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Tawk of the Town

[Pat’s review of a book about New York English, reprinted from the September 2020 issue of the Literary Review, London. We’ve left in the British punctuation and spelling.]

* * * * * * * * * * * *

PATRICIA T O’CONNER

You Talkin’ to Me? The Unruly History of New York English

By E J White. Oxford University Press 296 pp

You know how to have a polite conversation, right? You listen, wait for a pause, say your bit, then shut up so someone else can speak. In other words, you take your turn.

You’re obviously not from New York.

To an outsider, someone from, say, Toronto or Seattle or London, a conversation among New Yorkers may resemble a verbal wrestling match. Everyone seems to talk at once, butting in with questions and comments, being loud, rude and aggressive. Actually, according to the American linguist E J White, they’re just being nice.

When they talk simultaneously, raise the volume and insert commentary (‘I knew he was trouble’, ‘I hate that!’), New Yorkers aren’t trying to hijack the conversation, White says. They’re using ‘cooperative overlap’, ‘contextualization cues’ (like vocal pitch) and ‘cooperative interruption’ to keep the talk perking merrily along. To them, argument is engagement, loudness is enthusiasm and interruption means they’re listening, she writes. Behaviour that would stop a conversation dead in Milwaukee nudges it forward in New York.

Why do New Yorkers talk this way? Perhaps, White says, because it’s the cultural norm among many of the communities that have come to make up the city: eastern European Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speakers. As for the famous New York accent, that’s something else again.

White, who teaches the history of language at Stony Brook University, New York, argues that ‘Americans sound the way they do because New Yorkers sound the way they do’. In You Talkin’ to Me? she makes a convincing case that the sounds of standard American English developed, at least in part, as a backlash against immigration and the accent of New York.

Although the book is aimed at general readers, it’s based on up-to-the-minute research in the relatively new field of historical sociolinguistics. (Here a New Yorker would helpfully interrupt, ‘Yeah, which is what?’) Briefly, it is about how and why language changes. Its central premise is that things like social class, gender, age, group identity and notions of prestige, all working in particular historical settings, are what drive change.

Take one of the sounds typically associated with New York speech the oi that’s heard when ‘bird’ is pronounced boid, ‘earl’ oil, ‘certainly’ soitanly, and so on. Here’s a surprise. That oi, White says, was ‘a marker of upper-class speech’ in old New York, a prestige pronunciation used by Teddy Roosevelt and the Four Hundred who rubbed elbows in Mrs Astor’s ballroom. Here’s another surprise. The pronunciation is now defunct and exists only as a stereotype. It retired from high society after the First World War and by mid-century it was no longer part of New York speech in general. Yet for decades afterwards it persisted in sitcoms, cartoons and the like. Although extinct ‘in the wild’ (as linguists like to say), it lives on in a mythological ‘New York City of the mind’.

Another feature of New York speech, one that survives today, though it’s weakening, is the dropping of r after a vowel in words like ‘four’ (foah), ‘park’ (pahk) and ‘never’ (nevuh). This was also considered a prestige pronunciation in the early 1900s, White says, not just in New York City but in much of New England and the South as well, where it was valued for its resemblance to cultivated British speech. Until sometime in the 1950s, in fact, it was considered part of what elocutionists used to call ‘General American’. It was taught, the author writes, not only to schoolchildren on the East Coast, but also to aspiring actors, public speakers and social climbers nationwide. But here, too, change lay ahead.

While r-dropping is still heard in New York, Boston and pockets along the Eastern Seaboard, it has all but vanished in the South and was never adopted in the rest of the United States. Here the author deftly unravels an intriguing mystery: why the most important city in the nation, its centre of cultural and economic power, does not provide, as is the case with other countries, the standard model for its speech.

To begin with, White reminds us, the original Americans always pronounced r, as the British did in colonial times. Only in the late 18th century did the British stop pronouncing r after a vowel. Not surprisingly, the colonists who remained in the big East Coast seaports and had regular contact with London adopted the new British pronunciation. But those who settled inland retained the old r and never lost it. (As White says, this means that Shakespeare’s accent was probably more like standard American today than Received Pronunciation.)

Posh eastern universities also helped to turn the nation’s accent westward. Towards the end of the First World War, White says, Ivy League schools fretted that swelling numbers of Jewish students, admitted on merit alone, would discourage enrolment from the Protestant upper class. Admissions practices changed. In the 1920s, elite schools began to recruit students from outside New York’s orbit and to ask searching questions about race, religion, colour and heritage. The result, White says, was that upper-crust institutions ‘shifted their preference for prestige pronunciation toward the “purer” regions of the West and the Midwest, where Protestants of “Nordic” descent were more likely to live’. Thus notions about what constituted ‘educated’ American speech gradually shifted.

Another influence, the author writes, was the Midwestern-sounding radio and television ‘network English’ that was inspired by the Second World War reporting of Edward R Murrow and the ‘Murrow Boys’ he recruited to CBS from the nation’s interior. Murrow’s eloquent, authoritative reports, heard by millions, influenced generations of broadcasters, including Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and Dan Rather, who didn’t try to sound like they had grown up on the Eastern Seaboard. The voice of the Midwest became the voice of America.

This book takes in a lot of territory, all solidly researched and footnoted. But dry? Fuhgeddaboutit. White is particularly entertaining when she discusses underworld slang from the city’s ‘sensitive lines of business’ and she’s also good on song lyrics, from Tin Pan Alley days to hip-hop. She dwells lovingly on the ‘sharp, smart, swift, and sure’ lyrics of the golden age of American popular music – roughly, the first half of the 20th century. It was a time when New York lyricists, nearly all of them Jewish, preserved in the American Songbook not only the vernacular of the Lower East Side but also the colloquialisms of Harlem and the snappy patois of advertising.

You Talkin’ to Me? is engrossing and often funny. In dissecting the exaggerated New York accents of Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, White observes that ‘Bugs even wielded his carrot like Groucho’s cigar’. And she says that the word ‘fuck’ is so ubiquitous in Gotham that it has lost its edge, so a New Yorker in need of a blistering insult must look elsewhere. ‘There may be some truth to the old joke that in Los Angeles, people say “Have a nice day” and mean “Fuck off,” while in New York, people say “Fuck off” and mean “Have a nice day.”’

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Ethos, logos, pathos

Q: A friend and I were recently discussing “ethos,” “logos,” and “pathos.” Having studied classical Greek, I asserted they should be pronounced as the ancients did: eth-ahs, lah-gahs, and pa-thahs. My friend said English has adopted the words so the commonly used pronunciations of eth-ohs, loh-gohs, and pay-thohs are now acceptable. Any help?

A: As you know, ἦθος (“ethos”), λόγος (“logos”), and πάθος (“pathos”) are in Aristotle’s ῥητορική (Rhetoric), a treatise on the art of persuasion. In the work, he uses “ethos” (character), “logos” (reason), and “pathos” (emotion) in describing the ways a speaker can appeal to an audience. (The classical Greek terms have several other meanings, which we’ll discuss later.)

When English adopted the terms in the 16th and 17th centuries, they began taking on new senses. Here are the usual English meanings now: “ethos,” the spirit of a person, community, culture, or era; “logos,” reason, the word of God, or Jesus in the Trinity; “pathos,” pity or sympathy as well as a quality or experience that evokes them.

So how, you ask, should an English speaker pronounce these Anglicized words?

In referring to the Rhetoric and other ancient texts, we’d use reconstructed classical Greek pronunciations (EH-thahs, LAH-gahs, PAH-thahs), though there’s some doubt as to how Aristotle and others actually pronounced the terms. But in their modern English senses, we’d use standard English pronunciations for “ethos,” “logos,” and “pathos.”

As it turns out, the 10 online standard dictionaries we regularly consult list a variety of acceptable English pronunciations that include the reconstructed ones:

  • EE-thohs, EE-thahs, EH-thohs, or EH-thahs;
  • LOH-gohs, LOH-gahs, or LAH-gahs;
  • PAY-thohs, PAY-thahs, PAY-thaws, PAH-thohs, or PAH-thahs.

(Our preferences would be EE-thohs, LOH-gohs, and PAY-thohs for the modern senses, though these aren’t terms we use every day in conversation.)

When English adopts a word from another language, the spelling, pronunciation, meaning, number, or function of the loanword often changes—if not at once, then over the years. This shouldn’t be surprising, since English itself changes over time. The Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons is barely recognizable now to speakers of modern English.

Similarly, the Attic dialect used by Aeschylus (circa 525-455 BC) differed from the Attic of Aristotle (384-322 BC), the Doric dialect of Pindar (c. 518-438 BC), the Aeolic of Sappho (c. 630-570 BC), and the Ionic of the eighth-century BC Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

You were probably taught a reconstructed generic Attic pronunciation of the fifth century BC. The reconstruction originated with Erasmus in the early 16th century and was updated by historical linguists in the 19th and 20th centuries. The linguists considered such things as the meter in poetry, the way animal sounds were written, the spelling of Greek loanwords in Latin, usage in medieval and modern Greek, and the prehistoric Indo-European roots of the language.

But Attic, the dialect of classical Greek spoken in the Athens area, wasn’t generic—it was alive and evolving. And to use a fifth-century BC Attic reconstruction for all classical Greek spoken from the eighth to the fourth centuries BC is like using a generic Boston pronunciation of the 19th century for the English spoken in Alabama, New York, Ohio, and Maine from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

As for the etymology, English borrowed “ethos” from the classical Latin ēthos, which borrowed it in turn from ancient Greek ἦθος, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Latin, the word meant character or the depiction of character. In Greek, it meant custom, usage, disposition, character, or the delineation of character in rhetoric.

When “ethos” first showed up in English in the late 17th century, the OED says, it referred to “character or characterization as revealed in action or its representation.” The first Oxford example is from Theatrum Poetarum (1675), by the English writer Edward Phillips:

“As for the Ethos … I shall only leave it to consideration whether the use of the Chorus … would not … advance then diminish the present.” Some scholars believe that the poet John Milton, an uncle who educated Phillips, contributed to the work, which is a list of major poets with critical commentary.

In the mid-19th century, according to the OED, “ethos” came to mean “the characteristic spirit of a people, community, culture, or era as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations; the prevailing character of an institution or system.”

The first citation is from Confessions of an Apostate, an 1842 novel by Anne Flinders: “ ‘A sentiment as true as it is beautiful,’ I replied, ‘like the “austere beauty of the Catholic Ethos,” which we now see in perfection.’ ”

English adopted “logos” in the late 16th century from λόγος in classical Greek,  where it meant word, speech, discourse, or reason. The OED’s first English citation uses it as “a title of the Second Person of the Trinity,” or Jesus:

“We cal him Logos, which some translate Word or Speech, and othersome Reason” (from A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, a 1587 translation by Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding of a work by the French Protestant writer Philippe de Mornay).

The OED says modern writers use the term “untranslated in historical expositions of ancient philosophical speculation, and in discussions of the doctrine of the Trinity in its philosophical aspects.”

English got “pathos” in the late 16th century from the Greek πάθος, which meant suffering, feeling, emotion, passion, or an emotional style or treatment. In English, it first meant “an expression or utterance that evokes sadness or sympathy,” a usage that Oxford describes as rare today.

The dictionary’s earliest English example is from The Shepheardes Calender (1579), the first major poetical work by the Elizabethan writer Edmund Spenser: “And with, A very Poeticall pathos.” (The original 1579 poem uses παθός, but a 1591 version published during Spenser’s lifetime uses “pathos.”)

In the mid-17th century, according to the OED, the term took on the modern sense of “a quality which evokes pity, sadness, or tenderness; the power of exciting pity; affecting character or influence.” The first citation is from “Of Dramatic Poesie,” a 1668 essay by John Dryden: “There is a certain gayety in their Comedies, and Pathos in their more serious Playes.”

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Do you say AH-kwa or ACK-wa?

Q: After viewing a 1967 “Aquaman” cartoon, I overheard some people make fun of the narrator Ted Knight’s ACK-wa-man pronunciation. But when I was a child in the ’60s, everyone pronounced “aqua” that way. Why is AH-kwa-man the usual pronunciation now?

A: The word “aqua” was probably pronounced AH-kwa when it showed up in English in the Middle Ages, but the pronunciation was AKE-wa or ACK-wa for hundreds of years before AH-kwa was revived in American English in the 1970s. As you remember, the usual pronunciation in the US was indeed ACK-wa when Aquaman splashed on to the comic scene in the mid-20th century. Here’s the story.

English borrowed the Latin word aqua (“water”) in the late 1300s. In Middle English, “aqua” was a noun used attributively (that is, adjectivally) in the names of various solutions in pharmacy and chemistry, such as “aqua mirabilis” (an aromatic mixture of nutmeg, ginger, wine, etc.), “aqua regia” (nitric and hydrochloric acids), and “aqua vitae” (strong distilled alcohol).

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to “aqua rosacea” (rose water): “of grene rose aqua rosacea is made by seþynge of fuyre oþer of þe sonne” (“rosewater is made by boiling green rose with fire or the sun”). From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin reference work compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

In the late 19th century, according to OED citations, “aqua-” began being used as “a combining form or quasi-adj., esp. in expressions referring to aquatic entertainment.” The dictionary’s first example is from the June 1887 issue of Gentleman’s Magazine: “When the ‘Théâtre Nautique’ first opened its doors the bill presented … a three act aqua-drama of Chinese life, entitled ‘Kao-Kang.’ ”

Other early aquatic compounds were “aqua-glider” (1930), “aquadrome” (1935), and “aquacade” (1937). The comic-book character Aquaman (created by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger) first appeared in the November 1941 anthology More Fun Comics No. 73.

In classical times, the initial a of the Latin aqua was pronounced much like the “a” of the English word “about,” according to modern linguistic reconstructions of classical Latin. And the first syllable of a two-syllable word like aqua was stressed, so it would have been pronounced something like UH-kwuh.

Some scholars believe the word aqua was used in classical Latin to imitate animal sounds. In Rudens, a comedy by  the Roman playwright Plautus, a wet, shivering survivor of a shipwreck stutters “aqu aqu aqua” (“wa-wa-water”), which some Latinists believe suggests the quacking of a duck. And the poet Ovid’s use of “sub aqua sub aqua” in Metamorphoses to describe Lycian peasants turned into frogs is said to suggest croaking.

Skipping ahead, Latin pronunciation had evolved significantly by the time Trevisa introduced the English word “aqua” in translating the Latin aqua. In medieval Latin, heavily influenced by church usage, the a of aqua was pronounced like the first vowel of “father” or “aha,” according to the historian G. Herbert Fowler (“Notes on the Pronunciation of Medieval Latin in England,” published in the journal History, September 1937).

So Trevisa, a Catholic cleric, would have pronounced the Latin aqua as AH-kwa. In fact, aqua is still pronounced that way in ecclesiastical Latin. You can hear it in the line “Aqua lateris Christi, lava me” of this choral rendition of Anima Christi, a 14th-century prayer to Jesus.

We haven’t found any evidence of how Trevisa pronounced his new English word “aqua,” but we assume that he and other British scholars would have used the medieval Latin pronunciation. In other words, the original pronunciation of “aqua” in Middle English was probably AH-kwa.

However, the pronunciation of the first “a” in “aqua” has  changed noticeably in English since the Middle Ages, according to British and American dictionaries from the 18th to the 21st century.

In the UK, for example, A General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), by Thomas Sheridan, pronounces “aqua” as AKE-wa (the first vowel is described as the one in “hate” and the second as the one in “hat”). In A Critical  Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), John Walker pronounces it similarly, using “fate” and “fat” as his examples.

Another British source, An English Pronouncing Dictionary, on Strictly Phonetic Principles (first ed., 1917), by Daniel Jones, pronounces it in compound terms as ACK-wa or AKE-wa. Jones describes AKE-wa as a less-frequent variant, and drops it from the 1944 fifth edition of his dictionary. The first vowel of ACK-wa is pronounced with the “a” of “cat” and the second with the “a” of “China.”

In American English, “aqua” was pronounced AKE-wa (with the vowel sounds of “fate” and “fat”) in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, according to the first and last editions of the Century Dictionary, published from 1889 to 1911.

But it was both ACK-wa and AKE-wa in the mid-20th century, according to our 1956 printing of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged. ACK-wa (“the preferred form”) was pronounced with the “a” sounds of “add” and “sofa.”

Getting back to your question, we assume that the “aqua” of Aquaman was usually pronounced ACK-wa (the favored pronunciation in Webster’s Second) when the comic-book character first appeared in 1941.

In the 1960s, when Aquaman made his first animated appearances, the preferred pronunciation of “aqua” in the US was still ACK-wa, with AKE-wa as a less common variant, according to a 1963 printing of The Merriam-Webster Pocket Dictionary in our library.

But by the late 1970s, “aqua” had three different pronunciations in the US: ACK-wa, AH-kwa, and AKE-wa, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (2d. ed, 1979), with the variants listed in the order “most frequent in general cultivated use.”

Today, AH-kwa is the usual American pronunciation, with ACK-wa a less common variant, according to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged. A British dictionary, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), says the only British pronunciation is ACK-wa.

(The first “a” is pronounced as “uh” in both American and British English when it’s unstressed in such terms as “aquarium,” “aquatic,” and “Aquarius.”)

We haven’t seen any authoritative explanation for the revival of the AH-kwa pronunciation in the US over the last four decades. It may have been inspired by the pronunciation in ecclesiastical Latin, but the use of Latin has declined in Roman Catholic churches since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

We’ll end with a YouTube video of Ted Knight’s introduction to the Aquaman TV series, which ran from 1967 to 1970 on CBS.

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Conceptually speaking

Q: A recent post of yours introduced me to the use of “concept” as a verb. But how do I pronounce it? Is it KON-sept (like the noun) or “kon-SEPT”? My linear left brain wants to stick with KON-sept, but my intuitive right brain says uh-uh.

A: As we noted in our post, we checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries and found only one that includes “concept” as a verb. Unfortunately that one, Dictionary.com, lists no specific pronunciation for the verb.

It has only a single pronunciation, KON-sept, at the head of its entry, which begins with the noun. We can only guess whether that pronunciation is supposed to apply to all the forms of the word.

However, when a word exists in both noun and verb forms, the usual pattern is that the noun is accented on the first syllable and the verb on the second, as with CON-vict (noun) and con-VICT (verb), REC-ord (noun) and re-CORD (verb).

We’ve written about this pattern before, including posts in 2012 and 2016.

And as we said, the same pattern applies to the noun-verb pairs “permit,” “extract,” “addict,” “combat,” “compound,” “conduct,” “incense,” “insult,” “present,” “produce,” “refuse,” and “subject.”

The nouns are accented on the first syllable while the verbs (along with their participles) are accented on the second syllable.

If “concept” were to follow this pattern, the verb would be pronounced con-CEPT and the participles con-CEPT-ing and con-CEPT-ed.

That’s why your brain somehow didn’t accept the reverse pronunciation (CON-sept). You knew from experience (even if you hadn’t articulated it to yourself) that words like those above sound differently depending on their function—noun versus verb.

Native English speakers can often guess correctly at the pronunciations of words they haven’t seen before. Through experience in reading, speaking, and listening, they’ve absorbed the conventions associated with how spellings are generally pronounced.

So when they come across an unfamiliar word, they simply extrapolate from what they already know—and their guess is often right.

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What’s for dessert?

Q: Would you please discuss “desert” in its various forms, not forgetting “dessert” and the many pastry shops named “Just Desserts.”

A: We’ll take a look at the origins of these words later, but meanwhile here’s a memory aid. The word for the sweet treat that ends a meal, “dessert,” is the only one of the bunch that has a double “s” (pretend the extra “s” is for sugar).

And this is how Pat summarizes the difference between the sound-alike words “deserts” and “desserts” in the new fourth edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

People who get what they deserve are getting their deserts—accent the second syllable. John Wilkes Booth got his just deserts. People who get goodies smothered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce at the end of a meal are getting desserts (same pronunciation)—which they may or may not deserve. “For dessert I’ll have one of those layered puff-pastry things with cream filling and icing on top,” said Napoleon. (As for the arid wasteland, use one s and stress the first syllable. In the desert, August is the cruelest month.)

Those are just the nouns! There’s also a verb spelled “desert” (to abandon), accented on the second syllable. So in the sentence “Don’t desert me in the desert,” the verb and the noun are spelled alike but pronounced differently.

All these words came from Latin by way of French, and some are related, as we’ll explain. Let’s examine them one at a time, beginning with the oldest, which may date from the 12th century.

• “desert,” the noun for a barren land (stress the first syllable, DEH-zert).

Etymologically, a “desert” is a deserted or abandoned place. The word was adopted from Old French (desert), which was descended from the Latin verb dēserĕre (to leave, forsake, abandon).

From the beginning, it generally meant “a wilderness” or “an uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But more specifically it meant  “a desolate, barren region, waterless and treeless, and with but scanty growth of herbage.”

That’s how it’s used in the OED’s earliest example, from a guide for monastic women called the Ancrene Riwle, which may have been composed before 1200: “In þe deseart … he lette ham þolien wa inoch” (“In the wilderness … he let them suffer hardships aplenty”).

The word is pronounced the same way when it’s an adjective, as in “desert climate,” “desert boots,” or “desert island.”

The phrase “desert island,” by the way, was first recorded in 1607, the OED says, but it didn’t mean a hot, dry, sandy island. It meant one that was remote and seemingly uninhabited (that is, deserted). Which brings us to …

• “desert,” the verb meaning to abandon (stress the last syllable).

This word comes from the same sources as the noun—the French desert and the Latin dēserĕre—but it appeared much later, in the 16th century.

In the OED’s earliest examples, the verb was a legal term with several meanings: to relinquish, to put off for the time, to cease to have the force of law, or to be inoperative.

The dictionary’s first use was recorded in 1539 in Scottish Acts of James V: “That this present parliament proceide & stande our [over] without ony continuacioun … quhill [while] it pleiss the kingis grace that the samin [same] be desert.” (We’ve expanded the OED’s citation to provide more context.)

In the early 17th century, the verb “desert” acquired the meanings it has today: to abandon, forsake, run away, quit without permission, and so on. The earliest known example is this 1603 quotation:

“He … was resoluit [resolved] to obey God calling him thairto, and to leave and desert the said school.” (Cited in James Grant’s History of the Burgh and Parish Schools of Scotland, 1876.)

• “deserts,” the noun for what one deserves (stress the last syllable).

This word isn’t related to the others. It comes from the same source as “deserve,” the Old French verb deservir (to deserve), from Latin dēservīre. The Latin verb originally meant to serve zealously or with merit, but in late popular Latin, the OED says, it meant “to merit by service.”

Originally, in the late 1200s, the English noun was used in the singular (“desert”) and had a rather abstract meaning—a person’s deserving, or worthiness, of being rewarded or punished. Before long, a “desert” also meant an act, a quality, or conduct deserving of reward or punishment.

But in the late 1300s it came to mean the rewards or punishments themselves—as the OED says, “that which is deserved.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the word used in this sense is from William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman (1393). Note that it’s still singular here: “Mede and mercede … boþe men demen / A desert for som doynge” (“Reward and payment … both men deem a desert for some doing”).

In modern English, the word is nearly always plural, and most often occurs in the phrase “just deserts.” The OED defines the phrase as meaning “what a person or thing really deserves, esp. an appropriate punishment.”

The expression, according to OED citations, was first recorded in the singular in 1548 (“iust deserte”) and in the plural in 1582 (“iust desertes”). As we’ve written on the blog, the letter “i” was used in those days because “j” didn’t exist in English.

• “dessert,” the noun for the last course of a meal (stress the last syllable).

It’s only right that we should save this one for last. It was borrowed into English in 1600 from a recently coined French noun (dessert) that meant “removal of the dishes” or “dessert,” the OED says. The French noun was derived from a verb, desservir, which the OED defines as “to remove what has been served, to clear (the table).”

(The OED dates the French noun dessert from 1539. The first two uses appeared in the fourth book of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, according to Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française. We mention this only because the Rabelaisian origin somehow seems appropriate.)

The word’s earliest appearance in English was disapproving. The OED citation is from William Vaughan’s Naturall and Artificiall Directions for Health (1600): “Such eating, which the French call desert [sic], is unnaturall.”

Unnatural or not, the dessert course immediately caught on and became indispensable. Here’s a succinct headline the OED quotes from a 1966 issue of the magazine Woman’s Day: “A starter. A main dish. A dessert.”

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A new ‘Woe Is I’ for our times

[This week Penguin Random House published a new, fourth edition of Patricia T. O’Conner’s bestselling grammar and usage classic Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. To mark the occasion, we’re sharing the Preface to the new edition.]

Some books can’t sit still. They get fidgety and restless, mumbling to themselves and elbowing their authors in the ribs. “It’s that time again,” they say. “I need some attention here.”

Books about English grammar and usage are especially prone to this kind of behavior. They’re never content with the status quo. That’s because English is not a stay-put language. It’s always changing—expanding here, shrinking there, trying on new things, casting off old ones. People no longer say things like “Forsooth, methinks that grog hath given me the flux!” No, time doesn’t stand still and neither does language.

So books about English need to change along with the language and those who use it. Welcome to the fourth edition of Woe Is I.

What’s new? Most of the changes are about individual words and how they’re used. New spellings, pronunciations, and meanings develop over time, and while many of these don’t stick around, some become standard English. This is why your mom’s dictionary, no matter how fat and impressive-looking, is not an adequate guide to standard English today. And this is why I periodically take a fresh look at what “better English” is and isn’t.

The book has been updated from cover to cover, but don’t expect a lot of earthshaking changes in grammar, the foundation of our language. We don’t ditch the fundamentals of grammar and start over every day, or even every generation. The things that make English seem so changeable have more to do with vocabulary and how it’s used than with the underlying grammar.

However, there are occasional shifts in what’s considered grammatically correct, and those are reflected here too. One example is the use of they, them, and their for an unknown somebody-or-other, as in “Somebody forgot their umbrella”—once shunned but now acceptable. Another has to do with which versus that. Then there’s the use of “taller than me” in simple comparisons, instead of the ramrod-stiff “taller than I.” (See Chapters 1, 3, and 11.)

Despite the renovations, the philosophy of Woe Is I remains unchanged. English is a glorious invention, one that gives us endless possibilities for expressing ourselves. It’s practical, too. Grammar is there to help, to clear up ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings. Any “rule” of grammar that seems unnatural, or doesn’t make sense, or creates problems instead of solving them, probably isn’t a legitimate rule at all. (Check out Chapter 11.)

And, as the book’s whimsical title hints, it’s possible to be too “correct”— that is, so hung up about correctness that we go too far. While “Woe is I” may appear technically correct (and even that’s a matter of opinion), the lament “Woe is me” has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use “I” instead of “me” here. As you can see, English is nothing if not reasonable.

(To buy Woe Is I, visit your local bookstore or Amazon.com.)

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Pronunciation Punctuation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

The raison d’être of raison d’être

Q: My dictionary defines “raison d’être” as “reason for being,” but I frequently see it used as a substitute for “reason.” Is this ever correct?

A: We don’t know of any standard dictionary or usage manual that considers “raison d’être” a synonym for “reason.”

But as you’ve noticed some people do treat it that way, a usage that Henry W. Fowler criticized as far back as 1926 in the first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. To show “how not to use” the expression, he cites an example in which it means merely a reason: “the raison d’être is obvious.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online, one of the nine standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, typically defines “raison d’être” as the “most important reason or purpose for someone or something’s existence,” and gives this example: “seeking to shock is the catwalk’s raison d’être.”

Some writers italicize “raison d’être,” but we (along with The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.) see no reason to use italics for a term in standard English dictionaries. However, all the dictionaries we’ve seen spell it with a circumflex.

As for the pronunciation, listen to the pronouncer on the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says English borrowed “raison d’être” from French in the mid-19th century. The expression ultimately comes from the Latin ratiō (reason) and esse (to be).

The earliest citation in the OED is from a March 18, 1864, letter by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Modes of speech which have a real raison d’être.” The latest example is from the October 1995 issue of the British soccer magazine FourFourTwo: “Players, managers and supporters—the people for whom football is their raison d’etre.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the 2015 fourth edition of Fowler’s usage manual, notes that since “raison d’être” means a reason for being, not just a reason, “it does not make a great deal of sense to modify it with words such as main, primary, etc.,” as in this example: “The main raison d’être for the ‘new police’ was crime prevention by regular patrol.”

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King Arthur … or King Artur?

Q: A few years ago, the host at a bed and breakfast in Ireland introduced my wife and me to his new puppy, “Artur.” It took me a bit to realize that the dog’s name was “Arthur.” I assume that pronouncing “th” as “t” is historical, though I still hear it from the Irish and Scots. What’s the history?

A: You’re right in suggesting that the pronunciation of “th” as “t” in some English dialects may be an obsolete usage that was once common.

In fact, “th” used to be simply “t,” and pronounced that way, in older spellings of “authentic,” “orthography,” “theater,” “theme,” “theology,” and “throne,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the “t” was once “th” in “treacle” and “treasure.”

In the Middle Ages, the name “Arthur” could be spelled with “th” or only “t,” suggesting that it may have been pronounced both ways. In early versions of the Arthurian legends, for example, King Arthur’s name is spelled with “t” or “th” or runic letters representing the “th” sound.

Even today, it’s standard in the US and the UK to pronounce the “th” as “t” in “Theresa,” “Thomas,” “Thompson,” and “thyme.” And the “th” of “Thames” is pronounced with a “t” in England and Canada, though the river in Connecticut is generally pronounced with a “th.”

The “th” we’re talking about is called a digraph, by the way, a combination of two letters that represent one sound (like the “ch” in “child” or the “sh” in “shoe”).

However, not all “th” combinations are digraphs. The two letters also appear together in some compounds that include words ending in “t” and beginning with “h,” such as “foothill,” “outhouse,” and “knighthood.” In such compounds, the “t” and “h” are pronounced as separate letters. A group of adjacent consonants like that is sometimes called a consonant cluster or consonant compound.

The digraph “th” is generally seen today in words originating in Old English and Greek. It’s used to represent what were the letters thorn (þ) and eth (ð) in Old English (spoken from roughly from 450 to 1150), and the Greek theta (θ), which was originally pronounced as an aspirated “t”—a “t” sound accompanied by a burst of breath.

The thorn and the eth, both of which represent the voiceless “th” sound in “bath” as well as the voiced sound in “bathe,” were gradually replaced by the digraph “th” in Middle English (spoken from about 1150 to 1450).

Here are a few Old English words and their modern English versions: cláðas (“clothes”), broþor (“brother”), þæt (“that”), þyncan or ðyncan (“think”), and þicce (“thick”).

In Layamon’s Brut, an early Middle English poem written sometime before 1200, King Arthur’s name is spelled with an eth: “Arður; aðelest kingen” (“Arthur, most admired of kings”).

In later Middle English poetry, the king’s name is spelled with either “th” or “t” alone. In the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Geoffrey Chaucer refers to “kyng Artur,” while in the alliterative Morte Arthure (circa 1400), it’s “kyng Arthur.”

As for words originating in Greek, the Romans used “th” to represent the theta in Greek loanwords. Then English borrowed many of these Greek terms from Latin or the Romance languages. As far as we can tell, the Latinized Greek “th” terms first appeared in Middle English.

Here are a few Middle English examples: “theatre,” from the Latin theātrum and the Greek θέᾱτρον (theātron); “theologie,” from Latin theologia and Greek θεολογία (theologίā); and “throne,” from Latin thronus and Greek θρόνος (thrónos). A few early “throne” examples are spelled with “t” instead of “th.”

As we’ve mentioned, the spellings and pronunciations of English words originating in Greek have varied quite a bit over the years. The theta has sometimes been represented by a “th” and sometimes by a “t.” And the “th” has sometimes been pronounced as a “t.”

We suspect that the confusion can be traced to medieval Latin, when the “th” sound in Greek loanwords began being pronounced as “t.” French then adopted this “th” spelling and “t” pronunciation, while the other major Romance languages (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian) used “t” for both the spelling and the pronunciation.

French, the major source of loanwords in English, has had a big influence on our spelling and pronunciation. In fact, the OED attributes the pronunciation of “th” as “t” in some English words to the influence of French. But English speakers usually pronounce the “th” digraph today much as the Anglo-Saxons pronounced the thorn and the eth in Old English.

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PAINS-taking or PAIN-staking?

Q: I often hear “painstaking” pronounced PAIN-staking, but prefer PAINS-taking. Any thoughts?

A: Both PAINS-taking and PAIN-staking are standard pronunciations in the US, while PAINS-taking is the standard pronunciation in the UK, according to the American and British dictionaries we’ve checked.

Etymologically, the PAINS-taking pronunciation makes more sense. The word “painstaking” originally meant (and still means) taking pains—that is, care and effort—to do something.

When the noun “pain” appeared in the 13th century, it had two meanings: “trouble taken in accomplishing or attempting something” and “physical or bodily suffering,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citations for both senses are from Of Arthour and of Merlin, a Middle English romance that scholars date to the late 1200s.

Here’s the example for taking trouble: “Harans biseged and dede his peine, Þe cite to winne of Dorkeine” (“Harans besieged Dorkeine and took pains to capture the city”).

(Harans is a Saxon king in Arthurian legend. We haven’t been able to identify Dorkeine, though it may refer to what is now Dorking in Surrey, which was occupied by Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries.)

And here’s the example for physical pain:”What for sorwe & eke for paine” (“What for sorrow as well as pain”).

“Painstaking” showed up in English as a noun in the 16th century and as an adjective in the 17th. The OED defines the noun, a combination of the plural “pains” plus the verbal noun “taking,” as the “taking of pains; the application of careful and attentive effort towards the accomplishment of something.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun is from a 1545 will that authorizes the executor to collect the funds when “a payre of indentures” come due: “And that fynysshed and doon … he shal have for his paynes taking.” (Abstracts From the Wills of English Printers and Stationers, 1903, by Henry Robert Plomer.)

The first Oxford citation for the adjective is from a collection of poems and criticism by Wentworth Dillon, 4th Earl of Roscommon, written sometime before his death in 1685:

“He opposes the pains-taking Women of the first Times, to the fine, lazy, voluptuous Dames of his own Age.” The quotation is from a note about an English translation of an ode by the Roman poet Horace.

Finally, here’s a recent example from the Nov. 29, 2018, issue of Time magazine: “Peter Jackson on His New WWI Documentary, a Painstaking Labor of Love.” (The headline on an interview with the New Zealand director about his film They Shall Not Grow Old.)

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Playing the bass

Q: Why is the fishy “bass” spelled the same as the musical “bass” but pronounced differently? Are there other such words?

A: Words that are spelled alike but have different meanings and pronunciations are called heteronyms, a 19th-century term derived from the Greek heteros (different) and onoma (name).

Seen alone in print, a heteronym is ambiguous; we can’t tell which meaning is intended unless the word is pronounced or used in context.

Most heteronyms are etymologically related, like the words pronounced CON-vict (noun) and con-VICT (verb), REC-ord (noun) and re-CORD (verb), IN-va-lid (noun) and in-VAL-id (adjective).

Related heteronyms that are derived from the same etymological source are not rare. As we wrote on the blog in 2016, there are scores of them.

The rarer and more interesting heteronyms are like the two words spelled “bass,” which are linguistic accidents. They developed independently, one (the fish) from Germanic and one (the deep sound) from Latin. Their similar spellings in modern English are merely coincidental.

The fishy “bass” (rhymes with “grass”) arrived much earlier than the musical “bass” (rhymes with “grace”), so we’ll discuss the fish first.

The word for the fish was first recorded in Old English (then spelled bærs) around the year 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was a corrupted form of barse, which the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology dates back to “about 700,” and which still survives in some dialects.

The OED defines this “bass” as “the Common Perch (Perca fluviatilis), or an allied freshwater species.” The fish probably got its name (first barse, then bærs, and eventually “bass”) because of its spiny, bristly fins.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots traces the Old English bærs to a prehistoric root that’s been reconstructed as bhars– and means a projection, point, or bristle. The same root, the dictionary says, is the ancestor of “bristle” and “bur” in English and similar words in other Germanic languages.

So how did bærs become “bass”? As Donka Minkova writes in A Historical Phonology of English (2013), the “r” sound in bærs was no longer pronounced by the early 1300s. And the dropping of the “r” changed the sound of the vowel.

The loss of an “r” sound after a vowel and before a sibilant (like “s”) was not a widespread development, but did occur with some words, according to linguists.

In their book The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that the “older barse ‘fish’ by such loss became bass.” The same “r” loss is heard in some colloquial usages. By this process, the authors write, “arse became ass.”

After the “r” in bærs fell away in the 1300s, spellings of the word evolved sporadically from “bace” (1400s), to “bas” and “base” (1500s), then “basse” and “bass” (1600s and onward).

The OED’s earliest citation for the modern spelling is from the early 19th century, but we found an example in a 17th-century ship’s log. This entry was written on Oct. 16, 1663:

“Several Indian came on Board, and brought us great store of Fresh-fish, large Mullets, young Bass, Shads, and several other sorts of very good well-tasted Fish.” (From A Relation of a Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida, an account of a voyage aboard the ship Adventure, which sailed from Barbados in August 1663. The account, by Cmdr. William Hilton, Capt. Anthony Long, and Peter Fabian, was published in London in 1664.)

We’ve found several more uses of “bass” from the 17th and 18th centuries. In an English clergyman’s account of a visit to four colonial settlements, for example, the fish is mentioned eight times. Here’s one instance:

“The Bass is one of the best Fishes, being a Delicate and fat Fish.” (From Samuel Clarke’s A True and Faithful Account of the Four Chiefest Plantations of the English in America, published in 1670.)

Now we’ll leave the fish and turn to the “bass” that rhymes with “grace” and refers to a deep note or a musical instrument.

This “bass” appeared in English in the 15th century as both a noun and an adjective, according to OED citations.

The musical word “bass” is “simply a modified spelling” of the adjective “base” (meaning low), John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins.

In other words, the “base” that means low—borrowed in the late 1300s from the Anglo-Norman baas, bace, or bas—later came to be spelled “bass” in the sense of deep-sounding or a low note.

What influenced the spelling change to “bass” from “base,” Ayto says, was the Italian musical term basso. But though the spelling changed, the OED notes, the word was “still pronounced as base.”

The adjective “bass,” defined in the OED as “deep-sounding” or “low in the musical scale,” was first recorded in an anonymous musical treatise written sometime before 1450: “This same rwle [rule] may ye kepe be-twene Dsolre, Dlasolre, & al oþer [other] base keyys.”

(Explanation: For medieval singers, pitch was flexible, not fixed. In a notational system developed in Italy in the early 11th century and designed for chant, notes had names like “dsolre” (or “D3,” for D + sol + re) and “dlasolre” (or “D4,” for D + la + sol + re), representing the values a singer might place on the note.)

The noun “bass” in the musical sense has several meanings. It can mean “the lowest part in harmonized musical composition,” the OED says, or “the deepest male voice, or lowest tones of a musical instrument, which sing or sound this part.”

The word “bass” can also refer to an instrument that principally plays bass notes. The noun “bass” can be short for a double-bass or a bass guitar, and the word appears adjectivally in noun phrases like “bass saxophone,” “bass clarinet,” “bass trombone,” “bass drum,” and so on.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun (used in the sense of a low tone) is in an English carol from sometime before 1500: “Whan … bulles of the see syng a good bace.”

Here are some instruments whose names include “bass,” along with the earliest dates given in the OED:

“bass viol” (possibly 1594; called “bass” for short in 1702); it was also known as a “bass violin” (1602) and is now the modern “violoncello” (1724) or “cello” (1848);

“bass trumpet” (1724);

“double-bass” (1728; also known as a “string bass” or “bass” for short, both dating from 1927;

“bass drum” (1789);

“bass clarinet” (1831);

“bass guitar” (1855; “bass” for short in 1937);

“bass trombone” (1856);

“bass flute” (1880).

The musical noun, the OED notes, is “erroneously” assumed by some to be derived from the noun “base” that means a foundation or bottom, but there is “etymologically no connection.”

The “base” that means a foundation is from the classical Latin basis; the “base” that means low, as well as the musical “bass,” can be traced to the post-classical Latin bassus.

So much for the two very different (and different sounding) words spelled “bass.”

We wrote a post a couple of years ago about another pair of unrelated heteronyms, the two nouns spelled “sewer.” They’re as different as sewing and sewage.

Other heteronyms that are etymological strangers to one another include these:

  • the noun “dove” (a bird) and the verb “dove” (a past tense of “dive”);
  • the noun “lead” (a metal) and the verb “lead” (to conduct);
  • the noun “number” (a sum) and the comparative adjective “number” (more numb);
  • the noun “row” (for a disturbance) and the verb “row” (to propel a boat);
  • the noun “sow” (a mama pig) and the verb “sow” (to plant seed);
  • the two different nouns spelled “tear” (a rip; a droplet from the eye), along with their respective verbs;
  • the “wind” (air current) and the verb “wind” (to twist).

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2001: A speech odyssey

Q: Just recently, I heard someone pronounce 1901 as “nineteen-one” instead of “nineteen-oh-one.” What is the origin of this practice and is it correct? It sounds so weird to me.

A: There’s no right or wrong here. When a year ends in a number from 01 to 09, the ending can be pronounced with or without “oh” for the zero.

The form with “oh” (as in “nineteen-oh-one”) is usual in today’s English, but the clipped version (“nineteen-one”) was once more common.

The word “oh” is usually an interjection or exclamation. But as we mentioned in a 2013 post, in modern English it’s also used as a noun to represent the pronunciation of the number 0 (zero).

This use of “oh” in dates and other numbers began in the early 20th century and is “probably” based on the spelling of the exclamation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(Oxford says that the spelling “oh” is a variant of a much earlier spelling, the capital letter “O.” It, too, is used to represent both an interjection—as in “O my!”—and the number zero, though not in dates.)

The OEDs earliest written example of “oh” in a date is from the December 1908 issue of a trade journal, the Railroad Telegrapher: “Wishing one and all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, hoping to see everyone out in nineteen oh nine.”

We found an earlier example from the same year with “oh” in quotation marks, indicating it was a new usage at the time: “The Nineteen ‘Oh’ Eight Fair Will Be Better Than Ever” (part of a headline for an article about the Colorado State Fair, published in the Aspen Democrat, May 21, 1908).

Later examples in the OED also show “oh” used for zero in the time of day (“oh-eight-thirty-hours,” 1948); in weaponry (“three oh three” for a .303 rifle cartridge, sometime before 1961); and in sports scores (“oh for nine,” 1998).

In earlier times, as we mentioned, “oh” was not included in pronunciations of years with a zero. By way of illustration, here’s a scrap of 19th-century stage dialogue in which a history instructor resumes a lesson with his pupil, a young duke:

Obenhaus: Take up the lesson where we had to stop, —in eighteen five.
The Duke: Yes, eighteen five.
Obenhaus: We’ve seen in eighteen six …
The Duke: Your pardon; do you mean that nothing marked that year?
Obenhaus: Hein? What? What date?
The Duke: Why, eighteen five.

The passage is from an English translation of Edmund Rostand’s 1899 play L’Aiglon (The Eaglet).

We found more examples in old issues of Arbutus, Indiana University’s student yearbook.

This is from 1901: “When Soph and Freshman cease to scrap, / And the Junior’s work is done, / Our class will be remembered yet— / The Class of Nineteen-one; / The noble Class of Nineteen-one, / Of Nineteen-one.”

And this is from 1906: “Rickety Rix! Rickety Rix! / Here’s to the class of nineteen six.”

The usage appeared in both British and American fiction.

Rudyard Kipling used it in one of his naval stories: ” In Nineteen One, mark you, I was in the Carthusian, back in Auckland Bay again.” (From “Mrs. Bathurst,” published in 1904 in both the Metropolitan Magazine, New York, and the Windsor Magazine, London.)

And this example is from the American novel You Can’t Go Home Again, written by Thomas Wolfe in the early 1930s and published posthumously in 1940: “ ‘I should think it was done in nineteen-one or two—wasn’t it, Esther? … Around nineteen-one, wasn’t it?’ … ‘Oh the picture! No, Steve. It was done in nineteen … in nineteen-six.”

In another usage from earlier times, “ought” and “aught” were often used for zero in speech and written dialogue (as in “nineteen-ought-one”).

The use of “ought” and “aught” as nouns to mean zero was first recorded in the early 1820s, according to OED citations. (They were “probably” variants of “nought” and “naught,” the dictionary says.) As a noun for zero, the term is chiefly spelled “ought” in British English and “aught” in American English.

In a work of 19th-century political reporting, we found this example of “ought” indicating zero in a year:

“ ‘The barracks are close to the place where our regiment, the 28th, landed in eighteen-ought-two.’ ‘Eighteen hundred and eighty-two?’ ‘No; eighteen-ought-two, when we beat the French.’ ‘Eighteen-ought-one,’ corrected the other corporal, more accurate in his dates” (Egypt Under the British, 1896, by H. Freeman Wood).

This “ought” usage was also known in Australia, as this early 20th-century newspaper ad shows: “Let it be known that Nettlefold’s have prepared for Summer Nineteen ought five, an extremely dignified (you may call it ‘swagger’) line of Gentlemen’s Tailoring, as worn by gentlemen.” From the Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania), Dec. 29, 1904.

And “ought” was used similarly in American advertising around the same time, as in this notice by a hat manufacturer: “FALL SEASON NINETEEN OUGHT SIX ON DISPLAY AND SALE.” From the Albuquerque Evening Citizen, Aug. 13, 1906.

But a century later, the OED cites this American use of “aughts” to mean a decade of years beginning with zero: “Everybody would probably agree that the aughts have been an ugly decade” (Vanity Fair, December 2009).

Those who refer to the current century as beginning with “twenty” invariably use “oh” for numbers in the first decade—”twenty-oh-one” and so on. Otherwise the year would sound like “twenty-one,” “twenty-two,” etc.

Those who prefer “two thousand” for this century seem to use both “two thousand one” and “two thousand and one,” a usage that may have been influenced by the pronunciation of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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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 (1601-1625), 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.

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Syllables gone missing

Q: I just heard a BBC interviewer pronounce “medicine” as MED-sin. I’m pretty sure that Doc Martin attended MED-i-cal school, so why do the British drop the vowel “i” when speaking of pharmaceuticals?

A: The pronunciation of “medicine” as MED-sin is standard in British speech. It’s part of a larger phenomenon that we wrote about in 2012, the tendency of British speakers to drop syllables in certain words.

What’s dropped is a weak or unstressed next-to-last syllable in a word of three syllables or more. So in standard British English, “medicine” is pronounced as MED-sin, “necessary” as NESS-a-sree, “territory” as TARE-eh-tree, and so on.

The dropped syllable or vowel sound is either unstressed (like the first “i” in “medicine”) or has only a weak, secondary stress (like the “a” in “necessary”).

This syllable dropping apparently began in 18th- and 19th-century British speech, and today these pronunciations are standard in Britain. You can hear this by listening to the pronunciations of “medicine,” “secretary,” “oratory,” and “cemetery” in the online Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (click the red icon for British, blue for American).

We know roughly when such syllable-dropping began because, as we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious, lexicographers of the time commented on it.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that dictionaries—like those by William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), and John Walker (1791)—began marking secondary stresses within words, and providing pronunciations for each syllable.

Sheridan in particular made a point of this, lamenting what he saw as a general “negligence” with regard to the pronunciation of weakly stressed syllables.

“This fault is so general,” Sheridan wrote, “that I would recommend it to all who are affected by it, to pronounce the unaccented syllables more fully than is necessary, till they are cured of it.” (A Complete Dictionary of the English Language, 1780.)

Despite such advice, syllable dropping continued, and these abbreviated pronunciations became more widely accepted throughout the 1800s. By 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones had recognized some of these pronunciations as standard.

In An English Pronouncing Dictionary, Jones omitted the next-to-last syllable in some words (“medicine,” “secretary,” “cemetery”) while marking it as optional in others (“military,” “necessary,” “oratory”). As the century progressed, later and much-revised editions of Jones’s dictionary omitted more of those syllables.

As Jones originally wrote, his aim was to describe what was heard in the great English boarding schools, the accent he called “PSP” (for “Public School Pronunciation”). In the third edition of his dictionary (1926), he revived the older, 19th-century term “Received Pronunciation” and abbreviated it to “RP” (here “received” meant “socially accepted”).

Americans, meanwhile, continued to pronounce those syllables.

In The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1993), Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write that while British speech lost the subordinate stress in words ending in “-ary,” “-ery,” and “-ory,” this stress “is regularly retained in American English.”

As examples of American pronunciation, the authors cite “mónastèry, sécretàry, térritòry, and the like,” using an acute accent (´) for the primary stress and a grave accent (`) for the secondary stress.

Similarly, The Handbook of English Pronunciation (2015), edited by Marnie Reed and John M. Levis, says that in words “such as secretary, military, preparatory, or mandatory,” the next-to-last vowel sound “is usually deleted or reduced in Britain but preserved in North America.”

The book adds that North American speech also retains unstressed vowels in the word “medicine,” in the names of berries (“blackberry,” “raspberry,” “strawberry,” etc.), in place names like “Birmingham” and “Manchester,” and in names beginning with “Saint.”

However, not every unstressed next-to-last syllable is dropped in standard British pronunciation. The one in “medicine” is dropped, but the British TV character Doc Martin would pronounce the syllable in “medical,” as you point out.

And the word “library” can go either way. As Pyles and Algeo write, “library” is “sometimes reduced” to two syllables in British speech (LYE-bree), though in “other such words” the secondary stress can be heard. Why is this?

In The Handbook of English Pronunciation, Reed and Levis write that some variations in speech are simply “idiosyncratic.” They discuss “secretary,” “medicine,” “raspberry,” and the others in a section on “words whose pronunciation varies in phonologically irregular ways.”

However you view it—“idiosyncratic” or “phonologically irregular”—this syllable-dropping trend is not irreversible. As Pyles and Algeo note, “Some well-educated younger-generation British speakers have it [the secondary stress] in sécretàry and extraórdinàry.”

There’s some evidence for this. A 1998 survey of British speakers found that those under 26 showed “a sudden surge in preference for a strong vowel” in the “-ary” ending of “necessary,” “ordinary,” and “February.” (“British English Pronunciation Preferences: A Changing Scene,” by J. C. Wells, published in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, June 1999.)

So has American pronunciation influenced younger British speakers? Not likely, in the opinion of Pyles and Algeo: “A restoration of the secondary stress in British English, at least in some words, is more likely due to spelling consciousness than to any transatlantic influence.”

And Wells seems to agree: “English spelling being what it is,” he writes, “one constant pressure on pronunciation is the influence of the orthography. A pronunciation that is perceived as not corresponding to the spelling is liable to be replaced by one that does.”

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When a bomb goes boom

Q: I’ve come across a cartoon online that raises a good question: If “tomb” is pronounced TOOM and “womb” is pronounced WOOM,” why isn’t “bomb” pronounced BOOM?

A: In the past, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” and probably pronounced that way too. In fact, a “bomb” was originally a “boom,” etymologically speaking.

The two words have the same ancestor, the Latin bombus (a booming, buzzing, or humming sound). The Romans got the word from the Greek βόμβος (bómbos, a deep hollow sound), which was “probably imitative in origin,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Latin noun produced the words for “bomb” in Italian and Spanish (bomba), French (bombe), and finally English, where it first appeared in the late 1500s as “bome,” without the final “b.”

The “bome” spelling was a translation of the Spanish term. It was first recorded in Robert Parke’s 1588 English version of a history of China written by Juan González de Mendoza. Here’s the OED citation:

“They vse … in their wars … many bomes of fire, full of olde iron, and arrowes made with powder & fire worke, with the which they do much harme and destroy their enimies.”

After that, however, the word disappeared for almost a century, reappearing as a borrowing of the French bombe, complete with the “b” and “e” at the end.

The earliest English example we’ve found is from A Treatise of the Arms and Engines of War, a 1678 English translation of a French book on war by Louis de Gaya. A section entitled “Of Bombes” begins:

“Bombes are of a late Invention. … They are made all of Iron, and are hollow … they are filled with Fire-works and Powder, and then are stopped with a Bung or Stopple well closed; in the middle of which is left a hole to apply the Fuse to.”

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest “bombe” example appeared a few years later: “They shoot their Bombes near two Miles, and they weigh 250 English Pounds a piece” (from the London Gazette, 1684).

The first appearances we’ve found of the modern spelling “bomb,” without the “e” on the end, are from a 1680 edition of The Turkish History, by Richard Knolles. The word “bomb” appears more than a dozen times, as both noun and verb.

Here’s a noun example: “twenty of them were killed that day by one Bomb.” And here’s one with the verb: “the Captain General form’d all the Trenches and Traverses for an Attack, and Bomb’d the Town with twenty Mortar-pieces.”

By the mid-1690s the “bomb” spelling had become established enough to appear in an English-to-French dictionary, Abel Boyer’s A Complete French Mastery for Ladies and Gentlemen (1694): “a bomb, une bombe.” That final silent “b” remained in the word, probably for etymological reasons, forever after.

The pronunciation of “bomb” has varied over the centuries, and it still does. Today three pronunciations are considered standard, according to the OED.

The dictionary, using the International Phonetic Alphabet, gives them as /bɒm/, /bʌm/, and /bɑm/, which we might transcribe as BOM, BUM, and BAHM (the first two are British, the third American).

The three vowels sound, respectively, like the “o” in “lot,” the “u” in “cup,” and the “a” in “father.” Furthermore, the British pronunciations are short and clipped in comparison with the American, which is more open and drawn out.

The second British pronunciation, BUM, was “formerly usual” in the British Army, Oxford says. And it apparently was widespread in the 18th century, since it’s the only pronunciation given in several dictionaries of the time, including the most popular one, John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791).

As for the BOOM pronunciation, “bomb” was sometimes spelled “boom” or “boomb,” suggesting that it was pronounced that way too. The OED cites both spellings in an anonymous 1692 diary of the siege and surrender of Limerick: “600 Booms” … “800 Carts of Ball and Boombs.”

And the dictionary points readers to rhymes in poetry, where “bomb” is sometimes rhymed with “tomb” and “womb,” which were pronounced TOOM and WOOM at the time.

Here’s an Oxford citation from “The British Sailor’s Exultation,” a poem Edward Young wrote sometime before his death in 1765: “A thousand deaths the bursting bomb / Hurls from her disembowel’d womb.”

We’ve found a couple of additional examples in poetry of the 1690s.

In a 1692 poem written in rhyming couplets and based on Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas, John Crown rhymes “bomb’d” with “entomb’d.” Here are the lines: “The wealthy Cities insolently bomb’d, / The Towns in their own ashes deep entomb’d.”

And Benjamin Hawkshaw’s poem “The Incurable,” written in rhyming triplets, rhymes “womb,” “tomb,” and “bomb.” These are the lines: “It works like lingring Poyson in the Womb, / And each Day brings me nearer to my Tomb, / My Magazin’s consum’d by this unlucky Bomb.” (From Poems Upon Several Occasions, 1693.)

What’s more, the word “boom” (for a loud hollow noise) was sometimes spelled “bomb” or “bombe,” which suggests that the pronunciations occasionally coincided.

This example, cited in the OED, is from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, a natural history, or study of the natural world, published in 1627, a year after his death:

“I remember in Trinity Colledge in Cambridge, there was an Vpper Chamber, which being thought weake in the Roofe of it, was supported by a Pillar of Iron … Which if you had strucke, it would make a little flat Noise in the Roome where it was strucke; But it would make a great Bombe in the Chamber beneath.” (We’ve expanded the citation to give more context.)

And we found this example in a work that discusses sound production, Walter Charleton’s A Fabrick of Science Natural (1654): “As in all Arches, and Concamerated or vaulted rooms: in which for the most part, the sound or voyce loseth its Distinctness, and degenerates into a kind of long confused Bombe.”

In short, it’s safe to say that that “bomb” was probably pronounced BOOM by some educated speakers in the 17th century.

As we’ve noted, the word didn’t appear until 1588, during the modern English period. As far as we know, the final “b” was never pronounced. But the other words you mention, “womb” and “tomb,” are much older, and the “b” in their spellings was originally pronounced.

In the case of “womb,” a Germanic word that dates back to early Old English, it originally had a different vowel sound, too. But beginning in the Middle English period (roughly 1150 to 1500), the “oo” vowel sound developed and the “b” became silent.

As for “tomb,” a Latin-derived word that English borrowed from the French toumbe around 1300, it came with the “oo” vowel sound, and the “b” became silent in later Middle English. The “b” remained in the spelling, though in the 16th and 17th centuries the word occasionally appeared as “toom” or “toome,” according to OED citations.

Several other words ending in “b” (“lamb,” “dumb,” “comb,” “climb,” “plumb”) originally had an audible “b,” but it became silent during the Middle English period. Linguists refer to this shift in pronunciation from “mb” to “m” as an example of “consonant cluster reduction.”

We wrote a post in 2009 about other kinds of spelling puzzles—why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme, and why silent letters appear in words like “sword” and “knife.” And in 2017 we discussed “-ough” spellings (“enough,” “ought,” “though,” “through,” etc.), which are pronounced in many different ways.

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In Jesus’ name or Jesus’s name?

Q: I’m preparing handouts for my sister’s prayer group, but I’m unsure of whether to write “In Jesus’ Precious Name” or “In Jesus’s Precious Name.” I know you’re supposed to add an apostrophe plus “s” to make a name possessive. But isn’t that also how to make a contraction?

A: The form written with an apostrophe plus “s” (that is, “Jesus’s”) can represent either a contraction (short for “Jesus is” or “Jesus has”) or the possessive form of the name.

But in the expression you’re writing, it would clearly be the possessive. There’s no way a member of your sister’s prayer group would think otherwise.

The rule here is the same as it would be for any name—the apostrophe plus “s” at the end can signify either a contraction or a possessive.

For example, “James’s” can be a contraction of “James is” or “James has” (as in “James’s coming” or “James’s grown a beard”), or it can be the possessive form of the name (as in “She is James’s niece”).

But when the name is “Jesus,” there’s a twist with the possessive form. This is because there are two ways to form the possessive of an ancient classical or biblical name that ends in “s.”

The result is that your prayer could correctly be written with either “Jesus’ precious name” or “Jesus’s precious name.”

Why is this? The traditional custom has been to drop the final “s” when writing the possessives of ancient classical or biblical names that already end in “s.”

However, this old tradition is no longer universally followed. Today the final “s” is optional: “Euripides’ plays” or “Euripides’s plays,” “Moses’ staff” or “Moses’s staff,” “Jesus’ teachings” or “Jesus’s teachings.”

How do you decide? Let your pronunciation choose for you.

If you add an extra syllable when pronouncing one of these possessive names (MO‑zus‑uz), then add the final “s” (“Moses’s”). If you don’t pronounce that last “s” (and many people don’t, especially if the name ends in an EEZ sound, like Euripides), then don’t write it.

So our advice is that if you pronounce the possessive form of “Jesus” as JEE-zus, add the apostrophe alone; but if you pronounce it as JEE-zus-uz, then add ‘s.

This advice agrees with the recommendations of The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.), the guide widely used by both commercial and academic publishers.

And if you’d like to read more, we wrote a post in 2013 about how Jesus got his name.

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Is the ‘d’ silent in ‘adjective’?

Q: Why is “d” silent before “j” in words like “adjective,” “adjust,” and “adjunct”? Is this an issue of phonology, or is it related to the etymology of these words and their Latin prefix?

A: The “d” isn’t silent in these words. It’s built into the letter “j” as pronounced in modern English. This “j” sound is rendered in phonetic symbols as /dʒ/.

In modern French, you may have noticed, the letter “j” is sounded by /ʒ/ alone—as in je and jeune—a sound similar to the one we hear in the middle of our word “vision.”

But in English, “j” is much stronger—as in “jury” and “banjo”—incorporating a touch of “d” at the beginning. This is why the English consonant is represented by the more complex symbol /dʒ/, reflecting both sounds.

We can’t say for sure why those words you mention kept the “d” in their spellings. Certainly they would be pronounced just the same without it. But your suggestion may be correct, and perhaps the “d” was retained for etymological reasons.

The “d” got there in the first place because all English words beginning with “adj-” are ultimately derived from Latin words prefixed with ad-. Such words include “adjacent,” “adjective,” “adjoin,” “adjourn,” “adjudicate,” “adjunct,” “adjure,” “adjust,” and “adjutant.”

The Latin prefix can denote motion “to,” “toward,” “near,” or “at,” and it can indicate “change into, addition, adherence, increase, or intensification,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Taking “adjective” as an example, it can be traced to the Latin ad– plus iacere (to lay, to throw). When it first came into English in the 14th century, it was spelled “adiectif” because English had not yet adopted the letter “j.”

Similarly, other “adj-” words that date from the Middle English period originally had no “j.” For instance, “adjacent” was spelled “adiacent”; “adjoin” was sometimes “adioyne” (among many other spellings); “adjourn” was “adiurne”; “adjunct” was “adiuncte”; and “adjure” was “adiure.”

Even later words like “adjutant” and “adjust,” which came along in the early 1600s, originally had two spellings, sometimes with “j” and sometimes with “i” (“adiutant,” “adiust”).

But even when spelled with “i,” such words were pronounced as if the letter were a modern “j.”

As the OED explains within its entry for the letter “j,” French spellings brought into English with the Norman Conquest introduced the Old French use of “i” as a consonant pronounced /dʒ/. This, the dictionary says, is the “sound which English has ever since retained in words derived from that source, although in French itself the sound was subsequently, by loss of its first element, simplified to /ʒ/.”

For a time, the double identity of “i” resulted in some confusion, because, as Oxford says, the letter “represented at once the vowel sound of i, and a consonant sound /dʒ/, far removed from the vowel.”

It wasn’t until the 17th century that “i” was consistently used for the vowel and “j” for the consonant.

In case you’re interested, we’ve mentioned the development of “j” in other posts, including one in 2013 about the name “Jesus.”

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A puny subject

Q: I love Victorian novels and often read them on my Kindle. I just came across “puisne” in Vanity Fair. When I highlight the word, the dictionary tells me it’s a junior judge and pronounced like “puny.” Are these two terms related?

A: Not only are “puny” and “puisne” related, but they were essentially the same word when borrowed from puisné, Middle French for “younger.”

The Middle French term, a compound of puis (later) and né (born), is spelled puîné in modern French. The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin post (after) and nātus (born).

When the word entered English in the 1500s as a noun and an adjective, it was spelled various ways: punie, punee, puine, puisne, and so on—all pronounced “puny,” an anglicized version of the French pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the English term was originally a noun for a new or junior student. The earliest OED citation is from a 1548 book by the historian William Patten about a trip that Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset, made to Scotland:

“Like yplay in Robin Cooks skole, whear bicaus the punies may lerne thei strike fewe strokes, but by assent & appointement.” (The new students were learning their assigned strokes at Robin Cook’s fencing school.)

When the word first showed up in print as an adjective, it meant “younger” or “junior.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Apologie of Fridericus Staphylus, Thomas Stapleton’s 1565 translation of a 1558 Latin treatise by the German theologian Friedrich Staphylus:

“Neither may you M. Grindall be offended herewith, when you shall vnderstand it, as I wish you maye, iff a young scholer and puine student in diuinite aduenter to encounter with you.” (Staphylus, a Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism, is addressing Edmund Grindal, an English clergyman who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Later in the 1500s, the noun came to mean an inexperienced person, an inferior, a subordinate, someone of no importance, and a junior judge.

All those senses are now obsolete or rare except for the use of the term (now spelled “puisne”) in reference to a subordinate judge or justice, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective used in this sense is from The Common Welth of England (1589), by Sir Thomas Smith:

“The officer before whom the Clarke is to take these essoines, is the puny Iustice in the common pleas.” (The “essoines” here are excuses for not appearing in court on time before the subordinate justice.)

As for the noun, the first Oxford citation for this sense is from Skialetheia, or The Shadowe of Truth, a 1598 collection of poetry by Edward Guilpin:

“Oh he’s a puisne [lesser judge] of the Innes of Court, / Come from th’ Vniuersity to make sport.”

Since the mid-1600s, the term (now always spelled “puisne” and pronounced “puny”) has been used in the UK and some former British dependencies to designate “any judge, justice, etc., other than the most senior in the higher courts of law,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED citation refers to a case argued before “Mallet the puisne Judge” (from a 1648 collection of legal cases, compiled by the English barrister John March).

In Vanity Fair, the Thackeray novel that prompted your question, the term is similarly used to describe a less than senior judge. The novel, which was serialized in Punch from 1847 to ’48, describes Lady Smith as the “wife of Sir Minos Smith the puisne judge.”

Finally, we have Shakespeare to thank for the use of “puny” as an adjective meaning small, weak, or insignificant, the usual sense of the word today.

The Chambers etymological dictionary cites Richard II, which it dates at 1593, for the earliest example of the usage. In this passage, a pale, gloomy Richard, facing the forces of Bolingbroke, tries to snap out of his despondency:

I had forgot myself; am I not king?
Awake, thou coward majesty! thou sleepest.
Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes
At thy great glory. Look not to the ground,
Ye favourites of a king: are we not high?

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Cycles and sickles

Q: Why does “bicycle” rhyme with “pickle,” and “motorcycle” with “Michael”?

A: Yes, “motorcycle” does usually rhyme with “Michael,” which has inspired various naughty playground rhymes (like “Michael, Michael, motorcycle, / Turn the key and watch him pee”).

However, “motorcycle” also rhymes with “pickle” in several regional dialects, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

DARE has examples from Appalachia and the Gulf region, including contributions from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.

One example cites a lyric from “The Motor Cycle Song,” quoted in This Is the Arlo Guthrie Book (1969): “I don’t want a pick-le / Just want to ride on my mo-tor-sick-le.”

However, “motorcycle” (as well as “monocycle” and “unicycle”) normally rhymes with “Michael,” while “bicycle” (like “tricycle”) rhymes with “pickle.”

So why does the “y” in those four-syllable words sound like the long “i” of “sigh,” while the “y” in the three-syllable words sounds like the short “i” of “sick”?

This has to do with the way those syllables are stressed. A vowel is often pronounced one way in a stressed syllable and another way in an unstressed syllable.

The “y” of “bicycle,” for example, is unstressed and pronounced as a short, or reduced, vowel. But the word “cycle” itself has a “y” that’s stressed and pronounced as a long vowel. Similarly, the “y” of “motorcycle” has a secondary stress and a long pronunciation.

(By the way, “motorcycle”—like “monocycle” and “unicycle”—is made up of two trochees. A trochee is a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.)

As for the etymology, “cycle” first appeared in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally meant a recurring period of time, such as a “lunar cycle” or a “solar cycle,” and it ultimately comes from the words for “circle” in classical Latin (cyclus) and Greek (κύκλος).

The noun took on the sense of a pedal-powered, wheeled vehicle in the 1870s, when it began to be used as a short form of the somewhat older words “bicycle,” “tricycle,” “monocycle,” and “unicycle.”

Earlier in the century, the term “velocipede” was used for a lightweight wheeled vehicle propelled by the rider. (As the OED comments, it was also called a “bone-shaker.”)

Oxford’s earliest example of “velocipede” is from a June 19, 1818, entry in the diary of William Sewall:

“Then I went to the circus and rode on the velocipede, which is a new machine.” (The diary begins in Maine, Sewall’s birthplace, and ends in Illinois.)

The dictionary’s earliest example for “bicycle” and “tricycle” is from the Sept. 7, 1868, issue of the Daily News (London): “Bysicles and trysicles which we saw in the Champs Elysées and Bois de Boulogne this summer.”

The words “monocycle” and “unicycle” showed up the following year in The Velocipede: Its History, Varieties, and Practice, an 1869 book by J. T. Goddard:

“A New York mechanic has devised a monocycle or single machine, which consists of a wheel eight feet in diameter, with a tire six inches wide” … “Hemming’s Unicycle or ‘Flying Yankee Velocipede.’ ” (We’ve expanded the first OED citation.)

The short use of “cycle” to mean a pedal-powered vehicle showed up the next year in “The Natural History of Bicycles,” an article in the February 1870 issue of Belgravia, a London magazine:

“Another idea for a monocycle (which, by the way, might be called a ‘cycle’ at once, for shortness) was to make a gigantic wheel, some twelve feet in diameter, with cranks on each side of the axle, and short stilts attached to these, to be worked by the rider’s feet.” (Again, we’ve expanded the OED citation.)

Later that same year, in August 1870, this passage appeared in the journal English Mechanic and Mirror of Science:

“I have never yet seen a bicycle, tricycle, or any other kind of cycle … which did not completely use up the whole muscular energy of the most muscular of muscular Christians.”

Finally, the first Oxford example for “motorcycle” is from the Atlanta Constitution, June 17, 1894:

“Some inventive genius with more activity in his brain than in his legs, has devised a cycle which appears to meet the utmost requirements of pure laziness. It is called the motor cycle and the propelling power is produced by coal oil.”

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Geezers and geysers

Q: I’m revisiting season one of Rumpole and I’m up to “Rumpole and the Married Lady.” Leo McKern has just pronounced “geyser,” the British term for a water heater, as “geezer.” I’m probably in my cups or I wouldn’t be asking this, but are the two terms related?

A: In Britain, the words “geyser” and “geezer” are commonly pronounced alike, as you noticed in Rumpole of the Bailey. However, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but there’s no etymological connection.

In the US, “geyser” is pronounced GUY-zer and has one meaning, a bubbling hot spring that erupts periodically.

But in British English, it has two meanings; a “geyser” can be a hot spring or a water heater. And for both senses of the word, most British speakers rhyme it with “geezer.”

You can click the loudspeaker icons at two dictionary websites to hear the typical British and American pronunciations.

In its entry for “geyser,” Oxford Dictionaries online has these definitions: (1) “A hot spring in which water intermittently boils, sending a tall column of water and steam into the air,” or any such “jet or stream of liquid”; (2) “British: A gas-fired water heater through which water flows as it is rapidly heated.”

The noun used in sense #1 was first recorded in travel writing from the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded:

“Among the hot springs in Iceland, several of which bear the name of geyser, there are none that can be compared with that which I am going to describe.” (From Letters on Iceland, a 1780 translation of a work by the Swedish naturalist Uno von Troil.)

The use of the noun in sense #2 was first recorded in the late 19th century. This is the first OED citation:

“The instantaneous water heater; or Maughan’s Patent Geyser … so constructed that any quantity of hot water can be drawn from it with the utmost facility.” (From an advertisement in an 1878 issue of the British journal Gas Engineer.)

Two Oxford citations from the 1920s—one American and the other British—shed some light on the pronunciation of the water heater:

“The aristocratic landlady was telling me of the advantage of her own particular geezer. … I moved closer to descry the lettering on the cylinder, and lo! it was a geyser. I suppose the word is universally mispronounced over here because they have not been brought up in a geyser country” (from An American’s London, by Louise Closser Hale, 1920).

“The mechanical device for heating bath-water made geyser a household word, and though the introducers gave it the vowel of grey, the pronunciation as in key gained ground” (from the Society for Pure English Tract No. XXXII, 1929).

As for its etymology, “geyser” comes from the Icelandic Geysir, the proper name of a hot spring in southwest Iceland. The word literally means “gusher,” the OED explains, and is related to the Old Norse verb geysa (to gush).

Going back even further, etymologists point to an ancestral Proto-Indo-European root, reconstructed as gheu– (to pour), according toThe American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Interestingly, the dictionary’s editor, Calvert Watkins, says gheu– may be the source of our word “god.”

The ancient root, he explains, played an important role in prehistoric religious terminology, since gheu– implied the pouring of a libation or a liquid sacrifice, as well as the heaping of earth on a burial mound.

Consequently, Watkins says, gheu– may have led to gudam, the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic term for “god.”

Moving on from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to the noun “geezer,” which is pronounced similarly in British and American English. (The only difference is in the treatment of the “r.”)

The word, which the OED dates from the late 19th century, has different meanings in the US and the UK.

The definition of “geezer” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) is typical of the meaning in US dictionaries: “An old person, especially an eccentric old man.” It’s generally described as humorous or disparaging.

But most standard British dictionaries define a “geezer” as simply a “man,” and the word is used casually much like “guy” or “bloke.”

The OED, a historical dictionary based on etymological evidence, says “geezer” is a ” term of derision applied esp. to men, usually but not necessarily elderly; a chap, fellow.” However, the definition hasn’t been fully updated since 1898.

The first example given in the OED has the phrase twice: “If we wake up the old geezers we shall get notice to quit without compensation” … “the two old geezers, as Sandy styled the landlord and his wife.”

(The lines are from an actor’s memoir, The Truth About the Stage, published in 1885 under the pseudonym Corin. Oxford mistakenly omits the “old” in the second quotation; we’ve restored it here.)

The earliest American example we’ve found is from the Oct. 18, 1889, issue of Tobacco, a weekly trade journal: “J. H. Coyne, a member of the Chicago Press Club, is responsible for the following:  ‘There was an old Geezer, / And he had a wooden leg, / And he never had Te Baky, / Eksep wot ’e kud beg.’ ”

As we said, the words “geyser” and “geezer” aren’t related. “Geezer” is thought to be adapted from “guiser,” a Scottish word first recorded in the late 1400s and meaning “one who guises” (that is, dresses up or goes in disguise) or “a masquerader, a mummer. ”

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FLAS-id or FLAK-sid?

Q: My girlfriend, an English major, tells me that I’m pronouncing “flaccid” wrong. I say FLAS-id and she says FLAK-sid. Should we call the whole thing off?

A: No, you’re both right, and (as the Gershwin song goes) you’d better call the calling off off.

The word “flaccid” (meaning soft or weak) has two pronunciations in standard dictionaries. Some list FLAS-id first and others FLAK-sid, but both are considered standard English today.

Traditionally, “flaccid” was pronounced only one way—FLAK-sid, similar to the pronunciations of other English words in which the letter combination “cc” comes before “i” or “e” (as in “accept,” “success,” and “vaccination”).

The 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by Henry W. Fowler, lists only the traditional pronunciation.

But the 2015 fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, says it can be pronounced either way, though FLAS-id “is probably more frequently heard.”

A more conservative usage guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), prefers the traditional pronunciation, but Bryan A. Garner, the author, warns readers about using the term:

“In short, the word is a kind of skunked term: pronounce it in the traditional way, and you’ll take some flak for doing so; pronounce it in the new way, and the cognoscenti will probably infer that you couldn’t spell or say cognoscenti, either.”

We think the traditionalists are fighting a losing battle. If we have to use the term, we’ll pronounce it FLAS-id, never mind the cognoscenti.

Language commentators began criticizing FLAS-id in the 19th century, as in this example from Pronouncing Handbook of Words Often Mispronounced (1873), by Richard Soule and Loomis J. Campbell: “flaccid, flak’sid, not flas’id.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples from the 18th and 19th centuries for “flaccid” misspelled as “flacid,” suggesting that it was pronounced like—and perhaps influenced by—“placid.”

Here’s an example from A Dictionary of Surgery (1796), by Benjamin Lara: “When the parts continue mortisied for a great length of time, without either turning flacid, or running into dissolution, it is called a dry gangrene.”

In fact, the misspelling is common enough now to be cited by Garner, who gives this example from a May 12, 2002, restaurant review in the New York Post:

“The succulent shellfish practically melted on the tongue, but the tempura coating was oddly flacid.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed “flaccid” from French in the early 1600s, but the ultimate sources are the classical Latin flaccidus (limp) and flaccus (flabby).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “wanting in stiffness, hanging or lying loose or in wrinkles; limber, limp; flabby.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from Via Recta ad Vitam Longam, a 1620 book about health and hygiene. The author, Tobias Venner, a physician in the English spa town of Bath, warns against the dangers of drinking milk:

“And whosoeuer shall vse to drinke milke, because that it is hurtfull to the gummes and teeth; for the one it maketh flaccide, and the other subiect to putrefaction.”

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I came, I seen, I conquered

Q: Greetings from the OC, where “I seen” is a fairly common regionalism among people of all ages, socioeconomic levels, and walks of life. As in, “I seen him in concert.” I even heard it in a radio commercial. Has “I seen” gone mainstream?

A: The use of “seen” for “saw” isn’t just an Orange County, CA, regionalism. This dialectal usage is heard in much of the US, as well as in England, Scotland, and Ireland, though it’s not at all mainstream.

The Dictionary of American Regional English describes the usage as “widespread” in the US, tersely adding that it appears “esp freq among rural speakers and those with little formal educ.”

We’ll add that some formally educated speakers—rural, urban, and suburban—may be slurring the expression “I’ve seen” so that it sounds like “I seen.”

DARE has examples from across the country or, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “From California to the New York Island, From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters.”

Similarly, the English Dialect Dictionary has many regional examples from England, as well as a few from Scotland and Ireland.

In fact, the use of “seen” as the past tense of “see” is often found in the news media. We saw several thousand examples in a search of the News on the Web corpus, a large database of reports from online newspapers, broadcasters, and magazines.

However, most mainstream examples were quoting people in the news, as in this recent one from the Oct. 16, 2017, issue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “After I seen what I seen, you know I called the police.”

And here’s an example from an Oct. 9, 2017, broadcast on the local CBS TV station in New York City: “I seen where it was going, and my friends too.”

The earliest American example in DARE is from an 1818 letter by Henry Cogswell Knight, an Episcopal clergyman in Massachusetts, about his travels in the South and West:

“Some words are used, even by genteel people, from their imperfect educations, in a new sense; and others, by the lower classes in society, pronounced very uncouthly, as … I seen.” (Knight was writing about local speech in Kentucky.)

And here’s a citation from Widow Rugby’s Husband and Other Tales of Alabama, an 1851 collection of short stories by the American humorist Johnson Jones Hooper: “That’s the last time I seen my face.”

The most recent DARE example is from a 1997 report on “coal speak” in eastern Pennsylvania: “Seen: Commonly used instead of ‘saw.’ ‘Don’t tell me yiz wasn’t dere, I seen yiz wit my own eyes!’ ”

The earliest EDD example from the British Isles cites Tom Brown at Oxford, an 1861 novel by Thomas Hughes: “I seen em.” (The novel appeared serially two years earlier in Macmillan Magazine.)

Here’s a Scottish citation from the April 3, 1899, issue of the Glasgow Herald: “Dod aye, I seen him hanged.” And this Irish example is from Mrs. Martin’s Company and Other Stories (1896), by the Irish writer Jane Barlow: “She that seen it took.”

In addition to “seen,” DARE has examples for “see” and “seed” used in place of “saw” as the past tense of “see”:

“I see him yesterday, or I see him last week, for I saw him” (from the May 16, 1781, issue of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, Philadelphia).

List of Improprieties … Seed for Saw” (from The Columbian Grammar, 1795, by Benjamin Dearborn).

EDD includes many other regional British dialectal past tenses for “see,” including “saigh,” “seed,” “seigh,” “zeed,” and “zid.”

We’ll end with a “zid” example from Desperate Remedies, an 1871 novel by Thomas Hardy: “When I zid ’em die off so.” (The novel, published anonymously, was Hardy’s first to appear in print. A rejected earlier novel was never published.)

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That’s all, ffoulkes!

Q: Why do some British surnames begin with “ff”? Is this an Anglo-Saxonism? I find “ffoulkes,” “ffarington,” “ffolliott,” and others effing peculiar.

A: No, the use of “ff” at the beginning of surnames didn’t originate in Old English, the Anglo-Saxon language spoken from roughly 450 to 1150.

The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of the British National Archives are in Middle English, spoken from about 1150 to 1500.

For instance, a 1398 petition from Robert de ffaryngton, clerk of chancery, asks King Richard II to grant his brother, Nicholas, exemption from holding any office against his will. The King granted the petition.

The National Archives description of the petition refers to the petitioner as “Robert de Faryngton (Farrington),” but the document itself spells the name “ffaryngton.”

The oldest “ff” surname we’ve seen in the archives is in a writ for release from prison, dated 1275 to 1300.

The appellant is identified by the archives as “Simon Feukz (Folke),” but the name in the writ is written as “ffoukz,” apparently an early spelling of “ffoulkes.”

We haven’t found any recent scholarship on “ff” surnames, but 19th-century paleographers (scholars of ancient handwriting) traced the usage to legal scribes in the Middle Ages.

In “The Capital Letter F In Early Chirography,” a note in the April 1893 issue of the scholarly journal Notes and Queries, Sir Edward Maunde Thompson writes that “legal handwriting of the middle ages has no capital F.”

Thompson, a paleographer as well as the chief librarian and first director of the British Museum, says, “A double f (ff) was used to represent the capital letter.”

A note in the January 1893 issue of Notes and Queries, by the philologist, paleographer, and Anglican canon Isaac Taylor, says the “ff” in Middle English legal writing of the 14th century evolved over two centuries from the Latin capital “F.”

He writes that a vertical tick on the upper horizontal bar of the Latin “F” gradually lengthened in legal writing, making it appear that there was a double “f.”

Taylor, author of The AlphabetAn Account of the Origin and Development of Letters (1883), says, “It is this elongated tick which has been mistaken for a second /f/. People who spell their names with /ff/ are merely using obsolete law hand.”

However, it’s clear to us from a survey of Middle English documents that by the 14th century legal scribes were using two distinct letters “f” joined in a ligature. (The letter “f” was also linked to “i” or “l” in ligatures.)

A contributor to the Sept. 1, 1855, issue of Notes and Queries, identified as “M. D. W.,” says “this custom prevailed amongst engrossing clerks and writers in attorneys’ offices to within the last forty years, and in some instances even later.” (Many contributions to the journal are signed with abbreviations.)

Another contributor to the Sept. 1, 1855, issue, identified as “W.,” suggests that the “ff” usage is “a corrupted form” of the capital “F” in the Old English script introduced in the 12th century.

The “F” in some versions of Old English script, also known as Blackletter, can look somewhat like two letters “F” back to back, sharing the same vertical line. Despite the name, Old English script wasn’t used in Anglo-Saxon times.

We’d add that the practice may also have been influenced by the appearance of the double “f” at the beginning of some common nouns in Middle English.

Here are a few examples from the Oxford English Dictionary and the dates of the earliest citations: “ffrendes” (sometime before 1350), “ffolk” (before 1425), “fflessh” (1400s), “ffe” (fee, 1465), and “ffurst” (1500s).

We’re speculating here, but some Middle English scribes may have used “ff” in common nouns to differentiate between the “f” and “v” pronunciations of the letter “f.”

The letter “f” had only an “f” pronunciation when it was borrowed from Latin in early Old English, but the “v” pronunciation developed around the year 700, the linguist Raimo Anttila writes in Historical and Comparative Linguistics (1989).

The letter “f” sounded like “f” most of the time in Old English, according to the OED, but “f” was pronounced like “v” when it appeared between two vowels.

So the “f” sound of wīf, Old English for a woman or female head of household, changed to a “v” sound in the plural wīfes. Similarly, the “f” sound became “v” when lif (“life”) became lifes, and hlāf (“bread” or “loaf”) became hlāfas.

And in southern England, the initial “f” sounded like “v” in the pronunciation of fæt and fyxen, “vat” and “vixen” in Old English.

In Middle English, scribes gradually began replacing the “v”-sounding letter “f” with a “u” in the middle of words. They used the letter “v” at the beginning of words.

However, “f” was sometimes used for “v” sounds, and vice versa, especially in regional speech, through much of the Middle English period, and persisted into the 16th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary cites this passage in Thomas Langley’s 1546 translation of the works of the Italian scholar Polydore Vergil:

“Euen so oure Englishmen vse to speake in Essexe, for they say fineger for vineger, feale for veale, & contrary wyse a voxe for a foxe, voure for foure, etc.”

(In modern English, the OED notes, “F is always sounded /f/, except in the word of, where it is voiced to /v/ through absence of stress.”)

In all that effing confusion, it’s not surprising that legal scribes began, for whatever reason, to use “ff” in place of capital “F.”

By the way, we’ve seen no evidence of the common belief that the use of “ff” at the beginning of surnames comes from Welsh, where “f” sounds like “v” (carafan = caravan) and “ff” like “f” (ffilm = film).

In the 1965 second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Sir Ernest Gowers notes that the “ff” in surnames evolved from a scribal symbol to a symbol of distinction.

He cites Cranford, an 1853 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, in which Mr. ffoulkes is described as someone who “looked down upon capital letters and said they belonged to lately invented families.”

It was feared that he would die a bachelor, Mrs. Gaskell writes, until he met a Mrs. ffaringdon and married her, “and it was all owing to her two little ffs.”

We’ll end with a passage from “A Slice of Life,” a 1926 short story by P. G. Wodehouse:

“Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?” said Wilfred.

“ffinch-ffarrowmere,” corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capitals.

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“Valet”: VA-lay, VA-let, va-LAY?

Q: It’s recently come to my attention that “valet” should rhyme with “mallet.” The problem is, I don’t know anyone who has this pronunciation. So how does one ask for “valet parking” properly without seeming like a contemptible snoot?

A: It’s hard to mispronounce the noun “valet.” We’ve checked nine standard dictionaries and found three acceptable pronunciations: VA-lay, VA-let, and va-LAY. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has similar pronunciations.

Some dictionaries list them in a different order and some include only two, but all three are treated as standard in several dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

Three of the dictionaries have pronunciations for “valet” used adjectivally in “valet parking.” The online Cambridge and Longman dictionaries pronounce it VA-lay, while the online Macmillan pronounces it VA-let.

If we were speaking about a manservant in an old English novel, we’d use VA-let. But if we were referring to “valet parking” at a restaurant or “valet service” at a hotel, we’d say VA-lay.

English adopted the noun “valet” in the 16th century from French and Old French. However, the ultimate source is the Old Celtic term wasso- (young man, squire), which has given us “vassal” and “varlet,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the noun was sometimes spelled “vallett” or “valett,” suggesting that the French pronunciation of valet had been Anglicized, with an audible “t” sound at the end.

However, OED citations show that some English speakers began dropping the “t” sound in the 1700s and 1800s, first in Scotland and then in England.

By the mid-1800s, multiple pronunciations were standard, according to Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language.

The 1862 edition of the dictionary, by Francis R. Sowerby, includes these three pronunciations: VAL-et, VAL-lay, and va-LET.

When the noun showed up in English, according to the OED, it meant a “man-servant performing duties chiefly relating to the person of his master; a gentleman’s personal attendant.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from Certaine Tragicall Discourses, the English statesman Geoffrey Fenton’s 1567 translation of works by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello: “Not worthy any waye to be valet to the worste of us.”

This 1791 example of a “t”-less pronunciation is from the Scottish poet William Hamilton’s Epistles to his fellow poet Allan Ramsay: “I wad nae care to be thy vallie, / Or thy recorder.”

And here’s an example from Richard Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends (1840) in which “valet” rhymes with “Sally”:

“Thompson, the Valet, / Look’d gravely at Sally.” (Barham, an Anglican cleric, wrote the humorous ghost stories under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby.)

The first OED example for “valet service” is from Some Buried Caesar (1939), a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout: “You should have put on some old clothes. The valet service here is terrible.” (The “Caesar” of the title is a champion Guernsey bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon.)

The first Oxford citation for “valet parking” is from the The Britannica Book of the Year (1955): “Valet parking … referred to a system in which an attendant was responsible for parking the car.” The OED describes the usage as North American.

The dictionary also has citations for the verbs “valet” (1840, to wait upon or serve) and “valet-park” (1983).

We’ll end with an example of the verb used in its “manservant” sense: “Fancy me waited upon and valeted by a stout party in black, of quiet, gentlemanly manners” (from Tom Brown at Oxford, an 1861 novel by Thomas Hughes). We’d pronounce the past participle here as VAL-et-ed.

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An “ough,” already

Q: My son recently asked me why “-ough” words (like “ought,” “tough,” and “though”) are pronounced so differently. Can you help?

A: The combination of “gh” after vowels (or vowel pairs) has given English a lot of odd-looking spellings, including those of the “-ough” words your son has asked about.

The short answer is that these peculiar spellings represent people’s attempts in the past to write words the way they sounded. Eventually spellings were standardized, but pronunciations kept evolving. This is why many words don’t look the way they sound.

We’ve written about this occasionally on our blog. In a 2009 post, for example, we note that “daughter” and “laughter” once rhymed.

In fact, “daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter”), and DAW-ter.

The Middle English letter combination “gh” after vowels is now pronounced like “f” (as in “cough,” “trough,” “laugh,” “enough”) or not at all (“slaughter,” “daughter,” “ought,” “through”).

As we say in the earlier post, “Much of our modern spelling had its foundation in the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500). But in the late Middle English and early Modern English period (roughly 1350 to 1550), the pronunciation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval.”

Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift. While the pronunciations of many words changed dramatically, their spellings remained largely the same. That’s because printing, which was introduced into England in the late 1400s, helped retain and standardize those older spellings.

As for those “-ough” words, Robert Heinlein strings six of them together in The Door Into Summer (1956). In the novel, an inventor comments on the “illogicalities” of “a language in which you could say: ‘Though the tough cough and hiccough plough him through.’ ”

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How ‘Mrs.’ became ‘missus’

Q: Your recent post about “Mr.” and “mister” aroused my curiosity about “Mrs.” and “missus.”

A: The story begins with the word “mistress,” which English adopted in the 1300s from words in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, as we noted in 2013.

The courtesy title “Mrs.” showed up in the late 1400s as a shortening of “mistress,” which meant a woman in authority or a female head of a household.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “Mrs.” as a “title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a married woman having no higher or professional title, often with her first name, or that of her husband.”

The first example in the OED is from a 1485 entry in the churchwardens’ accounts for the London parish of St. Mary at Hill:

“Item, a pyx [box] clothe of sipers [Cyprus] frenged with grene sylke and red … of Mres. Sucklyng’s gyfte.” (The bracketed definitions are ours.)

From the 15th to the 18th century, the abbreviation was variously spelled “Mres.,” “Mris.,” and “Mrs.” (Like “Mr.,” it sometimes appeared with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.)

At first, writers used either the abbreviation or the full courtesy title, as in a 1463 will cited by the OED in which the testator bequeaths to “maistresse Clopton a spoon of berell” (beryl).

As with “Mr.,” the title “Mrs.” was originally a “graphic abbreviation” and later developed “a distinct spoken realization,” according to the OED.

It’s unclear when “Mrs.” began being pronounced, though the pronunciation apparently evolved proclitically (from “mistress” to “missis”), similar to that of “Mr.” (from “master” to “mister”). A proclitic is a word that changes as it attaches itself to the following word.

By the end of the 18th century, “Mrs.” was being pronounced much the way it is today.

In his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, John Walker writes that “Mrs.” as “a title of civility” should be pronounced “missis,” and that to pronounce the word as “mistress” would “appear quaint and pedantick.”

At the end of the 19th century, the predominant pronunciations were “misis” and “misiz,” as Joseph Wright notes in The English Dialect Dictionary, published from 1898 to 1905.

“The contracted pronunciation became, for the prefixed title, first a permitted colloquial licence, and ultimately the only allowable pronunciation,” the OED explains. “When this stage was reached, Mrs. became a distinct word from mistress. As to the chronology of these changes evidence is lacking.”

Although the pronunciation of “Mrs.” as MISS-uz or MISS-us has been standard since the late 18th century, the use of “missis” or “missus” as spelled-out words for a married woman is considered regional or colloquial, according to Oxford.

When the spoken form first appeared in writing in the late 1700s, it was spelled “missess.”

In the 1800s, it appeared variously as “mizzes,” “mis’ess,” “mis’s,” “misses,” “missis,” and finally “missus.”

C. T. Onions, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, describes “missis” or “missus” as a “slurred pronunc.” of “mistress” and the “oral equivalent” of “Mrs.”

The earliest written example in the OED  is from Manners and Customs in the West India Islands (1790), by J. B. Moreton: “Then missess fum me wid long switch.” (The citation is from a Jamaican song about slavery.)

The next example is from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “The servant of all work, who, under the plea of sleeping very soundly, has utterly disregarded ‘Missis’s’ ringing for half an hour.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Finally, you didn’t ask, but we should mention that the title “Miss” (prefixed to the name of a girl or unmarried woman) is also a shortened form of “mistress.”

The first Oxford example is from a March 7, 1667, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Little Mis Davis did dance a Jigg after the end of the play.”

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How ‘master’ became ‘mister’

Q: I wonder how “master” became “mister,” and why “master” refers to a young man, and “mister” to an older man. Can you enlighten me?

A: We discussed the origin of “master” on the blog in 2015, but we’ll summarize it here to set the stage for the appearance of “mister” and the evolution of “master” as a term for a boy or young man.

The term “master” (spelled mægstermagester, or magister in Old English) was borrowed from Latin, where a magister was a chief, head, director, or superintendent.

The “master” spelling gradually evolved in late Old English and Middle English after the Norman Conquest, influenced by the Anglo-Norman spellings maistre and mastre.

When the word first appeared in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a person (predominantly, a man) having authority, direction or control over the action of another or others.”

The dictionary’s first written citation is from King Ælfred’s Old English translation in the late 800s of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I, commonly known in English as Pastoral Care:

“Ðonne he gemette ða scylde ðe he stieran scolde, hrædlice he gecyðde ðæt he wæs magister & ealdormonn” (“When he saw the sin that he should punish, he showed that he was master and lord”).

In late Old English and early Middle English, “master” was also a title prefixed to a man’s surname or first name, initially for men in the gentry and later for men in general.

The earliest example in the OED is from the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon writing at the Exeter Cathedral Library.

An undated Exeter document, perhaps written in the late 10th or early 11th century, refers to “mestre Odo, & mestre Leowines.”

The next citation is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Maister nichole of guldeforde, / He is wis and war [wary] of worde.” (We inserted the bracketed definition.)

In late Middle English, people began using “Mr.,” an abbreviated version of “master,” as a title “prefixed to the surname or first name of a man without a higher, honorific, or professional title,” according to the OED.

The abbreviation sometimes appeared  with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.

The first Oxford example is from Letters and Papers of John Shillingford, Mayor of Exeter 1447-50, edited by Stuart Archibald Moore in 1871. The citation, dated sometime before 1449, uses “Maister” and “Mr.” as titles:

“Maister John Gorewyll Maister John Waryn Mr William Filham Sr Richard Kelyer and other som tyme chanons of þe [the] said churche.”

(We’ve gone to the original document to expand the citation, and we’ve added the bracketed definition.)

Initially, the OED says, “Mr.” was an unspoken “graphic abbreviation,” but it later developed “a distinct spoken realization.”

When people began speaking it, “Mr.” was pronounced like “master,” but “from the 16th cent. it was, at least in rapid or careless speech, treated proclitically, with consequent alteration of the vowel of the first syllable,” according to the dictionary.

By “proclitically,” the OED means that the pronunciation of “Mr.” gradually evolved from “master” to “mister” over the 16th and 17th centuries as the term attached itself to the following word.

“Hence at the beginning of the 18th cent. master and Mr were already regarded as distinct words,” the OED says, and “mister” was “merely an occasional rendering of the pronunciation of the word of which ‘Mr’ is the accepted spelling.”

When the word represented by “Mr.” first showed up in writing in the early 1500s, according to OED citations, it was spelled “myster,” which probably reflected the way the term was pronounced at the time.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1523 entry in the Account Book of the Hospital of St. John, Canterbury, 1510–1556:

“Paied to a carpenter by grete for mendyng of Myster Collettis house.”

The first written example in the OED for the word spelled “mister” is from a March 15, 1642, letter by the wife of the mayor of Waterford, Ireland, during the Irish Confederate Wars:

“This passadge of Mister Richard Buttler hapened the day affter the Twelve Day.”

While “mister” was developing in the 16th century as a prefixed title for a man, the dictionary says, the word “master” took on a new sense, “as a prefix to the name of a boy or young man not considered old enough to be called ‘Mr.’ ”

At first, the child’s title was often expanded to “little master” or “young master,” especially when used by servants in referring to the children of the gentry or nobility.

For example, the OED cites a reference to “yonge mayster Dauyd” in The Answere to the Fyrst Parte of the Poysened Booke, a 1533 religious tract by Thomas More.

And this example, without a modifier, is from a letter written around the same time to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII, by Henry Dowes, tutor to Cromwell’s son Gregory:

“It pleased your Maistershipp to give me in charge not onlie to give diligent attendaunce uppon Maister Gregory, but also to instructs hime w’t good letters, honeste maners, pastymes of Instruments, and such other qualities as sholde be for hime mete [fitting] and conveniente.”

(We’ve expanded the OED citation to get in more of the interesting letter, and added the bracketed definition.)

The dictionary notes that “master” took on this juvenile sense “subsequent to the phonetic separation of mister,” though apparently before the word “mister” actually appeared in writing.

Once “mister” was established as a courtesy title for a man, “master” was free to take on the new role of a courtesy title for a boy.

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Isn’t that a coinkydink?

Q: A delightful teenager in my life just texted the word “coinkydink.” I used this term for a coincidence at her age (circa 1975). Any idea when it was coined? I have a vague memory of hearing it in some old black and white movie.

A: The earliest example we’ve found for “coinkydink” (often spelled and pronounced “kawinkydink”) is from the June 1952 issue of Trolley Topics, a publication of the San Francisco Municipal Railway. The term appears in an “Office News” item about trolley employees:

“Just after bowling his massive 696 series in the Association sweepstakes, Jimmy ‘The Arm’ Dickinson reached into his wallet for a look at a raffle ticket that he holds. Lo and behold, the number it bore was 696 also! A charming ‘coinkydink,’ as Jim Pagee says.”

The Random House Dictionary of American Slang describes “coinkydink” as an “intentional malapropism” used jocularly to mean a coincidence. (A malapropism, as we wrote on the blog in 2007, is an unintentionally comic misuse of a word.)

The earliest example for “coinkydink” in Random House is from a 1969 episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC-TV: “Isn’t that a coinkydink?” This may have been the source of your vague memory of having heard it in an old movie.

We haven’t found “coinkydink” (also spelled “coinkidink” and “kwinkydink”) in any standard dictionary, though readers have submitted the term to Merriam-Webster Online‘s Open Dictionary as well as to the collaborative Urban Dictionary. And the popular online reference Wiktionary describes it as a “jocular alteration of coincidence.”

The use of “coinkydink” for “coincidence” is sometimes referred to as “eye dialect,” though that term (coined by the language scholar George P. Krapp in 1925) usually refers to the literary use of a nonstandard spelling to indicate the pronunciation of a poorly educated speaker.

The lexicographer Grant Barrett, in an April 2, 2008, post entitled “Saying it wrong on purpose,” says he and his wife, a linguist, often mispronounce words deliberately, as do many other English speakers.

“People speak that way because saying a word wrong on purpose is a form of wordplay,” he writes. “It adds variety, colour, and whimsy to our speech. It’s a common characteristic of slang, which is partly built upon fooling around.”

Barrett says he and his wife “sometimes say chimbly instead of ‘chimney,’ fambly instead of ‘family,’ and liberry instead of ‘library,’ ” among other deliberate mispronunciations.

“Many Americans also say coinkydink instead of coincidence,” he adds. “It’s sometimes spelled kwinkydink or kawinkydink and is almost always used in a light-hearted or goofy way. It refers to when two or more things happen in the same way, at the same time, at the same place, or to the same people in a way that is surprising. Although you know they’re not related, they seem to be. Coinkydinks are interesting but unimportant.”

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Does Sam Weller speak cockney?

Q: I’ve read that Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers is supposed to be a cockney. But the main peculiarities of his speech (using “v” where there should be a “w,” and “w” where there should be a “v”) doesn’t sound like any cockney accent I’ve heard.

A: You’re right. The dialect spoken by Sam Weller in the novel, which Charles Dickens originally published as a serial in 1836-37, is different from the cockney spoken in London now.

In fact, it’s different from the cockney spoken 40 years later, when George Bernard Shaw arrived in London. But as Shaw came to learn, Sam Weller’s dialect was indeed cockney.

In an explanatory note about the cockney used by Frederick Drinkwater, a character in his 1900 stage comedy Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Shaw writes:

“When I came to London in 1876, the Sam Weller dialect had passed away so completely that I should have given it up as a literary fiction if I had not discovered it surviving in a Middlesex village, and heard of it from an Essex one.”

Shaw adds that he used the Drinkwater character to educate people about how cockney was really spoken at the turn of the century.

“So I have taken the liberty of making a special example of him, as far as that can be done without a phonetic alphabet, for the benefit of the mass of readers outside London who still form their notions of cockney dialect on Sam Weller.”

In Shaw’s play, Drinkwater pronounces “v” and “w” normally, and speaks with many of the characteristics of modern cockney, such as pronouncing “lady” as LIE-dy, “ever hear” as HEV-er EAR, and “likely” as LOI-kly.

Shaw uses an “aw” instead of “oi” to render the cockney “likely” in his script, but he’s apparently referring to the same sound. “This aw for i, which I have made Drinkwater use, is the latest stage of the old diphthongal oi,” Shaw writes.

In Cockney Past and Present (2015), which traces the evolution of the dialect from the 16th century to modern times, William Matthews indicates that the use of “v” for “w” and “w” for “v” were features of cockney at least as far back as the 1700s.

He notes that the educator James Elphinston, who translated the odes of Martial into English in 1782, used one of the Roman writer’s odes to illustrate the cockney speech of Elphinston’s time. Here are the opening lines:

Ve have at length resoom’d our place,
And can, vith doo distinction, set;
Nor ve, the great and wulgar met.
Ve dooly can behould the play,
Sence ve in no confusion lay.

Matthews points out several other literary examples of “v” and “w” swapping from the 1700s and 1800s.

In The Waterman, a 1774 opera by the British composer and dramatist Charles Dibdin, the cockney character Tom Tugg pronounces “w” in the usual way, but “v” comes out as “w” when he says “you’ll never catch me at your Cupids and Wenisses.”

And in Fanny Burney’s 1796 novel Camilla, the cockney actor playing Othello pronounces “w” as “v,” and “v” as “w,” but not every “v” is transformed: “I vil a round unwarnish’d tale deliver.”

As we’ve written many times on the blog, the English of yesterday isn’t the English of today, and today’s English won’t be tomorrow’s. The same is true of English dialects.

However, literary cockney isn’t necessarily the same as the cockney spoken on the streets. Writers pick and choose whichever sounds of speech serve their fiction best.

In Dickens’s Pickwick, for example, Sam is much more likely to use “w” for “v” than “v” for “w,” and sometimes both letters are pronounced the usual way. Here are a few examples of Sam’s speech (minus the interpolations):

“Wy, that’s just the wery point as nobody never know’d” … “They von’t be long, Sir, I des-say” … “Yes every man slept vere he fell down” … “Vell all I can say is, that I vish you may get it.”

And here’s an example written around the same time, from Renton Nicholson’s Cockney Adventures (1837-38): “We went in a wan cowered all over with bows, and I vos dressed as smart as a new pin.”

It’s clear that cockney speakers did once pronounce “v” as “w,” and “w” as “v,” but not necessarily in the precise way Sam Weller renders them. Dickens was a novelist, after all, not a phonologist.

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Words of prey

Q: As a birdwatcher in Florida, it grates on my  ears to hear the town of Osprey referred to as OSS-pree. The bird’s name rhymes with “prey,” which works since the Osprey is a bird of prey. Why does the town’s name rhyme with “spree,” as in a shopping spree?

A: The bird’s name literally means “bird of prey,” so we can see why you assume the last syllable should sound like the word “prey.”

But the usual American pronunciation of the bird’s name rhymes with “spree,” so the townspeople of Osprey aren’t guilty of any disrespect to this wonderful bird.

The word apparently came into English in the late Middle Ages from the French ospreit, which was derived from post-classical Latin avis prede (“bird of prey”).

It was first recorded in English, spelled “hospray,” about 1450, the OED says. The “h” soon disappeared, as in this citation: “Every goos, teele, Mallard, Ospray, & also swanne.” (From John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, written sometime before 1475.)

Shakespeare mentions the bird in his tragedy Coriolanus (possibly 1605-08): “I think he’ll be to Rome / As is the Aspray to the fish, who takes it / By sovereignty of nature.”

The “osprey” spelling didn’t become the norm until around the mid-18th century, according to OED citations.

The bird is defined in the OED as “a large, long-winged, dark brown and white bird of prey” whose taxonomic name is Pandion haliaetus. It lives principally on fish—both marine and freshwater—and is found almost worldwide.

Getting back to how “osprey” sounds, the OED says it’s pronounced differently in Britain and in the US. In British English it’s OSS-pray, while in American English it’s OSS-pree.

The online Cambridge Dictionary, published in Britain, also gives OSS-pray as the British pronunciation and OSS-pree as the American.

Three standard American dictionaries—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.)—give both pronunciations, listing OSS-pree first and OSS-pray second. They use OSS-pree for their online pronouncers.

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Prix fixe or prefix menu?

Q: A “prefix” menu? I’ve been seeing a lot of this. Since “prix fixe” is so pretentious, I’m inclined to let them get away with it, especially now that England has severed ties with Europe. It’s an opportunity to de-Francify the lingo. Nu?

A: In English, as you know, “prix fixe” refers to a fixed-price meal of several courses. In French, however, prix fixe is a more general term that refers to products sold at a fixed price, such as ball bearings, petroleum, taxi rides, and food.

Here’s an example from a French energy website: Avantages et inconvénients des offres de gaz à prix fixes” (“Advantages and disadvantages of gas offers at fixed prices”).

Although a bill of fare that includes several courses at a fixed price can be referred to as a menu à prix fixe in France, it usually appears on a restaurant’s list of offerings as simply a menu or a formule at a specific price

For example (as of this writing), Restaurant La Marée at the port of Grandcamp Maisy in the Calvados region has a  three-course Menu à 27 euros. And Le Petit Prince de Paris has a two-course Formule à 18 euros.

Similarly, Les Toqués du Coin in Strasbourg has a two-course, 15.50-euro special called Menu de la semaine, while Les Ombres, the restaurant at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, calls its three-course lunch Formule Déjeuner un Billet > 51,00 € TTC (the price includes taxes and a ticket to the museum).

So how should we spell and pronounce a term like “prix fixe” that’s borrowed from French but has a life of its own in English? Just the way English speakers generally spell it and pronounce it.

It’s the job of lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, to determine standard spellings and pronunciations. All the dictionaries we regularly consult use the French spelling for the term, and all but one of them use only the French pronunciation: PREE-FEEKS (with equal stresses on the syllables).

The exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which also includes the Anglicized PREE-FIKS as a standard pronunciation.

We suspect that many English speakers prefer the French pronunciation because they mistakenly believe that “prix fixe” is the usual term for a meal at a fixed price on menus in France.

It’s not surprising, though, that various Anglicized spellings and pronunciations have shown up. We wouldn’t be shocked to see the PREE-FIKS pronunciation included in more dictionaries, but we don’t expect “prefix” or any of the other variant spellings to become standard in the near future.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to find “prefix” menus online and off, such as the “3 Course Prefix Menu” at Bistro Milano in Manhattan.

In a March 16, 2005, contribution to the Eggcorn Database, a collection of misconstrued word or phrase substitutes, the linguist Arnold Zwicky lists such “prix fixe” spelling variants as “pre-fix,” “pre-fixe,” “prefixe,” “pre-fixed,” and “prefixed.”

Zwicky drily describes “pre-fixe” as a “slightly Frenchier” version of “pre-fix.”

And an April 29, 2013, contribution to the related Eggcorn Forum cites this Facebook comment:  “A neighborhood restaurant advertises a ‘prefix’ dinner. Would that include ante-pasto, sub-sandwiches, and semi-cola?”

If you’d like to see some of the variant spellings in the wild, check out these photos in a July 16, 2015, posting to Tumblr.

The English writer Jeanette Winterson once asked a man working at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York why the signboard in front offered a “Pre Fix Menu.”

In a July 11, 2006, entry on her website, she gives his explanation: “ ‘We fix the Specials of the Day every morning,’ he explained, ‘but before we fix those, we fix the set menu of the day, so that’s why it’s called a Pre Fix.’ ”

“So now you know,” Winterson adds with a wink.

We’ll leave it at that, and go on to the etymology of “prix fixe.”

When English borrowed it a century and a half ago, the French phrase meant “fixed-price meal in a restaurant,” according to the OED. That’s still the meaning in English, though the term now has a wider meaning in French.

The dictionary defines “prix fixe” in English today as “a meal served in a hotel or restaurant at a fixed price, typically including several courses” and occasionally “the selection of dishes available for a fixed price.”

At first, “prix fixe” was italicized in English to show its foreign origins, and it’s sometimes still written that way.

The earliest Oxford citation is from the September 1851 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “We had experienced dinners both princely and penurious … and even with unparalleled hardihood had ventured into the regions of the prix-fixe.”

The dictionary’s next example is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of San Francisco in an 1883 issue of the Magazine of Art, an illustrated British periodical:

“You taste the food of all nations in the various restaurants; passing from a French prix-fixe, where every one is French, to a roaring German ordinary where every one is German.”

The OED describes “prix fixe” as a noun that’s frequently used attributively—that is, adjectivally. The dictionary says it’s the same as “a table d’hôte meal” and the opposite of a meal that’s “à la carte.”

We’d add that “table d’hôte” (like “prix fixe”) has different meanings in French and English. In English, “table d’hôte” refers to a restaurant meal at a fixed price, while in French it usually refers to shared dining at a guest house or bed and breakfast.

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And, voilà, “wallah”!

Q: I’ve noticed the increasing use of “wallah” for “voilà” in speech and writing. I suppose this because Americans are ignorant of other languages, and so use an American English pronunciation and spelling  for foreign-sourced words.

A: None of the standard US and UK dictionaries we usually consult include the “wallah” (or “walla”) spelling or pronunciation for the interjection.

The dictionaries spell it only two ways, “voilà” or “voila.” Some list the accented version first and some list it second. The pronunciation given is roughly vwa-LA, with an audible “v.”

We also couldn’t find a reference to the use of “wallah” for “voilà” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary with extensive etymologies.

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes “wallah” as an “informal” alternative form for “voila” and “voilà,” though it doesn’t give any examples.

Of course, standard dictionaries do have entries for “wallah,” a word of Hindi origin for someone involved in a particular occupation or activity, such as an “ice-cream wallah” or a “kitchen wallah.” That word is pronounced WAH-la.

The use of “wallah” for “voilà” seems to have shown up in print in the late 1990s. (A reader of the blog recalls hearing it in speech in Indiana in the 1960s and ’70s.)

In the earliest written example that we’ve found, the writer is clearly aware of at least one standard spelling, and he is using “wallah” humorously,

Here’s the quotation, from an Aug. 6, 1997, comment on a woodworking website about how to calculate the weight of hard maple from its specific gravity:

“The ‘specific gravity’ of materials is their weight divided by the weight of 1 cubic foot of water (which weighs 62.4 lbs/cubic foot). Voila (that’s ‘wallah’)!, so 0.63 X 62.4 = 39.3.”

And here’s an example, from a comment on a Dodge discussion group, followed by a correction from another commenter:

“Pull the cummins and install a powerstroke…Wallah!!!”

“thats ‘Voila’ to most of us.”

In early 2006, the use of “wallah” for “voilà” came to the attention of the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

The forum’s first of several “wallah”-vs.-“voila” threads began with this Jan. 5, 2006, comment: “As in, ‘be sure to beat the eggs thoroughly before you add them to the pan, and wallah! Your omelette will be perfect!’ ”

And here’s a Dec. 21, 2006, comment: “My best guess on the v > w change is that the w in the French (vwala) weakens the v to the point where it may be more like a beta, and then the process continues to drop the v entirely.”

In other words, some English speakers are Anglicizing the French word by dropping the “v” sound at the beginning of the usual vwa-LA pronunciation.

If that explanation is true, then “wallah” and wa-LA would be spelling and pronunciation variants rather than true eggcorns (word phrase substitutions).

In an Oct. 23, 2007, posting on the Language Log, the linguist Arnold Zwicky offers a “reflection on why ear spellings should be so likely for this word.”

“If you’ve heard the word, you probably know how to use it in sentences, but if you haven’t seen it in print (or don’t remember having seen it in print, or didn’t realize that the spelling ‘voilà’ represented this particular word), you’re in trouble,” Zwicky writes.

You’re supposed to look up words if you don’t know their spellings, he says, “but where do you look in this case?”

“If you don’t know French, or don’t recognize the French origin of the word, what would possess you to look under VOI in a dictionary, especially if your pronunciation of the word begins with /w/?”

Zwicky adds parenthetically that he thinks wa-LA “is the most common current pronunciation, at least for people who aren’t ‘putting on,’ or at least approximating, French.”

Over the years, contributors to the Eggcorn Forum have suggested several other theories about the source of the “wallah” spelling and wa-LA pronunciation. Perhaps the most interesting (and we think least likely) is that “wallah” comes from a similar-sounding modern Hebrew exclamation of surprise or delight. [A reader writes on Aug. 10, 2016, that in Arabic it means “I swear to God” or “Really!”]

As for the etymology of “voilà” itself, English borrowed it in the 18th century from French (the imperative of voir, to see, plus , there).

The earliest example in the OED is from an April 12, 1739, letter by the English poet Thomas Gray: “The minute we came, voila Milors Holdernesse, Conway, and his brother.”

Voilà!

[Note: This post was updated on April 5, 2018.]

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From “housewife” to “hussy”

Q: As you may know, the word “housewife” refers (in addition to a June Cleaver wannabe) to a sewing kit, also called a “hussif” or a “hussy.” But how did “hussy” come to mean a woman of some flamboyance (my definition)?

A: Yes, “housewife” is (or rather was) another word for a sewing kit. (Our acquaintance with such domestic trivia is what comes of reading old British novels.)

The sewing-kit sense of “housewife,” a meaning that originated in the mid-18th century, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a small case or pouch for needles, thread, and other small sewing items.”

This often took the form of “a length of soft fabric, divided into pockets, that may be rolled up when not in use,” the OED adds.

There’s no explanation as to why a sewing kit was called a “housewife,” but the answer seems obvious—it contained items used by a housewife.

Perhaps for a similar reason, another word for the mistress of a household, “chatelaine,” was used in the 19th century to mean a bunch of decorative chains worn at a woman’s waist, for holding things like keys, ornaments, a watch, and small sewing articles.

The OED’s earliest citation for “housewife” to mean a sewing kit is from Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), a compendium of true-crime stories.

In this passage, a thief has surreptitiously cut the pocket from a woman’s skirts: “Upon turning the Pocket out, he found only a Thread Paper, a Housewife, and a Crown piece.”

The word for the sewing kit, as well as for the woman who used it, was also written as “huswife,” “hussive,” “hussif,” and even “hussy,” spellings that reflected alterations in the pronunciation.

Oxford provides an example of “hussy” used this way in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740): “So I … dropt purposely my Hussy.”

And here’s a citation for “hussif,” from a 19th-century collection of regionalisms:

Hussif, that is house-wife; a roll of flannel with a pin-cushion attached, used for the purpose of holding pins, needles, and thread.” (From Edward Peacock’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, 1877.) 

You asked how “hussy” got its bad reputation. It’s a long story, so we’ll begin at the beginning.

The word “housewife” was spelled “husewif” when it showed up in Sawles Warde, an early Middle English homily written around 1200:

“Inwið beoð his hinen in se moni mislich þonc to cwemen wel þe husewif aȝein godes wille” (“Indoors, both his servants have a great many miserable thoughts about how to please the housewife against God’s will”).

The OED says “housewife” originally meant pretty much what it does today: “A (typically married) woman whose main occupation is managing the general running of a household, such as caring for her family, performing domestic tasks, etc.”

However, the dictionary has this interesting note: “There is some evidence that in Middle English the word housewife in the general sense ‘housekeeper’ could be applied to both men and women.”

For example, a 1416 description of the duties of the housekeeper at a poorhouse, the OED notes, refers to the “husewyfe, man or woman.”

And the word was apparently used as a surname too, Oxford adds, pointing to names like “Richard Husewif” (1192), “Richard Huswyf” (1302), and “Johannes Hosewyfe” (1327).

But getting back to the feminine sphere, we mentioned earlier that “housewife” was spelled and pronounced many different ways, including “hussif,” “hussive,” and “hussy.” And for centuries the variations generally meant the same thing, the female head of a household.

For example, when when “hussy” first showed up in the early 1500s, it meant the “mistress of a household” or “a thrifty woman,” according to the OED. The first citation is from a 1530 entry in the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh:

“Na seruandis [shall] tak vther clathis than thar masteris and husseis and thar houshaldis clathis to wesche” (“No servants shall take other clothes to wash than the clothes of their masters and hussies and households”).

But in the mid-16th century, “housewife” (in various spellings and pronunciations) took on an additional, pejorative meaning: a “frivolous, impertinent, or disreputable” woman or girl, according to the OED.

Here’s a negative example from a 1546 collection of proverbs by John Heywood: “Ye huswife, what wind blowth ye hyther.”

And here’s one from a 1599 letter by Hugh Broughton: “Sampsons heyfer was his wife, a skittish huswife.”

“Hussy” first took on this pejorative sense in the 1600s, when it came to mean a disreputable woman.

The OED’s earliest negative example is from the writings of the English clergyman and theologian John Trapp (1647): “Such another hussy as this was dame Alice Pierce, a concubine to our Edward III.”

The development of positive and negative senses for “housewife” and its variations led to differences in how these words were pronounced and spelled.

When using the words in a pejorative sense, English speakers frequently pronounced the first syllable as HUSS, the OED says.

As a result, the dictionary suggests, speakers using the words positively began pronouncing the first syllable as HOWSE to differentiate between the positive and the negative meanings.

It took several hundred years, but when the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings sorted themselves out, English had two words: “housewife” (a female head of a household) and “hussy” (a brazen or promiscuous woman).

It wasn’t until the 19th century, the OED says, that the modern HOWSE pronunciation of “housewife” became the norm in pronouncing dictionaries and its derogatory meanings became extinct.

By that time, “housewife” and “hussy” had gone their separate ways. “Housewife” retained the purely domestic meanings while “hussy” had all the fun, keeping only its disreputable character.

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Sizing up YOOGE

Q: Is the Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE strictly a New York thing?

A: The usual pronunciation of “huge” is HYOOGE, according to most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked. The “hy” sound at the beginning is a consonant cluster that combines the sounds produced by the letters “h” and “y.”

In the pronunciation you’re asking about, the “hy” sound at the beginning of “huge” is reduced to a “y” sound, resulting in the variant YOOGE.

Several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), accept the YOOGE pronunciation as an equal variant alongside HYOOGE.

However, the Dictionary of American Regional English says YOOGE occurs primarily in New York City and Long Island, NY, though it’s also heard in some other parts of the East Coast.

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, which linguists generally use in referring to these sounds, the “hy” cluster is written as /hj/ and the “y” sound as /j/.

Phoneticians, linguists that specialize in the sounds of speech, would say that the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the consonant cluster /hj/ is replaced by the phoneme /j/ when someone pronounces “huge” as YOOGE (judʒ in the IPA alphabet).

This process is similar to what linguists refer to as glide cluster reduction, in which the “wh” cluster (originally spelled “hw”) is reduced to “w” in words like “which,” “whether,” and “where.” We wrote about such “wh” words in our recent post about “h”-dropping.

To keep things as simple as possible here, we’ll use “hy” and “y” for the /hj/ and /j/ sounds, except when we quote linguists or lexicographers using the IPA alphabet.

The earliest evidence in DARE for the YOOGE pronunciation is from the early 1940s, but we suspect that the pronunciation is much older, perhaps dating back to the 1700s, and may have been more widespread.

The dictionary’s first citation for YOOGE is from a 1942 issue of the journal American Speech: “NYC, Long Island, Omission of initial [h] before [ju] … huge … This is a somewhat greater loss of [h] than in upstate speech.”

However, DARE has a much earlier example indicating that the word “humor” (now usually pronounced HYOO-mur) was pronounced YOO-mur in American English in the late 18th century.

In Dissertations on the English Language (1789), Noah Webster criticizes the pronunciation of “human, and about twenty other words beginning with h, as tho they were spelt yuman. This is a gross error.”

Webster doesn’t list the 20 other words, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they included “huge.”

Interestingly, Webster adds that the word “humor” should begin with a “y” sound: “The only word that begins with this sound, is humor, with its derivatives.” In other words, he considered the YOO-mur pronunciation of “humor” to be standard English.

In a footnote, Webster singles out for criticism the Scottish lexicographer William Perry, author of The Royal Standard English Dictionary (1775), which says “human” should be “pron. as if began with a y.”

“I am surprized that his pronunciation has found so many advocates in this country, as there is none more erroneous,” Webster says.

It’s apparent from Webster’s remarks that the “hy” pronunciation of “humor” and some similar words was unsettled in the late 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic, probably because of the difficulty some people had in pronouncing the cluster.

In fact, several 18th-century British language authorities agreed with Webster that “humor“ (“humour” in the British spelling) should be pronounced YOO-mur.

In An Essay Towards Establishing a Standard for an Elegant and Uniform Pronunciation of the English Language (1766), for example, James Buchanan endorses the YOO-mur pronunciation, as does John Walker in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791).

Several readers of our blog have asked if the pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (both native New Yorkers) is similar to the “h”-dropping in cockney, the working-class speech of England.

We don’t think so. In cockney, the “h” sound disappears and is not replaced by anything (as in “house” reduced to OUSE). In the New Yorkish pronunciation of “huge,” the consonant cluster “hy” is replaced by a “y” sound.

If the “h” in “huge” were a normal consonant, the word would be pronounced HOOGE, and dropping the “h” would result in the pronunciation OOGE. That’s not what is happening here.

Interestingly, people speaking the Norfolk dialect in England do change the “hy” sound in “huge” to “h,” resulting in the pronunciation HOOGE. Linguists refer to this phenomenon as yod-dropping, from the name of the Hebrew version of the letter “y.”

In fact, yod-dropping is heard on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s more common in the US and helps differentiate standard American pronunciation from Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent.

Most Americans, for example, usually pronounce “tune” and “news” as TOON and NOOZ, while someone speaking RP pronounces them TYOON and NYOOZ. (In parts of the American South, people also say TYOON and NYOOZ, as we’ve written on the blog.)

We could go on—and on and on. There’s much to be said about yod-dropping, an ongoing process that the linguist John C. Wells dates from the early 18th century, but we’ll leave that for another day.

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A “bona fide” pronunciation?

Q: A supercilious acquaintance looked down his nose at me when I pronounced “bona fide” as BOH-nuh-fied. He says the authentic pronunciation of this phrase borrowed from Latin should be boh-nuh-FEE-day. How would YOU pronounce it?

A: Like you, we say BOH-nuh-fied, as do most Americans. Your snooty friend’s pronunciation may be heard in Latin classes, but it isn’t found in English dictionaries in either the US or the UK.

The two most common English pronunciations of “bona fide,” according to the six standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, are BOH-nuh-fied (the end rhymes with “fried”), and boh-nuh-FYE-dee (the end rhymes with “tidy”).

The three-syllable version is more common in the US. In fact, it’s the default audible pronunciation given online by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

To hear it, go to their sites and click on the little loudspeaker icons.

The four-syllable pronunciation is standard in the UK, according to all the British dictionaries we’ve checked. To hear it, go to the UK English version of Oxford Dictionaries online.

Although the three-syllable pronunciation is more common in the US, American dictionaries also accept the four-syllable version, as well as some less common variations. The first vowel can also sound like the “o” in “bonnet,” for example. And the final vowel in the four-syllable version can sound like the “e” in “the.”

But while boh-nuh-FYE-dee is accepted by American dictionaries, it may not be advisable.

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), it’s “pedantic outside the law and precious even in legal contexts.”

Your friend’s pronunciation, boh-nuh-FEE-day, roughly corresponds to the Latin, but we’re talking about English here. (We doubt that your friend pronounces “Caesar” as KYE-zar or “vice versa” as WEE-keh WARE-sah, as the Romans once did.)

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its etymology of “bona fide,” says that even “classical scholars sometimes preserve the Latin quantity of the vowels … without the Latin vowel sounds.”

In Latin, bona fide means “with good faith.” In English, the OED says, it was originally an adverb meaning “genuinely,” “with sincerity,” or “in good faith.”

The adverb dates back to the time of Henry VIII, the dictionary says, when it was recorded in the Acts of Parliament for 1542-43: “The same to procede bona fide, without fraude.”

But “bona fide” has also become an English adjective meaning “genuine,” “sincere,” or “done in good faith.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the adjective is from John Joseph Powell’s An Essay Upon the Learning of Devises (1788): “Act not to extend to bonâ fide purchasers for a valuable consideration.”

“Bona fides,” the noun version, came into English in the mid-19th century. (The usual pronunciation, in both the US and the UK, is boh-nuh-FYE-deez. However, American dictionaries also accept a less-common, three-syllable variation whose ending rhymes with “tides.”)

The OED describes “bona fides” as a singular noun used in the law to mean “good faith” or “freedom from intent to deceive.” The dictionary’s only two examples are from 19th-century legal usage.

This one, from 1885, is a good illustration of the legal use: “It was said that this shewed bona fides on their part” (from Law Reports, Chancery Division).

In the mid-20th century, the noun “bona fides” developed a plural sense that the OED defines as “guarantees of good faith.”

The first example in the dictionary is from a 1944 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “I notice in one of our best sellers the remark ‘If Mina’s bona fides are once questioned.’ ”

The OED regards this plural usage as a mistake: “Erroneously treated as pl. form of bona fide (assumed to be n. sing.)”

However, Oxford Dictionaries (a different entity from the OED) describes the usage as informal and gives this example: “‘Now, however, the bona fides of some of those ordinations are in question.”

And most of the other standard dictionaries we’ve checked accept without reservation the use of “bona fides” as a plural noun meaning good intentions, authentic credentials, proofs of legitimacy, and so on.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate has this example: “the informant’s bona fides were ascertained.” And American Heritage has an example that describes a singer whose “operatic bona fides were prominently on display.”

In addition, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has citations that mention phrases like “the bona fides of a Soviet defector,” “social bona fides,” “literary bona fides,” and “his bona fides on this issue.”

In “this now-established new meaning,” the M-W usage guide says, the noun “very often occurs in contexts where it does not govern a verb.”

But when it is the subject of a verb, M-W adds, “the verb is usually plural,” as in this example: “Fritz Kolbe’s bona fides were unambiguously established” (from the New York Times Book Review, 1983).

OK, this use of “bona fides” is legit. But why use it at all? In our opinion, “bona fides” is a stuffy noun, and a word like “credentials” or “authenticity” or “legitimacy” would do a better job.

Bryan Garner, in his usage guide, agrees that the plural term has an “air of affectation.” And he adds: “Making bona fides singular sounds pedantic; making it plural is likely to offend those who have a smattering of Latin.”

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Why do the English drop aitches?

Q: Is there a linguistic relationship between the missing “h” sound in French and Eliza Doolittle’s aitch-dropping in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady?

A: The English have been dropping their aitches in speech and in spelling since Anglo-Saxon times, but the process accelerated as Old English gave way to Middle English in the 11th century.

Is French responsible for this “h”-dropping in English?

Well, Anglo-Norman, spoken by the Francophile upper classes in England for several hundred years after the Norman Conquest, is responsible for some of the “h” loss in Middle English, but not for Eliza’s cockney “h”-dropping.

Anglo-Norman, as well as Old French and Middle French, clearly influenced the absence of the “h” sound in some loanwords of Latin origin in Middle English, such as “honor,” “honest,” and “hour.”

But it’s uncertain whether Anglo-Norman, a Romance language formed from various French dialects, is responsible for any of the “h”-dropping in Middle English words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

One problem for linguists is determining how much of the “h”-dropping in Old English and Middle English writing reflected “h”-dropping in speech.

Some linguists have argued that the increase in “h”-dropping in Middle English texts was merely the result of errors by scribes who spoke Anglo-Norman, with its silent “h.”

But other linguists have said that the “h”-dropping in Middle English writing reflected “h”-dropping in speech, and that this was the result of the inherent weakness and instability of the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the letter “h.”

Today, “h”-dropping is associated with the cockney speech of working-class Londoners, but this loss of the “h” sound in words like “hammer,” “hat,” “house,” and “behind” is common in most regions of England, according to linguists.

In fact, “h” dropping is not unknown in Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent. In addition to dropping the “h” sound in the Gallic loanwords mentioned above, RP speakers used to drop it in “historic,” resulting in uses like “an ’istoric.”

RP speakers now pronounce all the letters of “historic,” but they’ve kept the indefinite article “an,” even though the article “a” would be standard before a word beginning with a sounded “h,” the phonetician John C. Wells writes in Accents of English (1982).

In A Course in Phonetics (1982), the phonetician Peter Ladefoged says “h” acts “like a consonant, but from an articulatory point of view is simply the voiceless counterpart of the following vowel.”

“It does not have a specific place of articulation,” he writes, “and its manner of articulation is the same as that of a vowel, only the state of the glottis is different.” (The glottis is made up of the vocal cords and the opening between them.)

As the linguist Larry Trask explains, “h” is “a very weak consonant, almost the last trace of anything we can call a consonant at all, and it disappears very easily.”

In classical times, Trask points out in a contribution to the Linguist List, the “h” sound “was completely gone in popular Latin speech by the first century BC, though it may have been retained for a while by a few pedants.”

“The Romance languages sometimes continue to write this long-lost /h/ in their orthographies,” he adds, “but this is purely for old times’ sake.”

However, the “h” sound was alive and well in Old English, according to linguists who have reconstructed Anglo-Saxon speech based on things like the rhyme in verse, the spelling of Latin loanwords, and related words in other Germanic languages.

The letter “h” had several pronunciations in Old English, which was spoken from about the 5th through the 11th centuries:

● In front of vowels, “h” sounded much as it does today.

● In front of consonants, it had a breathy sound.

● After a vowel pronounced at the front of the mouth (like “e” or “i”), “h” sounded like the “ch” in the German ich.

● After a vowel pronounced at the back of the mouth (like “a” or “o”), it sounded like the “ch” in the Scottish loch.

The use of “h” before consonants at the beginning of words began dying out in Old English and Middle English texts, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For example, the noun “ring” (the finger ornament), was hringae, hringiae, etc. in early Old English, but came to be spelled ringce, ryngc, ring, and so on in later Old English.

The noun “nut” (the seed) was originally hnut- or hnute- (in compounds) in Anglo-Saxon writing, and then nut-, nute, etc., in later Old English.

The adjective “loud” was hlúd in Old English and then lud(e), loude, lowd(e), and so on in Middle English.

The “h”-dropping in Old English texts presumably reflected the loss of the “h” sound in speech, according to phoneticians, linguists who specialize in phonetics.

However, scholars have debated the cause of the “h” loss in Middle English writing.

The 19th-century philologist Walter William Skeat attributed the loss of the letter “h” in Middle English writing to spelling errors by Anglo-Norman scribes.

But James Milroy, a 20th-century linguist, believed the scribes were representing the “h”-dropping in speech.

Milroy, who exhaustively studied “h”-dropping in England, writes in the Cambridge History of the English Language that in certain regions of medieval England “the syllable initial [h] was not present, or only variably present,” in speech.

Trask, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex, raises an interesting point on the Linguist List about contemporary “h” dropping in working-class speech in England.

Although the “h” sound in words of Anglo-Saxon origin (like “hair,” “heart,” “harm,” and “hit”) is “completely gone in the vernacular speech of almost all of England,” Trask writes, there’s no sign of such “h”-dropping in North America.

(The “h”-less US pronunciation of “herb” is not an American version of cockney “h”-dropping. It’s the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the Old French loanword was usually spelled “erbe.” As the OED notes, in British speech “the h was mute until the 19th cent.”)

Why is cockney-style “h”-dropping common among the English, but unknown among Americans?

In Accents of English, Wells, a professor emeritus at University College London, suggests that the American colonists didn’t take such “h”-dropping with them to the New World because they left before its widespread appearance in England.

“The fact that H dropping is unknown in North America strongly suggests that it arose in England only well after the American colonies were founded,” he writes.

Although “h”-dropping did occur in Old English and Middle English, as we’ve said, it apparently wasn’t common enough in England to get the attention of language commentators and novelists until the latter half of the 18th century.

In Talking Proper (1995), Lynda Mugglestone, an Oxford historian of the English language, says the first language writer to complain about “h”-dropping was the actor-educator Thomas Sheridan.

In A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762), Sheridan criticizes “the omission of the aspirate in many words by some, and in most by others.”

And in Propriety Ascertained in Her Picture (1786), a pronunciation and spelling guide, James Elphinston condemns the “lowliness” and “impropriety” of pronunciations like “uman,” “umor,” and “umbel” (for “human,” “humor,” and “humble”).

Later, Lindley Murray’s influential English Grammar (1795) describes the “h” sound as a requirement for “educated” speech, and blames “the negligence of tutors” and “the inattention of pupils” for its loss.

As for fiction, Winifred Jenkins, a maid in Tobias Smollett’s last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), drops her aitches on and off, referring to “heart” as “art,” and “harm” as “arm.”

By the mid-19th century, working-class characters routinely dropped their aitches in novels. As Uriah Heep says in David Copperfield (1850):  “I am well aware that I am the umblest person going.”

(Although “humble” was the standard spelling of the word in Dickens’s day, its original spelling in Middle English was “umble.”)

We can’t conclude this discussion of “h”-dropping without mentioning the many Old English words that began with “hw” but now begin with “wh,” including hwæt (“what”), hwanne (“when”), hwǽr, (“where”), hwæs (“whose”), hwā (“who”), hwí (“why”), hwelc (“which”), hwæðer (“whether”), and so on.

The OED says the “normal Old English spelling hw was generally preserved in early Middle English,” and the “modern spelling wh is found first in regular use in the Ormulum,” a 12th-century religious work in which whillc is used for “which.”

“In Old English the pronunciation symbolized by hw was probably in the earliest periods a voiced bilabial consonant preceded by a breath,” according to the dictionary. (A voiced bilabial consonant is one in which the vocal cords vibrate and the air flow is restricted by the lips.)

Interestingly, the words that began with “hw” in Old English have given us two types of “wh” words today: those in which the “w” sound predominates (“why,” “where,” “when,” etc.) and those in which the “h” sound predominates (“who,” “whole,” “whose”).

In case you’re wondering, “whore” was originally spelled hóre in Old English, and retained its “h” pronunciation when the “wh” spelling of the word arose in the 16th century.

An 1830 edition of Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary gives two pronunciations, “höör, or höre,” and adds: “If there can be a polite pronunciation of this vulgar word, it is the first of these, rhyming with poor.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several posts about “herb” and “historic,” including Herbal remedies in 2009 and Historic article in 2012.

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