What is the connection between “orthography” and “orthographic projection”? The definitions of the two terms seem unrelated.

A: We’ll have to look at their ancient Greek roots to see how “orthography” (the study of correct spelling) is related to “orthographic projection” (depicting three-dimensional objects in two dimensions, as on maps and in architectural drawings).

In ancient times, the combining forms ὀρθο- (ortho-) and -γραϕία (-graphia) had several different meanings that are now seen in the English words derived from them, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Greek, ὀρθο- could mean straight, correct, or upright (that is, perpendicular). In “orthography,” the combining form “ortho-” means correct, while in “orthographic projection,” it means upright.

Similarly, -γραϕία could mean writing, drawing, or recording. In “orthography,” the combining form “-graphy” refers to writing, while in “orthographic projection,” its cousin “-graphic” refers to drawing. The Greek term comes from the verb γρᾰ́φω (graphō, write) and originally meant to scratch, as on a clay tablet.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “orthography” as “correct or proper spelling; spelling according to accepted usage or convention.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Middle English rendering of a Latin treatise on Roman warfare:

“Thi writer eek [also], pray him to taken hede / Of thi cadence and kepe Ortographie, / That neither he take of ner multiplye” (from Knyghthode and Bataile, 1458-60, by John Neele, a verse paraphrase of De Re Militari, circa 390, by Flavius Vegetius Renatus). In the citation, from the last stanza, future scribes are asked to preserve the rhythm and spelling in copying the work.

Although the adjective “orthographic” has been used since the early 1800s in reference to “orthography,” it originally appeared in the sense you’re asking about, “of a projection used in maps, elevations, etc.,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from a review of a 17th-century book that discusses the optical projections from an astrolabe, a device once used to make measurements in astronomy:

“The Orthographick Projection, by Perpendiculars falling from the respective Points of the Circles of the Spheare, on the Projecting Plain: Such a Projection, if the Plain be the Meridian, Ptolemy called the Analemma” (from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, 1668-69).

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Why ‘well-heeled’ means well-to-do

Q: I’ve read online that the well-off meaning of “well-heeled” comes from cock-fighting. Could this be true?

A: Yes, the use of “well-heeled” to mean well-to-do is indeed derived from the verb “heel” and adjective “heeled” used in reference to a gamecock fitted with sharp artificial spurs.

These terms can be traced to hela, the Anglo-Saxon noun for “heel,” the body part. The Oxford English Dictionary’s oldest example of the noun is from a Latin-Old English prayer:

“[Tegetalos cum tibis et calcibus / helan sconcum helum” (“[Protect] my ankles with shins and heels”). From Glosses to Lorica of Laidcenn. A “lorica,” from the Latin term for body armor, is a prayer to protect each part of the body from evil.

The verb “heel” (meaning to replace the heel of a shoe, stocking, etc.) appeared in the late 16th century:

“Vnwilling to vndertake the cutting out of a Garment, before I can heele a Hose.” From A Health to the Gentlemanly Profession of Seruingmen (1598), by “I. M.,” believed to be the English writer Gervase Markham.

In the early 18th century, the verb “heel” took on the sense of “to provide (a fighting cock) with spurs; to arm (a fighting cock),” according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a book about cock fighting:

“I would let no man Heel a Cock, unless he has first seen him Sparr, and know his way of Striking” (The Royal Pastime of Cock-Fighting, 1709, by Robert Howlett).

The book has several other examples of “heel” used as a verb as well as a few examples of “heeled” and “heel’d” as adjectives. However, the adjectives apparently refer to gamecocks with naturally sharp or dull spurs, not artificial ones.

In discussing the choice of a fighting cock, for instance, the author recommends “a Cock that is hard, Sharp-Heel’d, and handsome shaped.”

We’ve seen several examples from the 1600s for “heeld” or “heel’d” used similarly. But in the following passage, it’s possible that “heelde” may mean artificially spurred:

“The best cock-maisters are of opinion, that a sharpe heeld cocke, though hee be a little false, is much better then the truest cocke which hath a dull heele, and hitteth seldome.” From “Of the Fighting Cocke,” Chapter 19 in Country Contentments, or The Husbandmans Recreations, by Gervase Markham. (The book first appeared in 1611, but our citation is from the fourth edition, 1631.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the artificial sense of “heeled” this way: “of a fighting cock: provided with artificial spurs.” The dictionary’s earliest recorded example is from the 19th century:

“In this inhuman contest, a number of cocks heeled with artificial spurs, are turned down together.” From Clavis Calendaria; or, a Compendious Analysis of the Calendar (1839), by John Brady, an author and Royal Navy victualing clerk.

A couple of decades later, the OED says, “heeled” was used in writing to describe someone “armed with a revolver or other weapon.” The dictionary’s first example, which we’ve expanded, cites Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii (1866):

“In Virginia City, in former times, the insulted party, if he were a true man, would lay his hand gently on his six-shooter and say, ‘Are you heeled?’ ”

And a few years later, Oxford says, “heeled” came to mean “provided or equipped with resources, esp. money; well off, wealthy.” The dictionary’s earliest example has “well-heeled,” though “heeled” is in quotes, suggesting the usage is relatively new:

“Mr. L. L. Northrup is … so well ‘heeled’ that he gives his attention entirely to the banking business” (The Neosho Valley Register, Iola, KS, Sept. 21, 1871).

The latest OED citation is from A House Is Not a Home, the 1953 memoir of the madam Polly Adler (ghost-written by Virginia Faulkner): “I made up my mind to go back in the whorehouse business and this time not to quit until I was really heeled.”

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We are met on a great battle-field

[Note: In observance of Presidents’ Day, we’re republishing a post that originally ran on Dec. 9, 2015.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tracking the ‘daily double’

Q: I’m guessing you’re familiar with the “Daily Double” feature on the game show Jeopardy! It’s catchy and alliterative, but I find the usage jarring, since it scarcely resembles the “daily double” I know from my misspent days at the horse races.

A: The “Daily Double” is popular with viewers of Jeopardy! and, as you say, the name is catchy and alliterative. Our guess is that the show’s producers aren’t bothered one whit that their use of the expression bears little resemblance to the original horse-racing term.

In the game, contestants who hit a “Daily Double” can bet part or all of their accumulated winnings and—they hope—collect double their wager. But at the track, a  “daily double” is a single bet that picks the winners of two separate races.

So the Jeopardy! use of “daily double” isn’t historically authentic. But seriously, if McDonald’s can name a two-patty cheeseburger the “Daily Double” (basically a “McDouble” with different toppings), then why can’t Jeopardy! make use of the term too? At least the game show usage involves betting, so it preserves some of the original wagering sense.

The noun “daily double” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, as “a single bet placed on the winners of two (often consecutive) races in a single day’s racing; (also) the two races designated as eligible for such a bet.” It’s a “chiefly Horse Racing” usage, the OED says.

The dictionary’s examples of “daily double” begin in the 1930s, but we’ve found earlier uses of the phrase. Searches of old newspaper databases show that it first appeared as a turf expression in late 19th-century Britain, where it cropped up in newspaper ads placed by tipsters, bookmakers, and “commission agents” (those who place bets on behalf of clients).

The earliest example we’ve found is from an ad in The Sporting Life (London, March 13, 1899). A turf insider offered to telegraph tips to clients for a fee, including “two-horse wires (a daily double, magnificent value).”

Unfortunately, the precise meaning of “daily double” isn’t spelled out in early uses. No doubt it was commonly known among bettors before it showed up in print.

The term continued to appear in turn-of-the-century British newspapers, in articles by sports writers as well as in ads placed by bookies and tipsters:

“Chief interest centres in the Liverpool Cup today, for which I think FOUNDLING will go close. For my daily double I shall couple the following” (The Daily Mirror, London, July 22, 1904) … “Suggested daily doubles” (The Sporting Chronicle, Lancashire, Oct. 22, 1904) … “All sportsmen should remit a sovereign for week’s Daily Double” (Dublin Daily Express, April 1, 1905).

And this ad, placed by a well-known commission agent, was trumpeted in Ireland and England: “ARTHUR COCKBURN IN MARVELLOUS FORM [headline] His daily Three-horse Wires are simply Invincible. Every Wire indicates his Daily Double and also Special One-horse Selection” (in both The Belfast Telegraph and The Leeds Mercury, Aug. 30, 1909).

The meaning of daily double” is clear in this later example, where a prognosticator boasted after the fact that “I selected four winners in Dutch Toy, Plum, and Vertigo, whilst daily double was Plum and Vertigo” (The Daily Herald, London, Sept. 13, 1920). So three of his tips were for individual winners and the fourth was for a “daily double,” a single bet picking two winners.

And here’s another example, from a bookmaker’s ad promising unlimited payouts: “No doubt, in common with most backers, you fancy your daily double. Have you ever seen your selections winning at multiplied odds totalling hundreds to one and been paid at the rate of some ridiculous limit?” (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, London, Feb. 9, 1924).

The OED’s earliest examples for “daily double” begin in 1930, when England officially approved the use of the bet on the government-regulated apparatus known as the totalizator. (Invented in the 19th century, the totalizator was a mechanical device for recording bets and total amounts wagered. The noun came into English in 1879, adopted from the term for the same device in French, totalisateur, 1870.)

The first OED citation for “daily double” is a heading in The Times (London, Sept. 25, 1930): “Totalisator Daily Double.”

A news item later that week in an Australian newspaper explained how the “daily double” worked: “DAILY DOUBLE ON TOTE: The English [Racetrack] Betting Board of Control has instituted a daily double on the tote. The first day it was tried no backer was lucky enough to pick the winner of the two selected races. … According to rule, the pool was equally divided between those who named the winner of either race. Fifty backers participated in the pool, sixteen naming Last of the Estelles, winner of the first race, with a loser, and thirty-four Story Teller, who won the second race, with a loser” (The Queensland Times, Nov. 1, 1930).

According to newspaper accounts of the time, the first official “tote daily doubles” in England were run at Leicester and Brighton on Sept. 22, 1930, and at additional tracks on subsequent days and weeks.

The term “daily double” crossed the Atlantic—officially, at least—the following year. The OED’s earliest North American example is from a Canadian newspaper: “The ‘daily double’ system of betting was inaugurated for the first time on this continent at Victoria Park this afternoon” (The Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg, May 21, 1931).

The earliest example we’ve seen in a US newspaper is from later that year. After describing the long-shot winners of the third and fifth races at Agua Caliente, Mexico, the article goes on: “Had someone thought to play the combination as a ‘daily double,’ he would have won $4678.80, the highest price ever paid on a $2 ticket” (Imperial Valley Press, El Centro, Calif., Aug. 19, 1931).

Soon afterward, according to Oxford citations, “double” was used in the US as short for “daily double.” Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “Only two men … held tickets on the double, which is governed somewhat along the lines of a parley bet” (New York Times, Sept. 15, 1931).

And as this later OED example shows, the usage also appears in British English: “David Nicholson and Peter Scudamore … brought off a 285-1 double on a day of shocks and spills at Windsor” (The Sporting Life, March 8, 1983).

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What’s normal about a ‘normal school’?

Q: Have you any idea what’s “normal” in terms like “normal school” and “normal college” and “normal department”?

A: Many of today’s American universities got their start in the 19th century as “normal schools” or “normal colleges”—that is, teacher training schools intended to standardize requirements and raise the quality of teachers in public education.

Earlier in the century, a similar usage developed in British higher education, where an institution specifically for training teachers was a “normal school” and a large university’s department of education was its “normal department.”

Later on, the adjective was dropped as the “normals” grew more comprehensive and did more than train teachers.

For instance, the Normal School of Design, founded in 1837 to set standards for art and design education, was renamed the Royal College of Art in 1896.

And in the US, the California State Normal School, founded in 1880 to train teachers, eventually became UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles.

How did the word “normal” relate to the training of teachers in those days? The use can be traced to the classical Latin norma (a model, standard, or pattern). We’ll show later how this notion made its way into French educational terminology and then into English.

The educational sense of “normal” is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of, relating to, or intended for the training of teachers, esp. in Continental Europe and North America.”

This sense of the adjective “normal,” the OED says, is found “chiefly” in the phrase “normal school” and is “now historical”—that is, used in references to the past.

The dictionary adds this note: “In North America, normal schools were for training primary school teachers. In Continental Europe, different normal schools also trained teachers at secondary and tertiary levels.”

(A clarification: Many “normal colleges” in the US had both short- and long-term programs. They offered not only teaching certificates, qualifying people to teach in elementary schools, but bachelor’s degrees enabling them to teach high school as well.)

The educational use of “normal,” as well as the phrase “normal school,” was adopted from late 18th-century French, where an école normale (first recorded in 1793) was a school for the training of teachers. Here the adjective normale meant “which serves as a model,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest English example—for this use of “normal” and for “normal school”—is from an anonymous English author who had lived in France in the 1790s: “At the opening of the Normal schools” (A Residence in France, 1797, by an “English Lady”).

Oxford notes that France’s first école normale “was set up by decree in 1794, and later became dedicated to training teachers for secondary education and thus (from 1845) called the Ecole Normale Supérieure.”

The dictionary’s next English citation is from a letter written on Aug. 29, 1826, by a Scottish clergyman visiting Copenhagen: “Colonel Abrahamson … has been with us all this afternoon, and has shewn us the Normal School” (The Life and Letters of Christopher Anderson, written by Hugh Anderson in 1853).

The earliest use we’ve found for the term in the US is from 1839, the year that the first such school opened in America. This is from a proclamation issued on April, 12, 1839, by the Massachusetts Board of Education:

“The Board of Education hereby give notice, that one Normal School, for the qualification of Female Teachers, is to be established at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex; and another, for the qualification of both Males and Females, is to be established at Barre, in the county of Worcester.” (From The Common School Journal, Boston, April 15, 1839. The journal was edited by Horace  Mann, who signed the proclamation as a member of the state board and who was later a US congressman.)

The Lexington Normal School opened first, on July 3, 1839 (it’s now Framingham State University). Among the school’s first graduating class was Mann’s niece Rebecca Mann Pennell Dean, who went on to teach at Antioch College in 1853, making her the nation’s first female college professor.

As a later citation from the OED shows, American educators commonly used variations like “normal college” and “normal university.” This is from legislation recorded in the Illinois House Journal (1857):

“Senate bill for ‘An act for the establishment and maintenance of a normal university’ was taken up. … There shall be established in said university … a normal college for the education of teachers of common schools.”

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Waste paper

Q: I once read that Cotton Mather wrote something like this: “As a cure for human ills, human excreta is a remedy that is hardly to be paralleled.” I took the “hardly to be paralleled” part to heart and sometimes use it with my wife. We find it droll. I have not been able to find this quotation now, though I do not think I hallucinated it. Can you help?

A: You didn’t hallucinate that passage from the Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728), who wrote extensively about medical subjects. You’ve had a hard time finding it because the original differs a bit from your memory of it.

The quote comes from The Angel of Bethesda, a medical treatise that was substantially finished in 1724 but not published in Mather’s lifetime. In a section on the use of human excrement in treating disease, he first discusses feces (one use is for treating eye problems!), then turns his attention to urine:

“And yett there is another Excrement of Humane Bodies that is hardly to be parallel’d! Medicinal Springs have been of great Esteem in the World, and much Resorted to. People expect Much from Going to the Waters. But, my Friend, thou hast one within thee, that Exceeds them all. The Uses and Vertues of Humane URINE, St. Barnaby’s Day were scarce Long Enough to enumerate them. The People, who take a Daily Draught of it, (Either their own or some young healthy persons,) have Hundreds of Thousands of them, found a Presærvative of Health (even to Old Age) hardly to be æqualled.”

The treatise was published for the first time in 1972, edited by the historian Gordon W. Jones, though excerpts had appeared in print earlier.

For a time as a young man, Mather studied medicine because a stammer seemed likely to prevent him from becoming a minster, according to the historian Vern Bullough, who reviewed The Angel of Bethesda in the fall 1973 issue of the journal Early American Literature.

In general Mather believed that sin was the cause of sickness, and sickness was the punishment of God. Although many of his ideas sound strange today, the recommended treatments reflected the medical thinking in early 18th-century Colonial America.

However, he was criticized by many doctors for his support of smallpox inoculation. He helped introduce variolation, a precursor of smallpox vaccination, to New England in 1721 and ’22.

He also differed with many doctors in his belief that germs spread disease, though he considered germs to be minuscule insects, tinier than the tiniest grains of sand, that propagated sickness with their eggs.

Thanks for a question that’s hardly to be paralleled. And in case you’re interested, Mather’s ophthalmological remedy involved drying poop, grinding it into powder, and then blowing it into the eye.

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Cut to the chase

Q: What’s the origin of “cut to the chase”? Keystone Cops? Hounds on a fox scent? Or other?

A: The expression “cut to the chase,” which was first recorded in the early 20th century, is derived from the use of the verb “cut” in filmmaking to mean move rapidly from one scene to another.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of “cut” as “to make a quick transition from one shot to the next.” The earliest example that we’ve seen for the usage is from an early 20th-century book on motion-picture technique:

“Perhaps we can cut to Sam wondering what effect the marriage will have on his chances” (from Technique of the Photoplay, 2d ed., 1913, by Epes Winthrop Sargent). Oxford cites as its first example a different passage from the 1916 third edition of the book.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the expression “cut to the chase” was originally a film usage meaning “to cut to a chase scene; (hence) to cut to an interesting or fast-paced part of a film.”

The usage appeared in writing for the first time in J. P. McEvoy’s Hollywood Girl (1929), a novel about a Broadway showgirl who finds success in the Hollywood talkies. These three passages in the novel are from script directions in a fictional screenplay (the OED cites an abbreviated version of the third passage):

(1) “Chaney in plaster cast, chewing orchids. Cut to chase”; (2) “with a custard pie klunk that’s a laugh isn’t that a wow now we cut to the chase”; (3) “Quick flashes, breasts, hips, legs. Jannings escapes―I’ll figure it out later … Cut to chase.” (The ellipsis is in the novel.)

As far as we can tell, the expression didn’t appear in print again until 15 years later. In this example from a Canadian newspaper, it’s one of several slogans that Helen Deutch, an MGM screenwriter, has on a wall of her Hollywood office:

“Miss Deutsch has another motto, which had to do with the writing of cinematic drama. It also is on the wall where she can’t miss seeing it, and it says: ‘When in doubt, cut to the chase’ ” (Winnipeg Free Press, March 10, 1944).

In a few years, the usage took on its usual current sense, which the OED defines as “to get to the point, to get on with it; to concentrate on the essential elements of an issue, etc.” The earliest example we’ve found is from a Massachusetts newspaper:

“Let’s cut to the chase. There will be no tax relief this year. No $300 to $400 tax credit for middle-class families. No $5,000 credit for first-time home buyers” (The Berkshire Evening Eagle, Feb. 24, 1947).

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from Cross My Heart (1955), an autobiography by the American writer and humorist Frank Scully: “I am the sort who wants to ‘cut to the chase.’ As far as I’m concerned, we can read the instructions later.”

Interestingly, Scully used the expression in the filmmaking sense in an earlier book: “That I suspect does not conflict with the Hollywood saying, ‘Let’s drop the romancing and cut to the chase’ ” (from Behind the Flying Saucers, 1950).

[Note: A reader of the blog offered this comment later the same day. “As someone who used to inhabit cutting rooms, I think there’s another little element to this one. Why ‘cut’? That’s because in the earlier days of filmmaking, in order to edit a film you literally ‘cut’ the piece you wanted out of the main roll with scissors, and then glued those selected scenes together.

“Later, ‘splicers’ turned up―clever little guillotine devices that made far more accurate and consistent cuts to be made, and joins to be made with clear specialist tape to create the ’cutting copy,’ the first edited version of the film.]

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Greenwashing and pinkwashing

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 8, 2022.]

Q: I’m curious about the use of “washing” in terms like “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.” Has “washing” here lost its original meaning, like the “gate” of “Pizzagate,” “Russiagate,” and “Irangate”?

A: No, the use of “washing” as a terminal element here reflects its original source in Anglo-Saxon times: wæscan, Old English for to wash away dirt with water. The “gate” of “Pizzagate” comes from the Watergate scandal, not its original sense of an opening in a wall.

A: The word “wash” or “washing” began showing up in the 1980s in various compound terms for the use of superficial, insincere, or misleading information about the environment, feminism, race, and so on, intended to improve the image of a business, organization, country, etc.

The two most common of the terms are “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.” Others include “rainbow washing,” “purplewashing,” “sportswashing,” “redwashing,” “humanewashing,” “straightwashing,” and “hetwashing.”

(These recent formations are brand-new in comparison with the centuries-old “whitewashing.” And later we’ll discuss “brainwashing,” a term inspired by mid-20th-century totalitarianism and traceable to Chinese in the era of Mao Zedong.)

Nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for “greenwashing” or “greenwash” used in this sense.

American Heritage defines “greenwashing” as “the dissemination of misleading information that conceals abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.”

Two of the standard dictionaries also have entries for “pinkwashing.” It’s defined in Collins as “a superficial or insincere display of concern for the homosexual community” and in Macmillan as “the use of support for LGBT rights and issues by a state or business to boost its own image.”

The collaborative online dictionary Wiktionary adds that a “breast cancer-related sense refers to the pink ribbon, an international symbol of breast cancer awareness.” Though the standard dictionaries don’t include that sense, our database searches suggest that it may be the more common use of the term.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has entries for the nouns “greenwash” and “greenwashing” as well as the verb “greenwash.”

The dictionary says the noun “greenwash,” derived from the adjective “green” and the noun “wash,” is modeled after the noun “whitewash,” which dates from the 16th century. The verb “greenwash” is derived from that noun, and the noun “greenwashing” is derived from the verb.

The OED’s definition of “greenwashing” is similar to the ones above from American Heritage and Merriam-Webster. It defines the noun “greenwash” as “misleading publicity or propaganda disseminated by an organization, etc., so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., regarded as being unfounded or intentionally misleading.”

And the verb, Oxford says, has these two senses: “(a) to mislead (the public) or counter (public or media concerns) by falsely representing a person, company, product, etc., as being environmentally responsible; (b) to misrepresent (a company, its operations, etc.) as environmentally responsible.”

In the earliest recorded example we’ve seen, the noun “greenwash” refers to a plan for an open-space buffer between the cities of Louisville and Lafayette in Colorado:

“It’s a great game, this open space whitewash which should be renamed the ‘political greenwash’ or, better yet, ‘open space hogwash’ because that’s all it is—a salve for all the guilty consciences who now have awakened to see the two cities grown together” (an Aug. 10, 1983, editorial in The Louisville Times).

(We’ve seen earlier examples of “greenwash” or “greenwashing” used in the sense of money laundering or applying a thin wash of color.)

The OED’s first citation for the noun “greenwash” appeared four years later: “They create a lot of environmental ‘greenwash,’ and thank god for it, because they create some very good nature reserves. But they’re also commissioning uneconomic nuclear power stations.” (From the September 1987 issue of Sanity, journal of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London.)

Oxford’s earliest example of the verb “greenwash” is from another London periodical: “Continuing to ‘greenwash the public’ would be foolish” (Daily Telegraph, Oct. 14, 1989).

And its earliest citation for “greenwashing” appeared in a California newspaper: “The activists will keep a booth outside the fair and continue to fight what the group calls ‘greenwashing’ by large corporations who tell the public they are working for the environment while continuing to pollute” (The Orange County Register, April 5, 1990).

(The environmental activist Jay Westerveld has been credited by some sources with coining the term “greenwashing” in a 1986 essay about the hotel industry’s practice of promoting the reuse of towels to save the environment. However, we haven’t been able to find the essay in a search of book, newspaper, and scholarly databases.)

As for “pinkwashing,” the earliest example we’ve found uses the term in its breast-cancer sense: “Jeanne Rizzo, executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco, which is co-sponsoring the hearing, says companies have co-opted breast cancer awareness and are engaged in a ‘pinkwashing’ of the problem.” (From a report of the California legislature on a joint Senate-Assembly hearing on breast cancer and the environment held on Oct. 23, 2002.) Earlier examples use “pinkwashing” in its literal, coloring sense.

The use of “pinkwashing” for the promotion of gender or sexual-identity issues showed up a decade later. The first example we’ve seen uses the term to describe an Israeli campaign comparing its treatment of gays and lesbians with their treatment in the Arab world: “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’ ” (the headline on an opinion article by Sarah Schulman in The New York Times, Nov. 22, 2011).

“Greenwashing” is a much more common term than “pinkwashing,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books. The other terms mentioned earlier didn’t register:

“rainbow washing” (promoting gender issues), “purplewashing” (feminism), “sportswashing” (sports), “redwashing” (rightist promotion of leftist issues), “humanewashing” (claims of humane treatment on meat and dairy labeling), “straightwashing” and “hetwashing” (making gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in fiction act like heterosexuals).

Now on to the more sinister “brainwashing,” which makes those other compounds seem like mere marketing strategies.

This is defined in the OED as “the systematic and often forcible elimination from a person’s mind of all established ideas, esp. political ones, so that another set of ideas may take their place.” It also means “this process regarded as the kind of coercive conversion practised by certain totalitarian states on political dissidents.”

But in a “weakened sense,” the dictionary adds, it can also mean  “the action of pressurizing or persuading a person into a belief considered undesirable.”

The noun came into English in the early 1950s, the OED says,  and was “probably” modeled after the Chinese term xǐ nǎo, from “ to wash, cleanse + nǎo brain.”

The term has become associated with Edward Hunter, an American journalist who reported from Asia and who’s been identified as a clandestine American intelligence agent. His book Brain-washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds was completed in 1950 and published on Jan. 1, 1951.

On Sept. 24, 1950, The Miami News published an article by Hunter entitled “ ‘Brain-Washing’ Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party.”

However, the term appeared in print earlier in 1950. The OED has this as the term’s earliest published use: “China under Red flag…. ‘Brain-washing’—a new version of the mental purge” (a heading in The Times of India, Mumbai, Jan. 23, 1950). We haven’t been able to determine whether Hunter wrote this article or not.

The OED also has entries for the noun “brainwash” (1950), the verb “brainwash” (1951), the adjective “brainwashed” (1951), and the noun “brainwasher” (1952), all in reference to China.

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

Swear like a sailor

[Note: We inadvertently sent this post to some readers last Friday. We’re publishing it today so that all our readers can see it.]

Q: Why do we say someone who cusses a lot “swears (or curses) like a sailor (or trooper, soldier, marine)”? Do people in the military cuss more than others? Is it simply a question of quantity or is something else at work?

A: Yes, many of the “swear like a …” and “curse like a …” usages refer to a sailor, trooper, soldier, or marine, but not all of them. We’ve seen versions of the expression applied to a docker, drunken monk, fishwife, mule-skinner, pirate, porter, preacher’s son, stevedore, termagant, and more.

The two most common versions are “swear like a sailor” and “swear like a trooper,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares the use of words and phrases in digitized books. (The “soldier” usage barely registers and the “marine” one doesn’t register at all in the books searched, though they appear in old newspaper databases.)

Why are the “trooper” and “sailor” variants so common? Probably because troopers and sailors had reputations for boorish language and behavior when the two phrases showed up (the “trooper” one in the 18th century and the “sailor” in the 19th).

As Christine Ammer explains in The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “The troopers in this term were the cavalry, who were singled out for their foul language from the early 1700s on.”

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by Elizabeth Knowles, says, “A trooper was originally (mid 17th century) a private soldier in a cavalry unit, and from the mid 18th century was proverbial for coarse behaviour and bad language.”

In fact, many soldiers still speak an expletive-ridden language that the author Tom Wolfe referred to as “Army Creole.” In The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the test pilots and astronauts of the space program, he cites this conversation as an example of Army Creole:

“I tol’im iffie tried to fuck me over, I was gonna kick’is fuckin’ ass, iddnat right?”

“Fuckin’ A.”

“Soey kep’on fuckin’ me over and I kicked ’is fuckin’ ass in fo’im, iddnat right?”

“Fuckin’ A.”

“An’ so now they tellin’ me they gon’ th’ow my fuckin’ ass inna fuckin’ stoc-kade! You know what? They some kinda fuckin’ me over!”

“Fuckin’ A well tol’, Bubba.”

Sailors on civilian or military vessels have had a similar reputation, according to the historian Paul A. Gilje.

In his 2016 book Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750 to 1850, he cites 18th-century reports of the “wicked conversation,” “carnal songs,” “ill language,” and “profane language” of sailors, especially their rampant use of the expression “damn son of a bitch.”

“Others might curse and swear, but the liberty of the waterfront enjoyed by sailors and their own maritime culture gave the phrase ‘to swear like a sailor’ a resonance that rebounded throughout society,” Gilje writes. “Other members of the working class understood that going to sea offered a special license to resort to bad language.”

The earliest written example of the expression we’ve seen is from a religious treatise that uses the “trooper” version in describing one of the Apostles:

Peter seems to have been the boldest. He cou’d curse and swear like a Trooper. And his denying Jesus thrice, shows that he was capable of any thing” (A Conference Upon the Miracles of Our Blessed Saviour, 1730, by William Stevenson).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the “trooper” variant, which we’ve expanded, appeared a decade later: “Bless me! she curses and storms at me like a Trooper, and can hardly keep her Hands off me” (from Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela).

As far as we can tell, the “sailor” variant didn’t appear in writing until a century later. The earliest written example we’ve seen is in a book by a traveler who found surprisingly little swearing aboard a ship sailing from New York to Liverpool:

To swear like a sailor, is a common mode of characterising excessive profanity. And yet I was on board this ship ten days before I heard an oath from one of the crew” (Memoranda of Foreign Travel: Containing Notices of a Pilgrimage Through Some of the Principal States of Western Europe, 1845, by Robert J. Breckinridge). The crew may have watched their language around Breckinridge because he was a Presbyterian minister.

And here’s an example that appeared a dozen years later: “he did swear like a sailor, from mere habit and forgetfulness, for no man not professedly religious had a diviner instinct of reverence and worship than he” (from “Uncle Josh,” a short story by Rose Terry Cooke, Putnam’s Monthly, September 1857).

The only OED citation for the “sailor” variant is from the 20th century: “Della was a pretty little thing. Tough as nails—on the surface. She could—and did—swear like a sailor” (The Rose Petal Murders, 1935, by Charles G. Givens).

We’ll end with a poem, “The Sailor’s Folly,” cited in Swear Like a Sailor. It was written on Feb. 13, 1801, in Charleston, SC, by Simeon Crowell, a reformed seaman who had once prided himself on his cursing and carnal songs.

When first the sailor comes on Board
He dams all hands at every word
He thinks to make himself a man
At Every word he gives a dam

But O how Shameful must it be
To Sin at Such a great Degree
When he is out of Harbour gone
He swears by god from night to morn. 

But when the Heavy gale doth Blow
The Ship is tosled to and froe
He crys for Mercy Mercy Lord
Help me now O help me God

But when the storm is gone and past
He swears again in heavy Blast
And still goes on from Sin to Sin
Now owns the god that Rescued him. 

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

A belated Christmas carol

Q: I got stuck on one word when I read A Christmas Carol to my family on Christmas Eve. What is the story behind the boy’s use of the exclamation “Walk-ER!” when Scrooge asks him to buy a big turkey? I’ve looked for the etymology, with no success whatever.

A: The use of the name “Walker” as an exclamation expressing skepticism showed up in the early 19th century, originally as “Hookee Walker.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the origin is uncertain, but the usage apparently comes from “the name of Hookey (or Hooky) Walker, although no person of this name has been positively identified.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the interjection is from a slang dictionary: “Hookee Walker, an expression signifying that the story is not true, or that the thing will not occur” (Lexicon Balatronicum, 1811).

In the OED’s next citation, the name “Walker” appears by itself: “Walker, an ironical expression synonymous with bender and used in the same manner.” From “A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language” in Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, Written by Himself (1819).

(“Flash” is an obsolete term that refers to thieves, prostitutes, or the underworld, especially their language. Vaux was an English convict transported to Australia three times. In his “Comprehensive Vocabulary,” he defines “bender” as “an ironical word used in conversation by flash people.”)

As for the skeptical use of the term “Walker” in A Christmas Carol (1843), Scrooge asks a boy on Christmas Day if a prize turkey is still hanging in the window of the neighborhood poultry shop.

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”
“Walk-ER!” exclaimed the boy.
“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest.”

Dickens used the exclamation a few years earlier in one of his “Mudfog Society” stories: “Sir Hookham Snivey was proceeding to combat this opinion, when Professor Ketch suddenly interrupted the proceedings by exclaiming, with great excitement of manner, ‘Walker!’ ” From “Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Society for the Advancement of Everything” (Bentley’s Miscellany, September 1838).

We’ve seen several questionable theories about the source of “hookey walker”—that it comes from the name of a popular song or a celebrated horse or a theatrical character or a clerk with a hooked nose. However, the OED notes that the interjection appeared in print before all those other usages were recorded.

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Cut, butt, skip, or ditch in line?

Q: When I was growing up in Columbus, Ohio (I’m 68 now), if someone cut in line, we called it “dishing.” It later changed to “ditching.” I think it’s still used that way, but I now live in Cincinnati, where I don’t hear it.

A: There are quite a few regional variations in the way Americans refer to the act of unfairly getting in front of people who are standing in line.

The most common of the expressions is “cutting in line,” but Americans also speak of “butting,” “budding,” “budging,” “skipping,” “ditching,” and “dishing” in line, according to the linguist Steve Hartman Keiser. In Britain, this boorish behavior is usually referred to as “jumping (or barging) the queue,” as we note in a 2014 post.

In “Ditching the Immigration Line,” a paper about the use of these various expressions in discussing US immigration policy, Keiser says the “cutting” version “is by far the most widely used and recognized. It is attested in each of the 25 states in which my students and I have conducted interviews, and in most states it is clearly the majority response” (American Speech, fall 2007).

“The upper Midwest is an exception to this rule: budging in line is the most common term in Minnesota and is also widely attested in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and Iowa,” he writes. “Butting in line is even more common than budging across much of this area (in spite of folk perceptions in Wisconsin that budging is the dominant term throughout the state), and these two are in competition as the most common terms across western Canada as well.”

Keiser notes that “butting” is sometimes spelled “budding” to reflect the flick-of-the-tongue pronunciation of “t” when it follows a vowel and precedes an unstressed syllable—a sound that linguists refer to as a “flap.”

He says “budding” (or “butting”) “appears to have a wider general distribution than budging” and “can be found in eastern Canada, upstate New York (where budging is also attested), Pennsylvania, Maryland, and northern Ohio.”

Skipping in line is the dominant variant in the Milwaukee metropolitan area and the immediately surrounding counties, though it is a minority variant (alongside cutting) as one moves south to Racine, Kenosha, and the Chicago metropolitan area,” Keiser writes, adding that “it competes with budging and butting as one moves west toward Madison and north toward Sheboygan.”

Although Milwaukee “appears to be unique in privileging skipping in line,” he says, “the term is used at least as a minority variant in other parts of the country,” noting sightings in Ohio, Louisiana, and Michigan.

As for “ditching in line,” Keiser says it’s “perhaps the most interesting” of the variants, “first, because its origins are unclear, and second, because it is extremely robust within a very limited geographic region and apparently nonexistent elsewhere.”

“The geographic distribution of ditching in line is sharply delimited to central Ohio,” he says, “specifically the several-county region surrounding Columbus including towns such as Circleville, Lancaster, Newark, Delaware, and Bellefontaine, but not cities such as Springfield, Dayton, Cincinnati, Mansfield, and Cleveland.” Within the Columbus metropolitan area, he adds, “dishing in line” is also a variant.

The “ditching in line” usage apparently showed up in central Ohio in the mid-20th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is one discovered by the linguist Grant Barrett and cited in Keiser’s American Speech paper:

“Along the hall in the new gym the seemingly endless cafeteria line forms. Girls, giggling and laughing, ‘ditch’ in line.” The Coshocton Tribune, Nov. 2, 1956 (from The Red and Black, the student newspaper of Coshocton High School).

Keiser’s paper doesn’t include any citations for “dishing in line,” and we couldn’t find any written examples.

As far as we can tell, the more common “cutting in line” version appeared a decade earlier. The earliest example we’ve found is from the Dec. 8, 1945, issue of The Daily Illini, the student newspaper at the University of Illinois:

“ ‘When they used to come and cut in line, I’d make them go to the end,’ he recalled. ‘I tried to treat everybody fair’ ” (from an interview with an employee who was leaving a job at the Illini Union).

And here are some of Keiser’s examples of the other variant expressions:

“They don’t get to butt in line where somebody wants to go through the process in a legal way” (from comments by President George W. Bush at a Jan. 9, 2004, meeting with women owners of small businesses at the Commerce Department in Washington).

“However, what do you say to the people who are waiting patiently and going through the correct processes to come legally? How do you justify people who butt in line?” (KSL Television & Radio, Salt Lake City, April 11, 2006, from a post to an online discussion about immigration).

“Oh, that’s just great! Come here illegally, budge in line, get rewarded” (Iowa State Daily, March 29, 2006, from an online comment to an article about immigration and residency).

“Have you ever been skipped in line at a movie, the motor vehicle department or at a shopping mall? Well multiply the anger you felt over that by many fold to describe the situation taking place for aspiring immigrants waiting in line to enter our country legally” (Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2006, from an online letter to the editor).

We’ll end with an interesting example Keiser cites from John Kasich, a former Ohio congressman and governor: “What I can tell you is this—if the American people were not concerned about people who ditched the line, and jumped in front of people who waited for years, you would have an immigration bill” (Fox News, April 19, 2006).

Although Kasich was born and raised in a Pittsburgh suburb, he has a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University in Columbus, center of the “ditching” usage.

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The life of a lived experience

Q: It seems that the phrase “lived experience” originated in research, but like so many terms that are understood in a particular context it has escaped into the wild, where it has much the same meaning as “experience.” Any thoughts?

A: The term “lived experience” has been used since at least the late 19th century to mean an experience lived through as opposed to one learned about secondhand.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adjective “lived” can be used to describe “life, an experience, etc.: that has been lived or passed through.” The dictionary’s first citation, with “lived” modifying “life,” is from a theological treatise:

“It is the actual lived life, and the actual died death of Jesus which makes the moral and mathetic [learning] life so instinct with converting power” (from The Antiquity of the Gospels Asserted on Philological Grounds, 1845, by Orlando T. Dobbin).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “lived experience” is from a late 19th-century feminist magazine in Australia. A report on a paper read at a feminist meeting cites the various issues facing women and says, “all these subjects are open to discussion, suggestion and action, upon the ground of lived experience” (The Dawn, Sydney, July 1, 1889).

In the 20th century, “lived experience” took on a related sense in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and so on: one’s perception of events firsthand rather than through representations by other people. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book about the French philosopher Henri Bergson:

“ ‘Tensional’ experience is the term used in this essay to describe the intermingling of lived experience and of the experience which is of increasing practical use the more superficial it becomes” (The Ethical Implications of Bergson’s Philosophy, 1914, by Una Bernard Sait).

This more recent OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a book about interracial friendship and communication among adolescents:

“direct questioning regarding racial attitudes is very difficult where young people are involved, for they are at an age when they are only beginning to establish the relationship between their lived experience and social ‘opinion’ and ‘knowledge’ about it” (White Talk Black Talk, 1986, by Roger Hewitt).

search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “lived experience” has increased sharply in recent decades—in both its original sense and the newer one, which is common in phenomenology (the study of how human beings perceive phenomena).

However, none of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include “lived experience,” perhaps because the noun “experience” by itself can have much the same meaning in general usage.

American Heritage’s “experience” entry, for example, says the noun may mean, among other things, an “event or a series of events participated in or lived through.”

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A friend of Dorothy

Q: In The Crown, Queen Elizabeth uses the phrase “a friend of Dorothy” to mean a gay person. Do you know when or where the expression was first used this way? The episode was set in the early 1980s.

A: An early version of the expression showed up in writing in the 1970s, but it had undoubtedly been used before that in speech, where “friend of Dorothy” or “Dorothy’s friend” was a coded way of identifying a man as gay.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the name “Dorothy” here comes from “the heroine of the book The Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, by L. Frank Baum. The film version of the story (1939), with Judy Garland as Dorothy, was a particular favourite amongst some homosexuals.”

That’s the most common (and authoritative) explanation for the source of the expression, but others cite the American writer Dorothy Parker or Dorothy Dean, a socialite who was associated with Andy Warhol and gay New York culture.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ll expand, cites a definition of the phrase “Dorothy and Toto” in The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (1972), by Bruce Rodgers: “1. gay boy and his dog 2. dominating effeminate homosexual man with his paid-for escort 3. extended to any male couple whose effeminate partner is in command ‘When’s Dorothy and Toto getting here with the chest of drawers?’ ”

The next two examples in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, treat the expressions “Dorothy’s friend” and “friend of Dorothy” as meaning simply a gay man:

“Dorothy’s friends, the male gay community, from the 50s onwards” (Slanguage of Sex: A Dictionary of Modern Sexual Terms, 1985, by Brigid McConville and John Shearlaw).

“A Somewhere-Over-The-Rainbow Coalition which offers little to the friends of Dorothy because, like the Wizard of Oz, its power is illusory” (Capital Gay, a London magazine, Feb. 12, 1988).

And here’s the entry for “friend of Dorothy” in Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime (2006), by Donald F. Reuter:

“Phrase meaning someone is gay, and rooted in: 1) our fondness for Judy Garland, the iconic entertainer who played Dorothy Gale in the classic film musical The Wizard of Oz with her trio of sexless male buddies; 2) our association to and admiration for sharp-tongued writer Dorothy Parker, whose famed ‘vicious circle’ of pals included gay men; and 3) the need for gay men, during much of the twentieth century, to speak in code (for fear of being found out).”

Getting back to The Crown, in season four, episode seven of the streaming TV series, Princess Margaret’s love interest, Derek (Dazzle) Jennings, says he’s becoming a Roman Catholic priest. When Margaret tells the Queen, this exchange follows:

Elizabeth: That’s the second reason he was never the right man for you.

Margaret: The first being?

Elizabeth: Well, he’s, you know, a friend of Dorothy.

Margaret: Dazzle?

Elizabeth: Famously, yes.

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To beg the question

Q: I notice with distressing regularity the misuse and cheapening of words and phrases. One expression that comes to mind is “beg the question.

A: Like it or not, “beg the question” has more meanings in modern English than the one it started out with.

Essentially, a 16th-century technical phrase with a very narrow definition became so widely used in general English that its original meaning was left behind. It now has so many meanings that it’s best avoided except in a treatise on logic.

Back in 1581, when “beg the question” was first recorded, it had a specific meaning in philosophy. It described a fallacy in logic that consists more or less of arguing in a circle—that is, basing an argument on premises that are unproven, or that simply restate the argument.

To illustrate, here’s an argument that “begs the question”: “My son is innocent because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime.”

The argument to be proved is “My son is innocent,” but the premises on which it’s based—“because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime”—also need to be proved; they merely state the argument in different terms. The premises of an argument should be indisputable, like “because he was in Toronto at the time, and someone else’s fingerprints are on the weapon.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the philosophical sense of “beg the question” as “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”

The earliest known use, cited by the OED and other references, is from an account of the 1581 interrogation of Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who refused to accept Anglican doctrine despite being tortured on the rack:

“I say this is still to begge the question” (from a comment by an Anglican interrogator in A True Report of the Disputation or Rather Priuate Conference Had in the Tower of London, with Ed. Campion Iesuite). Campion, convicted of treason, was drawn and quartered.

Although the original sense of the expression is still alive, linguists and lexicographers say that it’s no longer the predominant meaning and hasn’t been since the mid-18th century.

Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary, labels the original meaning “formal,” and says on its website that the expression “is only very rarely used this way.”

Today, nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, both American and British, offer additional definitions like these: “raise a question or point that has not been dealt with”; “invite an obvious question”; “avoid the question”; “evade the issue”; “ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled”; “avoid giving a direct answer by posing another question.”

All those differing uses of “beg the question”—especially the first two—are treated as standard English today and are found in even the most elevated writing and speech. Unless the expression is found in context, there’s no way to tell what it means.

So what happened to the original “beg the question”? You might say that it carried the seeds of its own destruction, because it didn’t use either “beg” or “question” in its ordinary meaning. The linguist Mark Liberman, writing on the Language Log, has called its history “a cavalcade of misleading translations.” Here’s the story.

The fallacy in logic here was first identified by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. He referred to it in several different works, calling it τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι and τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ λαμβάνειν, ancient Greek for “asking at the beginning” and “assuming the initial thing.” In other words, using premises that assume at the outset the truth of what you’re trying to prove.

Many centuries later, in the 1100s, the Greek term was translated into medieval Latin as petitio principii, “a postulate (or a postulating) at the beginning.”

The Latin version began appearing in British manuscripts written in Latin in the 1300s, the OED says. And since the 1530s petitio principii has regularly appeared, often italicized, in English writing about philosophy and logic, where it’s so familiar that it’s sometimes called petitio for short.

A mid-16th-century writer defined it this way in a treatise on the mass: “Petitio principii, that is when a ma[n] wyl proue [prove] a thynge to be true, by the same thinge, or wyth an other, that is as doubtfull as that is, which is called into questio[n].” From A New Dialogue Wherin Is Conteyned the Examinatio[n] of the Messe (1548), by William Turner.

In the late 1500s, petitio principii was translated into English for wider audiences, people who weren’t educated at the elite universities and didn’t know Latin. Unfortunately, it was awkwardly rendered as “beg the question”—a puzzling usage that was doomed to confuse ordinary readers and was worse than no translation at all.

In the first place, “beg” was inappropriate. The classical Latin petitio might indeed have been translated as a begging or a pleading. But in medieval  Latin, the noun as used in logic meant “a postulate” or “a postulating”—that is, something taken for granted as a basis for reasoning.

In the second place, “question” was inappropriate. As used in logic, the Latin principii meant at the beginning or starting point (of an argument). It’s true that one meaning of “question” is something being argued, but that’s not what “question” means to most people.

Since the Middle Ages, “question” has more commonly meant a request for information, like a sentence ending with a question mark, not a statement being defended in an argument.

The linguist Carol Lynn Moder, who has written extensively on the history and development of “beg the question,” has shown that subtle shifts in the meaning of the phrase began to set in at the very beginning.

Even when using “beg the question” in its Aristotelian sense, Moder writes, 16th-century writers were shifting the sense of “beg” away from its postulating meaning: “Authors in this period regularly invoked the common ‘requesting alms’ meaning of beg to suggest the unseemly characteristics of those committing this fallacy.”

She cites these examples from 1579-80, even before “beg the question” became the usual form of the expression: “Alas, this is such a poore begginge of that in question” … “a shamefull petition or begging of that which is in question” … “a shamefull begging of that which is questioned.”

The “beg the question” wording, which first appeared in writing in 1581, had become the usual form of the expression by the mid-17th century, Moder says. And well into the 18th century, the expression was regularly used it in its narrow, logical sense—but this was soon to change.

In the mid-18th century, she writes, the expression began “to move out of its Aristotelian niche, appearing more widely in magazines, plays, travel writing and memoirs in contexts less clearly concerning logical disputations.”

Furthermore, Moder says, literacy spread, and as printed materials became more widely available the expression was read and interpreted by readers unfamiliar with formal logic.

From the mid-18th century onward, she adds, “beg the question” began acquiring meanings that had little or nothing to do with that Aristotelian fallacy.

This could have been predicted. If the parts of a formulaic expression don’t make sense together—like “beg” and “question”—people will find a sensible meaning for themselves. As far as we can tell, the expression now usually means to “raise a question that begs to be answered”—and it’s then followed by an actual question.

(Moder’s paper “Begging the Question: Chunking, Compositionality and Language Change” was first published in 2016 and later as a chapter in Formulaicity and Creativity in Language and Literature, 2018, edited by Ian MacKenzie and Martin A. Kayman.)

Incidentally, we were surprised to find that despite the wider definitions in standard dictionaries, the OED’s sole definition of “beg the question” is that original one: “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”

The OED is behind the curve here. It has no citations later than 1870, a century and a half ago, and cites no examples of the wider uses that have existed from the mid-1600s onward.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, as we mentioned above, is the one from 1581. And this is the latest: “The vulgar equivalent for petitio principii is begging the question” (A Treatise on Logic, 1870, by Francis Bowen). We can only assume that the OED will eventually record the many other uses of the expression.

So how are modern speakers and writers supposed to use “beg the question”? Our advice is don’t; use either “raise the question” or “evade the issue,” depending on what you mean. As Mark Liberman says in that Language Log post:

“If you use the phrase to mean ‘raise the question,’ some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ ‘misuse,’ you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean ‘assume the conclusion,’ almost no one will understand you.

“My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself … and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.”

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So what’s on offer?

Q: A New Yorker review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, says a preacher’s teen-age son “covertly helps himself to a generous amount of gløgg, the potent Scandinavian drink on offer.” Why “on offer” instead of simply “offered”?

A: “On offer,” a phrase dating from the mid-19th century, is a fairly common expression in modern English. In the Oct. 4, 2021, review you cite, it identifies what’s being offered at a Christmas party.

The phrase originated in Britain, and is more common in British than in American English. But from our experience, it’s not uncommon in the US. And the author probably chose it for reasons of rhythm and style.

None of the five standard US dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for the phrase. Merriam-Webster merely notes, within its entry for the noun “offer,” that “on offer” is a “chiefly British” usage that means “being offered especially for sale.”

By contrast, all five of the standard British dictionaries we consult have entries for “on offer.” They all give similar definitions: available to be bought or used. And the examples they give are from commercial rather than social contexts:

“We were amazed at the range of products on offer” (Cambridge) … “country cottages on offer at bargain prices” (Collins) … “the number of permanent jobs on offer is relatively small” (Lexico) … “Activities on offer include sailing, rowing, and canoeing” (Longman) … “These are just some of the films on offer this week” (Macmillan).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “on offer” as “available or obtainable” and also “on sale” (that is, discounted). The noun “offer” as used in the phrase means “the condition of being offered,” the OED says.

The earliest uses of “on offer” that we’ve found in searches of old newspaper databases are from mid-19th-century crop and livestock reports. Here are the first few, all from issues of The Farmer’s Magazine, a British journal devoted to agricultural and rural affairs:

“Decidedly the best of this truly excellent breed [of Hereford cattle] were brought forward by Mr. Rowland of Creslow, who had on offer about 40” (January 1843) … “Not a single fresh head of stock was on offer from abroad” (January 1843) … “the above advance [in wheat prices] has been mostly supported, although the quantities on offer have been on a liberal scale” (June 1843).

We’ve also found the expression in issues of The Economist from that same decade: “the supply of hops on offer is more than adequate to meet the demand” (June 26, 1847). The phrase reappears in virtually all The Economist’s subsequent weekly crop and livestock reports of the 1840s.

The earliest example given in the OED is also from a market report: “Old wheat scarce and dear. Very little barley on offer” (The Daily News, London, Aug. 23, 1881).

And this is the OED’s most recent citation, from a very different sort of market: “They are urged to book ‘de-stressing’ treatments such as massage and reflexology, to drink the herbal teas on offer throughout the day [etc.]” (from Business Day, South Africa, Jan. 28, 2000).

While all of the OED’s examples are of a commercial nature, we’ve heard the phrase used at times in casual social situations, like that Christmas party in Franzen’s novel. You can call these figurative uses if you like.

And we’ve seen plenty of uses of “on offer” that are neither commercial nor social. These examples are from literary criticism:

“Immediately striking is the range of continuities and discontinuities on offer” (Americans on Fiction, 1776-1999, by Peter Rawlings, 2002) … “it is clear that Achilles is capitalizing on the erotic potential on offer in Vergil’s epic” (Latin Poetry in the Ancient Greek Novels, by Daniel Jolowicz, 2021).

And this one is from politics: “How happy are we with the current vision of political ‘reality’ on offer and the way the major political parties seem to see the future?” (Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life, by Andrew Samuels, 2018).

In fact, “on offer” is used in a wide variety of contexts when a writer wants an alternative to “offered.”

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‘I’m by way of being a doctor’

Q: I’ve noticed a construction in older British novels (Agatha Christie, for example) where a character says “I’m by way of being a doctor” instead of simply “I’m a doctor.” Can you tell us anything about this odd use of four unnecessary words?

A: This usage—“I’m by way of being” a doctor, a writer, an actor, etc.—is a mainly British colloquialism that isn’t seen or heard much these days.

In fact, we’ve found only five examples in a recent search of the British National Corpus, a database of written and spoken British English from the later part of the 20th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of the verb “to be” plus the compound preposition “by way of” plus a gerund has several senses: “to have as one’s particular role; to make a special point of doing something; to purport or be reputed to be or do something; (sometimes) spec. to be in the habit of doing the specified activity.”

The dictionary describes the usage as “colloquial (chiefly British)” and says it’s “now somewhat literary.” In fact, four of the five examples we found in the British National Corpus are from fiction.

In the passage you cited from Agatha Christie’s 1938 mystery Appointment With Death, the expression is used in the sense of “to have as one’s particular role.”

The BNC has this more recent example from Master of the Moor, a 1982 mystery by Ruth Rendell: “I’m by way of being a bit of an expert on the moor, you know.”

The linguist Anne-Katrin Blass has noted that “in most cases, the construction co-occurs with downtoners” (like “a bit”) or “other markers of tentativeness” (like “you know”).

“Thus, it might be claimed that the communicative purpose of using this phraseological unit in discourse is to signal a certain reluctance to commit oneself fully to the idea one is expressing,” she writes.  (“Textual Functions of Extended Lexical Units: A Case Study of Phrasal Constructions Built Around by way of,” a paper published in the ICAME Journal, April 2012.)

As you can see, Blass is reluctant to commit herself fully to this theory. And so are we. Although Ruth Rendell’s use of the construction is clearly tentative, Agatha Christie’s doesn’t seem to be.

[Note: A reader of the blog who’s by way of being a doctor wonders “whether the expression does not suggest modesty (or false modesty) or casualness, an attempt to lessen the impact of the announcement.”]

The earliest citation for the construction in the OED uses it “to make a special point of doing something”—in this case, introducing a young man to society: “The Colonel was by way of introducing him into the fashionable circles” (from The Inheritance, an 1824 novel by the Scottish writer Susan E. Ferrier).

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression used in the occupational sense you’re asking about is from a short story by Henry James: “Oh, you see I’m by way of being a barrister” (from part one of “An International Episode,” published in The Cornhill Magazine, London, December 1878 and January 1879).

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What’s ‘done’ doing here?

Q: In some Southern dialects, one hears the perfect tense expressed with “done” in place of the auxiliary “have.” Example: “We done ate” instead of “We have eaten.” And “done been” forms an emphatic remote perfect tense. Example: “We done been ate.” I have always assumed this is Gullah influence, but perhaps you can give further insight.

A: The word “done” has many roles in American regional English, especially in the South and South Midland, and among the Gullah of the coastal Southeast. However, lexicographers use different terms than yours to describe this regional usage.

The word “done” functions as an adverb, an auxiliary, or the infinitive “do” in expressions like the ones you’ve cited, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

However, the adverbial use is “not always clearly distinguishable” from the auxiliary usage, the dictionary explains.

DARE says “done” is being used adverbially “to emphasize the attainment of a state or completion of action” in this passage:

“Then she begun to sing again, working at the washtub, with that singing look in her face like she had done give up folks and all their foolishness and had done went on ahead of them, marching up the sky, singing.” From William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930).

The dictionary says “done” is acting as the auxiliary “have” in this citation: “You just done made up your mind that you ain’t going to be no good to me.” From Richard Wright’s novel Lawd Today! (completed in 1935 and published posthumously in 1963).

And here’s a DARE example, which we’ve expanded, for “done” used in place of the bare (or “to”-less) infinitive “do” in Gullah, a creole language found among African-Americans of the Lowcountry of Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas:

“I come mighty nigh marryin him mysef one time. E use to beg me so, but I’m glad now I didn’ done it.” From the novel Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), by Julia Peterkin.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites an obsolete use of “done” as an auxiliary in Scottish English. The OED says the auxiliary “done” here is used periphrastically (by a combination of words) to add tense to a bare infinitive that would otherwise need to be inflected.

In this example, the OED says “done” is “a periphrastic auxiliary” that turns the bare infinitive “discuss” into a past participle: “As I afore, haue done discus” (“As I before have discussed”). From Tract Concernyng the Office and Dewtie of Kyngis, Spiritvall Pastoris, and Temporall Ivgis [Judges] (1556), by William Lauder.

And in this example, “done” turns the bare infinitive “invent” into a past participle: “And many other false abusion / The Paip hes done invent” (“And many another false abuse / The Pope has invented”). From a 1578 poem collected in John Graham Dalyell’s Scotish Poems of the 16th Century (1801).

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With a grain of salt

Q: Why “salt” when we “take something with a grain of salt”? Is the salt to counteract something sweet?

A: The use of “with a grain of salt” to mean with caution or skepticism first appeared in early 17th-century English as a translation of cum grano salis, a modern Latin expression coined a century earlier.

The earliest written example of cum grano salis that we’ve seen is in a Latin treatise by a French legal scholar who uses it to describe a clause attached to a gift:

“ex parte altera excedit quod intelligatis cum grano salis” (“on the other hand it exceeds what is understood with a grain of salt”). From Tractatus de Viribus Iuramenti (A Treatise on the Strength of the Oath), 1502, by Antonius de Petrucia (Antoine de Peyrusse).

And here’s another early sighting: “Sed caute & cum grano salis (utaiunt) legendus est, quia intricatus facile legenti errorem obijcit” (“It should be read cautiously and with a grain of salt, as they say, because it is easy to present an intricate error to the reader”). From Compendium Sive Breviarium (1514), a brief history of the Franks, by Johannes Trithemius, a German Benedictine abbot.

“Why salt?” you ask. Well, the reason for “salt” here is uncertain, but the earliest English example of the usage that we’ve found suggests that it comes from salting food to make it taste better:

“The terms of Divinitie are to be taken into the mouth, as the Canonists [canon lawyers] speak, cum grano salis, with a grain of salt, that is, wisely tasted, and understood: otherwise, they will not prove good nourishment.” From Experience, Historie, and Divinitiem (1642), by Richard Carpenter, a vicar of Poling in Sussex.

The first English example in the Oxford English Dictionary was recorded a few years later in a biblical commentary on Revelation 6:11. The commentator says Christian martyrs would undoubtedly be aware of those still to be martyred and speak to God for them, then adds, “But this is to be taken with a grain of salt.” From A Commentary or Exposition Upon All the Epistles and the Revelation of John the Divine (1647), by John Trapp, an Anglican theologian.

The first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, writing in classical Latin, uses a similar phrase literally for an ingredient in a recipe: addito salis grano (“with the addition of a grain of salt”).

In his encyclopedic, 37-volume Naturalis Historia, he describes a poison antidote found among the belongings of Mithridates VI, ruler of the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pontus, after his defeat by the Roman General Pompey in 66 BC:

“in sanctuariis Mithridatis, maximi regis, devicti Cn. Pompeius invenit in peculiari commentario ipsius manu conpositionem antidoti e II nucibus siccis, item ficis totidem et rutae foliis XX simul tritis, addito salis grano: ei, qui hoc ieiunus sumat, nullum venenum nociturum illo die. contra rabiosi quoque canis morsum a ieiuno homine commanducati inlitique praesenti remedio esse dicuntur.”

Translation: “After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.”

Was the salt added to the recipe to make the concoction more palatable? We think that’s possible, though you might take our explanation with a grain of salt.

Usage note: Although cum grano salis was originally translated as “with a grain of salt,” the usual expression now in British English is “with a pinch of salt,” a version that first appeared in the 19th century. Here’s an early example: “what men say of a lovely woman is generally to be taken with a pinch of salt!” From Puck (1870), a novel by Ouida, pseudonym of the English novelist Maria Louise Ramé.

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The spooky season

Q: I am wondering what information you can share on the origins of “Spooky Season” to describe the lead-up to Halloween. All of a sudden the term seems to be everywhere.

A: The phrase “spooky season” showed up in the early 1900s and reappeared every ten or fifteen years until it began increasing in popularity at the end of the 20th century.

The earliest example we’ve found uses the expression to mean a time in autumn in which unexplained things are said to be happening. In this passage, a British journal devoted to the paranormal cites reports in a London tabloid of mysterious events:

“The ‘spooky’ season has now overflowed into the ‘Daily Graphic,’ which has several times lately published testimony to happenings which may be explained as coincidence—if anyone wishes to do so in defiance of all laws of probability” (from Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult, and Mystical Research, Sept. 16, 1905).

The first written example we’ve found that clearly uses the phrase to mean the Halloween season is from an Illinois newspaper article about a crackdown on rowdy trick-or-treaters:

“The spooky season of the year is now at hand, when ‘the mystic moon is chill, and the spooks and phantoms wander out to do their magic will.’ But the 31st night of October does not bring such an abundance of pleasure to the heart of the mischief-makers as it did in ‘ye aulden tyme.’ With the increase of the police forces, city marshals and watchmen the blessed night has lost most of its significance” (Franklin Reporter, Franklin Grove, Oct. 23, 1913).

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the usage increased sharply in the late 1990s and continued rising in the first two decades of the 21st century.

Here’s a recent example from The New York Times: “October marks the start of myriad unofficial seasons: spooky season, pumpkin spice season, cuffing season, cozy season, hoodie season and, of course, decorative gourd season. (Or ‘szn,’ for those inclined to abbreviate.)”

Interestingly, some people have complained about the expression because one of the meanings of the noun “spook” (source of the adjective “spooky”) is an offensive term for a Black person. But this racist sense didn’t show up in English until nearly a century and a half after “spook” first appeared in its ghostly sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says English borrowed “spook” at the beginning of the 19th century from terms for “ghost” in Dutch (spook) and German (spuk). In English, the term meant “a spectre, apparition, ghost.” Here’s the dictionary’s earliest English example, which we’ve expanded:

“If any wun you heart shool plunder / Mine horses I’ll to Vaggon yoke, / Und chase him quickly; — by mine dunder / I fly so swift as any spook” (from The Massachusetts Spy, July 15, 1801).

The OED says two other meanings of “spook” appeared in the mid-20th century: (1) “An undercover agent; a spy” and (2) “A derogatory term for a black person.”

This is Oxford’s earliest spying example: “ ‘Spotter.’ (One who spys upon employees.) … Silent eye, spook, spotter.” From The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942), by  Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark.

And this is the earliest pejorative example: “Spook (n), Frightened negro.” From Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary (1945), edited by Lou Shelly.

So is “spook” a no-no now? The racial sense is offensive, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with using it for a ghost or a spy. Similarly, “spade” in its racist sense is offensive, but there’s no reason to avoid the word for garden implements or playing cards. The pejorative sense of “spade” showed up 1,200 years after the word for the tool and 330 years after the word for the card suit.

Linguists have a term for the ability of a word like “spook” or “spade” to have multiple meanings: “polysemy,” which ultimately comes from the ancient Greek πολύσημος (having many senses), made up of the combining form πολυ- (poly-, many) and the noun σῆμα (sema, sign or mark).

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Pop-ups popping up all over

Q: Our local weather forecast the other day was for a “random pop-up thunderstorm opportunity.” The term “pop-up” seems to be all over the place these days. When did it first pop up?

A: The word “pop-up,” a noun and an adjective for something that pops up, is older than you think. It dates back to the 1860s with meanings in cookery and in baseball. But its use for a temporary business was a late 20th-century invention.

We’ll discuss these usages later. But first, some early etymology.

As you might expect, it all starts with “pop,” an old word that’s imitative in origin (it sounds like what it means). This explosive little word has been around since Middle English—the verb form since the late 1300s and the noun since the early 1400s

The verb, in its early senses, meant to strike, punch, knock, or move someone or something quickly or unexpectedly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the noun meant the action itself.

The combination of “pop” and “up,” which came along a few centuries later, was inevitable. The adverb not only made “pop” more emphatic, but gave it a direction. (So did the addition of other little adverbs like “in” and “out” and “over” and “off,” but we won’t get into those.)

The phrasal verb “pop up” appeared in the mid-17th century. The first OED citation is from a book of devotional meditations: “Some … presently popped up into the Pulpit” (Mixt Contemplations in Better Times, by Thomas Fuller, 1660). The reference is to “pretended Ministers.”

Oxford defines the verb here as “to move or go somewhere quickly or unexpectedly, esp. for a short time.” In the 18th century, “pop up” came to be used in a less material way—the things that suddenly appeared or occurred could be thoughts, ideas, words, images, desires, and so on.

These OED examples are from Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarrissa: “Good motions pop up in my mind” (first ed., 1748) … “Hankerings, that will, on every, but remotely-favourable incident … pop up” (third ed., 1751).

In the mid- to late 1800s “pop-up” appeared as both a noun and an adjective—sometimes spelled as two words, sometimes hyphenated, sometimes joined.

The OED’s earliest noun sightings—in cooking and in baseball—date from the 1880s. But in searching old newspaper databases we found examples, both culinary and sporting, from the 1860s. The oldest we’ve seen is in a recipe for “pop-ups”:

“Puffs, or ‘pop-ups,’ are very easily made. Two eggs, well beaten, two teacupfuls of milk, and flour enough to make a thin batter, with a pinch of salt, are all that are required.” From a housekeeping memoir, Six Hundred Dollars a Year: A Wife’s Effort at Low Living Under High Prices, by the British writer Jane Webb Loudon, copyrighted in 1866 and published anonymously the following year.

(Incidentally, this airy concoction, similar to Yorkshire pudding, was known earlier as a “popover”—the OED’s first citation is from 1850—and that’s the name that has survived in the US, supplanting “pop-up” in American kitchens and cookbooks.)

The noun “pop-up” was next used in baseball. In the earliest example we’ve found, the writer uses the verb “pop up” several times (as in “popped up a foul,” “popped up the ball”), then uses “pop up” as a noun:

“[Joe] Start opened with a pop up back of short. [John] Hatfield went for it and got it on the fly.” And in the next inning: “Hatfield went out on a pop up for [George] Zettlein” (The New York Clipper, July 3, 1869). The Brooklyn Atlantics beat the New York Mutuals, 2-1.

(In case you’re wondering, “pop fly” came along a bit later. The earliest use we’ve found is from a South Carolina newspaper’s  account of a match between two local teams: “They led off beautifully, though the first man was put out on a ‘pop fly.’ ” From The Newberry Herald, Sept. 2, 1874.)

The OED’s earliest sightings for the adjective “pop-up” date from 1920s, but we’ve found baseball uses of “pop up fly” and “pop-up hit” (variously hyphenated and not) from the 1880s.

And the 20th century brought adjectival uses ranging from “pop-up picture book” (1926) to “pop-up toaster” (1930) and finally to computer terms like “pop-up window” (1982),  “pop-up menu” (1983), and so on. (In computing, the simpler noun form “pop-up” has been used for these since 1985, the OED says.)

As for those temporary shops and restaurants, the word “pop-up” seemed made to order. After all, most things that pop up tend to pop back down again, like those brief entrepreneurial ventures.

The adjective, which was used to describe them back in the early 1990s, is defined in the OED as “relating to or designating a shop or other business which opens quickly in a temporary location and is intended to operate for a short period of time.” Here are both the earliest and the most recent Oxford examples:

“There are also more pop-up stores, often filled with ‘distress merchandise’ from bankruptcies, which appear in November and evaporate by New Year’s Day” (The Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 13, 1993) … “But though pop-up dining has come to the UK late, it’s come with a vengeance” (The Independent, Dec. 4, 2011).

The noun for such a shop or business came along in 2000, according to Oxford citations. Here are the dictionary’s earliest and most recent citations:

“Remembering that back in Blighty [an affectionate term for England or Britain] country pubs are closing at the rate of six a week, the pop-ups could play another vital military role … on Army recruitment campaigns” (from an article about prefabricated pubs, The Mail on Sunday, May 7, 2000) … “The eight-week pop-up … will open from 8am and customers can sit down or do the takeaway option” (The Irish Times, Jan. 11, 2014).

As for that weather forecast you mentioned (“random pop-up thunderstorm opportunity”), did it come from the use of “pop-up” for a temporary shop? Well, the business use may have been an influence, but we can’t say for sure.

However, it’s not surprising that forecasters, always on the lookout for new ways to talk about the weather, should think of “pop-up” for a sudden, unexpected meteorological event. Perhaps we should brace ourselves for “pop-up” nor’easters this winter.

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The four corners of the earth

Q: In regard to “the four corners of the earth,” how did our globe come to have four corners?

A: The expression “four corners of the earth” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as “feowerum [four] foldan [of the earth] sceatum [corners]” and in Old English it meant the remotest areas of the world.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the four corners, quarters, etc. (of the earth, heavens or world)” refers to “the remotest parts.” The dictionary defines the noun “corner” in such expressions as “an extremity or end of the earth; a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows.”

The OED doesn’t speculate on how “four corners” came to be used in this sense, but it notes that “the four corners (of a document)” refers to “the limits or scope of its contents,” while “within the four seas” has meant “within the boundaries of Great Britain,” and “of all four sides” is another way of saying “entirely, thoroughly.”

It’s possible that “four” here may have originated as a reference to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or to the four bodies of water surrounding Britain: the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Interestingly, the earliest Oxford citation for the word “four” uses it in the Old English version of “four corners of the earth.” The expression comes up in a description of the Last Judgment in Crist III, an anonymous Old English religious poem that the dictionary dates at 878:

“Þonne from feowerum foldan sceatum, þam ytemestum eorþan rices, englas æbeorhte on efen blawað byman on brehtme” (“Then from the four corners of the earth, from the utmost of the earthly realm, angels all-bright shall blow trumpets together with one voice”).

The earliest Oxford citation that resembles the modern version of the expression is from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 late Middle English translation of the Bible, the first complete translation of the Old and New Testaments in English. Here’s the Old Testament passage cited:

“And he shal set vp a toke [send a token or sign] amonge the Gentiles, and gather together ye dispersed of Israel, yee and the outcastes of Iuda from the foure corners of ye worlde” (Isaiah, 11:12).

Coverdale also uses the expression in translating a New Testament passage: “And after that sawe I foure angels stode on ye foure corners of the earth, holdinge ye foure wyndes of ye earth, yt ye wyndes shulde not blowe on ye earth, nether on ye see, nether on eny tree” (Revelation 7:1).

By the way, the adjective “four” is missing from the earliest known Hebrew version of the Old Testament passage mentioned earlier. The website of the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem has an English translation of the passage from the Great Isaiah Scroll, a Dead Sea Scroll dated at roughly 350 to 100 BC:

“He will raise a signal for the nations and assemble the banished of Israel and gather the dispersed of Judah from the corners of the earth.” (The translators, Peter W. Flint and Eugene Ulrich, render the Hebrew כנפות הארץ as “corners of the earth.” You can examine the scroll and the English translation on the website.)

The word כנפות appears in various passages of the Hebrew Bible and has been translated as corners, wings, edges, borders, ends, extremities, and so on. Some scholars have translated the phrase in Isaiah as “ends of the earth,” an interpetation that makes sense to us.

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

Handsome is as handsome does

Q: Oliver Goldsmith uses “handsome is that handsome does” in The Vicar of Wakefield. Did he coin the usage, and is that the original wording of the expression “handsome is as handsome does”?

A: No, Goldsmith didn’t coin the usage. It was a familiar English proverb—though worded somewhat differently—more than a century before he used it in his 1766 novel.

Fred R. Shapiro, in The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), notes that a version appeared in a 1659 collection of proverbs: “He is handsome that handsome doth.”

And the Oxford English Dictionary has another pre-Goldsmith example, from Philip Ayres’s Mythologia Ethica (1689): “Our English Proverb answers very aptly: He handsome is that handsome does.”

Since the expression was described in writing in the mid-17th century as proverbial, you can be sure that it was commonly used in speech well before that time.

In fact, the formula “X is as X does” was used in pithy sayings before the “handsome” variety came along, as in these two examples:

“But as the auncient adage is, goodly is he that goodly dooth” (A View of Sundry Examples, 1580, a collection of prose by Anthony Munday).

“By my troth, he is a proper man; but he is proper that proper doth” (The Shoemakers Holiday, 1600, a play by Thomas Dekker).

So the formula in various versions—with “goodly” and “proper,” as well as “handsome”—was in use well before Goldsmith’s time, though the “handsome” form is the one that survived. And Goldsmith wasn’t even the first novelist to use the “handsome” proverb in fiction.

This example comes from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749): “I never thought as it was any Harm to say a young Man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now; for handsome is that handsome does.”

In context, the same message is conveyed in Goldsmith’s novel: deeds count for more than looks. Mrs. Primrose, the wife of Goldsmith’s vicar, has this reply for those who comment on the beauty of her children:

“Ay, neighbour, they are as heaven made them, handsome enough, if they be good enough; for handsome is that handsome does.”

The proverb is a play on words, contrasting two different senses of “handsome.” The adjective was used both (a) for a person who’s good-looking  and (b) for one who does the right thing. (We’ve written before about the interesting etymology of “handsome.”) So the gist is that a truly handsome person is one who acts handsomely.

The “that” in the original version of the expression (“He is handsome that handsome doth”) is a relative pronoun referring to the antecedent subject “he,” just as the relative “who” is used.  (As we’ve written before on the blog, both “that” and “who” can refer to people.)

By the 18th century, elliptical versions of the saying were appearing without the subject “he,” as in those passages from Fielding and Goldsmith. And the old saying continued to evolve, as proverbs generally do.

Versions with “who” or “as” in place of the relative “that”—“handsome is who [or as] handsome does”—began appearing in the early 19th century, according to our searches of old newspaper databases.

In the newer forms, “who” simply fills in for the old relative pronoun, but “as” plays a different role. The “as” in “handsome is as handsome does” is a conjunction meaning “in so far as,” “to the same extent as,” etc. These are the earliest published uses we’ve found:

“remembering, always, however much the opinion of the great may militate against the fact, that ‘handsome is who handsome does,’ and that even a nobleman may venture to walk Court, without being eternally disgraced” (from Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, London, Feb. 3, 1816).

“Handsome is, as handsome does; saith the proverb. That I hold to be a real live letter, or a real any-thing else, which is calculated to do real good” (Bombay Gazette, Nov. 28, 1821).

Numerous examples of the “as” version appeared through the 1820s and onward. American examples began cropping up in the 1840s, like this one: “ ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ is a good old nursery ‘saw,’ and it applies most admirably to the case in point” (Richmond Enquirer, May 16, 1845).

Today that version—“handsome is as handsome does”—is the form most commonly used. In modern usage it has become an idiom—that is, the meaning of the words is no longer literal but understood.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Jerry!

Q: If I say, “It wasn’t Jerry,” I mean it wasn’t Jerry. But if I say, “Damn if it wasn’t Jerry,” I mean it was Jerry. How does “Damn if” change the meaning to its opposite?

A: The statement “Damn if it wasn’t Jerry” is short for “I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Jerry.” The idiom “I’ll be damned,” often followed by “if,” is used to express surprise or negation. In this case, both senses are expressed.

Merriam-Webster.com, which labels the usage “informal + impolite,” defines the two meanings of “I’ll be damned” this way:

(1) “used to show that one is very surprised about something,” as in “I spent an hour putting the machine together and I’ll be damned if it didn’t fall apart as soon as I tried to use it.”

(2) “used to say that one cannot or will not do something,” as in “I’ll be damned if I can remember where I left my keys.”

Our searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases indicate that the usage showed up in American English in the early 19th century but soon appeared in British English.

The earliest American example we’ve found is from a report in an Indiana newspaper about a schoolmaster who killed one of his students.

The 17-year-old victim, who had refused to sit down and watch while the teacher punished his 14-year old brother, had said, “I’ll be damned if I will—I will not see Marcus punished” (the Indiana Palladium, Lawrenceburg, Aug. 2, 1828).

The first British example we’ve seen is from a collection of historical whodunnits set in the courts of George II and George III:

“Why, look at the very position of the fellow as he lies on his bed there: I’ll be damned if it isn’t all sham!” From The Mysteries of the Court of London (Vol. I, 1849), by George William MacArthur Reynolds. The reference is to someone presumed to be feigning madness.

Finally, we should mention that we’ve discussed “damn” several times on the blog, including a 2021 post about how “damn” became a swear word, and a 2019 post on the shrinking of the adjective “damned” to “damn.”

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