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

Doing hard time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression food Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Are Normandy veggies Norman?

Q: What is Norman about frozen Normandy vegetables? Do they actually come from Normandy? Are they typical of the veggies grown there?

A: As far as we can tell, the veggies in the various brands of “Normandy” frozen vegetables don’t necessarily come from Normandy. In fact, some of the vegetables often found in the mix aren’t even among the major crops grown in the French region. We suspect that “Normandy” is simply used here to Frenchify a prosaic side dish.

The earliest written use we’ve seen of “Normandy” to describe mixed vegetables is from an announcement in the Bangor Daily News on June 13, 1995, about a concert and meal at a senior housing center in Rockland, Maine:

“Methodist Conference Home at 39 Summer St. invites local senior citizens to an informal piano concert at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, June 15, in the dining room. Participants are invited to join the midday meal which is served at 11 a.m. The menu will be Swedish meatballs, rice, Normandy vegetables and fruit whip.”

In 1996, the US Department of Agriculture published a list of popular frozen vegetable blends, including “Normandy blend: Broccoli spears, crinkle cut carrots, cauliflower florets.” Other mixes listed were California blend, Italian blend (also known as five blend), Midwest blend, and Oriental blend. (From Choice Plus: A Reference Guide for Foods and Ingredients, published by the department’s Food and Consumer Service.)

The Normandy blend seems to be especially popular at senior centers. This is from a senior center menu in New Orleans: “Thursday Sliced Roasted Turkey/Poultry Gravy, whipped sweet potatoes, Normandy blend vegetables, white dinner roll, chocolate pudding” (Times-Picayune, Sept. 2, 2010).

The first example we’ve seen for the term used by a specific frozen-food brand showed up a couple of months later in a recipe for vegetable soup: “8 c frozen mixed vegetables (i used birds eye normandy blend).” From a Nov. 7, 2010, post on Just a Pinch Recipes, an online recipe site and social network.

Conagra Brands, the owner of Birds Eye, hasn’t responded to our request for information about the naming of Birds Eye’s Normandy Blend, a mix of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, and squash. Other frozen food brands include variations on that blend. Costco’s Kirkland Signature Normandy-Style Vegetable Blend, for example, contains broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots.

We assumed at first that that the blend may have been named “Normandy” because the French region was a notable producer of the ingredients. However, we later found that Normandy is a significant grower of only two of those vegetables—carrots and cauliflower. As for cuisine, Normandy is primarily known for its seafood, cheeses, and apples (used to make Calvados and cider).

As we’ve said above, we imagine that “Normandy” here is merely a marketing device intended to give the blend a linguistic rather than a gustatory flavor of France.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Is your shirt boiled?

Q: I often see the term “boiled shirt” in older novels, as here in George Orwell’s Burmese Days: “The boiled shirt and piqué waistcoat seemed to hold him upright and stiffen his moral fibre like a breastplate.” I know that it refers to a man’s dress shirt, but why boiled?

A: When the term “boiled shirt” showed up in the US in the mid-19th century, it referred to a white shirt that had been cleaned in boiling water. It was the kind of shirt one would wear to church, the office, a dance, an important meeting, and so on.

The earliest example in the Dictionary of American Regional English is from a June 10, 1853, letter by a California gold miner:

“I don’t look much older, or at least I think I won’t, when I get shaved and get a ‘boiled shirt’ on, which I have not had since I left home, for we don’t boil our shirts here, for we think cold water quite enough in a country where there is no female society.” From the John H. Eagle letters, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

(We’ve found an earlier, though less enlightening, example in a humorous story about a practical joke played on a man “in a ‘boiled shirt,’ and clean inexpressibles.” From the June 3, 1848, issue of the Locomotive, an Indianapolis weekly.)

In Roughing It, an 1872 travel book cited by DARE, Mark Twain writes about the hostility of California miners in blue shirts toward men in white shirts: “They had a particular and malignant animosity toward what they called a ‘biled shirt.’ ”

In the early 20th century, people began using the term “boiled shirt” for the stiff, heavily starched shirts that men wore with formal wear. These shirts featured rigid reinforced fronts, firm detachable collars, and stiffened cuffs.

Here’s an early example that we’ve found: “You may be able to force an old-fashioned man to wear evening dress and a boiled shirt after he becomes wealthy, but you can’t convince him that he is eating Dinner at Supper time” (Los Angeles Herald, Nov. 19, 1915).

When Orwell uses the term in Burmese Days, he’s also referring to the heavily starched dress shirt worn with formal wear. In the 1934 novel, Mr. Lackersteen wears a boiled shirt with a white dinner jacket at the European Club in Kyauktada, a fictional district in colonial Burma, now Myanmar.

Dorothy L. Sayers has fun with the noisy front of a boiled shirt in Gaudy Night, a 1935 mystery. At a reunion dinner at Oxford’s Shrewsbury College, a benefactor of the school, Dr. Noel Threep, has a front so stiff that it pops as he moves:

“When he bent over his plate, when he turned to pass the mustard, when he courteously inclined himself to catch what his neighbour was saying, his shirt-front exploded with a merry little report like the opening of ginger-beer.”

Miss Pyke, the college’s classical tutor, asks Lord Peter Wimsey about the popping and he explains: “The explosive sound you mention is produced when the shirt-front is slightly too long for the wearer. The stiff edges, being forced slightly apart by the inclination of the body come back into contact with a sharp click, similar to that emitted by the elytra of certain beetles.”

We’ve barely touched on the subject of formal wear in this post. If you’d like to read more, check out the guides for black tie, white tie, and morning wear on the Gentleman’s Gazette website.

[Note, Dec. 23, 2019. A reader comments: “About the ‘boiled shirt.’ The term may have to do with starching. Real, old-fashioned starch, the sort that comes in a box, must be dissolved in boiling water. Once it has been dissolved, shirts (and anything else) are soaked in the solution. The clothes are hung until damp, then ironed. The result is akin to a bullet-proof vest: not particularly comfortable, but it never wrinkles.”]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

A jerry-rigged etymology

Q: Growing up in the 1950s, I heard World War II veterans use “Jerry-rigged” to describe the booby traps, repairs, etc., that German soldiers made from whatever materials were on hand. I don’t care what academic snobs say. It has nothing to do with “jury-rigged,” which is rigging a court jury.

A: It’s true that in World Wars I and II, Allied soldiers, sailors, and flyers referred to the Germans as “Jerry.” And with that usage in mind, they may have described makeshift improvisations by the enemy as “jerry-rigged” (though we haven’t found any written evidence of this).

However, the expression “jerry-rigged” was in use for decades before anyone referred to German combatants as “Jerry.” We’ve found uses of “jerry-rigged” dating from the 1890s, when the “jerry” part simply meant badly made.

As we wrote in a 2008 post, standard dictionaries now accept “jerry-rigged” as a legitimate usage. Etymologically, they say, it’s a mash-up of two earlier terms: “jury-rigged” (improvised or makeshift) and “jerry-built” (badly done).

American Heritage calls the verb “jerry-rig” an “alteration (influenced by jerry-build) of jury-rig.” And Merriam-Webster says the adjective “jerry-rigged” is “probably [a] blend of jerry-built and jury-rigged.”

M-W has an interesting discussion of all these terms in an online usage note. As the dictionary points out, the “jerry” here meant shoddily built or cheaply made as far back as the 1830s. And the “jury” we’re talking about is unrelated to the courtroom term; it was an old nautical adjective meaning makeshift or improvised. Similarly, “rig” was originally a nautical verb meaning to fit out with rigging.

So the latecomer here is the use of “Jerry” to mean Germans—either collectively or individually. That usage, first recorded in writing in 1915, was “chiefly” used during the two World Wars—especially the second—as a less derogatory term than “Kraut,” “Boche,” or “Hun,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED suggests the usage was a shortening of “German” plus a “-y” suffix, along the lines of the English nickname “Jerry” (for Gerald, Jeremy, etc.).

The earliest known uses in writing are from Canadian soldiers who served with the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in World War I. Here are the OED citations:

“Jerry had several shots at me and missed.” (From an entry written Dec. 9, 1915, in The Journal of Private [Donald] Fraser, 1914-1918. This is the first of several references to “Jerry” in the Canadian serviceman’s diary.)

“ ‘Gott strafe the Umpire,’ ‘Heave a bomb at him Jerry!’ ” (A Christmas Garland from the Front, published in December 1915 by the 5th Canadian Battalion, 1st Canadian Division, then fighting in France and Belgium. The quotes are from a baseball game at a rest camp away from the firing line.)

But the term was not just Canadian, as these OED citations show: “They talked of the Germans as ‘Jerries’ ” (from the Scotsman, a journal published in Edinburgh, Sept. 12, 1916) … “Two dead Jerries were brought down to H.Q.” (a Dec. 14, 1916, entry in the journal of Pvt. Frank Dunham, an English stretcher bearer, published as The Long Carry in 1970).

The word “Jerry” was a wartime adjective, too, as in this OED citation from Dunham’s journal: “Our company was accommodated in two Jerry concrete dugouts” (July 10, 1917).

Now for a closer look at those other terms—“jury,” “jerry,” “rig”—and how they came together in compounds.

The use of “jury” to mean makeshift or temporary has roots in Middle English. In the late 1400s, a makeshift, temporary sail was called a “jori-seil” or “jory saile,” according to the University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary. (In later centuries the compound was spelled “jury-sail.”)

The adjective “jury,” the OED says, was used by sailors to mean “put together or contrived for temporary use,” and first appeared in its modern spelling in  the compound “jury-mast” (1616). Oxford defines this as “a temporary mast put up in place of one that has been broken or carried away.”

Besides “jury-mast,” we’ve seen such nautical compounds as “jury-rudder,” “jury-rigging,” “jury-tiller,” “jury-hatch,” and “jury-sheets.”

The origins of “jury” aren’t known, though the Middle English Dictionary compares it with the Old French noun jöerie or jüerie (joke, jesting, play). And the OED suggests the possibility that it may have been “a jocular appellation invented by sailors.”

The seafaring verb “rig” appeared around 1500 or earlier, the OED says, and meant “to prepare (a sailing ship or boat) for going to sea,” specifically “to set up the sails and rigging of (a sailing vessel).” Its origins are unknown, the dictionary says.

By the 1700s, “rig” had acquired another meaning, Oxford says: “to construct, put together, or place in position, hastily or as a makeshift.” The dictionary cites this passage from an anonymous poem published in 1754: “Up and rig a jury fore-mast, / She rights! she rights!”

The words “jury” and “rig” were eventually joined in the adjective “jury-rigged,” first recorded in writing in the 1780s. The M-W usage note cites this early example: “La Couronne … bad bottoms, jury rigged” (from the Morning Herald, London, Aug. 16, 1782).

Next we come to “jerry,” the adjective meaning shoddy or badly done. The OED defines it as “constructed unsubstantially of bad materials.” Its origin is uncertain.

M-W cites this early usage from the 1830s: “Mr. Heighton, a house owner … was asked what was the meaning of the Jerry style of architecture. ‘Any thing that is badly built,’ was the reply. … ‘And what do you call the Jerry style?’ ‘If the work is not well done, and the houses not well finished, we call that the Jerry style’ ” (reported from court testimony in the Liverpool Mercury, April 12, 1839).

The compound “jerry built” soon followed. The OED’s definition is similar to that of “jerry” but adds “built to sell but not to last.”

The M-W usage note has this early example: “The warehouses themselves which have been destroyed were of the class called ‘Jerry built,’ ” (the Guardian, London, Sept. 28, 1842).

The OED says the term’s origin is “not ascertained,” but it probably “originated in some way from the name Jerry.”

As we’ve said, those two compounds—“jury-rigged” and “jerry-built”—were blended in the late 19th century to form “jerry-rigged.”

The earliest examples we’ve found begin in the 1890s and are from newspapers published in Australia. Here are examples of the term as a noun, a verb, and an adjective.

“A man in the employ of Mr. E. J. Black narrowly escaped an accident through the tyre coming off his dray. Mr Martin, our blacksmith, fixed him up under ‘jerry-rig.’ ” (A small news item in the Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate, Oct. 17, 1896.)

“The old committee refused to commit the hospital to an expenditure of about £3000, when they had only £1000 in hand, and they are to be succeeded by gentlemen who are going to Jerry-rig a new hospital or bust—we believe they’ll bust.” (An editorial in the Gundagai Independent, Feb. 4, 1903.)

“I learned this one afternoon when something went wrong with the jerry-rigged derrick we were using.” (An article about deep-sea diving in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, June 3, 1904.)

When World War I arrived, along with the nickname “Jerry” for Germans, it’s not surprising that the mash-up phrase “jerry-rigged” may have been reinterpreted.

As we’ve said, dictionaries now accept both “jury-rigged” and “jerry-rigged” to describe something put together in a makeshift way. Although “jury-rigged” is more popular, “jerry-rigged” is closing the gap, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

You’re darn tootin’!

Q: Have you ever addressed “darn tootin’ ”?

A: No, we haven’t. But here goes.

The phrase “darn tootin’ ” emerged in early 20th-century American slang and means “correct” or “absolutely right.” It’s used by itself as an exclamation, or as an adjective in the expression “you’re darn tootin’.”

There are many written forms of the expression. In the earliest example we’ve found, it’s the name of horse in a stunt-riding exhibition:

“Performers from America’s greatest Wild West shows, introducing the celebrated outlaw horses Dam Tootin, Reputation, Helen Blazes, Gee Whiz, Tom Gregory, Aeroplane and many others.” (From an ad in the Santa Rosa [CA] Press Democrat, July 11, 1912.)

We also found an early example with a more euphemistic modifier: “You are ‘mighty tootin’.” (From a filler item headed “Speaking of slang” in the Laurens [S.C.] Advertiser, Dec. 31, 1913.)

The oldest citation given in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from 1916, when it appeared in “Word List from Nebraska,” an article in the journal Dialect Notes (later named American Speech): “darn-tootin’. adj. Correct, right. ‘You’re darn-tootin’ about that thing.”

That form but without the hyphen (“you’re darn tootin’ ”) appears to be the most common. Other variations begin with “you are,” “yore,” “yer,” and so on, coupled with “damned,” “damn,” “goddam,” or euphemisms like “durn” and “doggone.”

We found this version in a Texas newspaper whose editors used a pair of hyphens for modesty: “When asked if he did not believe that he would soon be well, he responded with his familiar and characteristic phrase, ‘you’re d- -n tootin’ ” (from an interview with an “old scout” called Navajo Bill, El Paso Morning Times, Dec. 6, 1917).

The euphemistic “darn” and variations are used here as adjectives that add emphasis. “Damned” has been used in writing as an intensifying adjective since the late 16th century and “damn” since the late 18th, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The final word is the least variable, almost always written as “tootin’ ” with the “g” dropped, though “tooting” does appear occasionally.

Why does the adjective “tooting” mean “correct” in slang? As Green’s explains, the image is one in which “the intensity of one’s statement” produces “a ‘noisy’ impact.”

Green’s treats this as a figurative use of the verb “toot,” whose literal meaning is “to make a noise” (as of a siren or a horn). The figurative “sound” of the noise amounts to an affirmation, the dictionary says.

The OED treats this use of the adjective “tooting” in much the same way, saying it’s “used, usually with preceding adv. or adj. (as damn or variant), as a strong affirmative or intensive.” Oxford includes the usage within its entry for the literal adjective “tooting,” meaning “that toots, as a horn, siren, etc.,” a usage first recorded in the mid-1600s.

The OED’s earliest example of the slang expression is from a 1932 issue of American Speech: “You’re damn tootin’, emphatic affirmative.”

Oxford also includes examples from American novels in which the adjective is used with a different modifier or no modifier: “You’re plumb tootin’ crazy” (Bernard Malamud, The Natural, 1952). “You tol’ me a tootin’ lie” (Gregory McDonald, Fletch and the Widow Bradley, 1981).

In case you’re curious, the phrase “rootin’ tootin’,” which the OED defines as “noisy, rumbustious, boisterous; lively, ‘rip-roaring,’ ” also dates from the early 1900s and probably originated in the US.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a turn-of-the-century American newspaper: “John was a rootin’-tootin’, fightin’ and shootin’ Border Ruffian from the remote Head Waters of Bitter Crick” (from a short story by George Ade, Houston Daily Post, Sept. 29, 1901).

The OED, whose earliest examples of “rootin’ tootin’ ” are from 1913 and 1924, says this colloquial expression is “chiefly associated with the cowboy culture of the American West.”

In discussing the phrase’s etymology, the OED mentions a “rare” adjective in the Lancashire dialect of England, also written “rootin’ tootin’,” that was defined in the 1800s as “inquisitive” or “meddlesome.” But the American phrase “was probably formed independently,” the dictionary says.

In the British version, Oxford suggests, “rootin’ ” may imply poking about and rummaging, with “tootin’ ” thrown in as a rhyming reduplication (a subject we wrote about in a recent post). But in the American phrase, the sense of noisy and lively is connected with the sound of horns and the fanfare of trumpets.

In discussing the etymology of “rootin’ tootin’,” Oxford draws a comparison with an earlier noun (and occasional adjective) “rooty-toot,” which the dictionary dates from 1852 and labels  “slang (chiefly US).”

The OED defines “rooty-toot” as “something noisy, riotous, or lively; spec. an early style of jazz music. Also: a trumpeting or similar sound; a flourish, a fanfare.”

The dictionary also makes note of a slightly earlier British verb “rooty-toot” (1850), which it calls “an imitative or expressive formation” mimicking “the sound of a trumpet.” The verb is defined as “to make a tooting sound with, or as with, a horn or trumpet. Also: to move or behave jauntily.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Shadows on the wall

Q: I’m stumped by the use of “due” in this sentence by Bertrand Russell about Plato’s cave allegory: “Inevitably they regard these shadows as real, and have no notion of the objects to which they are due.”

A: In the cave allegory, as you know, a group of people have lived chained to the wall of a cave since childhood, and shadows cast on the wall by a fire behind them become the prisoners’ reality.

In History of Western Civilization (1946), Bertrand Russell discusses the allegory, a Socratic dialogue in Plato’s Republic, written in the fourth-century BC. Here’s an expanded excerpt that puts Russell’s sentence into context:

“Between them and the wall there is nothing; all that they see are shadows of themselves, and of objects behind them, cast on the wall by the light of the fire. Inevitably they regard these shadows as real, and have no notion of the objects to which they are due.”

In that last sentence, “the objects to which they are due” means “the objects to which they are attributable” or “the objects that they are due to” or simply “the objects that caused them.”

We wonder if Russell’s awkward wording may have been due to his unwillingness to end the sentence with “due to.” However, the so-called rule against ending a sentence with a preposition is a common misconception that we’ve written about on our language myths page.

As for “due to,” the usage showed up in the 17th century as an adjectival phrase meaning “caused by” or “resulting from.” But over the last century and a half, it has also been used adverbially as a compound preposition meaning “because of” or “on account of.”

The newer usage is now accepted by all 10 online standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, cites this example of “due to” used to modify a verb: “he had to withdraw due to a knee injury.”

Despite the acceptance by dictionaries, some traditionalists still object to the usage. The critics insist that “due to” should introduce an adjectival phrase that modifies a particular noun.

When “due to” first showed up in writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used adjectivally in the predicate to mean “attributable to a particular cause or origin; derived or arising from; caused by, consequent on; as a result of.”

The OED’s earliest example is from a scientific treatise: “The motion of the Oyly drops may be in part due to some partial solution made of them by the vivous spirit” (The History of Fluidity and Firmnesse, 1669, by Robert Boyle).

However, the OED says the usage was rare before the 19th century, when it widened to include the use of “due to” as a compound preposition meaning “as a result of, on account of, because of.”

The dictionary’s first example for “due to” used adverbially as a compound preposition is from another scientific treatise: “electric currents produced by periodical variations of temperature at its [the earth’s] surface, due to the sun’s position above the horizon” (1840, Royal Society report on a British expedition to Antarctica; we’ve expanded the citation to include the verb).

“This use became well established during the 19th century, and is now usually regarded as acceptable standard English, but began to be criticized in usage guides in the early 20th century, apparently beginning with H. W. Fowler,” the OED says.

In the 1926 first edition of his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler says “due to is often used by the illiterate” as “a mere compound preposition.” But in the 2015 fourth edition, Jeremy Butterfield says “it looks as if this use of due to is now part of the natural language of the 21c.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Lock, stock, and barrel

Q: Can you explain the expression “lock, stock, and barrel”? I know that it means all of something, but does it refer to the actual parts of a firearm?

A: Yes, the individual words refer to parts of a gun, but the phrase itself has almost always been used figuratively.

The “barrel” here is a gun barrel, the “stock” is the handle, and the “lock” is the firing mechanism where loose powder is exploded in old-style firearms (hence terms like “flintlock,” “matchlock,” and so on).

The phrase was inspired by an old joke about a rural Scotsman who takes his worn-out gun to be repaired. But it’s virtually beyond repair, and the gunsmith suggests he should simply buy a new one. The Scotsman replies that he’ll settle for a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrelin other words, a whole new gun.

We’ve seen dozens of versions of the story, dating from the late 1700s onward. Usually the weapon is called a “gun,” but sometimes it’s a “pistol,” a “musket,” or a “fowling-piece” (a light shotgun). This is the earliest reference we’ve found to the story:

“When we think of the other improvements which this work would need, before it could be rendered useful, we cannot help recollecting the story of a gun which, in order to be repaired, required a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel.” (From a review of a book on agriculture in the Monthly Review, London, March 1790.)

And the Scottish poet Robert Burns referred to it in a letter written in April 1793: “Let him mend the song, as the Highlander mended his gun; he gave it a new stock, a new lock, and a new barrel.”

The resulting figurative phrase—originally “stock, lock, and barrel”—means “as a whole; entirely,” or “the totality or entirety of something,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and its earliest examples are from Scottish authors.

The OED’s first confirmed figurative usage is from a letter written by Sir Walter Scott on Oct. 29, 1817, in reference to an old fountain on his estate: “Like the High-landman’s gun, she wants stock, lock, and barrel, to put her into repair.”

We found this 1819 example in the writings of another Scotsman: “I am afraid that if the Americans continue to cherish a fondness for such repairs, the highlandman’s pistol, with its new stock, lock, and barrel, will bear a close resemblance to what is ultimately produced.”

(From a letter written on Feb. 10, 1819, by John Duncan, commenting on Americans’ readiness to overhaul their state constitutions. His letters were published in Glasgow in 1823 as Travels Through Part of the United States and Canada.)

And this Oxford example refers to a financial disaster: “Even the capital likewise—stock, lock, and barrel, all went.” (From Lawrie Todd, an 1830 novel by John Galt about a Scotsman who emigrates to North America.)

In our searches of old newspaper databases, we found that the phrase persisted in that order (“stock, lock, and barrel”) well into the 20th century, though it fell off sharply in the 1930s.

Meanwhile, a version with the first two nouns reversed—“lock, stock, and barrel”—had started appearing in figurative use as early as the 1820s (we’ve seen reports of an 1803 American example, but we can’t confirm it). By the mid-19th century the newer phrase was quite common in both Britain and the United States.

The OED’s earliest confirmed example in which the reversed phrase appears figuratively is from a Pennsylvania newspaper:

“Congress are in possession of the flint, powder, gun, lock, stock and barrel, and still we exclaim with the old lady, take away the musket” (the Adams Centinel, Gettysburg, April 7, 1824).

And we found this example in a work of Irish fiction published two years later: “Maybe you might have the heart to say another word;—one—jist one—that ’ud save poor Peery Conolly sowl an’ body, lock, stock, an’ barrel, an’ ould Matthew along wid him, that’s goin’ to ruination an’ smithereens” (Tales by the O’Hara Family, by the brothers John and Michael Banim, London, 1826).

Why was “stock, lock” reversed to “lock, stock”? We can only suggest that perhaps the resulting phrase came easier to the tongue. Today, as the OED notes, it’s the usual form, and the original “stock, lock” version is “rarely” used.

As for the individual words in the phrase, “lock” in the weaponry sense is defined this way in the OED: “In a gun or firearm which uses loose gunpowder: a mechanism by means of which the charge is exploded.”

The term appeared originally as part of a compound, “firelock.” Oxford’s earliest example is from a 1544 document in the state papers of King Henry VIII: “Some of them shute with maches not having the fyre lockes.”

Other “lock” compounds refer to various firing mechanisms or weapons using them: “matchlock” (first recorded in writing in 1638), “gunlock” (1651), “wheel-lock” (1670), and “flintlock” (1683).

By the time those later compounds were recorded, “lock” was also being used by itself to mean a firing mechanism. Here’s the OED’s earliest example:

“Others carrie … some Peeces, with the Match readie lighted … and haue the best lockes that possible may bee found in all Europe.” (From Discours of Voyages into ye Easte and West Indies, a 1598 translation of a work by Jan Huygen van Linschoten.)

The use of “lock” for part of a gun evolved from the familiar noun for a fastener with a sliding bolt and often operated with a key. That earlier “lock” has been around since early Old English and was “inherited from Germanic,” Oxford says.

As for “stock,” it too has an ancient history and was derived from Germanic. The original Old English noun, now archaic, first meant a tree stump and later a block of wood.

The earliest use of “stock” in weaponry emerged in the late 15th century, when it meant a gun carriage for mounting a cannon or artillery piece. The term in this sense was first recorded as “gunstok” in 1496 and as “stokke” in 1497, according to OED citations.

A “stock” later came to mean “the wooden portion of a musket or fowling-piece” or “the handle of a pistol,” the OED says.

Oxford’s earliest example is from a law enacted in 1541 during the reign of Henry VIII: “Any handgun … shalbe in the stock and gonne of the lenghe of one hole Yarde.” (Note: In early use, a “handgun” meant a firearm carried by hand, as opposed to a cannon.)

Finally, “barrel” in the weapons sense, a use first recorded in the 17th century, comes from the familiar noun for a large roundish wooden cask.

That earlier noun came into English in the early 14th century from French (baril), the OED says, but the ultimate source is medieval Latin (barile). Oxford adds: “The Celtic words (Welsh baril, Gaelic baraill, Irish bairile, Manx barrel) sometimes cited as the source, are all from English.”

It was only natural that the hollow cylindrical metal tube of a firearm should come to be called a “barrel.”

The earliest use in the OED is from Two Treatises (1644) by Sir Kenelm Digby. Here Digby describes an experiment for demonstrating the power of suction, and we’ve expanded the citation to get in the rather alarming context:

“Take the barrel of a long gun perfectly bored and set it upright with the breech upon the ground, and take a bullet that is exactly fit for it … and then if you suck at the mouth of the barrel (though ever so gently) the bullet will come up so forcibly that it will hazard the striking out of your teeth.”

He adds later, “I remember to have seen a man that was uncautious and sucked strongly that had his fore-teeth beaten out by the blow of the bullet ascending.”

Do not try this at home!

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Hallowe’en be thy name

[Note: This post originally appeared on the blog on Halloween of 2014.]

Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right?

A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it!

As we wrote in 2009, dictionaries accept both pronunciations, but your preference (“HALLOW-een”) is more historically accurate. We’ll expand on our earlier post to explain why.

Back in the seventh century, the early Christians had more saints than they had days in the year. To commemorate the leftover saints who didn’t have a day all to themselves, the church set aside a day devoted to all of them, and in the next century the date was standardized as Nov. 1.

The Christian holiday became known as the Day of All Saints, or All Hallows Day. “Hallow,” an old word for a holy person or a saint, evolved from the Old English word halig, meaning “holy.”

Meanwhile, the pagan Celts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles were already celebrating Oct. 31, the final day of the year in the Celtic calendar. It was both a celebration of the harvest and a Day of the Dead, a holiday on which the Celtic people believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

As Christianity spread, these celebrations neatly dovetailed. The pagan Day of the Dead was transformed by Christianity into the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. This later became All Hallow Even, then was shortened to Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

Pat spoke about this recently on Iowa Public Radio, and mentioned some of the whimsical names for the night before Halloween. Like the pronunciation of “Halloween,” these regional names vary across the country: Devil’s Night … Cabbage Night … Goosey Night … Clothesline Night … Mischief Night … Hell Night, and so on. (Sometimes, these occasions are excuses for vandalism and general bad behavior.)

Several Iowa listeners called and tweeted to say that in the small rural towns where they grew up, kids went “corning” on the night before Halloween, throwing handfuls of corn at neighbors’ windows and doors. Well, perhaps that’s better than throwing eggs or strewing trees with toilet paper!

Pat also discussed the etymologies of some of the more familiar Halloween words:

● “Ghost” came from the Old English gast (spirit, soul). It has roots in ancient Germanic words, and you can hear it today in the modern German geist (mind, spirit, ghost). The word “poltergeist” is from German, in which poltern means to rumble or make noise.

People didn’t begin to spell “ghost” with an “h” until the 1400s, probably influenced by the Dutch word, which began with “gh-.”

● “Ghastly,” from the old verb gast (frighten), didn’t always have an “h” either. It was written as “gastliche” or “gastly” in the 1300s. The “gh-” spelling 200 years later was influenced by “ghost,” but otherwise they’re unrelated.

● “Haunt” is derived from an Old French verb meaning “to frequent,” and in the English of the 1200s it meant to do something habitually or frequently. Later, in the 1500s, a figurative use emerged in reference to supernatural beings who would “haunt” (that is, frequently visit) those of us on earth.

● “Goblin” has a spooky history dating back to the fourth or fifth century in France. Legend has it that an extremely ugly and very nasty demon was driven out of the town of Évreux by an early Christian bishop. When the story was recorded later in a medieval Latin manuscript, the demon was called Gobelinus. Thus the word gobelin passed into Old French to mean an evil demon, and in the early 1300s “goblin” came into English.

● “Ghoul,” a relative latecomer, came into English in the late 18th century from Arabic, in which ghul means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The Arabic word comes from a verb that means to seize.

● “Mummy” also has an Arabic ancestry. It can be traced to the Arabic mumiya (embalmed body), derived from mum, a Persian word for wax. The word passed into Egyptian and other languages, then into 14th-century English, where “mummy” first meant a medicinal ointment prepared from mummified flesh. By the 17th century, it had come to mean a body embalmed according to Egyptian practices.

● “Witch” has its roots in an Old English verb, wiccian, meaning to practice sorcery. There were both masculine and feminine nouns for the sorcerers themselves: a man was a wicca and a woman was a wicce. The “cc” in these words was pronounced like “ch,” so they sounded like witchen, witcha, and witchee. (Wicca, the pagan religion of witchcraft that appeared in the 20th century, is spelled like the Old English masculine wicca though its followers pronounce it as wikka.)

Eventually the nouns for male and female sorcerers (wicca and wicce) merged, the endings fell away, and the word became the unisex “witch” in the 13th century. Later in its history, “witch” came to be more associated with women, which explains a change in this next word.

● “Wizard” literally meant “wise man” when it entered English in the 1400s. But in the following century it took on a new job. It became the male counterpart of “witch” and meant a man who practices magic or sorcery.

● “Vampire” may have its roots in ubyr, a word for “witch” in the Kazan Tatar language spoken in an area of what is now Russia, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The OED suggests an origin in Magyar (vampir), the language of modern Hungary. However it originated, the word is now very widely spread and has similar-sounding counterparts in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even modern Latin (vampyrus). When it came into English from French in the 1740s, it was spelled “vampyre,” which for some reason looks scarier in writing (perhaps it seems more gothic).

● “Werewolf” has come down from Old English more or less intact as a word for someone who can change (or is changed) from a man into a wolf. It was first recorded as werewulf around the year 1000. In those days, wer or were was a word for “man,” so “werewolf” literally means “wolf man.”

● “Zombie” has its roots in West Africa and is similar to words in the Kongo language, nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish), as the OED notes. Transferred to the Caribbean and the American South in the 19th century, “zombie” was part of the language of the voodoo cult. It first meant a snake god, and later a soulless corpse reanimated by witchcraft.

● “Hocus-pocus” can be traced to the 1600s, when it meant a juggler, trickster, or conjuror. It may even have been the name of a particular entertainer who performed during the reign of King James I (1601-25), according to a citation in the OED.

This man, the citation says, called himself Hocus Pocus because “at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.” (From A Candle in the Dark, a 1655 religious and political tract by Thomas Ady.)

It has also been suggested that “hocus-pocus” was a spoof on the Latin words used in the Eucharist, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”), but there’s no evidence for that. At any rate, the phrase “hocus-pocus” eventually became a famous incantation. “Hocus” by itself also became a verb and a noun for this kind of hoodwinking, and the word “hoax” may be a contracted form of “hocus.”

● “Weird” once had a very different meaning. In Old English, the noun wyrd meant fate or destiny, and from around 1400 the term “weird sister” referred to a woman with supernatural powers who could control someone’s destiny. This is how Shakespeare meant “weird” when he called the three witches in Macbeth “the weyard sisters.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that “weird” was used to mean strange or uncanny or even eerie.

● “Eerie,” another much-changed word, is one we owe to the Scots. When it was recorded in writing in the early 1300s, “eerie” meant fearful or timid. Not until the late 18th century did “eerie” come to mean inspiring fear—as in spooky.

● “Jack-o’-lantern,” a phrase first recorded in the 17th century, originally meant “man with a lantern” or “night watchman.” It became associated with Halloween and carved pumpkins in the 19th century. And incidentally, the British originally hollowed out large turnips, carving scary eyes and mouths and putting candles inside. Americans made their jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Like more, only more so

Q: I’m seeing “more so” or “moreso” where I would expect “more.” Am I suffering from the usual recency illusion? Can I change it to “more” when editing? I sometimes have trouble knowing whether a language change is far enough along to indulge it.

A: The two-word phrase “more so” is standard English and showed up nearly three centuries ago. You can find it in two of James Madison’s essays in The Federalist Papers and in Jane Austen’s novel Emma.

The one-word version “moreso” has been around for almost two centuries, though it’s not accepted by any modern standard dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, says it’s mainly an American usage.

The OED says “more so” (as well as “moreso”) is derived from the earlier use of “more” with “ellipsis of the word or sentence modified.” That is, it comes from the use of “more” by itself to modify missing words, as in “I found the first act delightful and the second act even more.” (Here “delightful” is missing after “more” but understood.)

The earliest Oxford example for this elliptical “more” usage, which we’ll expand here, is from a Middle English translation of a 13th-century French treatise on morality:

“He ssolde by wel perfect and yblissed ine þise wordle and more ine þe oþre” (“He shall be morally pure and blessed in this world and more in the other”; from Ayenbite of Inwyt, a 1340 translation by the Benedictine monk Michel of Northgate of La Somme des Vices et des Vertus, 1279, by Laurentius Gallus).

Today, the OED says in a December 2002 update to its online third edition, the usage is seen “frequently with anaphoric so” in the phrase “more so (also, chiefly U.S., moreso).” An anaphoric term refers back to a word or words used earlier, as in “I saw the film and so did she.”

The dictionary’s first citation for “more so” is from an early 18th-century treatise by the Irish philosopher George Berkeley: “This is so plain that nothing can be more so” (A Defence of Free-Thinking in Mathematics, 1735). Berkeley, California, was named after the philosopher, who was also the Anglican bishop of Cloyne, Ireland.

The next Oxford example is from a Federalist essay in which Madison discusses the size of districts that choose senators: “Those of Massachusetts are larger than will be necessary for that purpose. And those of New-York still more so” (Federalist No. 57, “The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many Considered in Connection with Representation,” Feb. 19, 1788).

In the OED’s citation from Emma, published in 1815, Emma and Mr. Knightley are discussing Harriet’s initial rejection of Mr. Martin: “ ‘I only want to know that Mr. Martin is not very, very bitterly disappointed.’  ‘A man cannot be more so,’ was his short, full answer.”

The one-word version “moreso” soon appeared in both the US and the UK. The earliest British example that we’ve seen is from a clinical lecture on amputation delivered at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, Nov. 25, 1823:

“In all these cases, it is of infinite importance to be prompt in your decision, moreso almost than in any other cases to be met with in the practice of the profession” (from an 1826 collection of surgical and clinical lectures published by the Lancet).

The earliest American example we’ve found is from an Indiana newspaper: “Cure for the Tooth ache—This is one of the most vexatious of the ills that flesh (or rather nerves) is heir to. The following simple prescription can do no injury, & from actual experiment, we know it to be highly efficacious, moreso than any specific the dread of cold iron ever induced the sufferer to” (Western Sun & General Advertiser, Vincennes, April 29, 1826).

A few months later, the one-word spelling appeared in the published text of a Fourth of July speech at the University of Vermont in Burlington. Here’s the relevant passage from the speech by George W. Benedict, a professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at the university:

“Much has been said of the ingratitude of popular governments. That in those of ancient times, the very individuals to whom they were under the greatest obligations were as liable as others, sometimes apparently moreso, the victims of sudden resentment or the objects of a cold, unfeeling neglect, is doubtless true.”

The OED’s only example for “moreso” is from a late 20th-century book published in Glasgow: “Anyone perceived as being different from society’s norms was a potential target—no-one moreso than the local wise-woman” (Scottish Myths and Customs, 1997, by Carol P. Shaw).

However, the dictionary does have a hyphenated example from the 19th century: “The English servant was dressed like his master, but ‘more-so’ ” (The Golden Butterfly, an 1876 novel by the English writers Walter Besant and Samuel James Rice).

The linguist Arnold Zwicky notes in a May 30, 2005, post on the Language Log that “more” could replace “more so” or “moreso” in all of the OED citations, though the anaphoric versions (those with “so”) may add contrast or emphasis:

“The choice between one variant and the other is a stylistic one. One relevant effect is that, in general, explicit anaphora, as in more so, tends to be seen as more emphatic or contrastive than zero anaphora, as in plain more.”

In the 21st century, people seem to be using the one-word “moreso” in several new nonstandard senses. For example, Zwicky points out that “moreso” is now being used as a simple emphatic version of “more,” without referring back to a word or words used earlier: “alternating more and moreso have been reinterpreted as mere plain and emphatic counterparts, with no necessary anaphoricity.”

Here’s a recent example from an NPR book review of Brynne Rebele-Henry’s Orpheus Girl, an updated version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (Oct. 13, 2019): “Moreso than Hades’s mythic underworld of old, this camp is Actual Hell (and all the trigger warnings that go with that).”

In another innovative reinterpretation, Zwicky says in his 2005 post, “moreso” is being used as a sentence adverb “without any specific standard of comparison implicated.”

It means “moreover” or “furthermore” in this recent sighting on Amazon.com: “Moreso, infants and preschoolers do not have the ability to express feelings of sadness in apt language” (from a description of How to Detect and Help Children Overcome Depression, 2019, by J. T. Mike).

And  “moreso” is being used in the sense of “rather” in this example: “Scientist Kirstie Jones-Williams, who will be helping to train and guide the volunteer researchers, says the goal of the program isn’t to create more scientists, but moreso global ambassadors on the dangers of pollution and more” (from a Sept. 25, 2019, report on NBC Connecticut about a trip to Antarctica).

We’ve occasionally seen the two-word “more so” used in such creative ways too, perhaps influenced by the newer uses of “moreso.” The phrase is a sentence adverb meaning “more importantly” in this query about the hip-hop career of the former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown:

“But we have to know, if Brown starts releasing music, will you listen? More so, will you buy it? Let us know” (an item that appeared Oct. 16, 2019, on Instagram from USA Today’s Steelers Wire).

Although lexicographers are undoubtedly aware of the evolution of “moreso” in the 21st century, none of these new senses have made it into either the OED or the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. Webster’s New World, the only standard dictionary to take note of “moreso,” merely labels it a “disputed” spelling of “more so.” The online collaborative Wiktionary say it’s a “nonstandard” spelling of the phrase.

Getting back to your question, are you suffering from the recency illusion? Well, perhaps a bit. The term, coined by Zwicky, refers to the belief that things you recently notice are in fact recent. Yes, the anaphoric use of “more so” and “moreso” has been around for centuries, but “moreso,” with its new senses, seems to have increased in popularity in recent years.

Historically, “moreso” has been relatively rare in relation to “more so,” according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books published through 2008. However, recent searches with the more up-to-date iWeb corpus, a database of 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, suggest that “moreso” sightings may now be on the rise. Here’s what we found: “moreso,” 8,022 hits; “more so,” 107,837.

Should you change “moreso” or “more so” to “more” when editing? That depends.

Since “moreso” isn’t standard English, we’d change it to an appropriate standard term, depending on the sense—“more,” “more so,” “moreover,” “rather,” and so on.

As for “more so,” we’d leave it alone if it’s being used anaphorically. Otherwise, we’d change it to an appropriate standard term.

But as you note in your question, the English language is evolving. If you ask us about this in a few years, we may have a different answer.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Are you a fuddy-duddy?

Q: Your recent post about reduplicatives reminds me of a conversation (a spat, to be honest) not long ago about “fuddy-duddy.” A man I met called me that and I took it as a negative remark. He argued that it’s not negative and that it’s almost an endearment. Is this just over-sensitivity on my part?

A: Technically, “fuddy-duddy” is a negative term, but it’s one that’s often used affectionately. And some of the examples in standard dictionaries have people referring to themselves as “fuddy-duddies.” In fact, we’ve sometimes called ourselves “fuddy-duddies” because of our love of Victorian novels, Baroque music, and Renaissance art.

Standard dictionaries define a “fuddy-duddy” as someone who’s old-fashioned, fussy, pompous, or boring. However, the noun phrase is usually used in a lighthearted way to refer to an old-fashioned person, as in these examples from Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online:

  • “He probably thinks I’m an old fuddy-duddy.”
  • “Apparently the constitution is just for stick-in-the-mud old white fuddy-duddies.”
  • “I didn’t want to appear like a holier-than-thou fuddy-duddy so I made pleasant small talk with Tonya’s date as though I approved of these sort of shenanigans.”
  • “In the market where these contemporary artists ply their trade, the age-old discipline of drawing human figures is considered a rather fuddy-duddy exercise.”
  • “Perhaps I’m turning into a bit of a fuddy-duddy boring would-rather-stay-at-home kind of guy.”

We think you’re probably oversensitive about this. We don’t believe we’ve ever heard “fuddy-duddy” used other than light-heartedly. Serious critics are more likely to use nouns like “diehard,” “obstructionist,” and “reactionary,” or adjectives like “antediluvian,” “antiquated,” “decrepit,” “moth-eaten,” and “superannuated.”

We mentioned “fuddy-duddy” briefly in our recent post about why people say “zig-zag” rather than “zag-zig.” Both “fuddy-duddy” and “zig-zag” are examples of reduplication, the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alteration.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative. And one like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative.

As for the etymology, “fuddy-duddy” is of unknown origin, the Oxford English Dictionary says. But it cites this entry from A Glossary of the Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland (1899), by William Dickinson and Edward William Prevost: “Duddy fuddiel, a ragged fellow.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang also cites that phrase in the Cumberland dialect (spoken in northern England), but adds a question mark.

In searches of newspaper and book databases, we’ve found examples of “fuddy-duddy” or “fuddydud” that date back to the early 1870s, but none of the early sightings mean old-fashioned. The earliest example we’ve seen with that meaning is from a letter by a Bostonian in the Sept. 2, 1898, issue of the Sun, a New York newspaper:

“The Sun is more truly than any New York paper an American paper. Anger is often a healthy sensation, in that it proves a man to be alive. At home, when I desire the excitement, I read our old fuddy-duddy Transcript, with its wailings over the advance of the nation along its natural path.”

We’ll end with this recent example: “It’s OK. You can call me a fuddy-duddy. I’m not offended. What I am offended by is what I have to put up with—and you do, too—on a nearly daily basis.” (From an Oct. 5, 2019, column by Heather Ziegler in the Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register in West Virginia. Her gripe? Dirty words on T-shirts.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Skid row or skid road?

Q: In discussing a crackdown on homeless people in Los Angeles, I got into a disagreement with a friend over the terms “skid row” and “skid road.” I think it’s “row” and my friend says “road.” Any information?

A: Standard dictionaries accept both “skid row” and “skid road” as terms for a rundown part of town frequented by people down on their luck. The usage originated as “skid road,” a logging term, in the late 19th century, but the more common wording for a rundown area has been “skid row” since the mid-20th century.

When “skid road” first showed up in writing, it referred to “a way or track formed of skids along which logs are hauled,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary describes “skids” as “peeled logs or timbers, partially sunk into the ground, and forming a roadway along or down which logs are drawn or slid.”

The earliest OED example is from an 1880 topographical survey of the Adirondacks region: “Advised that lumbermen had cut ‘skid-roads’ on which logs were drawn.”

However, we’ve found this earlier example from the Oct. 30, 1875, issue of the Pacific Rural Press, a weekly published in San Francisco: “Six yoke of oxen were drawing a log over the skid road.” The “skid road” here was a log road leading to a saw mill in northern California. Many early examples are from the West Coast.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that the original “skid road” may have been a log road that led down to Yesler’s mill in Seattle in the 1850s. But we’ve seen no written evidence that what is now Yesler Way was referred to as a “skid road” earlier than the 1875 California citation above.

In the early 20th century, “skid road” came to mean an area of a town where loggers congregated. The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an Aug. 1, 1906, entry in the ship’s log of the SS Columbia, which carried cargo and passengers along the West Coast: “ ‘We’ll likely see him in town.’ ‘Sure, Mike. He’ll be in the Skid road somewhere.’ ”

Such logging hangouts, with their saloons and gambling houses, were soon attracting all sorts of workers who wanted to unwind in their time off. Green’s Dictionary cites this example: “ ‘Skid-road’ is another word from the lumber industry. It has come to mean any street where the ‘working stiff’ hangs out” (from “Westernisms,” a paper by Kate Mullen published in American Speech, December 1925).

The term “skid row” showed up a couple of years later as these honky-tonk areas developed an unsavory reputation. Green’s cites this example from a glossary of criminal slang: “Skid row, n., the lowest strata of the underworld” (“Jargon of the Underworld,” Elisha K. Kane,  Dialect Notes, 1927).

Finally, these places (and their denizens) fell on hard times, with both “skid row” and “skid road” now meaning a “run-down area of a town where the unemployed, vagrants, alcoholics, etc., tend to congregate,” the OED says.

We’ve found this early example in a California newspaper: “Skid row, where down-and-outers find 10-cent beds and 10-cent meals” (San Bernardino Sun, April 6, 1935).

In a little over half a century, a usage that began as a road on which logs were skidded to a saw mill was now a place where people had skidded into lives of insolvency, dissolution, and defeat.

As we’ve said, dictionaries now include “skid row” and “skid road” as standard English. The more common term is “skid row,” though the use of both has fallen off in recent years, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words or phrases in digitized books.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

How susceptible are you?

Q: I recently saw the phrase “susceptible to many interpretations.” Normally, I would use “of” as the preposition. Do you agree that it would be more fitting than “to”?

A: We think that either “of” or “to” is acceptable in that construction—“susceptible of many interpretations” or “susceptible to many interpretations.” Both phrases have been used by eminent writers, and as of 2008 the two versions were equally common in published books, according to Google’s Ngram viewer.

A survey of standard dictionaries shows no clear agreement here, but our impression is that a writer of British English would probably use the older “susceptible of” in this context, while an American might use either one.

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, is a good illustration of the British preference. It defines “susceptible of” as “capable or admitting of,” and gives these examples: “The problem is not susceptible of a simple solution” … “These things are not susceptible of translation into a simple ‘yes or no’ question” … “Each item separately may be susceptible of an innocent explanation.”

Another British guide, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), agrees, saying that “susceptible of” is “equivalent to ‘admitting or capable of.’ ”  Fowler’s gives these examples: “A passage susceptible of more than one interpretation” … “an assertion not susceptible of proof.”

On the American side, Merriam-Webster Unabridged says that “susceptible” in this sense is “used with of or to.” Here’s how M-W defines this use of “susceptible”: “of such a nature, character, or constitution as to admit or permit: capable of submitting successfully to an action, process, or operation.”

Merriam-Webster’s examples use both prepositions: “susceptible of proof” … “susceptible to solution” … “susceptible of being mistaken.”

Another US dictionary, American Heritage, also illustrates this sense of “susceptible” with both prepositions: “a statement susceptible of proof” … “a disease susceptible to treatment.”

However, one major American dictionary, Webster’s New World, is a hold-out for “susceptible of” in this sense. It says “susceptible of” means “that gives a chance for; admitting; allowing.” Its example: “testimony susceptible of error.”

All dictionaries agree that “susceptible” is used with “to” when it means easily affected or liable to be affected. Examples: “a man susceptible to her charms” … “a child susceptible to ear infections” … “a street susceptible to flooding” … “a boss susceptible to flattery.” (Memory aid: In that sense, “susceptible to” is much like “vulnerable to” or “subject to.”)

And all dictionaries agree that the adjective “susceptible” by itself—with no following preposition—usually means impressionable, emotionally sensitive, or easily moved by feelings. It’s often used to describe tender-hearted people. Examples: “the more susceptible in the audience were in tears” … “a susceptible young man is always falling in love” … “a movie too violent for susceptible children.”

In addition, the bare adjective is used to describe those likely to be affected by something, as in “distemper is deadly, and puppies are especially susceptible.”

As for its history, “susceptible” came into English in the early 17th century as a borrowing from the medieval Latin susceptibilis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The medieval term, which meant capable, sustainable, or susceptible, was derived from the classical Latin suscipĕre (to take up, support, or acknowledge).

The original meaning of “susceptible” was the one you ask about, “capable of undergoing, admitting of (some action or process).” Here’s the first OED example: “This Subiect of mans bodie, is of all other thinges in Nature, most susceptible of remedie” (Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, 1605).

All of the dictionary’s examples for this sense of “susceptible” are accompanied by “of,” but they extend only to 1871 (the OED says its “susceptible” entry has not yet been fully updated).

However, we know that “to” had crept into use in American English by the mid-19th century. We’ve found more than a dozen examples of “susceptible to proof” in American newspapers of the 1800s, beginning with this one:

“Intimations, not perhaps susceptible to positive proof, have reached me that … [etc.]” (from a letter written Feb. 11, 1847, by the acting territorial Governor of California, Lieut. Col. John C. Frémont, and published Dec. 4, 1847, in the Boon’s Lick Times, Fayette, Mo.).

We’ve also found many American examples of “susceptible to interpretation” (since 1874), “susceptible to error” (since 1880), and “susceptible to mistakes” (since 1885). So in American English, the use of “susceptible to” in the sense we’re discussing is solidly established.

The more common meaning of “susceptible”—easily affected or liable to be affected—was first recorded in 1702. This sense was also accompanied by “of” originally, but the OED’s later examples have “to” (“susceptible to attack,” 1883; “susceptible to smallpox,” 1887, and so on).

The newcomer is the bare adjective, with no preposition. This “susceptible” was first recorded in 1709. These are the OED’s most recent examples of the different senses:

“We must remember also the susceptible nature of the Greek” (from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues, 2nd ed., 1875) … “By cultures and by inoculations into susceptible animals” (from A System of Medicine, edited by Thomas Clifford Allbutt, 1899).

Like us, you’re probably susceptible to fatigue, so we’ll stop here.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Petard hoisting

Q: I’ve always thought that one was “hoist on” one’s own petard, but I recently saw it as “hoist by” one’s own petard. I think “on” makes sense and “by” doesn’t.

A: When Shakespeare coined the expression in Hamlet more than 400 years ago, he used the preposition “with.” Online standard dictionaries now include “by” as well as “with.” Both of those make sense to us, though “on” does not.

Merriam-Webster, for example, calls its entry “hoist with one’s own petard or hoist by one’s own petard,” and defines the usage this way: “victimized or hurt by one’s own scheme.” Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) and American Heritage also include both prepositions.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the expression as meaning “blown into the air by his own bomb; hence, injured or destroyed by his own device for the ruin of others.”

The OED says the usage originated in Act III, Scene 4 of Hamlet (probably written between 1599 and 1602). Hamlet uses it when he speaks of foiling the efforts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to betray him: “Tis the sport to haue the enginer / Hoist with his owne petar.”

The word “hoist” here is a past tense and past participle of the old verb “hoise.” When this verb first appeared as a nautical term in the late 15th century, to “hoise” meant to “raise aloft by means of a rope or pulley and tackle, or by other mechanical appliance,”  the OED says.

Here’s an example from William Caxton’s 1490 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid: “They made the saylles to be hyssed vppe.”

The modern verb “hoist” appeared in the mid-16th century as a corruption of “hoise.” The OED’s first example is from an English translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s Latin paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament: “His onely soonne they hoihsted vp and nayled on the crosse.”

The verb “hoise,” which the OED describes as obsolete or dialectal, had two different past tenses and past participles: “hoised” and “hoist.”

When Shakespeare used “hoist” in Hamlet, the raising was done by a “petard,” which Oxford describes as a small bomb made of a metal or wooden box filled with powder, used to blow in a door, gate, etc., or to make a hole in a wall. Now historical.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “petard” is from an obscure 1566 entry in the accounts of the lord high treasurer of Scotland. The next cite is clearer:

“A squib or petard of gun powder vsed to burst vp gates or doores with” (from A Worlde of Wordes, 1598, an Italian-English dictionary by John Florio).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

When a rose isn’t a rose

Q: Twice in the last few days I’ve seen the hibiscus shrub (or its blossoms) referred to in the plural as “roses of Sharon.” I would have thought it more correct to say “rose of Sharons.” Is there a rule for such plurals?

A: The usual rule for pluralizing a compound term that’s split into parts, with or without hyphens, is to put the plural ending on the most important part, as in  “attorneys-at-law,” “brigadier generals,” and “mothers-in-law.”

The compound common names of plants are usually treated the same way, especially when the key element is a noun at the end: “African violets,” “fringed bleeding hearts,” “morning glories,” “northern blue flags,” “pussy willows,” “trumpet vines,” and “Virginia creepers.”

However, things get fuzzy when the important term is elsewhere in the compound, especially if it’s being used loosely. A “lily of the valley,” for example, isn’t really a lily, nor is a “rose of Sharon” a rose. The terms “lily” and “rose” are being used figuratively in the sense of “flower.”

Similarly, the “Johnny” of “Johnny jump up” refers to a violet, while the “Jack” of “Jack in the pulpit” is a flower-hooded spike. And “forget-me-not” doesn’t even have a key word. It originated as an English translation of the Old French expression “ne m’oubliez mye.”

We haven’t found any special rules for pluralizing such horticultural compounds. And the online standard dictionaries aren’t much help—only a few include plurals for these compounds—and the entries are inconsistent.

Merriam-Webster, for example, includes both “Jack-in the-pulpits” and “Jacks-in-the-pulpit” as standard. American Heritage has “Jack-in-the-pulpits” and “Johnny-jump-ups.” M-W, AH, Collins, and Dictionary.com list “lilies of the valley” as plural. None of the dictionaries have a plural for “rose of Sharon.”

A search of garden websites indicates that some gardeners make the key word plural (“roses of Sharon”), others pluralize the last word (“rose of Sharons”), and still others add a plural noun at the end (“rose of Sharon bushes”).

A search of the iWeb corpus, a database that contains 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, came up with these results: “rose of Sharons,” 30; “roses of Sharon,” 19; “rose of Sharon bushes,” 43; “rose of Sharon plants,” 19; “rose of Sharon trees,” 16; and “rose of Sharon shrubs,” 15.

With no lexical guide and usage up in the air, pick whichever one sounds best to your ears. We’ve planted a few over the years, and “rose of Sharons” sounds more natural to us than “roses of Sharon” or “rose of Sharon bushes.”

As we’ve said, the rose of Sharon isn’t a rose. In fact, the common name may refer to several different plants, including Hypericum calycinum, a flowering shrub native to southeast Asia and southwest Europe, and Hibiscus syriacus, a flowering shrub native to east Asia.

Although the common name has biblical roots, none of the plants now called “rose of Sharon” are likely to have grown in ancient Israel.

In the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) 2:1, the maiden who is one of the two main speakers refers to herself in Hebrew as חבצלת השרון, or havatzelet hasharon. Havatzelet is a flower that has been variously identified as a crocus, lily, daffodil, or tulip. Hasharon is the plain of Sharon along the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

Early English versions of the Old Testament translate havatzelet as “flower.” The Wycliffe Bible of 1384, for example, renders havatzelet hasharon as “flour of the feeld” while the Coverdale Bible of 1535 has it as “floure of the feelde.” It was translated similarly in earlier Greek and Latin versions of the bible: ἄνθος τοῦ πεδίου (anthos tou pediou, flower of the field) in the Septuagint, and flos campi (flower of the field) in the Vulgate.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the first English bible to translate havatzelet as “rose”: “I am the rose of the fielde.” The Oxford English Dictionary says “it is not clear why the Geneva Bible uses this particular translation, rather than the generic flower of earlier English versions.”

The first OED example for “rose of Sharon” is from An Exposition Vppon the Booke of the Canticles (1585), by the Puritan clergyman Thomas Wilcox: “I Am the rose of Sharon.” (The Canticles is another name for the Song of Songs.) The King James Version of 1611 uses the same wording as Wilcox.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Fancy that

Q: In Grantchester, a detective series on British TV, a woman was recently asked, “Is that your husband or your fancy man?” The Brits seem to use “fancy” in ways that never caught on in America—to “fancy” someone, for example, or a “fancy dress ball.” Of course my Jewish grandmother used “fancy-schmancy” as a mild put-down.

A: For centuries, the word “fancy”—noun, verb, and adjective—has been associated with imagination, fantasy, and desire. And you’re right in thinking that in some of its senses “fancy” is more widely used today in Britain than in the US.

The verb in particular is used more broadly and more flexibly by British speakers. Some standard dictionaries label “fancy” as a British usage when it means to want (“Do you fancy fish and chips tonight?”), to like or have a crush on (“She obviously fancies him”), to favor (“What team do you fancy in the finals?”), or when used imperatively to express surprise (“Fancy her winning the lottery!”).

The adjective, too, is used differently. To the British “fancy dress” doesn’t mean formal evening wear; it means a costume, as for a masquerade ball. The linguist Lynne Murphy, on her blog Separated by a Common Language, passes along this anecdote from an article in the Spectator:

“There is a popular urban legend about a British couple in New York who attended a black tie gala dressed as a pair of pumpkins. Turns out they had misinterpreted the host’s instruction to ‘dress fancy,’ as an invitation for fancy dress.” The writer of the article, who’s Canadian, says she has “experienced the cultural flip side.” Invited to a “fancy dress party” in London, she arrived wearing a silk cocktail dress and heels, only to find that her fellow party-goers were got up as Nazis, drag queens, and tarts.

The phrase you heard in Grantchester, “fancy man,” has had many meanings in both varieties of English. We’ll get to those later. First, some etymological background.

When “fancy” entered English in the late 1400s, it was a contraction of “fantasy,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earlier noun, dating from around 1325, had occasionally appeared in abbreviated spellings (like “fantsy,” 1462).

“Fantasy” was borrowed from the Old French fantasie, which can be traced to phantasia, a word that in medieval Latin and Greek (ϕαντασία) had several meanings, including an appearance, a spectral apparition or phantom, and the faculty of imagining.

When the short form “fancy” was first recorded in writing (spelled “fansey”), it was a noun for a preference, a personal taste, an inclination, or a liking, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1465 entry in a collection known as The Paston Letters and Papers: “I haue non fansey wyth soume of þe felechipp [the fellowship].”

The expression “to have no fancy with” is now obsolete, the dictionary says, but similar uses of the noun survive in phrases like “to have a fancy for,” “take a fancy to,” “catch the fancy of,” etc.

Around the same time, “fancy” was also used to mean something very different, “a supposition resting on no solid grounds” or “an arbitrary notion,” Oxford says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Compound of Alchymy (1471), by George Ripley: “To know the truth, and fancies to eschew.”

Over the next three hundred years, the noun acquired other meanings having to do with the human imagination—a whim or caprice (1579), a hallucination or delusion (1597), a mental image (1663), an invention (1665), or, collectively, connoisseurs—that is, fanciers—of a particular pastime (1735).

In the mid-1500s, “fancy” also came to mean love or an amorous inclination, a meaning that’s now obsolete. But the usage has survived in the phrase “fancy free” (1600), which originally meant free of any fond attachment, or not in love. (Today standard dictionaries also accept another meaning, carefree.)

The verb “fancy” didn’t come along—at least in writing—until the mid-1500s, and from the start it had two branches of meanings. One had to do with imagining, conceiving, or believing, with OED examples dating from 1551. The other had to do with liking or being fond of (that is, “taking a fancy to”), with examples dating from 1545. And as we said above, some standard dictionaries regard many of these usages as more British than American.

Finally we come to the adjective, which is widely used in both varieties of English. It developed in the mid-1600s, the OED says, as an attributive use of the noun, and it originally described an action resulting from a fancy, whim, or caprice.

“Fancy” in the decorative sense emerged in the 1700s, when the adjective came to mean “of a design varied according to the fancy,” Oxford says, or “ ‘fine, ornamental,’ in opposition to ‘plain.’ ”

So merchants used “fancy” to describe merchandise, foods, and apparel that were showier than ordinary staples. “Fancy” goods included millinery, candies, cakes, jewelry, stationery, wallpaper, haberdashery and other items designed with an eye to adornment rather than necessity.

In the 1800s, “fancy dogs,” “fancy pigeons,” and “fancy fish” meant animals deliberately bred to appeal to a certain fancy—that is, having particular ornamental characteristics. (Earlier, as we mentioned above, “the fancy” was a collective term for specialists or hobbyists of a particular bent, and phrases like “the dog fancy” are still used today.)

Finally we come to “fancy man,” a phrase that’s not often heard today. Since it first showed up in the early 19th century, it’s had several meanings, reputable and otherwise.

In Grantchester, set in a 1950s English village, it probably means “a male lover, not always adulterous,” but usually in a relationship with a “married or older woman” (definition from Green’s Dictionary of Slang).

In the earliest known use of the phrase, such a lover was a kept man. Here’s the definition: “FANCY MAN: A man kept by a lady for secret services” (the entry, cited in Green’s, is from Lexicon Balatronicum, an 1811 slang dictionary by Francis Grose).

Similarly, as early as 1819 the phrase “fancy woman” was used to describe a “kept mistress,” according to the OED.

Sometimes “fancy man” had a more corrupt meaning—a pimp. In this sense, the phrase is defined in Green’s as “a man who lives upon the earnings of a prostitute.”

Green’s earliest citation is from Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821), a fictional chronicle of urban low life that uses the term several times. In a typical passage, Egan describes one prostitute who accuses another of “seducing her fancy-man from her.” In a footnote to that passage, Egan discusses “men who exist entirely on the prostitution of women” and calls them “fancy-men.”

And the OED has this late 19th-century example: “They will bear from the ‘fancy-man’ any usage, however brutal” (the Spectator, Dec. 6, 1890).

However, “fancy man” also had a quite innocent meaning in the mid-19th century, simply “a man who is fancied” or “a sweetheart,” according to the dictionary.

Oxford’s earliest use in writing is from an 1834 novel, Frederick Marryat’s Jacob Faithful: “One day the sergeant was the fancy man, and the next day it was Tom.”

Finally, there’s the phrase your grandmother used, “fancy-schmancy,” a characteristic Yiddish construction. The OED describes it as a colloquial phrase, originating in the US, that means “extremely fancy, esp. in a pretentious or ostentatious way.”

This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Now alluva sudden is fency-shmency with forks” (from Arthur Kober’s Thunder Over the Bronx, a 1935 collection of his stories from the New Yorker).

And here’s the most recent: “Currently, even fancy-schmancy multisport watches can only do so much” (from the July 2015 issue of the British magazine Forever Sports).

As the OED says, “schm-” is a combining element, borrowed from the Yiddish shm-, added to or replacing the first part of a word “so as to form a nonsense word.” This nonsense word then echoes the original word “to convey disparagement, dismissal, or derision.”

Oxford examples include “Crisis, schmisis!” (1929); “Child, schmild” (1963); “Oedipus, Schmoedipus!” (1969); and “Love-schmove!” (1996).

As we wrote in 2012, many scholars of Yiddish believe this rhyming-doublet pattern has Turkish roots and may date back as far as the 13th century.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

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

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

Hunger pangs or pains?

Q: What is the difference between a “hunger pang” and a “hunger pain”? I see both terms, but I can’t find them in my dictionary.

A: “Pain” is an older, broader term than “pang,” but people use “hunger pains” and “hunger pangs” pretty much the same way—for the feeling of discomfort that comes from being hungry. (The two phrases usually appear in the plural.)

Although the two of us use “hunger pains” to describe what we feel when dieting gets out of hand, “hunger pangs” is apparently the more common term, according to our searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases.

For example, “hunger pangs” appears more than eight times as often as “hunger pains” in the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present. And as of 2008 it was more than two and a half times as popular in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books.

Both phrases are acceptable. We haven’t found any usage guide that objects to either of them. Here are a few recent examples in which the two phrases seem to be used the same way:

“Think of it as a cold soup in a tall glass, your morning smoothie regreened, with no sugar rush and subsequent hunger pangs” (the Guardian, July 17, 2019).

“If you do feel a few hunger pangs, you may need a light snack” (the Seattle Times, June 27, 2019).

“Or maybe you reliably experience hunger pangs and an energy crash a few hours after your morning pastry” (Self, June 27, 2019).

“Sometimes it’s very difficult for people to hear the Gospel if there is the roar of hunger pains from their belly” (National Catholic Register, July 7, 2019).

“So how do we keep these hunger pains away when we are trying to be healthy and follow a diet program, restricting food?” (the Valley Patriot, North Andover, Mass., June 2019).

“The last hours can be excruciating and that is when you start feeling hunger pains, which give you a real perspective on how a hungry person feels year-round” (Idaho Statesman, June 17, 2019).

When used by itself, “pain” usually refers to physical or emotional suffering in general, while “pang” means sudden, sharp, and brief physical or emotional suffering, according to standard dictionaries.

English borrowed “pain” from French in the late 13th century (it was peine, paine, paigne, etc., in Anglo-Norman, Middle French, and Old French). The word ultimately comes from poena, classical Latin for “penalty” or “punishment.”

When “pain” first appeared in Middle English, it referred to “physical or bodily suffering” as well as “mental distress or suffering,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED’s earliest example for bodily pain is from Of Arthour and of Merlin, an anonymous Arthurian romance believed written in the late 1200s:

“What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”). The passage refers to Belisent, who’s beaten, whipped, and dragged by the hair as King Taurus tries to kidnap her. Sir Gawain kills Taurus and rescues her.

The dictionary’s earliest mental example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Tristrem, a Middle English romance believed written sometime before 1300:

“Tristrem is went oway / Wiþ outen coming ogain, / And sikeþ, for soþe to sain, / Wiþ sorwe and michel pain” (“Tristan leaves without turning back, sighs forsooth and crosses himself, with sorrow and much pain”). The passage refers to Tristan’s emotional suffering as he parts with Iseult.

The noun “pang,” which is “of uncertain origin,” first appeared in the late 15th century and meant “a sudden sharp spasm of pain which grips the body or a part of it,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from an Aug. 29, 1482, letter by William Cely, a member of a merchant family, about the death and burial of a family member:

“Margere ys dowghter ys past to Godd. Hytt was berydd thys same daye, on whoys sowle Jhesu hawe marsy. Syr, I vnderstond hytt hadd a grett pang: what sycknesse hytt was I cannott saye” (“Margaret, his daughter, is gone to God. She was buried this same day, on whose soul Jesus have mercy. Sir, I understand she had a great pang: what sickness it was I cannot say”).

In the early 16th century, “pang” took on the sense of “a sudden sharp feeling of mental anguish or intense emotional pain.” The earliest example in the OED is from A Play of Loue (1534), by John Heywood:

“One pang of dyspayre, or one pang of desyre / One pang of one dyspleasaunt loke of her eye / One pang of one worde of her mouth as in yre / Or in restraynt of her loue which I requyre.”

As we’ve said, “pain” is a broader term than “pang.” In addition to its usual sense of physical and emotional discomfort, “pain” can refer to the trouble taken to accomplish something (“He took great pains to file the taxes on time”), an annoyance (“Those robocalls are a pain”), a  troublesome person (“He’s a pain in the butt”), and a penalty for disobedience (“Mom ordered me to be home by eleven on pain of death”).

We’ll end with a more serious example of that last sense. The OED’s earliest citation, which we’ll expand here, is from the South-English Legendary (circa 1300), which chronicles the lives of church figures. In an account of Thomas Becket’s life, King Henry II orders bishops to Clarendon Palace in the 12th century to confirm laws that weakened the authority of the church and its ties to Rome:

“ich hote ov euerechone  þat ȝe beon þat ilke dai at mi maner at Clarindone with-outen ani de-lai for-to confermi þis lawes. ope peyne þat i schal ou sette, ich hote þat ȝe beon þare ech-one” (“I order every one of you to be that same day at my palace at Clarendon, without any delay, to confirm these laws. I command that you be there, each of you, upon pain that I shall set on you”).

Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, did show up at Clarendon, but he ultimately defied the laws and was killed at Canterbury Cathedral on Dec. 29, 1170, by four of the king’s knights.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donationAnd check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Ouija talk

Q: I’ve read that the word “Ouija,” as in “Ouija board,” comes from an ancient Egyptian term for good luck. Is this true? If not, what’s the real story?

A: As far as we can tell, no Egyptian term like that existed. At least we couldn’t find one in searching transliterations of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and cursive terms. You can blame the guy who patented the Ouija board for linking the name to Egypt and luck, presumably as a marketing ploy.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which says “Ouija” is of uncertain origin, notes three theories: it’s (1) a combination of oui and ja, the French and German words for “yes”; (2) “an ancient Egyptian word for ‘good luck’ (although apparently no such word exists),” and (3) from Oujda, the name of a city in Morocco.

The earliest written example we’ve found for the word is from a May 28, 1890, patent application for a “Ouija or Egyptian luck-board” that’s described as “a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions and having them answered by the device.”

The patent application was signed by Elijah J. Bond, identified as the inventor, and assigned to Charles W. Kennard and William H. A. Maupin, two owners of the Kennard Novelty Company, the first manufacturer of the Ouija board.

The patent was registered on Feb. 10, 1891, a week after a trademark for “Ouija” was registered with the US Patent Office. The patent and trademark are now held by Hasbro, the toy and board game company.

Although the name “Ouija” is usually capitalized when referring to the trademarked board game, it’s often lowercased in referring to other so-called talking boards used by spiritualists and others trying to communicate with the world beyond. As for the pronunciation, you can find both WEE-juh and WEE-jee in standard dictionaries.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

It’s Emma Woodhouse, you know

Q: In rereading Emma, I’ve noticed that several of Jane Austen’s characters, including Emma herself, repeatedly use the phrase “you know.” I would have thought that this was a modern verbal tic. When did people begin you-knowing each other?

A: English speakers have been using “you know” colloquially for emphasis since the Middle Ages. It’s short for “as you know,” “as you may know,” “as you should know,” and so on.

The parenthetical expression is so common that it’s also used as a conversational filler while a speaker considers what to say next. And, as you say, it’s often merely a verbal tic, one we ourselves have struggled to suppress.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the emphatic usage, which we’ll expand here, is from The Romance of William of Palerne (circa 1350), an anonymous Middle English translation of Guillaume de Palerme, a French tale written around 1200:

“He is my lege man, lelly þou knowes, for holly þe londes þat he has he holdes of mi-selue” (“He is my liege man, truly you know, for wholly the land he has he holds for myself”). In feudal law, a liege man was a vassal.

As for Emma, “you know” is generally used for emphasis and (we assume) to add a conversational tone to the dialogue.

For example, Emma uses the phrase emphatically to remind Mr. Knightly that she arranged (or so she thinks) the marriage between Miss Taylor, her former governess, and Mr. Weston.

“I made the match, you know, four years ago; and to have it take place, and be proved in the right, when so many people said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may comfort me for any thing.”

Emma’s father uses it for emphasis here: “Whenever James goes over to see his daughter, you know, she will be hearing of us.” James is the Woodhouse coachman, and his daughter Hannah is a housemaid for the Westons.

Harriet Smith uses it similarly while talking to Emma about Robert Martin: “I thought him very plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now. One does not, you know, after a time.”

The linguist Chi Luu, in a Dec. 12, 2018, article in JSTOR Daily, notes that Harriet overuses “you know” when she’s nervous. Luu considers it a verbal tic in this passage describing a chance encounter with Mr. Martin:

“I found he was coming up towards me too—slowly you know, and as if he did not quite know what to do; and so he came and spoke, and I answered—and I stood for a minute, feeling dreadfully, you know, one can’t tell how; and then I took courage, and said it did not rain, and I must go.”

Luu, who has degrees in literature and theoretical linguistics, adds that Austen uses “very,” another intensifier, “so much more in Emma than in any other work that it can’t be accidental.” She cites a study of the language in Emma by the linguist Janine Barchas.

In “Very Austen: Accounting for the Language of Emma,” Barchas includes figures showing that Austen uses “very” 1,212 times in Emma as opposed to 758 in the runner-up, Mansfield Park (from the December 2007 issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature).

We’ll end with an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s review of Emma, in which he playfully notes Austen’s use of intensifiers: “Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune, very good humoured, very pretty, very silly, and, what suited Miss Woodhouse’s purpose best of all, very much disposed to be married.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Can not, cannot, and can’t

Q: Can you please dwell in some detail on why “can not” is now usually written as “cannot”? Is there a linguistic reason for this uncontracted form? Or is it just one of those irregularities that cannot be accounted for?

A: When the usage showed up in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, it was two words.

One of the oldest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the epic poem Beowulf, perhaps written as early as the 700s: “men ne cunnon” (“men can not”).

And here’s an expanded version that offers context as well as a sense of the Anglo-Saxon poetry:

“ac se æglæca etende wæs, / deorc deaþscua duguþe ond geogoþe, / seomade ond syrede; sinnihte heold / mistige moras; men ne cunnon / hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþað” (“all were in peril; warriors young and old were hunted down by that dark shadow of death that lurked night after night on the misty moors; men on their watches can not know where these fiends from hell will walk”).

The combined form “cannot” showed up in the Middle English period (1150 to 1450), along with various other spellings: cannat, cannatte, cannouȝt, connat, connott, conot, conott, cannote, connot, and cannott.

The earliest OED example with the modern spelling is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at around 1280: “And þou þat he deed fore cannot sorus be” (“And thou that he [Jesus] died for cannot be sorrowful”).

In contemporary English, both “cannot” and “can not” are acceptable, though they’re generally used in different ways. The combined form, as you point out, is more common (Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online, says it’s three times as common in the Oxford English Corpus).

Here’s an excerpt from the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage book, on how the two terms, as well as the contraction “can’t,” are generally used today:

CAN NOT / CANNOT / CAN’T. Usually, you can’t go wrong with a one-word version—can’t in speech or casual writing, cannot in formal writing. The two-word version, can not, is for when you want to be emphatic (Maybe you can hit high C, but I certainly can not), or when not is part of another expression, like “not only . . . but also” (I can not only hit high C, but also break a glass while doing it). Then there’s can’t not, as in The diva’s husband can’t not go to the opera.

Getting back to your question, why is “cannot” more popular than “can not”? We believe the compound is more common because the two-word phrase may be ambiguous.

Consider this sentence: “You can not go to the party.” It could mean either “You’re unable to go” or “You don’t have to go.” However, the sentence has only the first meaning if you replace “can not” with “cannot” (or the contraction “can’t”).

In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum say that “You can’t/cannot answer their letters” means “It is not possible or permitted for you to answer their letters,” while “You can not answer their letters” means “You are permitted not to answer their letters.”

In speech, Huddleston and Pullum write, any ambiguity is cleared up by emphasis and rhythm: “In this use, the not will characteristically be stressed and prosodically associated with answer rather than with can by means of a very slight break separating it from the unstressed can.” The authors add that “this construction is fairly rare, and sounds somewhat contrived.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

The true truth

Q: After recent unrest in Memphis, the city’s police director said he suspected that there were “some individuals who try to agitate a situation, and it’s unfortunate because it hinders the true truth coming out.” Is “true truth” a new concept in the era of “fake news”?

A: No, “true truth” is not a product of our times. It dates back to Renaissance England and is one in a long line of phrases implying that sometimes the truth is relative.

Other phrases include “plain truth,” “naked truth,” “whole truth,” “absolute truth,” “unadorned truth,” “unvarnished truth,” and “cold truth.” Nobody is much bothered by these expressions.

But “true truth” seems to cross a line, since the noun phrase is virtually self-modifying. After all, the truth by definition is true.

Redundant or not, the phrase “true truth” has been around since the 16th century, if not earlier. This is the oldest example we’ve found, from a poem believed to have been published around 1555:

“Nor stay is there none as the true truth sayth” (from The Tryumphe of Tyme, a translation by Henry Parker, Lord Morley, from Petrarch’s Italian).

We also found this example in a poem published in 1602: “With that true truth, his arrand [message] I had sed [spoken]” (from Three Pastoral Elegies of Anander, Anetor, and Muridella, by William Basse).

This 1611 use is a better illustration of the phrase’s meaning: Among the “gifts that gracious Heav’ns bestowe,” the poet says, is the ability “to discern true Truth from Sophistrie” (from Josuah Sylvester’s translation of a work by Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas).

We’ve also found the expression in religious tracts and philosophical treatises—not only in English but in French (la vraie vérité) and German (die wahre Wahrheit).

The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, writing around 1800, criticizes those who say to themselves, “we who speak have undoubtedly the true truth inborn in us, and, hence, the man who contradicts us must necessarily be in the wrong.” (From A. E. Kroeger’s English translation of “Fichte’s Criticism of Schelling,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy, July 1878.)

“True truth” also crops up in journalism and in fiction. In “White Lies,” an anonymous opinion piece that ran in the weekly journal Truth (London, Sept. 1, 1881), the phrase appears 11 times.

Here are a few examples: “true truth is of all things the most impracticable” … “to say the true truth would be cruel” … “the true truth would sound too harsh.”

And in a romantic novel, Greifenstein (1890) by F. Marion Crawford, a character says: “But you have gone too far—you have lost sight of the true truth in pursuing a truth that was true yesterday.”

As far as we can tell, the only dictionary in which the phrase appears is Joseph Wright’s The English Dialect Dictionary (1905 edition). Wright defines “the true truth” as “the plain, unvarnished truth.” He gives this example from James Prior’s novel Forest Folk (1901), in which a character speaks in a north Yorkshire dialect: “If we don’t speak the trew trewth this time, we are liars, sich un’s as yer don’t often see.”

Getting back to some of those other “truth” phrases we mentioned above, a couple date back to the 15th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the earliest known written uses of “plain truth” (circa 1425) and “naked truth” (1436). And in searches of historical databases, we’ve found early examples of “whole truth” (1549); “absolute truth” (1567); “unadorned truth” (1782); “unvarnished truth” (1820); and “cold truth” (1836).

Perhaps the most famous of such phrases is one from the 16th century: “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

The OED defines this expression and its variants as meaning “the absolute truth.” Specifically, the dictionary adds, it’s “used to emphasize that something, esp. a statement, is or should be true in every particular, with no facts omitted or untrue elements added.”

“The phrase forms part of the oath or the affirmation … declared or agreed to by witnesses in court before giving testimony,” the OED explains. “A witness can choose to place one hand on the Bible when swearing the oath, but is now usually not required to do so.”

The earliest example in the OED is religious rather than judicial: “What shoulde we teache in matters of saluation [salvation] but the Truthe, and all the truthe, and nothyng but the truth?”  (From a sermon preached in 1571 by John Bridges at Paul’s Cross, an outdoor pulpit in London, and published the same year.)

This later 16th-century example refers to the oath taken by a jury foreman: “You shal present and tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so helpe you God, and by the contents of this booke.” (From The Order of Keeping a Court Leete, 1593, by Jonas Adams. The “court leet,” which had jurisdiction over petty offenses and civil disputes, dated from medieval times and was held periodically in a local manor or district before a lord or his steward.)

Finally, in this OED citation from the early 17th century the oath is specifically for witnesses: “The oath giuen to Iurors [Jurors] is, That they shall deale iustly and truely betweene partie and partie; but the witnesses are to speake the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and so they take their oath.” (From Consuetudo, 1622, a tract on mercantile law by Gerard de Malynes.)

The oath has come down through the centuries largely intact. This OED example is from Martin F. Scheinman’s 1977 book Evidence and Proof in Arbitration (the brackets are in the original): “The oath generally used is: ‘Do you swear [or affirm] to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?’ ”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

A pot to piss in

Q: An email is making the rounds that includes the derivations of several common phrases; one of them links the expression “a pot to piss in” with the collecting and selling of urine to fur tanners. Any truth to this?

A: No, that story is a hoax.

It’s true that in preindustrial times, urine was sometimes used to remove hair from animal hides before they were tanned. But the 20th-century expression “a pot to piss in” has nothing to do with making leather.

We wrote about the verb and noun “piss” in 2016 and about varieties of “pot” in 2017, but we’ve never discussed “a pot to piss in.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “not to have a pot to piss in” as “to be penniless, to have no money or resources.” The dictionary says it’s slang that originated in the US and was “in early use more fully not to have a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it from and variants.”

The earliest written example, the OED says, is from a 1934 typescript of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood (published in 1936): “My heart aches for all poor creatures putting on dog, and not a pot to piss in or a window to throw it from.”

This OED example from 20 years later also has the long version of the expression: “A woman must be crazy to … take up with a loafer that ain’t got a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out.” The passage was recorded in 1954 by the American folklorist Vance Randolph and later published in his book Pissing in the Snow and Other Ozark Folktales (1976).

The dictionary’s earliest example of the short version (minus the window) is from later in the ’50s: “Some don’t even have a pot to piss in but nevertheless they think that they are a lot better than you are.” From Herman R. Lantz’s People of Coal Town, a 1958 study of a midwestern coal-mining community.

As we said before, it’s fictitious that “a pot to piss in” originated in the tanning trade. This false etymology (along with that of “piss poor” and other expressions), is sheer invention and has been debunked by etymologists.

For the record, the phrase “piss poor” simply means really poor or, as the OED says, “of an extremely poor quality or standard.”

Here, “piss” is an intensifier, an element used for emphasis. In this usage, which Oxford says originated in the US in the mid-20th century, “piss” is “prefixed to an adjective (occasionally to a noun) as an intensifier, usually implying excess or undesirability.”

The dictionary’s earliest use of “piss poor” is from MacKinlay Kantor’s Glory for Me (1945), a novel in blank verse: “I guess I know I’m piss-poor in a job like this. It’s trivial, it’s dull: I hate it more and more each day.”

Oxford also has this early use of “piss elegant” (flashy or affectedly refined): “The cast is very good. Gertie is enchanting at moments but inclined to be piss-elegant” (from Noel Coward’s diary, Oct. 9, 1947).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Watch it back

Q: What’s the story behind the expression “watch it back”? It’s used so often on TV, especially reality shows where people say something like “When I watch it back, I realize how dramatic I was being.”

A: The expression “watch it back,” meaning to watch a replay of something, showed up in writing a couple of decades ago, though the verb phrase hasn’t yet made it into any of the standard, slang, or etymological dictionaries we’ve checked.

However, it’s definitely out there, as you’ve noticed, especially in the movie, TV, and sports worlds. A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, found 268 examples.

Here’s a recent example in which Bella Ramsey describes how Lyanna Mormont, the character she played in Game of Thrones, is crushed to death by a giant zombie as she fatally stabs him:

“When you watch it back, you can hear him crushing her ribs. But I think her adrenaline got her through it. She was in a lot of pain, but at that moment, her aim was to kill the giant. The way I thought about it, she was taking her last breath to do this. It was her final moment before he squeezed her to death” (New York Times, April 30, 2019).

The expression “watch it back” (a conflation of the more common “watch it” and “play it back”) may have originated in the film business. The earliest example we’ve seen is from an interview with Thandie Newton about playing Tom Cruise’s love interest in Mission: Impossible 2, a 2000 film directed by John Woo:

“Tom and I, for example, we’d organize a scene that felt right, we’d block it, and we’d think that was great. And then John Woo walks over and says ‘why don’t you try walking around each other like this’ and it felt very unnatural. But then we’d watch it back and that’s why he’s so phenomenal—it’s in the way he orchestrates the scene” (Box Office Guru, June 5, 2000).

A few months later, the English actor Julian Sands used the expression in an interview about acting in Timecode (2000), an experimental film directed by Mike Figgis:

“We rehearsed it through a couple of times but really we learned it by doing it, and after each run-through we would chill for an hour or two and then watch it back (on four monitors) and refine it some more” (the Guardian, Aug. 19, 2000).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Screw the pooch

Q: I’m reading a book that uses the phrase “screw the pooch.” I can tell what it means, but I can’t even imagine where it originated.

A: The expression “screw the pooch,” which is another way of saying “screw up,” appeared in writing in the 1970s and may possibly be a couple of decades older, though the evidence for the earlier origin is quite iffy.

The earliest written example we’ve seen is from The All-American Boys, a 1977 memoir by the NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham, written with the assistance of the American journalist and biographer Mickey Herskowitz:

“The accident board convened, took weeks to gather its findings, took months to file a report, and finally confirmed what everyone had assumed: pilot error rather than equipment failure. The betting in the office on the Apollo 17 crew had long since switched—aviators characteristically do not wait for the accident report—‘That sure cinches it for Dick,’ the refrain went. ‘Ol’ Gene just screwed the pooch.’ ”

(Gene Cernan had been involved in a helicopter accident, but it did not affect his scheduled assignment to command Apollo 17. If Cernan had lost the command, Richard F. Gordon Jr. would have replaced him. Dick Gordon had been scheduled to command Apollo 18, but the mission was canceled.)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “screw the pooch” as a chiefly US colloquial expression that means “to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something,” and compares the usage to the more common phrase “screw up.”

The dictionary says the expression was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s use of it in The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the space program: “Grissom had just fucked it, screwed the pooch, that was all.”

(The reference is to an incident on July 21, 1961, at the end of the second Mercury mission. After splashdown, the hatch on Gus Grissom’s capsule blew, and he had to jump into the water. Grissom denied causing the hatch to blow.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, suggests that “screw the pooch” may “perhaps” be derived from the “coarse slang” American expression “fuck the dog,” which it defines as “(a) to shirk one’s duties or responsibilities; to mess about or waste time; (b) to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something.”

Oxford compares “fuck the dog” to the usual X-rated phrasal verb for failing, “fuck up.” The dictionary’s first citation for the three-word expression is from A World to Win, a 1935 novel by the American writer Jack Conroy:

“ ‘One of the first things you gotta learn when you’re f——n’ the dog,’ said Leo, ‘is t’ look like you’re workin’ hard enough t’ make yer butt blossom like a rose.’ ”

The Dictionary of American Regional English, in its entry for “fuck the dog,” points readers to the earlier use of the verb “dog” in the sense of “to shirk or not do one’s best, especially on the job; to waste time, loaf; to malinger.”

The first DARE citation for “dog” used this way is from the New York Evening Journal (March 20, 1910): “He [Stanley Ketchel] says that Papke couldn’t beat him in Pittsburg, and that Papke was dogging it at the end.”

(The passage apparently refers to the boxer Billy Papke’s loss to Frank Klaus the year before. Ketchel and Papke fought four times for the Middleweight championship, but not in Pittsburgh. Ketchel won three times, Papke once.)

Getting back to your question, the linguist Ben Zimmer looked into a suggestion that “screw the pooch” originated during a discussion in the spring of 1950 between two students at Yale, Jack May and John Rawlings.

Zimmer tracked down a 2010 memoir by May, An Alphabet of Letters, that describes an exchange in which May chides Rawlings for being late with a school project:

“JACK: You’re late, John, you’re fouling up. You are fucking the dog.

“JOHN: Really, you are so vulgar and coarse, I just don’t want to hear it.

“JACK: You’re still late. Is this better? You are screwing the pooch.

“JOHN: (shrill laughter).”

May goes on to explain that Rawlings enlisted in the Air Force and helped design early prototypes of space suits for chimpanzees on NASA missions. When May saw the film of The Right Stuff in 1983 and heard “screw the pooch,” he was convinced that Rawlings had introduced the expression to the space program. However, May couldn’t confirm this, since Rawlings had died in 1980.

Well, it’s a good story, but we’ll stick with the earliest written evidence: Walter Cunningham’s 1977 memoir of his days in the space program.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Happy belated birthday?

Q: Why do we say “happy belated birthday” when it should be “belated happy birthday”? The “happy birthday” is belated, not the “birthday.” Please help me understand the proper syntax.

A: Like you, we wouldn’t describe the syntax, or word order, in “happy belated birthday” as logical. But we doubt that anyone would have trouble with the semantics, or meaning, of the expression.

As you point out, the congratulatory phrase “happy birthday” is the thing that’s belated, not the “birthday” itself. Therefore, the logical arrangement of the words would be “belated happy birthday.” So why do many people find it more natural to say “happy belated birthday,” logic be damned?

We believe this is because of a clash between the logical order of the words and the natural order of adjectives. We’ve written several times about the order of adjectives, including a post in 2010 about why people say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress,” and one in 2017 about why a toy is “my nice new blue plastic truck” rather than “my plastic blue new nice truck.”

As we say in those earlier posts, it’s natural for an adjective that expresses subjective opinion (like “happy”) to come before an adjective that expresses age (like “belated”). So one would refer to “a delightful old recipe,” not “an old delightful recipe,” and “a risky premature birth,” not “a premature risky birth.”

As for “happy belated birthday” and “belated happy birthday,” you can find both expressions in books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and social media. The first version is generally more popular in less edited sources, and the second in more edited ones.

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in books, shows that the logical version (“belated happy birthday”) is significantly more popular in these more closely edited works. However, a general Google search as well as a search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines, indicates that “happy belated birthday” is more popular.

Greeting card companies generally offer a wide variety of ways to say “happy birthday” belatedly. Although “happy belated birthday” seems to be the most common, “belated happy birthday” is also offered, as well as “belated birthday wishes,” “belated birthday greetings,” and “belated”-free offerings like “happy birthday … fashionably late” and “I feel horrible about missing your birthday … console me with leftover cake.”

As far as we can tell, the phrase “happy birthday” didn’t show up until the mid-19th century. At first it was literal, referring to the occasion itself. Later, it came to be a formulaic congratulatory expression.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from “Pauline,” a short story by Elizabeth Scaife in the 1843 edition of the Keepsake, an annual literary magazine in London:

“Remembrance painted another birthday of younger years—a happy birthday—the birthday of her first love—a birthday of abounding and exulting expectation, and she could not but feel how different were the hopes she then cherished, and the realities which had overshadowed them.”

The first example we’ve found for the formulaic expression is from Mary’s Birthday, a play by the American writer George Henry Miles: “I wish you a very happy birthday, Miss Mary, and many happy returns.” (The comedy was published in 1858 and performed in the 1859 Broadway season.)

How did people wish each other a happy birthday before “happy birthday” appeared on the scene? The answer is in the previous example. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, people used “many happy returns,” “many happy returns of the day,” “many returns,” and so on as “conventional wishes and greetings on a special day, now spec. on a person’s birthday.”

The noun “return” here refers to the “act or fact of recurring or coming round again” or “each of a series of repetitions of an action,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first citation refers to New Year’s Day:

“And to wish we may see many returns of this Day, many happy New-Years” (from The Church of England Not Superstitious, 1714, by William Teswell, an Anglican rector).

The OED’s earliest use of “returns” in connection with a birthday is from The Battle of Life (1846), a novella by Dickens. We’ll expand the quotation for context:

“ ‘The notion of wishing happy returns in such a farce as this,’ said the Doctor to himself, ‘is good! Ha! ha! ha!’ ” Dr. Jeddler, who finds life a farce, has just kissed his daughter Marion on her birthday and said “many happy returns of the—the idea!—of the day.”

We’ve found several earlier examples, including these in the title and first stanza of “Many Happy Returns of the Day,” a verse by Sylvanus Swanquill, pseudonym of the English writer John Hewitt:

“So this is your birthday, my friend! / You’re just sixty-seven, they say; / You look eighty-eight, but I wish you / Many happy returns of the day.” (From the Court Journal, London, Oct. 17, 1835.)

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Why is a ‘square meal’ square?

Q: Why do we call a balanced meal a “square meal” rather than a well-rounded one?

A: The phrase “square meal” is derived from the use of the adjective “square” to mean just, equitable, honest, or straightforward, senses that began showing up in the late 16th century and gave rise to such expressions as “playing square,” “a square deal,” “the square thing,” “on the square,” and “fair and square.”

An early example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “square” meaning honest is from a pamphlet that purports to be a defense of Elizabethan con men, but actually exposes their tricks with humorous tales of double-dealing:

“For feare of trouble I was fain [glad] to try my good hap [fortune] at square play” (The Defence of Conny Catching, 1592, by Cuthbert Cunny-Catcher, pseudonym of the English author Robert Green). “Coney catching,” Elizabethan slang for chicanery, comes from “coney” (spelled various ways), a tame rabbit raised to be eaten.

Over the years, the adjective “square” took on various other senses that may have contributed to its use in the expression “square meal,” which showed up in the US in the mid-19th century.

In the early 17th century, “square” was used to describe someone who was “solid or steady (at eating or drinking),” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example refers to “a square drinker, a faithfull drunkard; one that will take his liquor soundly” (from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, compiled by Randall Cotgrave).

The next citation, which we’ve expanded, describes gluttons: “By Heaven, square eaters! More meat, I say! Upon my conscience, the poor rogues have not eat this month! How terribly they charge upon their victuals!” (from Bonduca, a tragicomedy written sometime before 1625 by the Jacobean playwright John Fletcher).

In the early 19th century, “square” came to mean balanced or in good order. Here’s an OED example from Mr. Midshipman Easy, an 1836 novel by Frederick Marryat:

“If she is unhappy for three months, she will be overjoyed for three more when she hears that I am alive, so it will be all square at the end of the six.”

As for “square meal,” when the phrase showed up in American English it referred to a “full, solid, substantial” meal, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an article about the American West in a British periodical. We’re expanding the quotation to give more of the context:

“Roadside hotel-keepers are every now and then calling the miners’ attention to their ‘square meals’: by which is meant full meals, in contradistinction to the imperfect dinner a man has to put up with on the mountains.” (From the Sept. 19, 1868, issue of All the Year Round, a literary magazine edited and owned by Charles Dickens.)

However, we’ve seen several earlier examples online, including this one from a restaurant ad in an American newspaper:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice” (from the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., Nov. 8, 1856).

Standard dictionaries now define “square meal” as one that’s balanced or nutritious as well as substantial.

Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) defines it as “a substantial, satisfying, and balanced meal,” and gives this among its examples: “Daily physical fitness is just as crucial to good health as getting three square meals and eight hours of shut-eye.”

As for the early etymology, English borrowed the adjective “square” from Old French in the late 14th century, but it ultimately comes from exquadrāre, a colloquial Latin term composed of ex- (out) and quadrāre (to make square).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective refers to “a Square plate perced with a certein holes” (from A Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1391, an instructional manual by Chaucer for an instrument used by astronomers and navigators to take celestial readings).

The Latin term exquadrāre is also the source of the noun “square,” which showed up in the 13th century, and the verb, which appeared in the late 14th. The noun originally referred to an L-shaped carpenter’s square while the verb meant to reshape something into a square form.

The first OED citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1300:

“And do we wel and make a toure / Wit suire and scantilon sa euen, / Þat may reche heghur þan heuen” (“And let us make a tower with square and gauge that may reach higher than heaven”). The poem expands on Genesis 11:4 by adding the reference to “suire and scantilon,” Middle English terms for a carpenter’s square and gauge for measuring dimensions.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb, which we’ve expanded, is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The kyng comaundide, that thei shulden take the greet stoonus, and the precious stoonus, into the foundment of the temple, and thei shulden square hem” (“The king commanded that they should take the great stones, and the precious stones, and they should square them for the foundation of the temple”). The biblical passage is 1 Kings 5:17.

In closing, we should note that there are several myths about the origin of “square meal.” The most common folk etymology is that the expression is derived the square wooden plates once used for meals in the Royal Navy. Forget about it.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

When a family daughters out

Q: In his novel Money for Nothing, Donald E. Westlake has a character say a family “daughtered out.” The meaning is clear, the family name went extinct for lack of male heirs. Did Westlake invent this use of “daughter”?

A: The phrasal verb “daughter out” is familiar to genealogy buffs. A family name is said to “daughter out” when there are no sons to pass it on. (The assumption, of course, is that daughters always take their husbands’ names.)

The expression appeared in writing in the 1940s, but it can’t be found in the usual standard, slang, or etymological dictionaries. And unfortunately, there’s no mention of it in the Dictionary of American Regional English, so we can’t say where it might have originated.

However, “daughter out” is included in the collaborative Wiktionary, which defines it this way: “(of a surname or of heritable property in a patrilineal naming or inheritance system) To expire due to having only females surviving the death of the last male in a line.”

Wiktionary also lists the principal parts of the verb: “third-person singular simple present daughters out, present participle daughtering out, simple past and past participle daughtered out.”

Westlake used “daughtered out” twice in the same scene of his 2003 novel Money for Nothing.

The characters Josh and Robbie are in a taxi, and the driver tells them that the woman they’re going to see, Mrs. Rheingold, “was one of the Caissens, old-time family around here, you know. Early settlers. Daughtered out.”

She got married, the cabbie says, “just around the time the last of her aunts expired, leaving her the absolute last Caissen, and not even a Caissen anymore but a Rheingold.”

“Daughtered out,” Robbie then says, and Josh suspects that Robbie repeated it “because he’d just now figured out what it meant.”

Westlake apparently liked the expression, because he’d used it decades earlier.

In his novel Brothers Keepers (1975), two monks are speaking and one says, “The Van deWitts daughtered out during the Civil War.” He later explains that the “line eventually produced no sons … and therefore the name ceased to exist.”

As we said above, the expression has been in use since the 1940s, if not before. The earliest example we’ve found is from a nonfiction book about a historic New Hampshire mill:

“The name of Goffe ‘daughtered out’ one hundred years ago, but the descendants persisted on the location just the same.” (John Goffe’s Mill, 1948, by George Woodbury.)

The phrase also cropped up in 1957 in a short item in Reader’s Digest: “New England expression: ‘The family name daughtered out’ (Paul Flowers in Memphis Commercial Appeal).”

A letter to the editor of the journal American Speech (February 1961) cites the use of the expression in The Devil in Bucks County, a 1959 novel by Edmund Schiddel:

“There used to be lots of Coatesworths here in the early days, and they did own land up your way. But they were daughtered out, long ago.”

An article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology (October 1967) uses the term in reference to a New Hampshire family named Merrow: “Meanwhile Deacon Daniel’s progeny proliferated Merrows well into the twentieth century before they almost ‘daughtered out.’ ”

It’s possible that “daughter out” was a New England expression. We’ve seen much later examples in which it’s said to have originated in Massachusetts, Maine, or Vermont. But we’ve also seen suggestions that it comes from Canada or the South.

One late 20th-century example connects the term to a particular genealogist: “The Joyce family surname died out in this line of the Joyce family—‘daughtered out’ as the late great genealogist, Maclean W. McLean used to say” (from the Mayflower Quarterly, 1997).

McLean did use the term, but he apparently didn’t coin it. The earliest uses by him that we’ve been able to find are from a 1972 issue of the American Genealogist, in which he uses the term twice in separate articles: “this Whelden family had not ‘daughtered out’ ” … “the [Harper] family ‘daughtered out.’ ”

These days, “daughtered out” is commonly used on genealogical websites and can often be found in other kinds of writing as well. It’s not to be confused with the title of a reality-TV program, OutDaughtered, which is about a young couple with six daughters (five of them quintuplets).

The couple, Danielle and Adam Busby, are certainly overwhelmed by daughters, but there’s no suggestion that the Busby name will be “daughtered out.” Adam could have other male relations named Busby—or a future son-in-law could adopt the Busby name!

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

In the weeds

Q: On two recent dates, talking heads on TV news spoke of individuals being “in the weeds” in the context of being deeply in the know about a particular issue. I had never heard this usage before. Is this new? Or am I just behind?

A: People tramping through the brush have literally been “in the weeds” since Anglo-Saxon times, when “weed” was wéod in Old English. But as far as we can tell, English speakers didn’t begin using “in the weeds” figuratively until the mid-20th century, when it acquired the slang sense of being in the suburbs or outskirts of a town.

Since then, “in the weeds” has taken on several other slang, colloquial, or informal senses. It can mean being in a safe or secluded place, flying at a low altitude or under the radar, being overwhelmed by work, and being engaged in (or bogged down by) the intricate details of an issue. We suspect that the talking heads you heard were using it to describe experts or detail-oriented people.

Green’s Dictionary of Slang has the earliest example we’ve seen for “in the weeds” used figuratively (in the suburbs or outskirts): “Then we would pick up the tail of one of them until they got out in the weeds at the edge of town somewheres” (from Rap Sheet: My Life Story, 1955, by Blackie Audett, aka James Henry Audett).

The expression soon took on the slang sense of a safe or secure place, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s first example quotes Fred Taylor, the Ohio State men’s basketball coach: “We probably took some of them by surprise last year … but everybody is going to be hiding in the weeds looking for us this year” (from the Chicago Daily Defender, Nov. 23, 1960).

Then in US Air Force slang, “in the weeds” came to mean flying at a very low level. The earliest OED citation is from F4 Phantom: A Pilot’s Story (1979), by Robert Prest:

“I counter roll and push downwards, seeking to gain the energy that I need to smoke away into the distance down in the ‘weeds’ at zero feet or thereabouts, where his pulse radar will be unable to pick me up.”

A couple of years later the expression took on the colloquial sense of “a cook, waiter, bartender, etc.: overwhelmed with orders or work,” according to the dictionary. Its earliest example is from an On Language column by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine (May 2, 1981):

“A busy bartender is said to be buried or in the weeds.” The dictionary says this sense is also found “in extended use”—that is, in reference to overworked people in other jobs.

The usage you’re asking about came along a decade later. Oxford defines it this way: “at the most basic or grass-roots level; engaged with intricate or precise details, esp. to an extent considered distracting or limiting.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Journal of Commerce (March 4, 1993): “One White House official at first dismissed questions about the Ex-Im Bank plan as ‘too far down in the weeds for me.’ ”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t label the usage, but Cambridge Dictionary online, the only standard dictionary we’ve seen with an entry for “in the weeds,” considers the detail sense of the expression “US informal.”

Finally, here’s an example from the New York Times on April 4, 2019, about two of President Trump’s choices for the Federal Reserve Board:

“While the institution has strongly rooted values around technical competence and apolitical debate, Mr. Trump’s latest choices have been political actors rather than in-the-weeds experts in any of the main areas in which the Fed makes policy.” (The two men withdrew their names from consideration.)

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Is ‘suicide’ a forbidden word?

Q: I read a profile in the NY Times about Kelly Catlin, a cyclist who committed suicide. A reader took umbrage over use of the word “suicide” and claimed that Poynter and other sources are using different language to describe this act. Is it true? And if so, is this yet another step toward sanitized language?

A: The objection in the news media is to the verb phrase “commit suicide,” not to the noun “suicide” itself. Since 2015, The Associated Press Stylebook has restricted the use of “commit suicide,” but the guidance is ignored by much of the media, even by some AP editors and reporters.

As the AP stylebook puts it, “Avoid using the phrase ‘committed suicide’ except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases include ‘killed himself,’ ‘took her own life’ or ‘died by suicide.’ The verb ‘commit’ with ‘suicide’ can imply a criminal act.”

(Suicide isn’t a federal crime in the US, but its legality is ambiguous in some states; assisted suicide is a crime in most states.)

The AP style guide’s entry for “suicide” has been discussed several times on the website of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies since a March 27, 2015, article about changes in the stylebook. In that article, David Minthorn, a co-editor of the style manual, discusses the news agency’s thinking about how to report about suicides:

“Committed in that context suggests possibly an illegal act, but in fact, laws against suicide have been repealed in the U.S., at least in certain states, and many other places, so we’re going to avoid using that term on our own, although it’s a term that authorities widely use and we will use it while quoting authorities.”

Despite the stylebook prohibition, the expression often appears in AP articles that don’t quote authorities. Here’s an example from a May 3, 2019, story that mentions a young woman with post-traumatic stress disorder who had to give up her service dog: “About a month after losing Bailey, Katie committed suicide.” We found scores of similar examples in a search of AP articles that appeared online over the last year.

The phrase routinely shows up in the online news media. In a search for “committed suicide” in the online New York Times archive, we found a dozen examples in just one recent month (April 2019). And a search for the phrase in the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published from 2010 to the present, found 33,351 examples.

As for the etymology, the phrase “commit suicide” first appeared in writing in the early 18th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from An Apology for Mr. Thomas Rind (1712). In Rind’s account of why he left the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and became an Episcopalian, he writes that the struggle over his faith “had almost driven him to Despair, and to commit Suicide.”

The noun “suicide” showed up in the mid-17th century, derived from the modern Latin suīcīdium, formed by combining the classical Latin suī (of oneself) and -cīda (killer). Previously, in classical Latin, “suicide” was referred to as mors voluntaria, or voluntary death.

“Historically,” the OED notes, “suicide was regarded as a crime in many societies. Laws against suicide existed in English common law until 1961.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “suicide” is from Glossographia, a 1656 dictionary compiled by Thomas Blount: “Suicide, the slaying or murdering of himself; self-murder.”

In the early 15th century, the verb “commit” took on the sense of to “carry out (a reprehensible act); to perpetrate (a crime, sin, offence, etc.),” according to the OED. The earliest citation is from a February 1445 entry in the parliamentary records of England:

“The said prower afterward, byfore the justicez of the saide benche expressely knowleched, that no such stelthe … was comitted.” (At the time, a “prower” was a purveyor of supplies, and “stelthe,” or stealth, referred to stealing or taking secretly and wrongfully.)

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Soak the rich? Or dry them out?

Q: News reports often refer to progressive proposals to tax the wealthy as “soak the rich” taxes. But why “soak”? If the rich are drenched in wealth, shouldn’t their bank accounts be dried out, not soaked?

A: The use of “soak” in the expression “soak the rich” comes from the slang use of the verb “soak” in the late 19th century to mean overcharge, tax heavily, or extort money.

When the verb showed up in Anglo-Saxon times as socian, it meant (as it does now) to “lie immersed in a liquid for a considerable time, so as to be saturated or permeated with it; to become thoroughly wet or soft in this manner,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED example is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies from around 1000: “Dweorge dwostlan weorp on weallende wæter, læt socian on lange” (“Throw pennyroyal in boiling water, letting it soak a long time”).

The verb “soak” has had several other meanings over the years, but we’ll just discuss the relevant ones.

Near the end of the 19th century, according to Oxford citations, “soak” took on the slang sense of to “impose upon (a person, etc.) by an extortionate charge or price; to charge or tax heavily; to borrow or extort money from; to cost a high price.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the New York Dramatic News, Nov. 23, 1895: “This little scheme sometimes … enables the photographer to ‘soak’ them.”

The OED says this sense of “soak” led to the use of “soak-the-rich” as an attributive, or adjectival, phrase “applied to a policy of progressive taxation.” The first citation is from Hell Bent for Election (1935), a critique of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, by James Warburg:

“He thought he was being ‘clever’ when he tried to steal Huey Long’s thunder by suddenly coming out with his ‘soak the rich’ tax message.” The author, a member of the Warburg banking family, had been a financial adviser to Roosevelt before breaking with him over policy disagreements. He rejoined the government when the US went to war in 1941.

The next Oxford example is from a Dec. 14, 1935, article in the Literary Digest by Harold L. Ickes, FDR’s Interior Secretary: “Soak the Rich (Antonym, Soak the Poor)—Newspaperese for a system of taxation founded upon the absurd and revolutionary theory that a man should be assessed taxes in proportion to his ability to pay.” (Ickes was satirizing criticism of the New Deal.)

We suspect that this usage may have been influenced by the use of “soak” a bit earlier in the 19th century to mean punish, especially in the phrase “soak it to (someone),” a variation on “sock it to (someone).”

The first OED citation for “soak” used in the punish sense is from the Columbus (Ohio) Evening Dispatch, July 29, 1892: “To-day’s Washington Post ‘soaks’ it to the Southern Democrats in the House who were so rallied in 1885 in their support of the bill making an appropriation to the New Orleans Exposition, but are now opposed to a similar appropriation for the World’s Fair.”

When “sock it to (someone)” showed up in print 15 years earlier, Oxford says, it meant “to strike, deal a blow to (that person),” as in this entry in an 1877 edition of John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms: “Two loafers are fighting; one of the crowd cries out, ‘Sock it to him.’ ”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

In the loss of your father

Q: I received a puzzling example of condolence-card-speak the other day: “With Sympathy / In The Loss Of Your Father.” The use of “in” here sounds awkward. Is it grammatically correct? Or just a misprint of “in” for “on”? I’m getting sympathy. I just don’t know how.

A: The preposition “in” has been used since medieval times to mean “in regard to”—the sense it has in the sympathy card you received. We think “on” would be more natural, but versions with “in” appear to be more popular now.

Perhaps card companies believe “in” is somehow more sympathetic than “on.” American Greetings, on a web page entitled “What to write in a sympathy card,” has this model condolence message: “Sharing your sadness in the loss of sweet [Debra] and sending you comfort during this difficult time.” We’ve found similar examples on websites offering “thoughtful,” “meaningful,” and “heartfelt” condolence messages.

Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks expressions in digitized books, indicates that “in the loss of your” was slightly more popular than “on the loss of your” as of 2008, the latest searchable year. The News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present, has the “in” expression appearing more than twice as often as the “on” version.

In the 12th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, “in” took on the sense we’re talking about: “Expressing reference or relation to something: In reference or regard to; in the case of, in the matter, affair, or province of.”

The dictionary’s first example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that’s believed to date from sometime before 1200: “dealen in his pinen” (“to share in his pain”).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “in the loss of your” is from The Life of the Apostle St Paul, a 1653 English translation of a work by Antoine Godeau, a 17th-century French bishop, theologian, and poet.

In advising widows, Paul is quoted as saying, “you are deprived of a great support, in the loss of your husbands; but god is called the husband of Widdows, and if you put your trust in him, you will not be forsaken.”

Finally, here’s an example from a June 30, 1855, condolence letter by Charles Dickens to Mrs. Henry Winter: “I am truly grieved to hear of your affliction in the loss of your darling baby. But if you be not, even already, so reconciled to the parting from that innocent child for a little while, as to bear it gently and with a softened sorrow, I know that that not unhappy state of mind must soon arise.”

Twenty-five years earlier, Dickens had had a brief romance with Maria Beadnell, the future Mrs. Winter, but her family objected and sent her to school in Paris. Dickens is believed to have used Maria as a model for Dora, David Copperfield’s first wife.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Are you down on “up”?

Q: How did “heat up” replace “heat” in referring to heating food? And why has the equally awful “early on” become so popular?

A: “Heat up” hasn’t replaced “heat” in the kitchen, but the use of the phrasal verb in this sense has apparently increased in popularity in recent years while the use of the simple verb has decreased.

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books, indicates that “heat the soup” was still more popular than “heat up the soup” as of 2008 (the latest searchable date), though the gap between them narrowed dramatically after the mid-1980s.

However, we haven’t found any standard dictionary or usage guide that considers “heat up” any less standard than “heat” in the cooking sense.

Merriam-Webster online defines the phrasal verb as “to cause (something) to become warm or hot,” and gives this example: “Could you heat up the vegetables, please?”

You seem to think that “heat up” is redundant. We disagree.

As you probably know, “up” is an adverb as well as a preposition. In the phrasal verb “heat up,” it’s an adverb that reinforces the meaning of the verb. (A phrasal verb consists of a verb plus one or more linguistic elements, usually an adverb or a preposition.)

In a 2012 post entitled “Uppity Language,” we quote the Oxford English Dictionary as saying the adverb “up” in a phrasal verb can express “to or towards a state of completion or finality,” a sense that frequently serves “to emphasize the import of the verb.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t mention “heat up” in that sense, but it cites “eat up,” “swallow up,” “boil up,” “beat up,” “dry up,” “finish up,” “heal up,” and many other phrasal verbs in which “up” is used to express bringing something to fruition, especially for emphasis.

Our impression is that people may also feel that it’s more informal to “heat up” food than simply “heat” it, though dictionaries don’t make that distinction. The phrasal verb “hot up” is used similarly in British English as well as in the American South and South Midland, and dictionaries generally regard that usage as informal, colloquial, or slang.

We also feel that people may tend to use “heat up” for reheating food that’s already cooked, and “heat” by itself for heating food that’s prepared from scratch. An Ngram search got well over a hundred hits for “heat up the leftovers,” but none for “heat the leftovers.” However, we haven’t found any dictionaries that make this distinction either.

In addition to its food sense, “heat up” can also mean “to become more active, intense, or angry,” according to Merriam-Webster online, which cites these examples: “Their conversation started to heat up” …. “Competition between the two companies is heating up.”

And the adverb “up” can have many other meanings in phrasal verbs: from a lower level (“pick up,” “lift up”), out of the ground (“dig up,” “sprout up”), on one’s feet (“get up,” “stand up”), separate or sever (“break up,” “tear up”), and so on.

When the verb “heat” appeared in Old English (spelled hǽtan, haten, hatten, etc.), it was intransitive (without an object) and meant to become hot. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Latin-Old English entry in the Epinal Glossary, which the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.”

The first OED citation for the verb used transitively (with an object) to mean make (something) hot is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of medical remedies dating from around 1000: “hæt scenc fulne wines” (“heat a cup full of wine”).

As far as we can tell, the phrasal verb “heat up” appeared in the second half of the 19th century, though not in its cooking sense. The earliest example we’ve seen is from an April 9, 1878, report by the US Patent Office about an invention in which a system of pipes “is employed to heat up the feedwater of a steam-boiler.”

A lecture in London a few years later touches on cooking: “Now a Bunsen burner will roast meat very well, provided that the products of combustion are not poured straight on to whatever is being cooked; the flame must be used to heat up the walls of the roaster, and the radiant heat from the walls must roast the meat.” (The talk on the use of coal gas was given on Dec. 15, 1884, and published in the Journal of the Society of Arts, Jan. 9, 1885.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for “heat up” used in the precise sense you’re asking about is from a recipe for shrimp puree in Mrs. Roundell’s Practical Cookery Book (1898), by Mrs. Charles Roundell (Julia Anne Elizabeth Roundell):

“bring to the boil, skimming off any scum that may rise, then cool, and pass all through the sieve into another stewpan, stir in the shrimps that were reserved for garnish and heat up.”

As for the adverbial phrase “early on,” it’s been used regularly since the mid-18th century to mean “at an initial or early stage,” according to the OED. The dictionary also cites examples of the variant “earlier on” from the mid-19th century.

Oxford’s earliest example of “early on” is from a 1759 book about tropical diseases by the English physician William Hillary: “When I am called so early on in the Disease … I can strictly pursue it” (from Observations on the Changes of the Air, and the Concomitant Epidemical Diseases in the Island of Barbados).

And the first “earlier on” example is from the Manchester Guardian, April 21, 1841: “It took place earlier on in the year.”

You’re right that “early on” has grown in popularity lately, though “earlier on” has remained relatively stable, according to a comparison of the phrases in the Ngram Viewer.

However, we don’t see why the usage bothers you. The four online standard dictionaries we’ve consulted (Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, Oxford, and Longman), list it without comment—that is, as standard English.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Check out, check-out, checkout?

Q: This is probably too hair-splitting for your blog. BUT! At my local library, one takes out a book by touching “check-out” on a kiosk screen. Something as un-world-shaking as a hyphen is probably dwarfed by concerns like global warming, but for heaven’s sake it’s the library, one of the leaders of literacy. Shouldn’t this read either “checkout” or “check out”?

A: We consider no hair too tiny to split. This is the usual way “check” and “out” come together, according to the 10 standard American and British dictionaries we’ve consulted.

The phrasal verb is “check out,” two words. The noun and adjective are both “checkout,” one word. Nary a hyphen among them.

Although a few of the dictionaries list hyphenated versions of the verb, noun, or adjective as variants, we think the library should alter that screen.

If the verb is intended, then the screen should read “Check Out,”  as if the instruction were short for “Check Out Here.”

If the adjective is intended, the screen should read “Checkout”—as if short for “Checkout Option.”

And if the noun is intended, the screen should also read “Checkout”—as if short for “Book Checkout.”

Over time, as we’ve written before on our blog, hyphens tend to disappear from familiar compounds. This is especially true in the case of nouns and adjectives.

The early 20th-century formations that started out as “teen ager” and “teen age” are good examples. These two-word formations later gained hyphens (“teen-ager,” “teen-age”), but eventually the hyphens disappeared (“teenager,” “teenage”).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, shows that the verb “check out” has almost always been written that way—two words, no hyphen. Similar phrasal verbs include “check off,” “check over,” “check on,” “check up,” and “check up on.”

Since it first appeared in the early 1920s, the verb has had various meanings. Someone can “check out” at a hotel or store, “check out” (inspect or test) a new car, “check out” (investigate) a rumor, “check out” (appraise) a person, “check out” (withdraw) a book, or simply “check out” (die).

The earliest OED examples illustrate the first and last of those meanings, and they’re from the same year: “The singer person is checking out from the first floor suite next week” (Sewell Ford’s 1921 novel Inez and Trilby May) … “In the morning he was dead—he’d checked out in his dreams” (Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1921).

No hyphens there. But used as a noun or an adjective, the compound has sometimes been hyphenated in the past.

The noun “checkout,” which means the act or process of checking out, was a single word (no hyphen) when it first appeared in the 1940s.

This is Oxford’s earliest use: “Advancement to radio operator ‘A’ may be earned by … training that must include checkout on several types of multi-engine airplanes” (Plane Talk magazine, September 1944).

In later decades, hyphens were sometimes inserted, but they eventually fell away. OED citations include both “supermarket check-out” (1955) and “supermarket checkout” (2002).

As for the adjective, it too has occasionally been hyphenated. Oxford’s mid-20th-century examples include both “checkout systems” (1956) and “hotel check-out times” (1958). Nowadays, as we mentioned, standard dictionaries generally give the adjective as a single word, “checkout.”

If you haven’t had enough yet, we wrote a post in 2009 about the checkered history of the word “check,” which comes from Persian and is related to “chess.” Check it out.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Crossing the bar

Q: I’m singing a hymn in church on Sunday, one my great-aunt used to play on the piano, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” A line of the chorus is “Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar.” I’m curious about the meaning of “across the bar,” since I’m assuming it has nothing to do with serving alcohol.

A: The “bar” in the expression is a sandbar, an obstruction that’s dangerous to cross in a boat. The chorus of that hymn is an injunction to do a good deed, to help someone who’s at sea (figuratively speaking) and needs guidance to get safely home.

The word “bar” in this sense is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a bank of sand, silt, etc., across the mouth of a river or harbour, which obstructs navigation.” The noun has been used in this way since the late 16th century.

The OED’s earliest example shows that ships were careful to give these obstacles a wide berth. The citation is from a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland:

“The port or hauen [haven] of Dublin is a barred hauen, and no great ships … doo lie in a certeine rode without the barre.” (The term “barred haven” had been used since the mid-1500s to mean a harbor protected by a sandbar or silt bank.)

Subsequent OED citations for this use of “bar” are from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including one from a 1720 issue of the London Gazette: “Three Ships were lost upon the Bar.”

But the most famous example is found in Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar” (1889). The poet likens dying to being swept from harbor to sea, and uses “bar” as a metaphor for the crossing over from life to death. Here are the final two stanzas:

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

In a literal rather than a poetic sense, “crossing the bar” was so dangerous that in the 19th century “bar boats” (those less likely to founder on sandbars) were used to offload cargo, attempt rescues, and so on.

The OED’s earliest example for such boats is from 1857, but we’ve found several earlier uses. This one is from a newspaper article about an Australian swimmer who was carried out to sea:

“The bar boat was put off to his assistance, but on its arrival at the breakers no appearance of the lad was to be discovered.” (Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Feb. 21, 1839. The boy was found alive two days later, eight miles down shore.)

And this example refers to a shipwreck that was narrowly averted: “This accident has shown the great importance of having a good bar-boat and boat’s crew inside this harbour.” (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 1, 1848.)

We’ve written before on our blog about the etymology and various uses of the noun and verb “bar,” if you’d like to know more.

As for the hymn your great-aunt used to enjoy, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” the words (by Ina Duley Ogden) and music (Charles H. Gabriel) were copyrighted in 1913. It was recorded by Homer Rodeheaver for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1915 and published both as sheet music and in hymn collections.

Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to the original 78 recording played on a 1920 Victrola.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression food Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Bone appétit

Q: When I was a child, my mother used to tell me a story about a wealthy landowner and a shepherd that ended with the proverb “the nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” I’ve seen many theories about the origin and meaning of the proverb. Are you aware of the actual origin and meaning?

A: The proverb originated in the Middle English of the late 14th century. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Trevisa’s 1398 translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (“On the Order of Things”), a 13th-century Latin work compiled by Bartholomeus Anglicus (Bartholomew the Englishman):

“Þe nerre þe bone, þe swetter is the fleissh” (“the nearer the bone, the sweeter is the flesh”).

The passage is from a section of the encyclopedic work about why some foods are sweet and others bitter, why some stimulate the appetite and others suppress it. No story is mentioned. The one you heard from your mother probably appeared later and used the proverb to make a point.

The OED‘s citations for the proverb include versions with “closer” as well as “nearer.” The first citation with the usual modern wording is from a May 13, 1778, letter by Samuel Cooper, a Congregational minister in Boston, to Benjamin Franklin, who was then the American ambassador to France: “We all agree the nearer the bone the sweeter the meat.”

The dictionary doesn’t comment on the meaning of the expression, but the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes it as a proverbial saying that reflects “both the belief that meat close to the bone has the best taste and texture, and the idea that it is valued because it represents the last vestiges of available food.”

The slang lexicographer Eric Partridge has noted that it’s also used as a “low catch-phrase applied by men to a thin woman” (from the 1937 first edition of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English).

The OED cites Partridge’s comment as well as this passage from Shibumi, a 1979 novel by Trevanian, the pseudonym of Rodney Whitaker: “A little skinny in the arms and waist for my taste but, like my ol’ daddy used to say: the closer the bone, the sweeter the meat!”

In a post we wrote a few years ago, we included an analysis by the philologist Neal R. Norrick of two proverbs: “Like father, like son” and “The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat.”

In “Proverbs,” an essay in the Encyclopaedia of the Linguistic Sciences, Norrick explains that proverbs like the one you’re asking about don’t adhere to the traditional use of noun phrases and verb phrases.

“Many proverbs such as Like father, like son and The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat adhere to formulas, here like X, like Y and The X-er, the Y-er, which do not conform to customary NP + VP syntactic structure,” Norrick writes. “So special interpretative rules beyond regular compositional semantic principles are necessary to assign these proverbs even literal readings.” (“NP” and “VP” are short for “noun phrase” and “verb phrase.”)

Such literal readings, he says, “provide the basis on which figurative interpretations are determined.”

“One interpretative rule will relate the formula like X, like Y to the reading ‘Y is like X’ to derive for Like father, like son the interpretation ‘the son is like the father,’ ” he writes. And “another rule related the formula The X-er, the Y-er to ‘Y is proportional to X’ to interpret The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat as ‘the sweetness of the meat is proportional to the nearness of the bone.’ ”

As we say in our earlier post, Norrick’s analysis can be heavy going for lay readers. To put things simply, proverbs are often idiomatic expressions that don’t necessarily conform to the traditional rules of English.

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Naughty, naughty

Q: I’ve noticed when listening to US podcasts that the first decade of the 2000s is often referred to as the “aughts.” Here in the UK, the much more pleasing “noughties” seems to have gained most traction. Why do you think it hasn’t caught on stateside?

A: It’s true that Americans generally don’t use the term “noughties,” and it doesn’t appear in any of the standard American dictionaries.

We can only guess why. Perhaps it sounds too much like a coy version of “naughties,” as in “Naughty, naughty!” (We’ll have more to say about “naughty” later.)

The term “noughties” is found in all the standard British-based dictionaries, though some of them label it “humorous” or “informal.”

The Macmillan, Collins, Longman, and Oxford online dictionaries all define the “noughties” as the decade between 2000 and 2009. Another British dictionary, Cambridge, defines “noughties” as “the period of years between 00 and 10 in any century, usually 2000–2010,” and provides this example: “They were born in the noughties and grew up completely at ease with computer technology.”

But the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, favors the narrower definition. It says that “noughties,” preceded by the article “the,” means “the decade from 2000 to 2009.”

The OED spells the word “noughties” in its entry, and has a first example of that spelling from 1990. But it also includes a citation from 1989 spelled “naughties.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “noughties” is from a British newspaper: “After the Eighties and the Nineties, what should we be calling the next decade? The Noughties?” (The Independent, London, Jan. 19, 1990.)

And its sole citation for “naughties” is from an American column about what to call the decade after the 90s: “The Naughties was suggested by 40 readers.” (William Safire in the New York Times Magazine, May 7, 1989.)

All the rest of the OED citations come from Britain or New Zealand and spell the term “noughties.”

The dictionary says the term was formed by adding “-ties” to “nought” or “naught,” in imitation of such other words as “twenties” and “thirties.” Oxford adds that the formation was “perhaps influenced by naughty nineties,” which it defines as “the 1890s considered as a period of moral laxity and sexual licence.”

The word spelled “naught” or “nought” is a noun for a “zero” or a pronoun meaning “nothing,” as we wrote on our blog in 2013. It’s the negative form of “aught” in its original sense: “anything.” When used for a “zero,” it’s mainly “naught” in the US and “nought” in the UK.

But “aught,” like “ought,” can also be a noun for “zero.” In this sense, the term is chiefly spelled “aught” in American English and “ought” in British English, as in dates like “nineteen-ought-nine” for 1909, a usage we discussed in 2018.

The use of “ought” and “aught” for “zero” emerged in the early 1820s, the OED says, “probably” as variants of “nought” and “naught.” (Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., suggests that “nought” was “a misdivision of a nought as an ought.”)

Usage was mixed early on, as this OED citation shows: “It was said … that all Cambridge scholars call the cipher aught and all Oxford scholars call it nought” (from Frank, an 1822 novel by Maria Edgeworth).

As for the adjective “naughty,” it also has something to do with “nothing.” It was derived from the pronoun “naught,” the OED says, and when it first appeared in the 14th century it meant “having or possessing nothing; poor, needy.”

The dictionary’s only examples with this meaning are from the same source, William Langland’s allegorical poem Piers Plowman (circa 1378). The Middle English poem uses both “nauȝty” and the comparative form, “nauȝtier.”

By the middle of the 1400s, Oxford says, “naughty” meant “morally bad, wicked,” and in the following century it came to mean “immoral, licentious, promiscuous, sexually provocative.”

In the 1600s, the more familiar meaning of the word appeared: “disobedient, badly behaved.” In this sense, the OED says, the word is “used esp. of a child, but also humorously or depreciatively of an adult or an adult’s behaviour.”

Beginning in the mid-19th century, the word in this sense was sometimes “reduplicated for emphasis,” the dictionary says. Such repetitions, it adds, were frequently used as interjections intended as mild reprimands, “often with ironic or depreciative connotation, esp. of adult behaviour.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Emily’s Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights (1847): “This is your last ride, till papa comes back. I’ll not trust you over the threshold again, you naughty, naughty girl.”

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

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.