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English English language Etymology Expression Language Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why “granary,” not “grainery”?

Q: In a report, I mistakenly referred to a building that holds grain as a “grainery” rather than a “granary.” Why isn’t it spelled “grainery”?

A: Yes, the storehouse for threshed grain is a “granary,” though the spellings “grainary” and “grainery” often crop up, influenced by the noun “grain.”

The ultimate source of both “grain” and “granary” is the Proto-Indo-European root gr̥ə-no-, which has also given English such words as “corn,” “kernel,” “gram,” “granule,” “grange,” “granite,” and “grenade,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says the ancient root meant “worn-down particle” (think of grain being ground into flour). Proto-Indo-European is the reconstructed prehistoric language that gave birth to a family of languages now spoken in much of Europe and parts of Asia.

English borrowed “grain” in the early 1300s from the Old French grain, which in turn comes from the classical Latin term for a seed, grānum. The noun was written various ways in Middle English (greyn, grein, greyne, etc.) before the French spelling prevailed in the early 1600s.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “grain” as a collective noun: “Jesus seyth the vygne be hys, / And eke the greyn of wete” (“Jesus sayeth the vine be his, / And also the grain of wheat”). From a poem, written around 1315, by William of Shoreham, a vicar in northern England.

How did the Anglo-Saxons refer to wheat, oats, rye, and other cereal crops before the word “grain” showed up? In Old English, they used “corn,” a word that still means grain in modern British English, as we’ve written on our blog. In American English, “corn” is what the British call maize.

As for “granary,” English adapted the word in the 16th century from grānārium, classical Latin for a place where grain is stored. And as you’d expect, grānārium comes from grānum, the Latin source of “grain.”

Not surprisingly, the two earliest OED examples use different spellings, “granarie” and “granary.” Here are the quotations:

“A Granarie, granarium” (from Manipulus Vocabulorum, an English-Latin dictionary compiled in 1570 by the English lexicographer Peter Levens).

“Fruits of godliness to be bestowed and laid up in the barn and granary of the kingdom of heaven” (a figurative example from the English writer and lawyer Thomas Norton’s 1570 translation of a French catechism).

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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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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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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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What the rooster useter do

Q:I run a class for language-obsessed retirees in Australia, where “useter” is commonly used for “used to,” as in “I useter drive a Volvo” or “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” May I ask you to write about this usage?

A: The word spelled “useter” represents the way some people pronounce “used to”—same meaning, different spelling. And it’s found in the US and Britain as well as in Australia.

So a sentence spoken as “I useter drive a Volvo” would be written more formally as “I used to drive a Volvo.” And the question “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” would be written as “Didn’t you use to drive a Volvo?”

The spelling “useter” arose as a variant “representing a colloquial pronunciation of used to,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When “useter” appears in the dictionary’s written examples, it’s always an attempt to imitate the spoken usage.

The OED cites published examples of “useter” in both American and British English dating from the mid-19th century. In its earliest appearance, the word is spelled “use ter”:

“You don’t know no more ’bout goin’ to sea than I knows about them ’Gyptian lookin’ books that you use ter study when you went to College.” (From an 1846 novel, The Prince and the Queen, by the American writer and editor Justin Jones, who wrote fiction under the pseudonym Harry Hazel.)

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper, the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), dated June 14, 2003: “They useter ’ave a big Rockweiler … but it got nicked.”

Among the OED’s examples is one spelled “useta,” representing what’s probably the more common American pronunciation:

“I useta beg her to keep some of that stuff in a safe-deposit box.” From The Burglar in the Closet (1980), by the American mystery writer Lawrence Block.

As we said in a recent post, this sense of “use” in the phrase “used to” refers to an action in the past that was once habitual but has been discontinued.

We won’t say any more about the etymology of “use,” since we covered it in that post. But we’ll expand a bit on the sense of “use” as a verb that roughly means “customarily do.”

This sense of “use” has died out in the present tense. A 17th-century speaker might have said, “John uses to drink ale,” but today the present-tense version would be “John usually [or customarily or habitually] drinks ale.”

In modern English, this sense of “use” is found only in the past tense: “used” or “did use.” We now say, for example, “Normally he drives a Ford, but he used [or did use] to drive a Volvo.”

Since the “d” in “used to” is not pronounced, the phrase sounds like “use to,” and people sometimes write it that way in error.

As the OED explains, the “d” and the “t” sounds in “used to” became “assimilated” in both British and American English, and “attempts to represent these pronunciations in writing gave rise to use to as a spelling for used to.” The “use to” spelling “occurs from at least the late 17th cent. onwards,” the dictionary says.

Another irregularity is that people commonly—but redundantly—use “did” and “used” together, as in “Did he used to drive a Volvo?” But with “did,” the normal form is “use” (“Did he use to drive a Volvo?”).

As Pat explains in her book Woe Is I, “did use” is another way of saying “used,” just as “did like” is another way of saying “liked.” And just as we don’t write “did liked,” we shouldn’t write “did used.” She gives this usage advice:

  • If there’s no “did,” choose “used to” (as in “Isaac used to play golf”).
  • If there’s a “did,” choose “use to” (as in “Isaac did use to play golf” … “Did Isaac use to play squash?” … “No, he didn’t use to play squash”).

As you’ve noticed, questions and negative statements like those last two are sometimes constructed differently.

Americans, and many speakers of British English, typically say, “Did he use to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he didn’t use to drive a Volvo.”

But sometimes, sentences like these get a different treatment in British English: “Used he to drive a Volvo?” …”Usedn’t he to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he used not [or usedn’t] to drive a Volvo.”

What’s happening in those negative examples? The OED says that “not” sometimes directly modifies “use,” resulting in “the full form used not… although usedn’t occasionally occurs as well as usen’t.”

In closing, we’ll share a few lines from Irving Berlin’s 1914 song “I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm)”:

I miss the rooster,
The one that useter
Wake me up at four A.M.

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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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Is it ‘realtor’ or ‘Realtor’?

Q: Why is “realtor” often capitalized? It drives me crazy. It’s just a job description, like “chef” or “dog catcher.” What’s so special about realtors?

A: The term is often capitalized because it’s a registered trademark in the US for a member of the National Association of Realtors.

Most standard dictionaries capitalize the term, including the online Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries. One notable exception is Oxford Dictionaries online, which lowercases the term in its US version.

The Associated Press Stylebook capitalizes “Realtor,” but recommends using “real estate agent” instead unless “there is a reason to indicate that the individual is a member” of the association.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage capitalizes the term too, and says the “preferred generic terms are real estate agent and real estate broker.”

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, lowercases “realtor.”

The OED says it’s a “proprietary name” for a member of the association, but adds, “Also in extended use,” which we take to mean that “realtor” is also used as a general term for anyone who sells real estate.

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) has this to say: “Few people seem to know about the trademark, and consequently in AmE [American English] the term is used indiscriminately of real-estate agents generally.”

As for the etymology, Charles N. Chadbourn, a real estate agent in Minneapolis, coined the term in a March 15, 1916, article in the National Real Estate Journal, according to the OED.

Chadbourn, a member of the National Association of Real Estate Boards (predecessor of the National Association of Realtors), proposed  “that the National Association adopt and confer upon its members, dealers in realty, the title of realtor (accented on the first syllable).” And don’t misplace the “l”; it’s REAL-ter, not REE-luh-ter.

Interestingly, the term is lowercased there by Chadbourn, as well as in three of the other four examples for the usage in the OED. With language authorities divided over whether to capitalize it or not, the decision is up to you or the style manual you follow.

As for us, we normally use the term “real estate agent” when we refer to someone who sells real estate, whether a member of the association or not. The term “realtor” strikes us as too puffed up.

Sinclair Lewis, whose 1922 novel Babbitt is cited in the OED, apparently felt the same way. Lewis describes George F. Babbitt as “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

In the OED citation, Babbitt is quoted as saying, “we ought to insist that folks call us ‘realtors’ and not ‘real-estate men.’ Sounds more like a reg’lar profession.”

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An “&” or an “and”?

Q: If a character in a novel mentions a company that uses an ampersand in its name, such as H&H Consulting or Metro Film & Video, should the dialogue use an ampersand or the word “and”?

A: We’d stay with the ampersand in writing dialogue about H&H Consulting or Metro Film & Video. We see no reason to spell out the “&” character, especially since “and” is often elided when such terms are spoken—M&M’s, for example, usually sounds like “M ’n’ M’s.”

Novelists often use ampersands in both dialogue and narrative. In Humboldt’s Gift, for example, Saul Bellow uses one during Charlie Citrine’s conversation with Polly Palomino:

“I said, ‘Well, thanks for dropping in, Mrs. Palomino. You’ll have to excuse me, though. I’m being called for and I haven’t shaved or eaten lunch.’

“ ‘How do you shave, electric or steel?’

“ ‘Remington.’

“ ‘The electric Abercrombie & Fitch is the only machine. I think I’ll shave, too.’ ”

In Portnoy’s Complaint, which is written in the first person, Philip Roth uses an ampersand in this passage:

“ ‘The Most Benevolent Financial Institution in America’ I remember my father announcing, when he took me for the first time to see his little square area of desk and chair in the vast offices of Boston & Northeastern Life.”

In fact, the usage has been around for some time. In Dombey and Son, Charles Dickens puts these words in the mouth of Mr. Toots:

“Poor Dombey! I’m sure I never thought that Burgess & Co.—fashionable tailors (but very dear), that we used to talk about—would make this suit of clothes for such a purpose.”

By the way, the “&” sign is thought to be a stylized blend of the letters in the Latin word et (“and”). It used to be common in “&c.,” an abbreviated version of “etc.,” which in turn is a shortening of the Latin et cetera (“and others”).

Interestingly, the word “ampersand” is a corruption of “and per se and,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “the old way of spelling and naming the character &.

The usage was derived from the traditional way of reciting the alphabet. The OED says a schoolchild would refer to the letter “A” as “A per se a” and “I” as “I per se I” because each of those letters could be a word “by itself” (per se in Latin).

The earliest citation in the dictionary for “ampersand” is from The Clockmaker, an 1837 account of the fictional adventures of Sam Slick, by the Nova Scotian writer Thomas C. Haliburton: “He has hardly learned what Ampersand means, afore they give him a horse.”

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Seedy endings

Q: I’m often flummoxed when I try to spell words with endings that sound like “seed.” Is there a way to keep these endings straight?

A: Words that end with a “seed” sound are notoriously hard to spell, as Pat notes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I.

“It helps to keep in mind that all but four end with cede,” she writes. “Three end with ceed, and only one ends with sede.

The cede-less variety consists of “exceed,” “proceed,” “succeed,” and “supersede.”

When in doubt, look it up. But if you don’t have a dictionary handy and you have to guess, the odds are good that the ending is “-cede.”

The “-cede” ending is ultimately derived from cēdere, classical Latin for to go away or give ground, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So etymologically, “antecede” means to go before, “intercede” to go between, and “recede” to go back, while “cede” and “concede” both mean to give ground or yield.

The “-ceed” ending is similarly derived from cēdere, the OED says, so “exceed” has the etymological sense of to go out, “proceed” to go forward, and “succeed” to go near.

Although the “-sede” ending in “supersede” may have been influenced by cēdere, according to Oxford, it ultimately comes from supersedēre, classical Latin for to sit on top of or abstain.

We published a post a couple of years ago about the difference between “accede” and “concede.” (“Concede” has an element of defeat, while “accede” implies a more ready acceptance.)

In the earlier item, we cite the OED as saying “cede” originally meant “to give way, give place, yield to”—as in “a servant cedes to his master.”

But that sense is now obsolete, the dictionary says, and “cede” now means “to give up, grant; to yield, surrender: esp. to give up a portion of territory.”

The earliest OED citation for the modern sense is from a 1754 travel book by Alexander Drummond:

“That honour was entirely ceded to the Parthian royal race.” (The Parthian Empire, which existed from 247 BC to 224 AD, ruled parts of ancient Iran and Iraq.)

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Flaunting and flouting

Q: While looking into the common but erroneous substitution of “flaunt” for “flaut,” I was flabbergasted to find no entry for “flaut” in any of the dictionaries OneLook.com aggregates. Did I slide into an alternate universe where this word doesn’t exist, or am I simply deranged? PS: To prevent Google Mail from flagging “flaut’ as an error, I had to add it to my email dictionary.

A: You’re right that many people use “flaunt” to mean “flout” (the correct spelling of the word you’re looking for). In fact, a couple of standard dictionaries now accept the usage, though all the rest stick to the traditional view of the two words.

Traditionally, the verb “flaunt” means to show off something ostentatiously or to act in an ostentatious way, while the verb “flout” means to openly or contemptuously disregard something.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), which takes the traditional view, says in a usage note: “For some time now flaunt has been used in the sense ‘to show contempt for,’ even by educated users of English. But this usage is still widely seen as erroneous.”

“In our 2009 survey,” the dictionary adds, “73 percent of the Usage Panel rejected it in the sentence This is just another example of an executive flaunting the rules for personal gain.”

However, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged and Merriam-Webster Dictionary accept without comment (that is, as standard English) the use of “flaunt” to mean “to treat contemptuously: flout.”

The subscription-based Unabridged gives the example “flaunt army regulations,” while the free M-W dictionary cites this comment by the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer: “flaunted the rules.”

We use “flaunt” and “flout” in the traditional way, and that’s what Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, recommends: “To flout is to defy or ignore. To flaunt is to show off. When Bruce ran that stop sign, he was flouting the law and flaunting his new Harley.”

Other usage guides agree. In Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), for example, R. W. Burchfield writes that “flaunt is often wrongly used for flout,” a usage that “has been particularly prevalent since the 1940s.”

And in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner says: “Confusion about these terms is so distressingly common that some dictionaries have thrown in the towel and now treat flaunt as a synonym of flout. But the words are best kept separate.”

The less traditional Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage offers a justification for using “flaunt” to mean “flout,” but ultimately recommends avoiding the usage:

“Both words are used to describe open, unashamed behavior, and both typically suggest disapproval of such behavior. … Add to this similarity of use the obvious similarity of the words themselves, and you have a situation ripe for confusion.

“It is an oversimplification, however, to say that the use of flaunt to mean ‘to treat with contemptuous disregard’ is merely the result of confusion … those who now use it do so not because they are confused—they do so because they have heard and seen it so often that its use seems natural and idiomatic. They use it, in other words, because they are familiar with it as an established sense of flaunt.

“No one can deny that this sense of flaunt is now alive and well, despite its lowly origins.

“Nevertheless, the notoriety of flaunt used for flout is so great and the belief that it is simply an error so deep-seated and persistent, that we think you well-advised to avoid it, at least when writing for publication.”

As for the etymology, both verbs showed up in the 1500s, “flout” first and “flaunt” a decade later.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “flout,” meaning to mock or express contempt for someone or something, may have begun life as a dialectal form of floute, Middle English for “to play the flute.” The OED notes “a similar development of sense in Dutch fluiten to play the flute, to mock, deride.”

The first citation for “flout” in the dictionary is from Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation of Utopia, a Latin work of fiction by Thomas More: “In moste spiteful maner mockynge … and flowtynge them.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “flaunt” is of unknown origin, though it cites several theories, including a suggestion that it may be a coined word formed from blending terms like “flounce” and “vaunt.”

The first OED citation for “flaunt” (“to walk or move about so as to display one’s finery”) is from a 1566 translation by the English clergyman Thomas Drant of the Roman poet Horace’s satires: “In suits of silkes to flaunte.”

Before ending, we should note that “flout” is occasionally used to mean “flaunt.” But as Merriam-Webster’s Usage notes, “it is extremely uncommon and can only be regarded as a genuine error.”

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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 ‘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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Shards or sherds?

Q: Seeing “filled with centuries-old pottery sherds” in a poem made me wonder if the poet intentionally changed shards into sherds or made a mistake. But then I googled “sherds” and got many hits. My spellchecker still wants to change it to “shards.” Your comments?

A: The word for a piece of broken pottery, glass, metal, and so on has been spelled all sorts of ways since it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, including sceard, scherd, scheard, schord, shard, and sherd.

Dictionaries now include two standard spellings, “shard” and “sherd,” but most of them consider “sherd” a variant of the more common “shard.”

However, Oxford Dictionaries online defines “sherd” specifically as a short form of “potsherd,” a broken piece of pottery, especially one found at an archaeological site.

And Merriam-Webster online says “sherd” can refer generally to a fragment of something, or specifically to “a fragment of a pottery vessel found on sites and in refuse deposits where pottery-making peoples have lived.”

As M-W explains, “English speakers have adopted the modernized shard spelling for most uses, but archeologists prefer to spell the word sherd when referring to the ancient fragments of pottery they unearth.”

In “At the Metropolitan Museum,” the poem that got your attention, Matthew Siegel is using “sherds” in the archeological sense when he writes that “in the museum there is a room / filled with centuries-old pottery sherds / and it is difficult not to start seeing / symbols everywhere.”

The Old English word for a broken piece of pottery, sceard, is derived from the prehistoric Germanic skardo- ‎(notched, cut, separated, broken) and the Proto-Indo-European sker– ‎(to cut), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In a paper in Studia Neophilologica, a journal specializing in Germanic and Romance philology, Karl P. Wentersdorf explains that the term had “two distinct lines of semantic development” in English—a cutting sense (as in the verbs “score,” “share,” and “shear”) and a sense relating to the byproducts of cutting (“shirt, “short,” and “skirt”).

When sceard showed up in Old English, the OED says, it referred to the result of cutting (“a gap in an enclosure, esp. in a hedge or bank”) and a byproduct of cutting (“a fragment of broken earthenware”). The gap sense is now chiefly dialectal.

The dictionary’s earliest example, from the Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, a document written sometime before 1000, uses “sceard” in the sense of a gap.

The first Oxford example for the term used as a fragment of earthenware is from a Latin-Old English glossary written around 1000: “Testarum, scearda.

(The OED cites the fourth-century Roman Christian poet Prudentius for this use of testarum. In a description of the martyrdom of St. Vincent, he uses fragmenta testarum to describe the potsherds that Vincent is forced to lie on.)

Here’s a Middle English example in the OED (with the noun spelled “shord”) from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “My vertue driede as a shord.”

And here’s a Modern English “shardes” example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, written around 1600: “Shardes, Flints, and Peebles, should be throwne on her.” We’ve expanded the citation, which refers to Ophelia’s body.

Although the “sherd” and “shard” spellings showed up in Middle English (mid-12th to late 15th centuries), the OED has a “shord” citation from as late as 1881.

Here’s a recent “shard” example, from the March 2, 2017, issue of the South Bend (IN) Tribune: “All of a sudden, ‘bang,’ and there’s 12-inch shards of glass flying through my house.” A resident was describing a powerful storm.

And here’s a recent “sherd” example,  from the March 1, 2017, issue of the Idaho County Free Press, a weekly in Grangeville, ID: “Excavations in the summer of 2010 at the WWII Kooskia Internment Camp uncovered this pottery sherd.”

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Elder vs. older: an eald story

Q: The NY Times recently referred to Ivanka Trump as Donald Trump’s eldest daughter. Why do we have two sets of words—“elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest”?

A: More than a thousand years ago, the Old English versions of “elder” and “eldest” were the original comparative and superlative forms of “old.”

They meant the same thing as the later forms “older” and “oldest,” words that didn’t come along until centuries after “elder” and “eldest.”

English tends to shed words it doesn’t need. But as the language developed, it retained both sets of adjectives—”elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest.”

Why did all of them survive? Probably because in modern English, as we’ll explain later, we now use the two sets of adjectives—the “eld-” forms and the “old-” forms—for different purposes.

That’s the short answer. Now for some etymology.

This all began in writing back in the 700s with eald, the word for “old” in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This word was inherited from Germanic sources but can be traced even further back to prehistoric Indo-European.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots identifies the ultimate source of “old” as a verb root, al-, meaning to grow or nourish.

That same Indo-European root, the OED says, is also the source of the classical Latin verb alere (“nourish”) and adjective adultus (“adult “).

So the word for “old” in ancient Germanic “thus apparently originally meant ‘grown up, adult,’ corresponding in form to classical Latin altus (high, deep),” Oxford says.

(This sense of “high” in the Latin altus can be interpreted as “grown tall,” American Heritage says.)

When the adjective “old” first appeared in Old English writing 13 centuries ago, it was written mostly as eald or ald.  (The spelling “old” didn’t appear until the 1200s, perhaps earlier, but alternative spellings existed for centuries.)

The OED’s earliest examples include this one from Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725. “Þær Hroðgar sæt eald ond anhar” (“There Hrothgar sat, old and gray-haired”).

And an early Old English glossary dating from around 800 translates the Latin word senex (“old”) as ald.

At that time, the adjective meant what it still does today: “Having lived or existed a long time; not young or new,” in the OED’s words.

Early on, a form of “old” was also used in Old English as a noun. It could mean an old person, a use that’s now rare. Or it could mean aged people or things in general, a use that has survived (“the young and the old” … “the new and the old”).

In the 800s, the comparative and superlative forms of “old” first appeared in writing—as early spellings of “elder” and “eldest.” As the OED says, they were derived from the Old English ald, or “old.”

In this example, ieldran, Old English for “elder,” is used without “than.” It comes from Consolation of Philosophy (circa 888), King Alfred’s translation of a work by Boethius:

“Ic ðe geongne gelærde swelce snytro swylce manegum oþrum ieldran gewittum oftogen is” (“I taught thee in thy youth such wisdom as is hidden from many elder wise men”).

And in this example “elder” (yldra) appears after “than” (þonne) in the predicate of a sentence. It’s from an Old English riddle in a collection known as the Exeter Riddles, perhaps from the late 900s:

“Ic eom micle yldra þonne ymbhwyrft þes oþþe þes middangeard meahte geweorþa” (“I am much elder than the world or the earth might ever become”).

In both of those cases, the word used today would be “older.”

The noun “elder” that means an older person—generally used in the plural, “elders”—appeared soon afterward, in the 900s, according to OED citations.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this “elder” a “converted noun” derived from the adjective “elder.” This is the noun that we still use in phrases like “mind your elders” and “village elders.”

(In fact, “alderman” is a modern descendant of the Old English noun for an “elder,” ealdor; an ealdorman in Anglo-Saxon times was a high-ranking leader.)

The superlative adjective “eldest” was first recorded around 897 in King Alfred’s Pastoral Care, a translation of a work by Pope Gregory:

“Ðæt we gemyndgiað ðære scylde þe ure ieldesta mæg us on forworhte” (“That we renew and recall to mind the sin wherewith our eldest kinsman [that is, Adam] ruined us”).

Meanwhile, the now archaic noun “eld” appeared (written as ǣld or eld) in the late 900s. It was derived from early forms of “old” and once meant either “the age, period of life, at which a person has arrived,” or “old age, advanced period of life,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Blickling Homilies (c. 971): “Se wlite eft gewiteþ & to ylde gecyrreþ” (“That beauty afterwards departs and turns to eld [old age]”).

And this example uses “eld” in the more generic sense of “age.” It is from a life of St. Guthlac of Mercia, written sometime near the year 1000:

“Se halga wer in þa ærestan ældu gelufade frecnessa fela!” (“The holy man had loved many wicked things in his early eld [age]!”).

In the Middle Ages, there was even a verb, to “eld.” The verb, written around 1200 as ælden or elden, meant to grow old. This passage is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “Thou hast eeldid, and art of loong age.”

And around 1300, “eld” acquired other uses. The phrase “within eld” meant underage, and “of eld” meant “of age” or “of legal age.”

But “of eld” also meant “of old,” as in “men of elde” (c. 1540) and “times of eld” (1640).

The phrase was used poetically into the 19th century. If you’ve read Longfellow’s poem Evangeline (1847), you may remember its dramatic opening lines:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic.

The adjective “eld” (meaning “old”) was not recorded until the late 16th century, and the OED now labels it archaic or poetic.

Here Sydney Thompson Dobell uses it in his 1854 poem Balder: “Ye eld / And sager gods” (less poetically, “The old and wiser gods”).

Now let’s get back to those comparatives and superlatives, and how they’re used today.

“Older” and “oldest” came along in the 15th century, some 700 years after “elder” and “eldest.” And in modern English, they’ve mostly replaced their predecessors.

While “elder” and “eldest” have remained part of English, they now have very narrow uses. Some grammarians classify “elder” and “eldest” as “limiting adjectives.”

As George O. Curme writes, “limiting adjectives do not indicate degrees, but merely point out individuals” (A Grammar of the English Language, Vol. 1, 1935).

Otto Jespersen notes: “Elder and eldest have been largely supplanted by older and oldest, and are now chiefly used preceded by some determining word (genitive, possessive pronoun or article).” He adds that “they generally refer to persons connected by relationship” (Essentials of English Grammar, 1933).

In practice, this means that as an adjective, “elder” is used for people and not things. So we use phrases like “the elder sister” and “an elder statesman” (in which the adjective is a term of respect), but not “the elder chair” or “an elder vintage.”

In addition, the adjective “elder” is generally not used in the predicate—that is, after the verb. We don’t say “he is elder now” or “he is elder than Susan.”

In the predicate, however, “elder” may be part of a noun phrase (“he is the elder brother”), and it may be used in a construction like “he is the elder,” short for “the elder of the two.”

“Older,” however, can be used as a predicate adjective: “he is older now” … “he is older than Susan.”  And either adjective can be used as a pre-modifier: “older brother” … “elder brother.”

One final note. “Elder” is traditionally used in reference to two and “eldest” to three or more. If you don’t want to raise any eyebrows, this is a safe rule to follow. But as we wrote on the blog in 2010, not all language authorities agree.

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Munch on, crunch on, nuncheon!

Q: I came across “nuncheon” in my paperback of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It apparently refers to a meal of some sort, and I wonder if it’s a misprint for “luncheon.”

A: No, “nuncheon” is an actual word—an archaic term that’s heard now only in regional dialects in England. It refers to a between-meals snack, not a regular meal like “luncheon.”

The word, spelled “noonschench” when it showed up in the Middle Ages, began as a compound of elements meaning “noon” and “drink.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nuncheon” as “a drink taken in the afternoon; a light refreshment between meals; a snack.”

While it seems to have meant a drink early on, in later citations it clearly meant a snack, taken in mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a medieval account book of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. A Latin entry, dated circa 1260-75, includes the Middle English “noonschench.”

For centuries, as OED citations show, it was spelled many different ways: “nonesenches,” “nunseynches,” “nunchions,” “noonshun,” “noonchin,” “nunchun,” and others. The spelling with the “-eon” ending was likely influenced by the old words “puncheon” and “truncheon,” Oxford says.

Jane Austen spelled it “noon-chine” in her novel Sense and Sensibility (1811): “I left London this morning at eight o’clock, and the only ten minutes I have spent out of my chaise since that time, procured me a noon-chine at Marlborough.”

However, editions of Sense and Sensibility published since Austen’s death in 1817 usually spell the word either “nuncheon” or “nunchion.”

Robert Browning spelled it “nuncheon” in his poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842): “So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon, / Breakfast, dinner, supper, luncheon!”

And the OED has this example from A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Wiltshire (1893), by George Edward Dartnell and Edward Hungerford Goddard:

“About Salisbury Nuncheon is between 10 and 10.30 a.m., and again at 4 p.m., and is a very small meal.”

Why did the word fall out of everyday use? Our guess is that it was no longer needed, or that the British replaced it with other words—like “elevenses” for the mid-morning break and “tea” for the mid-afternoon.

As for “luncheon,” it didn’t start out as the name of a meal.

In the late 16th century, when both “luncheon” and “lunch” were first recorded, they meant a piece, hunk, or lump, as of bread or cheese or meat. In fact, the OED suggests, “lump” may be their etymological source.

While the longer form was recorded earlier—“luncheon” in 1580 and “lunch” in 1591—it’s not certain what their exact relationship was. Perhaps “lunch” was a clipped form of “luncheon.” Or perhaps “luncheon” was an extended form of “lunch.”

At any rate, in the mid-1600s “luncheon” became the name of a meal, originally “a slight repast taken between two of the ordinary meal-times, esp. between breakfast and mid-day dinner,” the OED says.

But in the meantime, “lunch” continued to mean a hunk or lump (usually of food). It wasn’t until the 1820s that “lunch” became a synonym for the “luncheon” meal, and it is now the dominant term.

Today, as the OED says, “with those who ‘dine’ in the evening, luncheon denotes a meal (understood to be less substantial and less ceremonious than dinner) taken usually in the early afternoon.”

The word is now “somewhat formal,” the dictionary adds, so “lunch” is “the usual word exc. in specially formal use.”

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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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Why “children,” not “childs”?

Q: Your recent post about why “chicken” is singular has left me wondering where “-en” plurals such as “oxen,” “brethren,” “children,” “men,” “women,” and the archaic eyen come from.

A: In Old English, nouns that followed certain patterns formed their plurals with -n rather than –s.

These included the one you mention, eyen (“eyes”), as well as earan (“ears”), tungan (“tongues”), fon (“foes”), housen (“houses”), shoen (“shoes”), treen (“trees”), and oxan (the original plural of “ox”).

During the Middle English period (roughly 1100-1500), both the –en and the –an plurals that had come from Old English were spelled with –en.

Meanwhile, Middle English writers extended the -en spelling, applying it to words that didn’t originally have plurals ending in –n.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the termination -en came to be regarded as a formative of the plural, and its use was extended in southern Middle English to many other words of Old English and French origin.”

Charles Barber, Joan C. Beal, and Philip A. Shaw note in The English Language: A Historical Introduction (2nd ed.) that Middle English had “forms like devlen ‘devils’ and englen ‘angels,’ where Old English had deoflas and englas.”

This -en  ending was so popular in Middle English that it was even added to existing irregular plurals, so that brethre (plural of “brother”) became brethren and childer (plural of “child”) became children.

You might say that the –en of “brethren” and “children,” added to words that were already plural, formed in each case a sort of double plural. (The modern “brothers” wasn’t commonly used until the end of the 16th century.)

For a time, –n and –s rivaled each other as the typical plural ending in English, Thomas Pyles and John Algeo write in The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed.).

In general, the -n ending was favored in the south of England and the –s in the north.

But nearly all of the –n plurals eventually disappeared as the –s plurals became dominant. By around 1400, say the authors of The English Language, the –s plurals were “almost universal.”

The only original –n plural from Old English that has survived to this day is “oxen.” And even this plural had a run for its money. It competed for a time with “oxes,” which the OED says “has survived only in regional and nonstandard use.”

(The plurals “men” and “women,” by the way, don’t fall into this category. They were formed in Old English by a change of vowel, as is also true of “feet,” “geese,” “teeth,” “mice,” and “lice.”)

We should mention a couple of other points about –en endings in English.

As we wrote in our “chicken” post, the –en suffix has been used to form diminutives. This is the case with the –en of “chicken,” “kitten,” and “maiden.”

And –en has been added to nouns to form adjectives in the sense “pertaining to” or “of the nature of,” the OED says. In Germanic languages, adjectives formed this way “chiefly indicate the material of which a thing is composed,” Oxford adds.

Only a few of these adjectives survive today in English, including “golden,” “wooden,” “leaden,” “oaken,” “woolen,” “earthen,” and “wheaten.”

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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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The 3 “ch” sounds: sh, tch, k

Q: Do English words with “ch” pronounced as sh (e.g., “Chicago,” “chute”) generally have French origins?

A: The short answer is yes—but there’s more to the story.

As you know, there are three ways to pronounce the letter combination “ch” in English.

It can sound like k (as in “chasm” or “school”), like sh (as in “charade” or “brochure”), and like tch (as in “champion” and “child”).

The “ch” words with the k sound are derived from classical Greek, while the “ch” words with the sh sound come from modern French.

Most of the “ch” words with the tch sound come from Old English and are Germanic in origin (like “child,” “church,” and “each”).

However, some tch-sound words (such as “chase,” “challenge,” and “chance”) are derived from Old French, where “ch” was pronounced tch.

The “ch” letter combination didn’t exist in Old English, which used the letter “c” for both k and tch sounds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

After the Norman Conquest, Middle English scribes introduced the Gallic “ch” spelling. It was used in words from Old French that were already spelled with “ch,” as well in Old English words pronounced with tch and formerly spelled with “c.”

“French spelling habits were applied to native English vocabulary,” the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says, “and the word spelled cild in Old English, for instance, came to be spelled child in Middle and Modern English.”

Interestingly, the “ch” letter combination pronounced tch in Old French later came to be pronounced sh in modern French. But the English words with “ch” that came from Old French tended to retain the earlier tch pronunciation.

Finally, US place names in which “ch” is pronounced sh (like “Chicago” and “Michigan”) generally come from French versions of American Indian names.

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They sore what they seen

Q: Is there a reason people use the pronunciation “sore” for “saw” or use “seen” instead of “saw,” as in “I sore her yesterday” or “I seen her last week”?

A: These are two entirely different issues, and they have different causes.

The use of what sounds like “sore” for “saw” is merely a regional pronunciation.

The speaker here is being grammatically correct, since he or she is actually using the word “saw” (and would write it that way), but is pronouncing it with a regional accent.

In this case, the accent represents a speech pattern often heard on the East Coast, and one that we’ve written about before on our blog.

As we wrote in 2008, the speaker inserts an “r” sound, sometimes called the intrusive “r.”

This “r” is sometimes inserted just before a word beginning with a vowel sound. So, for instance, the speaker would say, “That’s a bad idea” (normal pronunciation), but “That idear annoys me” (intrusive “r”).

As we’ve said, this pronunciation should not be considered a mistake, merely a regionalism.

The use of “I seen,” on the other hand, isn’t standard English; it’s a grammatical error.

The mistake is using the past participle (“seen,” the form used with “have” or “had”) instead of the simple past tense (“saw”).

The basic tense forms for the verb “see” are “I see” (present), “I saw” (past), “I have seen” (present perfect), and “I had seen” (past perfect).

Interestingly, “saw” has been spelled may different ways since it showed up in Old English, suggesting that its pronunciation has varied too.

The word is spelled “saeh” in the Lindisfarne Gospel of John, which is believed to date from the early 700s. Some other early spellings in the Oxford English Dictionary are “seah,” “sauh,” “saue,” and “sawhe.”

The use of “I seen” for “I saw” may not be standard English (the OED describes it as colloquial and dialectal), but it’s been around for quite a while.

The earliest Oxford example of the usage is from the Sept. 30, 1796, issue of the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper: “So fine a sight (says Yankee to his friend) I swear I never seen—you may depend.”

And here’s an 1861 example from Tom Brown at Oxford, a sequel to the better-known Thomas Hughes novel Tom Brown’s School Days: “ ‘Hev’ee seed aught o’ my bees?’ … ‘E’es, I seen ’em.’ ”

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Publicly vs. publically

Q: In a recent post, you used the word “publically” (a typo, I hope). It got me wondering why “publicly” is the only adverb formed from an adjective ending in “-ic” that doesn’t use “-ally” (at least it’s the only one I can think of). Is there a historical reason?

A: Well, some standard dictionaries do include “publically” as a variant spelling, but it’s described as less popular than “publicly.” In fact, “publicly” outnumbers “publically” by more than 100 to 1 in Google searches.

More to the point, we prefer “publicly” to “publically,” and we’ve changed that post. We should have known better, since our blog once touched on this subject.

As we wrote in 2010, the adverb form of an adjective ending in “-ic” almost always ends in “-ically.” The notable exception is “publicly.”

As we’ve said, some dictionaries recognize “publically” as a variant, but its acceptability depends on which dictionary you consult.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, labels “publically” a “nonstandard variant of publicly.”

But the entry in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) recognizes “publicly, also publically.” This use of “also” means that M-W considers the variant standard English though it “occurs appreciably less often.”

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Publically is an occasionally used variant spelling of publicly. It is either based on the obsolete publical or, more likely, simply on analogy with many other –ically adverbs.”

The mention of “publical” is significant, because obviously any adjective ending in “-ical” will have the “-ically” ending when it becomes an adverb.

And as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “it can frequently be unclear” how an “-ically” adverb was formed.

Was “-ly” added to an adjective ending in “-ical,” like the rare “publical”? Or was “-ally” added to an adjective ending in “-ic,” like “public”?

The question is relevant because at one time many adjectives had both “-ical” and “-ic” forms, as with “rustical/rustic,” “romantical/romantic,” “athletical/athletic,” “optimistical/optimistic,” “scenical/scenic.”

Sometimes there were briefly two corresponding adverbs, as with “rustically/rusticly,” “romantically/romanticly,” “phlegmatically/phlegmaticly.” But generally the “-ically” adverbs were more common.

Today, many of the “-ical” adjective forms have died out, but despite that, the surviving adverb forms “almost always” end in “-ically,” the OED says.

This is true even when only the adjective ending in “-ic” is currently used, Oxford adds, “as in athletically, hypnotically, phlegmatically, rustically, scenically.”

And where both adjectives (“-ical” and “-ic”) exist today, the corresponding adverb ends in “-ically,” as with “comically” (for “comical” and “comic”), “poetically” (for “poetical/poetic”), and “historically” (for “historical/historic”).

The elephant in the room is “publicly.” And that’s the form we generally use on the Grammarphobia Blog—except when we forget.

It’s always been the predominant form, and it’s much older. It was first recorded, according to the OED, in 1534, more than 250 years before “publically” showed up in writing in the late 18th century.

The Merriam-Webster’s usage guide concludes its entry on “publically” with this advice: “You can use it if you like, but we do not really recommend it, because it will look unfamiliar to many who encounter it.”

Note: Some dictionaries include “franticly” as an acceptable variant, but the usual adverb is “frantically.”

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Judgment (or Judgement) Day

Q: I’ve noticed that you spell “judgment” without the extra “e” in the middle. I use the same spelling, but “judgement” is increasingly popular. During my law school days, I encountered the word with no small regularity, and both American and English texts used “judgment.” If I never saw the written word, though, I would assume “judgement” was correct. It seems right. Could you shed any light on the situation?

A: The word “judgment” has been spelled many different ways since it showed up in Middle English in the 1200s, sometimes with an “e” and sometimes without.

Here’s a small sampling of early spellings: “gogement,” “gugement,” “iugegement,” “iuggyment,” “iugment,” “iugumen,” “jugment,” “judgment,” and “jugmente.”

The word initially had an “e” when it was adapted from Anglo-Norman, where it was variously spelled judgement, jugemen, juggement, juggment, jogement, jougement, jujement, and gugement.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “e”-less spelling with “dgm” in the middle appeared in the early 16th century, “and by the late 17th cent. judgment had become the prevailing spelling, although judgement  was still commonly found.”

During the 19th century, the OED adds, “the form judgement gained in frequency in British contexts, and is now the usual spelling in general British use.”

However, the dictionary notes that “judgment  has remained the standard spelling in British legal contexts when used to refer to a judicial decision, as well as in U.S. usage.”

No doubt the version of the word with “e” in the middle looks right to you because it begins with “judge,” the spelling of the verb and noun.

However, the word “judge” didn’t give us the word “judgment.”

The noun “judge” didn’t appear until a century after “judgment,” while the verb “judge” showed up for the first time in the same manuscript as “judgment.” All the early spellings were in Middle English.

So what, you’re wondering, is the situation today?

Well, standard dictionaries in the US and the UK generally include both “judgment” and “judgement” for the non-legal usage. But “judgment” is more popular in the US and “judgement” in the UK.

So the two spellings are standard English on either side of the pond, though the presence of “e” might raise a few eyebrows in the US while its absence might raise some in the UK.

We’re not aware of an increase in the popularity of “judgement” in American English, but given the word’s shifting history, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the “e” become fashionable in the US one day, as it did in the UK during the 19th century.

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Why “disastrous” isn’t a disaster

Q: When did the “e” disappear from “disastrous”? In other words, why don’t we spell it “disasterous”?

A: English borrowed both the noun and the adjective from French, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The source of the noun was désastre while the source of the adjective was désastreux (masculine) and désastreuse (feminine)

However, both “disaster” and “disastrous” are ultimately derived from astron, Greek for star and the source of the English word “astronomy.”

Etymologically, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, the underlying meaning of the adjective is ill-starred and of the noun a “malevolent astral influence.”

The adjective, which showed up in the late 1500s, was originally spelled “desastrous” or “dysastrous.” Although an “er” version, “disasterous,” showed up briefly in the early 1600s, it didn’t catch on.

The earliest example in the OED is from Ciuile Conuersation, a 1586 translation of a work by the Italian writer Stefano Guazzo about economics and society:

“If she aford mee but one sparkle of hope and favour, she doth it to no other ende, but to make mee more desastrous.”

The noun, which first appeared in the early 1600s, was spelled “disaster” from the beginning. Shakespeare, who used it in seven of his plays, was probably responsible for popularizing the Anglicized spelling of the French noun.

The OED’s earliest example is from Hamlet (1604): “Starres with traines of fier and dewes of blood / Disasters in the sunne; and the moist starre, / Vpon whose influence Neptunes Empier stands, / Was sicke almost to doomesday with eclipse.”

Why, you ask, is the “e” in “disaster” missing from the modern adjective “disastrous”?

We suspect that the pronunciation of the adjective in French may have influenced its spelling in English. And Shakespeare’s decision to Anglicize désastre as “disaster” probably influenced the spelling of the noun.

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Not every “uu” is a “double-u”

Q: I’ve read your article about why a “w” is called a “double-u.” What puzzles me is why we still have words with “uu”—i.e., “vacuum,” “continuum,” and “triduum.” And why the “w” in “weltanschauung” is pronounced like a “v.” Just curious.

A: As we said in that 2011 post, English words were written in runic letters until the seventh century, when the Latin alphabet was introduced.

But the Latin alphabet of that time had no symbol for the sound of “w,” so such a symbol had to be invented.

At first the symbol used was “uu” or “double u.” But in the eighth century the runic letter ƿ (called a “wyn”) was borrowed for this purpose and was used in English writing for several centuries.

In the meantime, the old “uu”, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “was carried from England to the continent.”

There, the OED explains, it was used to represent the “w” sound “in the German dialects, and in French proper names and other words of Germanic and Celtic origin.”

It was Norman scribes who introduced a ligatured version of the old “uu,” forming the letter “w.” This new letter traveled from France to England in the 11th century, and by about 1300 it had replaced the old rune ƿ in English writing.

Although this new “w” was probably regarded as a single letter from the beginning, “it has never lost its original name of ‘double U,’ ” the OED says.

Now for your question about why some English words continue to be written with “uu.” The reason is that they have retained the “uu” spellings they had in Latin.

For example, “vacuum” is from the Latin noun spelled the same way: vacuum.

However, the “uu” combination in English does not sound like “w.” In the case of “vacuum,” it can sound like “yoo” or like “yoo-uh.”

The latter pronunciation is a diphthong—two syllables merged into one sound. This double sound is observable in the spelling of the word in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese: vacuo.

A handful of similar words spelled with “uu” also come from Latin words with identical spellings. And in these the “uu” is pronounced as a diphthong: “continuum,” “residuum,” and the uncommon “triduum,” meaning three days (or specifically the last three days of Lent).

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Plovers lane

Q: I was at a loss to explain the pronunciation of “plover” to the son of a friend. Some sources say it rhymes with “lover” and others with “rover.” A poll of birders indicates that PLUH-ver is favoured over PLOH-ver by a small majority. I bet there’s a worthwhile post lurking here.

A: You betcha! Both the PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver pronunciations are listed in standard dictionaries. Some have one, some the other, and the rest include the two of them.

So both pronunciations are standard English, though the eight dictionaries we’ve checked usually give only PLUH-ver for an online audio pronouncer.

(Some British dictionaries describe PLOH-ver as an American pronunciation, but the three US dictionaries we consulted include both PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver.)

Interestingly, the common name of the shorebird was spelled all sorts of ways  for hundreds of years after it showed up in English in the early 1300s. Those spellings undoubtedly reflected different pronunciations.

In fact, the first syllable was spelled—and pronounced—two different ways (plo- and plu-) in medieval Latin, the source of the English word. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes several theories about the origin of “plover,” a collective name for any of various wading birds of the family Charadriidae.

One theory is that the name was influenced by the classical Latin word for rain, pluvia, because plovers arrived with the rainy season, or were active then, or were easily hunted in the rain.

Another theory is that the upper plumage of some plovers appears to be spotted with raindrops.

However, the OED leans toward the theory that the name “plover” is simply imitative of the cries of various plovers.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “plover” is a reference to “pluvers” from a manuscript, dated 1304-05, in the British Museum.

Over the next three centuries, the word was spelled in dozens of ways, including plouier, ploware, plowere, pluwer, plovere, plower, pluuer.

Here’s an example from The Unfortunate Traveller, a 1594 novel by Thomas Nashe: “As fat and plum euerie part of her as a plouer.”

It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that English speakers settled on “plover” as the proper spelling of the bird’s name.

For example, Robert Lovell’s 1661 translation of a Greek work on zoology and mineralogy has an entry for “plover” with this description: “The flesh is very pleasant, and better than the green Lapwing.” (The feathers were also used in hats.)

Plover populations were devastated by hunting in the 19th century, but the Migratory Bird Treaty Act now protects them in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

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Seoul searching

Q: Why is there an “e” in Seoul? What’s it for, anyway?

A: Europeans are responsible for putting the “e” in “Seoul.” This spelling represents the commonly accepted transliteration of the word from the Korean alphabet into the Roman.

We’ve found mentions of the name “Seoul” or “Séoul” dating from the 1840s in French, German, Italian, and English writing.

The spelling was considered an approximation of the way native Koreans pronounced the word, which means “capital” in their language.

The first Europeans in Korea were French Roman Catholic missionaries who arrived in 1836, according to the Korea scholar James Huntley Grayson. (We’re citing a chapter he wrote in the anthology Christianity in Korea, 2006.)

It’s probable that these French priests were the first to spell “Seoul” with an “e.” We say this because the earliest example we’ve found is from a letter written in Italian on July 18, 1846, by a French priest, Antoine Daveluy, a missionary in Korea at the time.

In naming the provinces of “la Corea,” Father Daveluy gives the fifth province as “Kiang-kè, capitale, Han-iang, o Seoul, che è pure capitale di tutto il regno.” (Translation: “Kiang-kè, capital Han-iang or Seoul, which is also the capital of the entire kingdom.”)  His letter was published in a Catholic periodical in Italy in 1848.

British missionary publications—the Rambler (1849) and the Gleaner in the Missionary Field (1850)—used nearly identical language, though in English, to describe this province of “Corea,” except that they reversed the accent in “Kiang-ké.”

The Korean Repository, an English monthly published in Seoul in the 1890s, printed an exchange of letters in 1892 about the spelling “Seoul.”

One letter-writer expressed the opinion that “the transliteration Syoul as given in the Dictionnaire Coréen-Français is probably nearer correct than Seoul.”

Another correspondent said that attempts to reproduce the word in Roman letters had produced “kaleidoscopic variations that are as curious as they are perplexing.”

He mentioned “Seoul,” “Söul,” “Sowl,” “Sôwl,” “Sool,” “Sole,” “Sau-ull,” “Saw-ool,” “Sye-oul,” and “Syö-ul.”

He gave his own preference: “Söul, not a perfect medium it is true, but an intelligible and practical rendition, and one which will at least leave the public in the neighborhood of the correct pronunciation.”

The editor of the Korean Repository replied: “The word Seoul means Capital to the Koreans and is used as the name of the capital of Korea by foreigners. It is, as all admit, a word of two syllables, commonly transliterated Sye-oul. Unfortunately this does not help those who do not study the language to anything like a correct pronunciation because it does not spell it phonetically any more than Séoul, Sool, Soul &c.”

“Any attempt however to pronounce it as a monosyllable must necessarily lead astray and is as unintelligible to the uninitiated Korean as N’jork would be to the mass of the people in New York,” he added.

After discussing the word’s history as rendered in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writing, the editor noted that “the populace said Syeoul” at a time when the only writing “used in the peninsula was the Chinese ideogram, and it is probable that the word was not written as it had long been spoken until the general adoption of the Korean alphabet, with its phonetic spelling.”

He insisted that “the pronunciation of the word as a monosyllable is not like that of the Koreans ‘who speak the dialects’ nor, for that matter, like that of any Koreans.”

Foreigners, he added, usually stress the first syllable, with “the o as in long, or aw in law.” This vowel sound, he said, might be written with an “ó” (Sóul).

That rendering “would probably come nearest the native sound,” he said, “but there is always the danger of these top-knots [i.e., accent marks] being discarded after a brief season’s handling by the busy public, in which case we should have Soul left, than which nothing could be farther from the correct pronunciation. We have seen the name of our city written in this way by advocates of the ö (Söul) having ‘forgotten the umlaut’ and we fear Sóul would fare no better.”

The editor’s conclusion: “We are therefore inclined to think it just as well to continue to write Seoul, though Sóul is nearer the native pronunciation.”

Despite the 19th-century admonitions against a monosyllabic pronunciation, English speakers today pronounce the name of the capital like “soul” or “sole.”

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How “colonel” became KER-nel

Q: How did a “colonel” in the military come to be pronounced like a “kernel” on an ear of corn?

A: The word for the military officer once had competing spellings as well as competing pronunciations. When the dust settled, it ended up being spelled in one way and pronounced in the other.

The word was actually “coronel” when it entered English in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the messy story of how a word once spelled “coronel” in English came to be spelled “colonel” and pronounced KER-nel.

English acquired the original “coronel” from the Middle French coronnel, which came from colonello, the Italian word for the commander of a regiment, the OED says.

Colonello is derived from colonna, Italian for a column, which in turn comes from columna, Latin for a pillar.

Oxford cites the English philologist Walter William Skeat as saying the colonello got his name because he led “the little column or company at the head of the regiment.”

The first company of the regiment—the colonel’s company—was called la compagnia colonnella in Italian and la compagnie colonelle in French, according to the OED.

The confusion began when the Italian colonello entered Middle French in the 16th century. The two “l” sounds apparently didn’t sit well with French speakers, so the first “l” changed to “r” and the word briefly became coronel.

The process by which two neighboring “l” sounds were “dissimulated” (or rendered dissimilar) was common in the Romance languages, the OED says.

However, the French coronel “was supplanted in literary use, late in 16th cent., by the more etymological colonnel,” according to the dictionary. (The word is now colonel in modern French.)

But meanwhile both English and Spanish had borrowed coronel, the dissimilated version of the word, from Middle French in the mid-1500s.

When it entered English, in 1548, it was spelled “coronel,” with a three-syllable pronunciation (kor-uh-NEL) similar to that of the Middle French word.

Although it’s still spelled coronel in Spanish, English speakers soon followed the French and returned to the more etymologically correct spelling.

As the OED explains, “under this influence [the French spelling change] and that of translations of Italian military treatises colonel also appeared in English c1580.”

By the mid-1600s, the OED says, “colonel” was the accepted English spelling and “coronel” had fallen by the wayside.

But the word’s pronunciation took much longer to get settled.

The two competing pronunciations (kor-uh-NEL, kol-uh-NEL) existed until the early 19th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, along with a popular variation, KER-uh-nel.

In the early 1800s, Chambers says, the KER-uh-nel pronunciation was shortened to KER-nel. (The awkward KOL-nel, a shortened version of kol-uh-NEL, was recorded in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, but it eventually fell out of use.)

Although the KER-nel pronunciation became universally accepted, Chambers says, “the familiar literary form colonel remained firmly established in printing.”

So you might say that the word’s spelling today reflects its Italian heritage while the pronunciation reflects its French side—that is, its brief period of dissimilation in French.

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REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?

Q: You say in your post about the American term for a curriculum vitae that it can be spelled “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.” But how is it pronounced? If one uses two accents, for example, is it pronounced REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?

A: British dictionaries (which define the term as a summary, not a list of accomplishments) use two accents.  But American dictionaries (which accept both definitions) are all over the place.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), as we noted in our earlier post, lists the spellings in this order: “résumé” or “resume,” also “resumé.” (The wording indicates that the first two are equal in popularity, and the third is somewhat less common.)

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) lists the spellings this way: “resumé” or “resume” or “résumé.” (The wording indicates that the three are equally popular.)

In spite of differences in spelling, all the dictionaries we’ve consulted (three British and three American) list REZ as either the only or the primary pronunciation of the first syllable.

When English borrowed the word from French in the early 19th century, it meant only a summary of something.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Feb. 21, 1782, letter from Samuel Andrews to Benjamin Franklin: “I have taken the Liberty to send your Exellency two of my Résumé memoirs.”

The next example, from an 1804 issue of the Edinburgh Review, is clearer: “After a short resumé of his observations on coffee-houses and prisons, Mr. Holcroft leaves Paris.”

The word wasn’t used for a career summary until the 20th century, when this sense began appearing in the US and Canada.

The OED’s first citation is from an advertisement in the Jan. 10, 1926, issue of the Lincoln (Neb.) Sunday Star: “Send resume of previous business connections in letter of application.”

However, the dictionary encloses the entire citation in brackets, which “indicates a quotation is relevant to the development of a sense but not directly illustrative of it.”

The first unequivocal example is from an April 3, 1938, ad in the Hartford Courant: “Recent insurance company experience. $1800-$2000. Send full resume with snapshot.”

In Britain and France, a “résumé” is a summary while a list of accomplishments is a “curriculum vitae.”

Although some Americans also use the term “curriculum vitae” for a list of accomplishments, most refer to it as a “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.”

We prefer “resume.” Since the word is usually pronounced REZ-oo-may in English, it seems silly to keep the first accent and even sillier to leave only the second.

Yes, the noun and the verb would then be spelled the same, but it seems unlikely that anyone would confuse them in an actual sentence.

When English borrows words from other languages, they typically become anglicized over time, losing their accents and taking on new pronunciations. We think the time has come for “résumé” to be naturalized as “resume.”

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The rise and fall of capital letters

Q: In rereading Emily Dickinson’s poems, I’m impressed by her use of midline capitals. Can you shed some light on the capitalization of common nouns in 19th-century America? Is it intended for emphasis?

A: When William Caxton introduced printing to England in the 15th century, “great uncertainty” surrounded the use of capital letters, according to the linguist David Crystal.

In The Stories of English (2004), Crystal writes that capital letters were “first used for proper names as well as for sentence and verse-line openings.”

Later, he says, capitals “were extended to any words thought to be important (such as titles, terms of address, and personification) as well as to words receiving special emphasis.”

“During the seventeenth century, virtually any word might be capitalized, if it were felt to be significant, and compositors—to be on the safe side—tended to over-capitalize,” he writes.

In the 19th century, he adds, “a reaction set in against excessive capitalization … and we find the present-day system emerging.”

“Then as now there were heavy and light capitalizers, as well as heavy and light punctuators,” Crystal says. “Indeed, this is one of the areas where standard English is still most unstable, as a glance at the ‘sometimes capitalized’ note in modern dictionaries suggests.”

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Crystal expands on some of these points, noting efforts by John Hart, a 16th-century grammarian and spelling reformer, to bring some order to the language.

“Hart recommended his readers to use a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence, proper name, and important common noun,” he writes. “By the 17th century, the practice had extended to titles (Sir, Lady), forms of address (Father, Mistris), and personified nouns (Nature).  Emphasized words and phrases would also attract a capital.”

By the beginning of the 18th century, Crystal writes, “the influence of Continental books had caused this practice to be extended still further (e.g. to the names of the branches of knowledge), and it was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important.”

“Books appeared in which all or most nouns were given an initial capital (as is done systematically in modern German)— perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps because printers were uncertain about which nouns to capitalize, and so capitalized them all,” he writes.

Crystal says the use of capitals “was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of Butler, Traherne, Swift, and Pope are full of initial capitals.”

“However, the later 18th-century grammarians were not amused by this apparent lack of discipline in the written language,” he says. “In their view, the proliferation of capitals was unnecessary, and causing the loss of a useful potential distinction. Their rules brought a dramatic reduction in the types of noun permitted to take a capital letter.”

We’ll end with “This Is My Letter to the World,” a poem in which Emily Dickinson uses capital letters liberally:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

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Dot-commentary

Q: Any thoughts why the “.com” in a Web address is referred to as “dot com” and not “period com” or perhaps the more suitable “point com”?

A: Our feeling is that “dot” is preferred because it’s snappier than “period” or “point.” It has fewer syllables than “period,” and it’s clearer and more emphatic than “point.”

While journalists and editors often use “point” to mean “period,” we suspect that most people think of “point” in the punctuation or notation sense as short for “decimal point”—something used with numbers, not letters.

Besides, “dot” was first on the scene in the world of computing. It’s been used for more than 30 years to refer to this punctuation mark in an Internet address.

By the way, most standard dictionaries hyphenate the term “dot-com” when it refers to a company that does business on the Internet. However, the term is often seen as “dot.com,” “dotcom,” “dot com,” or simply “.com.”

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (3rd ed.) uses “dot-com” when referring to Internet commerce and “.com” when referring to a Web address. We think that’s a good idea.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the term spells it “dotcom,” but the dictionary notes the various other spellings mentioned above.

Since at least as far back as 1981, according to the OED, “dot” has been used to mean “a full stop or point as an element of punctuation dividing the different components in an Internet address.”

And since at least as far back as 1984, the dictionary says, “com” has been used in domain names “to indicate a commercial web site, though later more broadly applied.”

The dictionary’s “dotcom” entry includes definitions for both an address (or website) and a company. We’ll quote them in full:

1. “An Internet address for a commercial site expressed in terms of the formulaic suffix .com; a web site with such an address.”

2.  “A company which uses the Internet for business, esp. one which has an Internet address ending with the suffix .com. In extended use: the Internet as a business medium.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for No. 1 is from the April 5, 1994, issue of Newsday: “If I were telling someone that address I’d say: ‘quit at newsday dot com.’ ”

And its earliest example for No. 2 is from the November 1996 issue of Internet World: “A broad discussion of what’s around the corner for dot.coms.”

No matter how it’s spelled, the term is always pronounced the same way (as a compound of “dot” and “com”).

[Update, Aug. 15, 2014: A reader of the blog notes that
RFC 882 (a Request for Comments memo issued by Internet developers in November 1983) uses the term “dot” in introducing the concept of domain names. Here’s the relevant sentence: “When domain names are printed, labels in a path are separated by dots (‘.’).”]

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Some words about the N-word

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you say the N-word is derived from Latin. I’ve read that it comes from the area of Africa called Niger. Slavers changed “Niger” to “nigger” as a form of humiliation.

A: “Nigger” dates back to the 16th century, when a group of words beginning with the letter “n” started showing up in English in reference to Africans or African Americans.

These words included “Negro,” “nigro,” “niegro,” “neger,” “neager,” “negar,” “niger,” and “nigger.” (Some of these terms were originally capitalized, but only “Negro” is today.)

All of these words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are ultimately derived from the classical Latin word for black, niger.

The OED says the N-word was spelled “niger” when it first showed up in the late 1500s, though “it seems likely that the form niger … is intended to represent the same pronunciation” as “nigger.”

The double-g spelling first appeared in the early 1600s, according to the dictionary, but “niger” was “the preferred form up to the end of the 18th cent.”

At first, Oxford says, the word “nigger” was used by whites “as a relatively neutral (or occas. positive) term, with no specifically hostile intent.”

It didn’t become a racial slur until sometime in the first third of the 19th century, according to Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, a 2001 book by the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy.

The earliest example of “nigger” in the OED (spelled “niger”) is from Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of a collection of Spanish epistles by Antonio de Guevara: “the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnesse.”

The reference to “the Nigers of Aethiop” here is simply an English translation of the original Spanish, “los negros en Ethiopia.”

The OED’s first example of the word with a double-g spelling is from a 1608 letter in the factory records of the East India Company: “The King and People [of ‘Serro Leona’] Niggers, simple and harmless.”

The dictionary says the comments in the letter, while “expressing patronizing views, reflect underlying attitudes rather than a hostile use of the word itself.”

Clearly derogatory uses began showing up in the early 1800s. Kennedy cites a comment from the abolitionist Hosea Easton about the negative usage.

In A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them (1837), Easton describes “nigger” as “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.”

Interestingly, the OED says the word “nigger” was initially “used by black people (esp. African Americans) as a neutral or favourable term.”

However, this statement is open to argument, since the dictionary’s early examples come from white writers describing the speech of African Americans, often in what would now be considered heavy-handed, if not racist, attempts at humor.

As for its etymology, the OED says that “nigger” (and the earlier “niger”) is “probably an alteration” of the even earlier “neger,” a term for a black person first recorded in writing in 1568.

This word “neger,” Oxford says, was adopted from nègre, a word first recorded in Middle French in 1516 as a noun meaning “black person.” The French nègre was adopted in turn from the Spanish noun negro. It was this Spanish noun, negro, that gave English the word “Negro.”

We can understand why you might think “nigger” comes from the geographic name “Niger,” but there doesn’t seem to be any documented evidence that would support this.

The area referred to as Niger is named for the River Niger in West Africa, but the origin of the river’s name is uncertain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used similar names in referring to the River Niger, according to A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, an 1841 reference by Charles Anthon.

Ptolemy, for example, called what appeared to be the River Niger “the Nigeir,” while Pliny the Elder called it “the Nigris.” Herodotus didn’t mention a specific name, but he described what seemed like the same river.

“From all, then, that has been stated,” Anthon writes, “it will satisfactorily appear, that the great river of the Libya of Herodotus, the Nigris of Pliny, the Nigeir of Ptolemy, and the Niger of modern geography, are one and the same river.”

However, it’s uncertain whether those classical names for the Niger, the third-largest river in Africa, were references to the color black or to an African name for the river.

One theory is that the early names referred to the color of the river’s water. But unlike the Rio Negro in Brazil, whose water is dramatically dark, the Niger isn’t black or blackish, according to online images. (The 18th-century Scottish poet James Thomson wrote of “Niger’s yellow stream.”)

Another theory is that the river was named for the black soil on its banks. A third hypothesis is that the classical names refer to the “river of the blacks.”

And a fourth is that the names are derived from a Tuareg phrase for the river: egerew nigerewen or egerew n-igerewen (“river of rivers”).

But as we’ve said, there is no evidence to support any of these theories. No matter how the classical names originated, English writers have been referring to the river as the “Niger” since around 1600, according to the OED.

The dictionary doesn’t have a citation for the usage, but here’s an example from Sylva Sylvarum or a Natural History in Ten Centuries, a posthumously published 1627 collection of scientific writings by Francis Bacon:

“And the confines of the River Niger, where the Negroes also are, are well watered.” (Was Bacon suggesting a connection between “Niger” and “Negroes”? It’s hard to say.)

Getting back to the derogatory nature of “nigger,” we wrote in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, that the word “is now the most bitterly resented racial slur a white person can utter.”

However, we noted that “young rappers now treat it as an honorific of the ’hood—repackaged as ‘nigga,’ ‘niggahz,’ etc.—to the dismay of some of their elders who have painful associations with the original.”

In a 2009 item on our blog, we mentioned that “nigger” (or “nigga”) had been reclaimed as a positive or neutral term by some African Americans. We explained that attempts to neutralize words of abuse or turn them to positive ends are examples of semantic bleaching.

We also directed readers to an interesting paper on the subject by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at the City University of New York. His paper, published in the book African-American English (1998), discusses sexism in gangsta rap.

You might be interested in another post we ran a few years ago about the mythology of  blackness, and how lightness and darkness came to be identified with goodness and badness.

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A trash “chute” or “shoot”?

Q: In one of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum mysteries, Stephanie refers to a trash “chute” in her apartment building as a “shoot.” Was the copy editor asleep at the wheel? Or did I doze off while the spelling changed?

A: The usual spelling for the shaft down which garbage, laundry, and other stuff drops is “chute.” However, some standard dictionaries, including Oxford Dictionaries online, list “shoot” as an acceptable variant.

In fact, “shoot” (actually, “shoote”) was the original spelling of the noun, which showed up in the early 1500s and has roots in Anglo-Saxon days, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The “chute” spelling, Chambers says, first appeared in the US in the late 1700s and was influenced by chute, a French term for the fall of water.

“The French form came into American English through contact with early French-speaking explorers and settlers in North America,” the etymology guide adds, noting that the ultimate source of the French term is cadere, the Latin verb meaning to fall.

This story begins with the verb “shoot,” which meant “to go swiftly and suddenly” when it showed up in Old English (spelled sceote) in the late writings of King Aelfred (849-899), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the noun “shoot” first appeared in the early 1500s, the OED says, it referred to “an act of shooting (with firearms, a bow, etc.); a discharge of arrows, bullets, etc.”

But by the early 1600s, Oxford reports, the noun was being used to mean “a heavy and sudden rush of water down a steep channel; a place in a river where this occurs, a rapid.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of this sense is from The Secrets of Angling, a book by John Dennys published in 1613:

“At the Tayles, of Mills and Arches small, / Whereas the shoote is swift and not too cleare.” (The OED dates the citation from sometime before 1609.)

In the early 1700s, Oxford says, the noun “shoot” took on a new sense: “an artificial channel for conveying water by gravity to a low level; or for the escape of overflow water from a reservoir, etc.”

By the 1800s, according to OED citations, a “shoot” could convey coal, ore, wheat, timber, cattle, rubbish, and so on. Here’s a trash example from London Labour and the London Poor, an 1851 work by Henry Mayhew:

“Each particular district appears to have its own special ‘shoot,’ as it is called, for rubbish.”

The word “chute,” which first showed up in the 1700s, originally referred to “a fall of water; a rapid descent in a river, or steep channel by which water escapes from a higher to a lower level.”

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1793 diary entry in Five Fur Traders of the Northwest, a book edited by Charles M. Gates and published in 1933: “[We] slept at the chute a Blondeau.”

Chambers cites this diary entry example as evidence that the “chute” spelling entered American English through contact with French-speaking explorers and settlers.

By the early 1800s, the term “chute” was being used in the US to mean “a steep channel or enclosed passage down which ore, coal, grain, or the like is ‘shot,’ so as to reach a receptacle, wagon, etc. below.”

The OED says the term is “usually shoot” in England. However, all the British standard dictionaries we’ve checked list “chute” as either the only or the more common spelling.

The OED doesn’t have any citations for the terms “garbage chute” or “trash chute” used in the sense of a refuse disposal shaft in an apartment building.

However, we’ve found several late-19th-century examples for “garbage chute” in Google Books, including this one from an 1895 collection of documents from the New York State Assembly:

“We recommend for new tenements an airtight ash and garbage chute, as the best solution of the removal of garbage during the day. Without this the tenants will persist in throwing rubbish out of the windows or storing it on the fire escapes.”

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