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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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The geography of the apostrophe

Q: I thought you might find it interesting that city officials in Cambridge (England) have banned the use of the apostrophe in new street names. What are your thoughts?

A: We saw the same news stories you did. But a few days after you emailed us, there was a new development. The officials in Cambridge bowed to public pressure and reversed that ban on possessive apostrophes in signs marking new streets.

Here in the United States, we don’t see many possessive apostrophes (or periods, for that matter) in street signs. The authorities that regulate these things tend to discourage the use of punctuation. 

(And by the way, you might be interested in a post we wrote some time ago on the use of compass directions—like the confusing “No” for north—on street signs.)

Who gets to decide whether street signs can have apostrophes? In the US, as in Britain, this is up to local cities and towns.

In this country, the individual municipalities use guidelines established by state boards or commissions that regulate geographic names. All 50 states have such agencies.

The states in turn look to the federal government for guidance. And on the federal level, the use of apostrophes in the names of geographic features has been discouraged since 1890, when the US Board on Geographic Names was established.

This is why you almost never see apostrophes on federal signs and maps. The US board says in the FAQ on its website that when place names are in the possessive form, “the apostrophe is almost always removed,” though the “s” by itself is allowed.

What does the federal government have against apostrophes in geographic features? The agency itself can’t explain. “The Board’s archives contain no indication of the reason for this policy,” it says in the FAQ.

But it does dispose of a few old theories: “Myths attempting to explain the policy include the idea that the apostrophe looks too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, and is therefore a hazard, or that in the days of ‘stick–up type’ for maps, the apostrophe would become lost and create confusion.”

“The probable explanation,” the agency suggests, “is that the Board does not want to show possession for natural features.”

Elsewhere, in its editorial guidelines, the board says: “Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper name (Henrys Fork, not Henry’s Fork).”

However, the guidelines add, “Apostrophes may be used within the body of a geographic name to denote a missing letter (Lake O’ the Woods) or when they normally exist in a surname used as part of a geographic name (O’Malley Hollow).”

As for street signs, the national board says that, unless asked for an opinion, it doesn’t get involved in the names of roads, streets, highways, canals, shopping centers, churches, schools, hospitals, airports, and other entities that are administered by local governments. 

So local agencies or municipalities are free to choose whether the names include a genitive or possessive apostrophe. But as we said above, the local agencies generally follow guidelines from their states, which tend to follow the federal government’s lead.

For example, the Hawaii State Board on Geographic Names lists apostrophes among “things to avoid.”

Many American place names that once had apostrophes officially lost them to government regulation back in the 19th century—notably Pikes Peak, named for the explorer Zebulon Pike, and Harpers Ferry, for a ferry operator named Robert Harper.

And for the most past, Americans haven’t been as bothered by all this as their counterparts in Britain. But even here, defenders of the apostrophe have occasionally (very occasionally) made themselves heard on the subject.

As a result, a handful of what the board calls “natural features” have been allowed to include an apostrophe denoting possession or association.

Here are the names, along with the years in which the board relented and gave them back their punctuation:

● Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts, 1933). The locals simply wouldn’t stand for “Marthas Vineyard” and mounted an intense campaign. It worked.

● Ike’s Point (New Jersey, 1944).  The argument, according to the agency: “it would be unrecognizable otherwise.”

● John E’s Pond (Rhode Island, 1963). This would be unreadable without the apostrophe. And spoken, the name would sound like “John S.”

● Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View (Arizona, 1995). The Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names argued that three apparent names in a row would be confusing. (The third name is a reference to a stand of Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) once captured on film by the photographer Carlos Elmer.)

● Clark’s Mountain (Oregon, 2002). Meriwether Lewis named the peak for William Clark, who climbed it in 1806. To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Oregon Geographic Names Board, along with the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, asked that the apostrophe be restored.

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Is your spell-checker a maverick?

Q: Ever since I installed the new Mavericks operating system on my Mac, I’ve been in a tussle with the new spell-checker. And the spell-checker is winning. Before, my alleged mistakes were underlined with little red dots, which I often ignored. Now, they’re simply “corrected,” never mind what I want. Well, thanks for listening to my rant.

A: Yes, spell checkers can be frustrating. We’ve had our battles with them too. Fortunately, most spell checkers let you turn off unwanted features.

We don’t have Macs, but we found a guide on the Apple website with advice on how to win tussles with the Mavericks spell-checker.

In Apple’s OS X Mavericks, according to the guide, you can disable the “Correct Spelling Automatically” feature.

In the Apple menu, go to “System Preferences,” then click on “Keyboard” and “Text.” To turn off the automatic correction feature, choose “Edit,” then “Spelling and Grammar,” and uncheck “Correct Spelling Automatically.”

As for spell-checkers, we use ours all the time but we don’t trust them. As Pat points out in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage book, spell-checkers aren’t very picky. They don’t care whether the subject is a “guerrilla” or a “gorilla.”

 “Humans, however, are picky,” Pat writes. “They notice little differences between words that sound the same (like way and weigh, or rain and reign), or words that are similar but not alike (such as not and now, or affect and effect, or how and who). To a real person, one is not just as good as another!”

The lesson?

“Don’t expect your computer to think for you. Sure, go ahead and use your checker, but don’t depend on it to catch every mistake. Word processors have dictionaries, but not common sense—at least not yet. So don’t automatically hit Replace every time the program tells you to (oar Yule bee sari).”

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How Jesus got his name

Q: In preparation for an upcoming lecture, I would be interested in knowing if you have any details about how the name of Jesus came into English. Specifically, how did it come to be pronounced so differently from the original Greek/Latin?

A: Jesus was first referred to in Old English as hǽlend, or “savior” (the word wasn’t capitalized). The name we now spell “Jesus” didn’t come into our language until the early Middle English period (1150-1250).

But even then, it wasn’t spelled “Jesus.”

In its earliest written form, the name didn’t end in “s” and didn’t begin with “j” (the letter “j” didn’t exist at the time). The name was spelled “iesu” (names weren’t capitalized then). 

Before getting any further into how the spelling developed in English, let’s take a little detour into the etymology of “Jesus.”

The name came into English from the Latin Iesus, a Roman transliteration of the Greek Iesous.

It had come into Greek from the late Hebrew or Aramaic Yeshua, which was a common name for Jewish boys at the time of Jesus’s birth.

(We’ve capitalized the names here, though proper nouns were treated the same as common nouns in classical Latin and Greek, as well as in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic.)

Yeshua, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came from the earlier y’hoshua, which can be translated as “God (Yahweh) is salvation” or “God saves.” (Other forms of this name include Yehoshua, Jehoshua, and Joshua.)

The name was first recorded in English as “iesu” around 1175, as part of “iesu cristes” in a book of homilies. The name was written in lowercase letters then, but we’ll follow the modern convention and capitalize it from now on.  

The absence of a final “s” was an influence of Old French, the OED says. “Iesu” represented the Old French objective form of the Latin Iesus, and that was the form that came into Middle English and was used for some 400 years.

The spelling “Iesus,” representing the Latin nominative form, was rarely used in Middle English but became the regular English spelling in the 16th century, according to Oxford.

As we mentioned above, “Jesus” wasn’t originally spelled with a “j” because the letter didn’t exist at the time. The “j” showed up in English, the OED says, as “a comparatively late modification of the letter I.”

The sound itself—the “j” we hear in words like “judge” and “jail”—is relatively new as these things go. Here’s how it developed.

In the ancient Roman alphabet, the letter “i” had two sounds—it was a vowel, but also a consonant sounding like “y.”

Sometime before the sixth century, as the OED explains, this “y” sound in Latin and other languages using the Roman alphabet began changing into a “consonantal diphthong.”

This blend of the consonant sounds “d” and “y” (similar to the sound heard in the English words “odious” and “hideous”) gradually passed into what we now know as the “j” sound.

The result, Oxford says, was that from the 11th to the 17th centuries the  letter “i” had two extremely different sounds—it was both a vowel and a consonant sounding like “j.”

Meanwhile, according to the OED, the guttural letter “g” was undergoing its own evolution, and began to develop a “softer” sound, similar to that of the modern “j.”

Clearly, European printers needed a new letter for a sound hitherto represented by both “i” and “g.” Thus “j,” looking in its lowercase form like an “i” with a tail, appeared—first in 15th-century Spanish and later in other languages using the Roman alphabet.

The new letter became established in English in the mid-1600s, too late for the 1611 King James Version of the Bible.

The earliest example in the OED of the “Jesus” spelling is from a 1632 case in the Court of High Commission, the supreme ecclesiastic court in England at that time:

“That we are as carefull in printeing the Bible as they are of their Jesus’ psalter.”

We couldn’t find any earlier examples in a search of Google Books, but we did find several others from the 1600s.

Although the “differentiation of I and J, in form and value” was completed by 1640, the OED notes, “the feeling that they were, notwithstanding, merely forms of the same letter continued for many generations.”

By the way, “Christ” is not Jesus’s last name. Jews in his time had only one name.

As we’ve written before on the blog, “Christ” is a title meaning “anointed one,” an Anglicized version of the Greek Kristos and the Latin Christus. Originally the first vowel had a short “i” sound, as in “mist.”

In another post, we’ve pointed out that the term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years. No, it’s not a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas.

In fact, the use of “X” for “Christ” began nearly a thousand years ago. But you can’t blame secularists. Blame the monks in Great Britain who used “X” for “Christ” while transcribing manuscripts in Old English.

Why “X”? Because the Greek word for Christ, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, begins with the letters “chi” (or “X”) and “rho” (or “P”). And the monks used either “X” or “XP” in writing as an abbreviation for “Christ.”

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“Jail” versus “gaol”

Q: I’m a native Polish speaker who’s learning vocabulary by solving English crosswords. During a coffee break at work, the clue “prison” suggested “jail” for these four spaces: “_A_L.” This sparked a debate with a British friend over “gaol” vs. “jail.” Your thoughts?

A: Both spellings have been around for hundreds of years. The traditional spelling has been “gaol” in Britain and “jail” in the United States.

Although “gaol” is still acceptable in Britain, it’s now considered a variant spelling of “jail” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and the four standard British dictionaries we’ve checked.

As Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) explains, “gaol, gaoler, the traditional spellings in the UK, are now under severe and probably unstoppable pressure from jail, jailer, which are dominant in most other parts of the English-speaking world.”

Both pairs—“gaol, gaoler” and “jail, jailer”—are pronounced the same way, which leads to this question: why do the British have a “gaol” spelling if the word is pronounced “jail”?

The short answer, according to Oxford Dictionaries online, is that the word “gaol” was “originally pronounced with a hard g, as in goat.” Here’s a fuller answer.

“Etymologically, a jail is a ‘little cage,’ ” John Ayto says in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto explains that the English word is ultimately derived from caveola, a diminutive of cavea, Latin for cage (and the source of the English word “cage”).

Why do we have two spellings? Because Middle English (the language spoken from about 1100 to 1500) adopted two distinct versions of the word from French.

The “gaol” version comes from the Norman French gaiole or gaole, the OED says, while “jail” comes from the Old Parisian French jaiole or jaile.

Early versions of “gaol” (like gayhol and gayhole) first showed up in English in the 1200s, while early versions of “jail” (iaiole and iayll) appeared in the 1300s, according to Oxford citations.

“Until the 17th century,” Ayto writes, “gaol was pronounced with a hard /g/ sound, but then it gradually fell into line with jail.”

The two versions of the word were spelled all sorts of ways in Middle English, when our language had no letter “j”: gayhol, gayhole, gayll, gaylle, gaille, gayole, and so on. The “gaol” and “jail” spellings first showed up in the 1600s.

The OED describes “gaol” as an “archaic spelling” that’s still seen in writing “chiefly due to statutory and official tradition” in Britain. However, the dictionary adds that “this is obsolete in the spoken language, where the surviving word is jail.”

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Wagyu or waygu?

Q: We know it’s “wagyu,” but the menu at Spoons Bistro in Victor, Idaho, spells it “waygu.” When we mentioned this to our server, the chef came out and explained that “waygu” is the accepted and proper term for US-raised wagyu. We liked the restaurant and we’ll go again, but we were skeptical of this explanation. What do you think of that spelling?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary has only one spelling, “wagyu,” for this borrowing from Japanese. It refers to either Kobe-style beef or the cattle the beef comes from.

In Japanese, the OED says, wa- means Japan or Japanese, and gyu means cow, bull, cattle, or beef. So in Japan wagyu can refer to a Japanese cow or bull, Japanese cattle, or Japanese beef.

The word is generally pronounced WAG-yoo and can be either singular or plural. It’s sometimes capitalized.

Oxford defines “wagyu” this way: “A breed of cattle of Japanese origin, from which is obtained tender marbled beef typically containing a high percentage of unsaturated fat; an animal of this type. Also: the beef obtained from such cattle.”

However, the Japan Meat Information Center (on an English-language Web page entitled “What is wagyu?”) says the beef comes from four different breeds of cattle: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled.

We checked half a dozen standard American and British dictionaries, but only one, Collins, had an entry for the word—spelled “wagyu.”

Collins uses the terms “Kobe” and “wagyu” interchangeably to describe the beef, though “Kobe beef” technically refers to beef from cattle raised and slaughtered in the Kobe area of Japan.

The term “wagyu” is still relatively new in English, which may account for its absence from most standard dictionaries, and the lack of a consensus on exactly what it means.

We’ve seen it used to mean Kobe beef, Kobe-style beef, beef from any of the four Japanese wagyu breeds, beef from wagyu hybrids, beef from other cattle raised like wagyu, and so on.

The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from the July 5, 1963, issue of the Sheboygan Press in Wisconsin: The country’s farm experts hope to increase the production of beef tremendously by crossing Angus with the native black Wagyu cattle.”

The most recent citation is from Murder at Marathon, a 2003 mystery by  W. H. Denney: “Duncan, never shy or left hungry, ordered the expensive Wagyu sirloin, imported from Japan.”

Getting back to your question, we looked at the online menu of Spoons Bistro and found the dish that caught your eye: “Bistro Filet Medallions: grilled waygu beef, ratatouille, baby potato with a spicy bloody mary sauce.”

We’ve seen “waygu” on the menus of other restaurants, but in many cases that spelling seems to be the result of typos.

The Yamashiro restaurant in Hollywood, for example, has a “From the Kitchen” feature entitled “Waygu Steak on Salt Plate,” but the restaurant uses the spelling “wagyu” in describing the steak.

We haven’t seen any authoritative source that supports the “waygu” spelling, though some people believe “waygu” refers to American-produced beef from wagyu cows or wagyu hybrids, while “wagyu” refers to beef produced in Japan from wagyu cows.

Well, the term “waygu” may not have scholarly cred, but our googling suggests that it’s nearly as popular as the original “wagyu.” Here’s the Google the scorecard: “wagyu,” 1.8 million hits; “waygu,” 1.2 million hits.

So what’s going on here? To be honest, we don’t know, but here’s one possibility. Perhaps English speakers find “waygu” easier to pronounce than “wagyu.”

It will be interesting to see if both spellings make it into standard dictionaries as the word catches the attention of more lexicographers. Stay tuned.

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A grizzly of a different color

Q: Here’s a question you can get your teeth into. An article in the Guardian about the eating habits of the Neanderthals included this sentence: “There are other, equally valid but decidedly more grizzly explanations to account for those microscopic fragments of herbs and plants found in Neanderthal teeth.” Any comment?

A: Well, the Neanderthals may have eaten like bears, but the Guardian writer probably meant “grisly.” (As one reader commented on the Guardian’s blog, “Bear with it.”)

These are two very different words. “Grizzly” essentially means gray or grayish (the grizzly bear is named for its color). The venerable old adjective “grisly” originally meant “scary” rather than what it means to most of us today—“gruesome.”

Let’s take a look at the histories of both, starting with the older one.

“Grisly” was first recorded in English sometime before the year 1150, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It came from an earlier word (grislic) in Old English, which came in turn from a verb, “grise,” which died out in the 1500s and meant to shudder with fear.

(This word “grise,” by the way, may be related to another old verb, “grue”—to shudder, to feel terror or horror—which is the source of “gruesome.”)

Originally, the OED explains, “grisly” meant “causing horror, terror, or extreme fear; horrible or terrible to behold or to hear; causing such feelings as are associated with thoughts of death and ‘the other world’, spectral appearances, and the like.”

In more recent times, the dictionary adds, it has meant “causing uncanny or unpleasant feelings; of forbidding appearance; grim, ghastly.”

In modern usage, according to standard dictionaries, “grisly” is often used in the sense of gruesome or repugnant.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes this among its “grisly” definitions: “inspiring disgust or distaste.”

The online version of the dictionary includes these examples: “The jurors saw grisly photos of the crime scene” … “recounted the visit to the murder scene in grisly detail.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “grisly” as meaning “causing repugnance; gruesome.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that in 1900 the OED labeled “grisly” archaic or literary, but since then “its fortunes have recovered strongly, and it is now firmly part of the general language.”

The adjective “grizzly” is a horse of a different color—gray, to be specific. Since it was first recorded in 1594, the OED says,  it has meant “grey; greyish; grey-haired; grizzled.”

An earlier adjective, “grizzle” (1425), meant gray in color, and an even earlier noun form (1390) meant a gray-haired old man.

The phrase “grizzly bear” dates from early 19th-century North America. The OED defines it as “a large and ferocious bear, Ursus horribilis, peculiar to the mountainous districts of western North America.”

A member of the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first to record the bear’s name.  In 1807 Patrick Gass, in a journal of the expedition, wrote: “The bears from which they get these skins are a harmless kind, and not so bold and ferocious as the grizly and brown bear.”

“Grisly” and “grizzly” not only have different meanings, but they also have different ancestors.

“Grisly” is from Germanic sources. But “grizzly” comes from the Old French word grisel, from gris (gray).

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Harebrained or hairbrained?

Q: Here’s a term I’ve seen used but I’m unsure of the origin or its precise intention. Is it “harebrained,” like a hare? Or “hairbrained,” like a brain stuffed with hair? If the former, how is a hare involved?

A: The short answer is “harebrained,” but the short answer doesn’t do justice to your question. Here’s the story.

Both the “hare” and “hair” versions showed up in the 1500s, though both of those usages referred to the animal of the genus Lepus rather than the stuff that grows from follicles.

It turns out that “hair” and “haire” were variant spellings of “hare” in the 1500s, especially in Scottish English.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancastre and Yorke (1548), a book by the English historian Edward Hall:

“My desire is that none of you be so unadvised or harebrained as to be the occasion that I in my defence shall colour and make red your tawny ground with the deaths of yourselves and the effusion of Christian blood.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The next example of the usage is from the English writer George Pettie’s 1581 translation of La civil conversazione, a work written in Italian by Stefano Guazzo: “If his sonne be haughtie, or haire brained, he termeth him courageous.”

The OED defines the term “hare-brained” (which it hyphenates) as “having or showing no more ‘brains’ or sense than a hare; heedless, reckless; rash, wild, mad. Of persons, their actions, etc.”

The “hair” version of the usage later inspired two alternative definitions: “having hair-sized brains” and “having brains stuffed with hair.” However, those are considered products of folk etymologies.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) notes that the “hair” spelling of “hare” was preserved in Scotland into the 1700s, making it impossible to tell exactly when “hairbrained” came to be associated with hair rather than hares.

Standard dictionaries now define “harebrained” as foolish, silly, or impractical. A few list “hairbrained” as a variant spelling, but “harebrained” is far more popular, with roughly twice as many hits on Google.

American Heritage, one of the dictionaries that include the “hair” version as a variant, says in a usage note: “While hairbrained continues to be used, the standard spelling of the word is harebrained.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), edited by R. W. Burchfield, describes the “hair” version as “an erroneous variant,” but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage accepts it as an “established” though secondary usage.

What do we think? We’ll stick with “harebrained.” Our brains are a bit woolly at times, but not quite hirsute.

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Texicography

Q: Your July 9 blog about how to pronounce “texted” inspires me to write about a ubiquitous and annoying pronunciation of the past tense of “text” here in Cincinnati. Young people almost exclusively pronounce the present as “tex” and the past as “text.” Maybe the past would be spelled “texed,” but that doesn’t change the pronunciation. Have you heard this in your area?

A: No, we weren’t aware of the usage until you mentioned it.

But on looking into this we find that quite a few people consider to “tex” the infinitive, with “tex” or “texes” the present, and “text” the past.

Others consider “tex” or “texes” the present, and “texed” (pronounced TEXT) the past tense. And still others use “text” or “texts” for the present and “text” for the past.

Interestingly, these usages aren’t confined to speech. We got more than half a million hits in Google searches for “tex” and “texed” used in place of “text” and “texted.”

And the linguist Arnold Zwicky, in searches for past tenses and past participles, found roughly one example of “text” for every five of “texted.”

This isn’t an overnight phenomenon, either, and it’s not limited to Cincinnati.

A July 25, 2005, article in the Modesto Bee, for example, reported that a friend sent this text message to the cell phone of a California teenager killed in a car crash:

“Tex me when u get to heaven.”

(Family members found the message on 16-year-old Stephanie Blevins’s phone.)

In standard English, as you know, the infinitive or root verb is “text,” the present tense is “text” or “texts,” and the past tense (as well as the past participle) is “texted.”

Why all the variants? We think pronunciation has a lot to do with this.

Some people hear the verb “text” as if it were spelled “texed,” and assume it’s a past tense. Naturally, the present tense would be “tex” or “texes.” (Think of “fax,” “faxes,” and “faxed.”)

The phonetician John Wells notes on his blog that the confusion here apparently lies with the consonant cluster at the end of “text.”

“The final cluster [kst] is highly susceptible to losing its final consonant, particularly when followed by a consonant sound,” Wells writes.

In words with similar-sounding endings (like “next,” “boxed,” and “mixed”), he says, “it’s usual for the final [t] to be elided (lost) except in very careful (over-enunciated) speech.”

The linguist David Crystal, however, finds “nothing intrinsically difficult about the consonant cluster at the end of text.”

“But adding an -ed ending alters the pronunciation dynamic,” he writes on his blog. “We now have two /t/ sounds in a rapid sequence, as we had in broadcasted.”

Although it’s “very unusual to find a new irregular past tense form in standard English,” Crystal says, it “does happen, as we see with the preference for shorter broadcast.”

He predicts that lexicographers will one day recognize “texed” as a legitimate past tense. We’re not so sure, but we’ll let Crystal have the last word.

“Whatever the reasons, we do now find forms such as texed and tex’d being used with increasing frequency,” he writes. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we find it being treated like broadcast in dictionaries, and given two forms.”

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Chili, chile, or chilli?

Q: Can “chile” describe a pepper, or is “chili” the correct spelling? My company has taken over the Golden Chile Award, which has been spelled that way for years. I would like not to correct it, but I also don’t want to misspell the award.

A: There are three spellings for this hot pepper from several varieties of the genus Capsicum: “chili,” “chile,” and “chilli.”

Which is correct? It depends on where you live.

The usual spelling in American English is “chili,” but “chile” is an acceptable variant. The usual spelling in British English is “chilli.” 

(The plurals are “chilies” or “chiles” in the US, and chillies” in the UK.)

Should you change the spelling of the pepper in the name of the award? We don’t think so.

Although we spell the word “chili,” there’s a good case to be made for sticking with the existing name of the award, which is given for sauces, relishes, and other fiery foods, as we’ve learned online.

The award is American, and the two US dictionaries we consult the most list “chile” as a legitimate variant of the more common spelling “chili.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says such a variant spelling is “acceptable in any context,” while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the choice here is a matter of “personal inclination.”

And, as you undoubtedly know, the Spanish word is spelled chile in Latin America, the  birthplace of the hot pepper. And that’s the way the word is spelled in “chiles rellenos,” the stuffed peppers that originated in Mexico.

However, the name of the plant was chilli in 16th-century transcriptions of Nahuatl, the indigenous language that gave Spanish the word.

The plant was spelled “chille” when it showed up in English in the 17th century. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Indian Nectar, a 1662 treatise on chocolate: “Some Pepper called Chille … was put in.”

However, the spelling is “chile” in the next OED example, from Vinetum Britannicum, a 1678 book by John Worlidge about cider: “Two Cods, or Pods, of Chile.”

Interestingly, the earliest citation for the usual American spelling, “chili,” is from a British novel, Vanity Fair (1848), by William Makepeace Thackeray:

“ ‘Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,’ said Joseph, really interested. ‘A chili,’ said Rebecca, gasping. ‘Oh yes!’ She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported.”

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The prince of shorthand

Q: Prince (the musical artist) popularized the modern practice of using shortened spellings of common words, sometimes using only one letter or number in place of a word. For example, the title “I Would Die 4 U.” But I’m wondering if there are popular examples of this in older English.

A: Prince apparently began using letters or numbers for sound-alike words as far back as 1981. His album Controversy, released that year, includes the song “Jack U Off.”

By the time he released his album Purple Rain (1984), Prince was further into this kind of abbreviating, liberally using the letter “u” (for “you”) and the numbers “2” (“to”) and “4” (“for”).

Cuts from that album include “Take Me With U” and “I Would Die 4 U,” which includes the lines “I would die 4 u, yeah / Darling if u want me 2” and “No need 2 worry / No need 2 cry.”

Prince has been in this shorthand mode ever since, writing lyrics like “4 all time I am with U / U are with me” (from his song “Adore”), and titles like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “Nothin Compares 2 U,” and “The One U Wanna C.”

As you note, the trend has caught fire in the rest of the pop music industry.

In a 2002 article on the website MTV.com, the writer Corey Moss discusses the popularity of abbreviations and misspellings, suggesting that they make song titles and lyrics “stand out from the pack.”

Obviously, texting wasn’t around when Prince started using this type of shorthand. Brian Morton’s biography Prince: A Thief in the Temple (2007), suggests that Prince’s abbreviations were influenced by graffiti.

But almost certainly the development of email, instant messaging, and now texting has reinforced the use of such shorthand by other pop artists.

This brings us to your question—were such clipped usages around in days gone by? Well, not much, as far as we can tell, at least not until the early 20th century.

Although medieval scribes used dozens and dozens of abbreviations (we’ve written about their use of “X” for “Christ” in “Xmas”), we couldn’t find many early examples of letters or numbers used in place of words that they sound like.

For older examples, we checked the Oxford English Dictionary. But the OED records only a couple of historical instances, many centuries old, of “u” intended to represent “you.” (The OED doesn’t record any of the other Prince-style usages.)

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, which was probably written in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare constructs an elaborate pun in which “u” is a play on “you.”

And another comedy, Westward Hoe (c. 1604), by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, includes a scene in which naughty puns are played on letters of the alphabet—the fifth vowel being “u”/”you.”

But both of these are complicated plays on words rather than the kind of simple abbreviations we’re talking about.

The OED does have citations indicating that the letter combination “I.O.U” has been used since the 1700s as an abbreviation for “I owe you.”

But as we said, it would appear that the kind of abbreviating you mean—substituting a single letter or number for a word or part of one—didn’t really begin until a little over a century ago.

In 1923 the language scholar Louise Pound wrote about similar usages, which she had noticed a decade earlier but had since become more common.

“The tendency toward novelty of spelling has gained momentum in the last few years,” she wrote. “It is now a stock recourse in the coinage of trade names and in popular advertising.” 

Her article, “Spelling Manipulation and Present-Day Advertising” (1923), appeared in the journal Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society.

As early leaders in the abbreviation trend, she mentioned the products Uneeda Biscuits and E. Z. Walker shoes, both of which got their names around the turn of the century.

She went on to discuss successor products like Fits-U Eyeglasses and U-Rub-It-In ointment, as well as sales pitches such as “Oysters R now in Season” and “R U interested in a Rummage Sale?”

A few years later, Donald M. Alexander of Ohio Wesleyan University defended the use of “u” for “you.”

In a 1929 article in the journal American Speech—entitled “Why Not ‘U’ for ‘You’?”—he drew attention to the ubiquitous “While U Wait” signs in shoe-shine parlors, repair stores, and such.

Other service providers, he said, were using expressions like “U Drive It” and “I. C. U. R. ready for our real estate.”

He also cited trade names including U Put It On Weather Strip, U-Do-It Graining Compound, Wear U Well Clothes, Wear U Well Shoes, U-Bet-U It’s Good Candy, and several others.

“Likewise,” he wrote, “the Wayne County Highway Commissioners (Detroit) have erected large roadside maps at important crossings throughout the county which indicate the tourists’ whereabouts by means of an arrow which points to the particular crossing saying ‘U R Here.” And should you travel into Northern Michigan with Petoskey for your destination you will be informed as you cross this particular county line that ‘U R now in Emmet County.’ ”

[After this item was posted, a reader (@4thEstateX) tweeted to remind us of “Toys ’R’ Us” (1957). The company refers to itself as “Toys’R’Us,” though its logo is “ToysЯUs.”]

Perhaps the most analyzed early 20th-century example of the usage is in the postcard that Denis Breen receives in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was serialized from 1918-1920.

Denis’s wife, Josie, meets Bloom on the street, takes the postcard out of her handbag, and hands it to him:

“ ‘Read that,’ she said. ‘He got it this morning.’

“ ‘What is it?’ Mr Bloom asked, taking the card. ‘U.P.?’

“ ‘U.P.: up,’ she said. ‘Someone taking a rise out of him. It’s a great shame for them whoever  he is.’

“ ‘Indeed it is,’ Mr Bloom said.”

The phrase “U.P.: up” here, with its suggestion of urination and erection, has been the source of much speculation among Joyceans. We side with those who believe it simply stands for “You pee up.”

Getting back to Prince, by the time he came along, as u can c, the pattern was well established.

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Collocation colocation co-location

Q: In the architectural industry, two or more firms or agencies often work together in a shared office. Depending on who is doing the writing, the firms are “collocated,” “colocated,” or
“co-located.” Which is correct?

 A: We can see why you’re confused. We were too a few months ago when we answered a similar question. But we’ve looked into this more closely since then.

What’s going on here is the messy birth of a new usage among technocrats, bureaucrats, and other crats who prefer insider language to plain English.

You’re witnessing the appearance of either a new sense of “collocate,” an old verb that means to set in place, or a relatively new word spelled “colocate” or “co-locate” that means to share a location.

Although you won’t find the new usage in the Oxford English Dictionary, four standard dictionaries—two American and two British—already have entries for a new verb, but they don’t agree on how to spell it.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (11th ed.) describes “colocate” as a transitive verb (one with a direct object) that primarily means “to place (two or more units) close together so as to share common facilities.”

But The Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which has a similar definition, lists “colocate” as the principal spelling and “co-locate” as a variant, and it says the verb can be either transitive or intransitive (without a direct object).

The Collins English Dictionary, a British reference, agrees with Merriam-Webster’s that the verb is transitive and spelled “colocate.”

But the Oxford Dictionaries website spells it “colocate” in American English and “co-locate” in British English. For Yanks, the sharing of a location is “with someone (or something) else.” For Brits, it’s only “with something else.” The verb is intransitive, though, on both sides of the Atlantic, according to Oxford.

Is your head swimming yet? Wait, there’s more.

A bit of googling finds that all three words (“collocate,” “colocate,” and “co-locate”) are being used in the new sense of several people or things sharing a site, sometimes transitively and sometimes intransitively.

Although “collocate” is the most popular overall in searches that include both the old and new meanings, “colocate” and
“co-locate” seem to be used more often in the new sharing sense.

Our Google searches suggest that the new usage is especially popular at data centers, where it’s used to refer to the housing of multiple servers at one site.

Here’s an example from the website of Mosaic Data Services: “When downtime is not an option, Mosaic’s fully redundant Datacenter facilities are the perfect place to colocate and host your business’ critical servers and related server hardware.”

But this usage is also widely seen in the military and the business world in reference to sharing a site.

Here’s an example from the website of the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command: “MSC relocated to Singapore in order to collocate with Commander, Task Force 73.”

And here are a few recent business examples:

An article in the July 2013 issue of Vending Times says the Healthy Beverage Expo in Las Vegas “was collocated with the World Tea Expo, and the combined conferences attracted nearly 5,000 participants from more than 50 countries.”

A July 15, 2013, headline on BrevardTimes.com describes the decision of two Florida fire departments to share space: “Brevard County, Palm Bay Fire Departments Co-Locate.”  

And a July 24, 2013, item in Security Systems News reports that DTT Surveillance has hundreds of customers “in places where a convenience store is colocated with a McDonalds or other fast food stores.”

We don’t like this jargony term. We’d prefer “So-and-so shared a space (or site or facility) with XYZ Co.” But if you need to use it to communicate at work, you don’t have a choice.

So which spelling is correct? You’ll have to check back in a few years for a definitive answer. This new usage is a work in progress.

For the time being, though, you might as well go along with whatever spelling is preferred in your place of work. If there’s no preference, go with “colocate,” the most common spelling in standard dictionaries.

You didn’t ask, but dictionaries say “colocate” and “co-locate” are pronounced coh-LOW-cate, while the older “collocate” is pronounced CAHL-uh-cate. We imagine, however, that people using “collocate” in the new sense pronounce it coh-LOW-cate too, as if to stress the notion of a “co-” (together) prefix.

We should mention here that the ultimate source of all these words is the Latin col- (together) plus locare (to place).

The verb “collocate,” which first showed up in English in the 16th century, is transitive and usually means to set in place, place side by side, or arrange, according to the OED.

However, a specialized meaning in linguistics showed up in the mid-20th century: “To place (a word) with (another word) so as to form a collocation.”

What, you may ask, is a linguistic collocation? It’s two or more words that often appear together: “green” and “envy” … “horse” and “sense” … “addled” and “brain.”

And with that, we’ll call it quits before our brains get any more addled.

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An eye-opening plural

Q: Which of these sentences is the correct one? (1) “Cyclopses’ eyes are huge.” (2) “Cyclopses’ eye is huge.” The first sentence makes sense, but it may cause confusion because some readers may not know that each Cyclops has only one eye.

A: If you’re writing for Americans, we wouldn’t recommend either one.

The proper noun “Cyclops,” for the one-eyed giant from Greek mythology, doesn’t form its plural in the usual way in American English.

It’s “Cyclopes,” not “Cyclopses,” according to American dictionaries. (British dictionaries are more flexible, listing “Cyclopes,” “Cyclopses,” and sometimes “Cyclops” as acceptable plurals.)

Here are the correct American spellings and pronunciations for the various forms:

Singular: Cyclops (pronounced SIGH-klops).

Singular possessive: Cyclops’s (pronounced SIGH-klops-iz).

Plural: Cyclopes (pronounced sigh-KLOH-peez).

Plural possessive: Cyclopes’ (pronounced sigh-KLOH-peez).

Now, both of the following sentences are correctly written for an American audience, but #2 probably does a better job of getting your meaning across:

(1) “Cyclopes’ eyes are huge” (plural possessive).

(2) “The Cyclops’s eye is huge” (singular possessive).

As you suggest, sentence #1 doesn’t convey the notion that each Cyclops has only one eye. Sentence #2 does get that idea across, and it can be construed as generic—that is, true of every Cyclops.

(If you’re writing for a British audience, the plural possessive in #1 could be Cyclopes’, Cyclopses’, or Cyclops’.)

If you’re curious about the use of the definite article in #2, we wrote a post in 2009  about the use of “the” with a singular noun to refer generically to all members of a class:

“We can correctly say either ‘A goat is a four-footed animal’ or ‘The goat is a four-footed animal,’ ” the blog post says.

“But the tendency is to use ‘the’ when referring to a typical example of its class. And this tendency is stronger the more specific we are about it: ‘The goat is remarkably nimble and sure-footed.’ We don’t mean a particular goat; we mean all goats.”

You can apply this principle to the Cyclops too.

The name, by the way, came into English in the 1500s from late Latin, which got it from the Greek Κύκλωψ (Kuklops, literally, round-eyed).  The Greek roots are κύκλος (kuklos, circle) and -ὤψ (ops, eye).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Cyclops” as “one of a race of one-eyed giants in ancient Greek mythology, who forged thunderbolts for Zeus.”

The OED’s earliest example of the word in written English is from a version of Virgil’s Aeneid translated by Gawin Douglas sometime before 1522:

“A huge pepill we se / Of Ciclopes cum hurland to the port” (“We saw a huge crowd / Of Cyclopes come rushing to the shore”).

Where did the plural “Cyclopes” come from? The OED suggests the unusual plural may have come from French, in which Cyclopes is the plural of Cyclope.

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A classical education

Q: My question for you has to do with my son, Thales, who’s named after the ancient Greek philosopher. Is the plural possessive of his name Thales’ (like Achilles’) or Thales’s (like James’s)? Also, do you pronounce it with two syllables or three.

A: This is a complicated question, since Thales is a classical name being used by someone living now.

Ordinarily, as we’ve written on our blog, a name ending in “s” is made possessive with the addition of an apostrophe and a final “s,” as in “James’s sailboat.”

In the past, classical and biblical names were an exception. Those ending in “s” were customarily made possessive without the extra “s” (as in “Achilles’ armor” and “Jesus’ disciples”).

In modern usage, however, this custom is no longer universally followed, as we wrote in a posting last year.

Today, classical and biblical names ending in “s” are frequently made possessive just like other names—with the extra “s.” And they’re pronounced, as one would expect, with an extra syllable.

That’s the word from the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Although some other guides recommend skipping the final “s,” the Chicago Manual says “such usage disregards pronunciation and is therefore not recommended by Chicago.”

Among the examples in the Chicago Manual are “Jesus’s adherents,” “Jesus’s sake,” “Tacitus’s Histories,” “Euripides’s tragedies,” and “Xerxes’s armies.”

This would seem to indicate that the name Thales, which has two syllables (THAY-leez), would become possessive as Thales’s, pronounced with three syllables (THAY-leez-ez).

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Chicago says possessive forms of classical and biblical names that end in an “eez” sound (like Thales and Hercules) are generally NOT pronounced with an extra syllable, even when spelled with an extra “s.”

So if you followed the Chicago Manual guidelines, you’d end up writing the possessive as Thales’s but not pronouncing the extra syllable, which seems silly to us. If that extra syllable is indicated in the spelling, it ought to be pronounced, in our opinion.

At bottom, of course, this is an issue of style, not correctness. In the end, the choice is really up to you (and to your son!).

Here’s what we advise. First, decide how you want to SAY the possessive form of his name, since you’ll be pronouncing it more often than you write it.

If you prefer to say “THAY-leez sailboat,” then spell it Thales’. But if you prefer to say “THAY-leez-ez sailboat,” with the extra syllable, then write the possessive form as Thales’s.

That’s the best advice we can come up with. If anyone questions your choice, you can argue reasonably for either one.

After all, your son isn’t a classical figure—he’s simply named for one: Thales of Miletus, one of the Seven Sages of ancient Greece.

People are entitled to decide how their names are pronounced, as we noted in a blog item a few years ago. So why can’t Thales decide how the possessive of his name should sound?

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Eeeeeeeek!

Q: While editing narratives, I encounter words that use extra letters to show that a character stretches out the word, as in “Waaaiiit!” I’ve suggested a hyphenated alternative, but “W-a-i-t!” looks bad to me in print. Another recurring problem is spelling a stretched-out sound like “VVRRROOOOOM.” Is there a style guide for such usages?

 A: You’re asking how to write out stretchy words that are used as interjections or exclamations, and there’s not much guidance around for this problem.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) has this to say about interjections of the usual kind—those inarticulate noises we all make at times:

Webster’s lists such interjections as ugh, er, um, and sh. For those not found in the dictionary—or where a different emphasis is required—plausible spellings should be sought in literature or invented.” The examples given are “atchoo!” and “shhh!”

Note the triple “h” in that last one, which has extra letters (not separated by hyphens) added to the usual spelling.

We think this advice can be extended to the kind of usage you’re asking about—an elongated word or sound used as an interjection or exclamation.

Consequently, the repetition of letters, without hyphens, can show that an ordinary word is being used as an interjection (“Waaaiiit!” …  “Heeelllp!”). The use of hyphens (“W-a-i-t!” … “H-e-l-p!”) looks (to us, at least) as if the speaker is spelling the word instead of shouting it.

Like ordinary words, many that represent sounds—whether human or mechanical—are found in dictionaries. So there’s no mystery about their spelling.

Common examples include “ah,” “ugh,” “huh,” “uh-oh,” “uh-huh,” and “vroom.” Many that aren’t in dictionaries (or not in every dictionary) appear often in literature, like “eek!” and “hmm.”

If you’d like to emphasize that the word is being shouted or is particularly loud, you might simply capitalize it (“EEK!” … “VROOM!” … “UGH!”).

And if you’d like to elongate it to show that it’s drawn out, just repeat letters (with no extra hyphens): “ahhhh.” “hmmmm,” “uuhh-oohh,” and “eeeeeeeek!”

As we said, there are no hard-and-fast rules here. But we’ve tried to suggest what we think is the most reasonable—and readable—approach.

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“Inalienable” or “unalienable”?

Q: When President Obama quoted from the Declaration of Independence in his Inaugural Address, he used the word “unalienable.” But I’ve also seen the word as “inalienable.” Which is correct English? Which is actually in the Declaration?

A: Both “inalienable” and “unalienable” are legitimate English words, and they have identical meanings.

The word in the final version of the Declaration of Independence is “unalienable,” though it’s “inalienable” in earlier versions of the document. Here’s the word in context:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

You can see an image of the final version on the National Archives page for the Declaration. Click “read transcript” to see a copy in ordinary print.

President Obama has used both words over the years. In his Inaugural Address on Jan 21, 2013, he referred to “unalienable rights,” but in remarks about gun violence on Jan 16, 2013, he used the phrase “inalienable rights.”

Although both words are correct, the one we see most often now is “inalienable.” And that’s the word some dictionaries seem to prefer.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an entry for “inalienable” (defined as “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred”). But under “unalienable,” the dictionary simply says it means “inalienable.” 

Many other Americans have puzzled over the years about which word is “correct” and which one actually appears in the Declaration. The nonprofit Independence Hall Association, based in Philadelphia, has a page devoted to this question on its website.

As you’ll see, the site has photocopies of the various drafts of the Declaration, some with “inalienable” (in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting) and some with “unalienable” (in John Adams’s).

The website quotes a footnote from Carl Lotus Becker’s The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922):

“The Rough Draft reads ‘[inherent &] inalienable.’ There is no indication that Congress changed ‘inalienable’ to ‘unalienable’; but the latter form appears in the text in the rough Journal, in the corrected Journal, and in the parchment copy. John Adams, in making his copy of the Rough Draft, wrote ‘unalienable.’ Adams was one of the committee which supervised the printing of the text adopted by Congress, and it may have been at his suggestion that the change was made in printing. ‘Unalienable’ may have been the more customary form in the eighteenth century.”

As we said, both words are legitimate. They’ve been part of the language since the early 17th century.

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Why “won’t” isn’t “willn’t”

Q: I was having a conversation with one of my co-workers about “won’t” and grabbed my office copy of Woe Is I to resolve the issue, only to find (or fail to find) that the use of this word is not explained in the book. Can you render an opinion as to its acceptability?

A: “Won’t” is a perfectly acceptable contraction of “will” and “not.” However, it’s an odd bird that’s been condemned at times for not looking quite like other contractions.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes it as “one of the most irregular looking of the negative contractions that came into popular use during the 17th century.” Others include “don’t,” “han’t,” “shan’t,” and “an’t” (an early form of “ain’t”).

Why, you may ask, do we contract “will” and “not” as “won’t” instead of “willn’t”? Here’s Merriam-Webster’s explanation:

Won’t was shortened from early wonnot, which in turn was formed from woll (or wol), a variant form of will, and not.”

The M-W editors give early examples of “won’t” from several Restoration comedies, beginning with Thomas Shadwell’s The Sullen Lovers (1668): “No, no, that won’t do.” 

By the way, the verb “will” has been spelled all sorts of ways since first showing up as wyllan around 1,000 in Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin grammar.

The Oxford English Dictionary has many Middle English examples of the wole or wol spelling dating back to the 1200s.

So etymologically, there’s a case to be made for contracting “will” and “not” as “won’t.” Nevertheless, some language commentators have grumbled about the usage.

Joseph Addison, for example, complained in a 1711 issue of the Spectator that “won’t” and other contractions had “untuned our language, and clogged it with consonants.”

“Won’t,” in particular, “seems to have been under something of a cloud, as far as the right-thinkers were concerned, for more than a century afterward,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

“This did not, of course, interfere with its employment,” the usage guide adds.

It was popular enough, M-W says, “to enjoy the distinction of being damned in the same breadth as ain’t in an address delivered before Newburyport (Mass.) Female High School in December 1846.”

Both “won’t” and “ain’t” were condemned by the Newburyport speaker as “absolutely vulgar.”

“How won’t eventually escaped the odium that still clings to ain’t is a mystery,” M-W Usage says, “but today it is entirely acceptable.”

Of course a few sticklers still feel that all contractions aren’t quite quite. Well, we beg to differ. As we’ve written on the blog, contractions are impeccably good English.

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What kind of abbreviation is K-9?

Q: I’m curious about the term “K-9” that appears on the doors of LAPD patrol cars that carry dogs. Is there a proper term for this type of word shortening?

A: “K-9” is obviously an abbreviation, because it’s a short form of a longer word, “canine.” But what kind of abbreviation is it?

Two common kinds of abbreviations are the “acronym” and the “initialism,” which differ in the way they’re spoken.

Since acronyms are pronounced as words and initialisms are pronounced as letters, it would appear that “K-9” could be either one. It sounds just like “canine,” and just like the individual characters “K” and 9.”

But in our opinion, it’s technically neither acronym nor initialism.

An acronym, as we’ve written on our blog, is a word formed from elements of a longer word or phrase. But “canine” doesn’t include a “K” or a “9.”

And an initialism, as we’ve also written, is a series of letters formed from a longer word of phrase. But again, “K” and “9” aren’t part of the unabbreviated word.

We seem to be in a special category here. The “K” and the “9” merely echo sounds found in the word “canine” but don’t stand for anything resembling the longer word.

We’ve at times come across the term “pseudo-acronym,” and “K-9” might be one of those.

No dictionaries that we’ve found define “pseudo-acronym,” and there are conflicting definitions on websites. Here’s one from a paper on acronyms published by the US Department of Homeland Security:

“Pseudo-acronym: A catchall for variations and embellishments, such as creating an acronym from other acronyms (IT Acquisition Center—ITAC) or mixing abbreviations and acronyms (deoxyribonucleic acid—DNA) and ignoring words in a series just to make a pronounceable word (Princeton University Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials–PRISM), or pronouncing vowels that are not there (Guantanamo—GTMO, pronounced Gitmo) to coin a word.”

So, according to Homeland Security, you’d be on safe ground if you called “K-9” a pseudo-acronym. It’s definitely a variation or embellishment, and certainly the canines themselves won’t object.

By the way, we usually see “K-9” with a hyphen, but not always. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, hyphenates the term on patrol cars, but usually drops the hyphen on the home page of its canine unit.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “K-9,” but it includes the term in a citation for the noun “superintelligence.”

A Sept. 7, 1950, article in the Olean (NY) Times Herald uses the term in describing military dogs: “Super-intelligence, willingness and reliability under gunfire are requirements for the K-9 Corps.”

We found a similar use of the term in the New York Times. A Jan. 31, 1943, article describes a demonstration at the Westminster Kennel Club’s dog show “by members of the K-9 Corps—dogs now at work with the Army and Coast Guard.”

The Army’s War Dog Program, started by the Quartermaster Corps on March 13, 1942, was popularly referred to as the “K-9 Corps.”

The K-9 Corps undoubtedly helped popularize the term, though the usage was around long before the War Dog Program began.

A search of Google Books, for example, found an 1876 issue of Hallberger’s Illustrated Magazine that refers to “the various ways of rendering ‘Canine Castle,’ such as ‘K-nine Castle,’ and, better still, ‘K.9 Castle.’ ”

(Canine Castle was a kennel in London owned by Bill George, a celebrated 19th-century breeder of bulldogs.)

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Is it “whiskey” or “whisky”?

Q: Your posting about Scotch-Irish got me to thinking about booze. I’ve always heard that Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are both distilled in the same way, except that the Irish don’t use peat in the process. Is this true?

A: You’re right. Most Scotch whiskies are made from barley that’s dried over peat smoke. Most Irish whiskeys are distilled from barley that’s dried in kilns.

But our blog is about language, not booze. As you’ve noticed, there’s another difference between these libations—the spelling.

In Scotland, they make Scotch “whisky” (plural “whiskies”), but in Ireland they make Irish “whiskey” (plural “whiskeys”).

American and British dictionaries generally observe this distinction when referring to these two products. But then the dictionaries go their separate ways.

In referring to versions of the liquor manufactured in other countries, British dictionaries spell it “whisky.” Some US dictionaries prefer “whiskey” while others accept both spellings as standard.

Why the difference? We haven’t found a definitive answer.

“What determines the spelling is often arbitrary, based mostly on tradition rather than any claim to authenticity,” Kate Hopkins writes in her book 99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink (2009).

But it seems possible that the spellings, which have become consistent relatively recently, merely serve to differentiate the products commercially.

As the Oxford English Dictionary says: “In modern trade usage, Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey are thus distinguished in spelling.”

With these two products, spelling is no small matter, and that’s the case with “whiskey”/“whisky.” The New York Times learned this the hard way.

In December 2008, a Times columnist writing about single malts from the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands used the spelling “whiskey” throughout, as prescribed by the newspaper’s style guide.

He even went so far as to use the phrase “Scotch whiskey”! The Times was pelted with so many complaints that it changed its style.

A follow-up article in February 2009 noted the paper’s change in policy: “As of now, the spelling whisky will be used not only for Scotch but for Canadian liquor as well. The spelling whiskey will be used for all appropriate liquors from other sources.”

With or without the “e,” according to the OED, the word stands for “a spirituous liquor distilled originally in Ireland and Scotland, and in the British Isles still chiefly, from malted barley.” In the US, the OED adds, it’s made “chiefly from maize [corn] or rye.”

The word, Oxford notes, is short for earlier ones written as “usquebaugh,” “whiskybae,” “whisquy-beath,” and others recorded as far back as the 1500s.

They in turn were derived from “Irish and Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha,” which literally means “water of life,” according to the dictionary.

The fact that “water” is lurking in “whiskey” (etymologically speaking) is an interesting point.

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) explains that “the words water, whiskey, and vodka flow from a common source, the Indo-European root wed-,” which means “water” or “wet.”

This root “could appear in several guises, as wed-, wod-, or
ud-,” American Heritage says, adding: “Water is a native English word that goes back by way of prehistoric Common Germanic watar to the Indo-European suffixed form wod-or, with an o.”

It goes on to say that the Gaelic compounds uisce beatha and uisge beatha are derived “from Old Irish uisce, ‘water,’ and bethad, ‘of life,’ and meaning literally ‘water of life.’ (It thus meant the same thing as the name of another drink, aquavit, which comes from Latin aqua vitae, ‘water of life.’) Uisce comes from the Indo-European suffixed form ud-skio-.”

Finally, American Heritage says, “the name of another alcoholic drink, vodka, comes into English from Russian, where it means literally ‘little water,’ as it is a diminutive of voda, ‘water’—a euphemism if ever there was one. Voda comes from the same Indo-European form as English water, but has a different suffix: wod-a.”

After all that, we need a drink!

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Why does “fridge” have a “d”?

Q: Who put the “d” in “fridge”? If it’s short for “refrigerator,” why isn’t it “frig”?

A: Although most dictionaries list “fridge” as the only spelling for this abbreviated version of “refrigerator,” a few do indeed include the “d”-less version “frig” as a variant spelling.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, has only the “fridge” spelling, while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes “frig” as a variant.

Some American dictionaries describe the “frig” spelling as British, but all the British dictionaries we’ve checked (Macmillan, Collins, Longman, etc.) list only “fridge” for the short form of “refrigerator.”

Interestingly, the earliest written example for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary uses the “frig” spelling (plus an apostrophe). In fact, five of the eight OED examples spell the term without the “d” (some with and some without the apostrophe).

The first “frig” citation in Oxford is from E. F. Spanner’s 1926 novel Broken Trident: “Best part of our stuff here is chilled, and with no ’frig plant working, the mercury will climb like a rocket.”

However, a reader of the blog has informed us of earlier examples of “frig” and the plural “friges” as shortened forms of “refrigerator.”

S. Wilding Cole uses both terms several times in “The Cleansing of a Brewery,” a paper presented on March 13, 1916, at a meeting in London of the local chapter of the Institute of Brewing.

In a section on the maintenance of refrigerators, for example, Cole says “most brewers know that unless ‘friges’ and mains are kept thoroughly clean, trouble is bound to ensue.”

The earliest “fridge” cite in the OED is from Frame-Up, a 1935 crime novel by Collin Brooks: “Do you mean that you keep a dead body in a fridge waiting for the right moment to bring her out?”

The OED has examples of “frig” from as recently as 1960. Here’s one from The Quiet American, the 1955 novel by Graham Greene: “We haven’t a frig—we send out for ice.”

Although “fridge” is either the only spelling or the preferred one in the eight US or UK dictionaries we checked, a bit of googling finds that “frig” is not exactly cooling its heels today. Here are just a few of the many examples posted over the last year:

“Frig not cooling, freezer is fine” … “Looking for built-in frig with crushed ice / water dispenser” … “Frig not cold anymore. What can i do?” … “Freezer works but frig not cold” … “Freezer Semi Cold, Frig Warm.”

A similarly spelled verb, “frig,” which most dictionaries describe as vulgar slang, has more to do with heating than cooling. It means to have sexual intercourse or masturbate. (The present participle, “frigging,” is often used as an intensifier.)

How are all these frigging words pronounced? Well, the verb “frig” rhymes with “prig,” but the nouns spelled “frig” and “fridge” both rhyme with “bridge.” And “frigging” rhymes with “digging,” though it’s often spelled and pronounced friggin’.

The OED describes “fridge” as a colloquial abbreviation for “refrigerator,” a much older term that showed up in the early 1600s. It suggests that the ‘frig’ spelling may have been influenced by the brand name “Frigidaire” (a play on “frigid air”).

Oxford, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, also notes that an 1886 edition of John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms includes the short form “frigerator.”

We’d add that the company now known as Frigidaire was called the Guardian Frigerator Company when it was founded in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1916.

The company adopted the name “Frigidaire” in 1919, three years after “frig” and “friges” were used in the brewery paper cited above. So the brand name “Frigidaire” may have influenced the usage, but it couldn’t have been the source.

We can’t tell from the published examples in the OED (or some earlier ones in Google Books) who originated the “frig” and “fridge” spellings. But we can speculate about why “fridge” has become the dominant spelling.

First of all, the natural pronunciation of “fridge” matches the way the second syllable sounds in “refrigerator.”

Although “frig” is pronounced the same way as “fridge” when it means a refrigerator, the natural pronunciation of “frig” would be like that of the naughty verb we mentioned above.

Our guess is that English speakers generally prefer the “fridge” spelling because they instinctively pronounce it the way the letters f-r-i-g sound in “refrigerator.”

We’ll end with a few lines from Ray Charles’s recording of Louis Jordan’s blues hit “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town”:

“Let me tell you, honey
We gonna move away from here
I don’t need no iceman
I’m gonna get you a Frigidaire.”

[Note: This post was updated on Aug. 3, 2019.]

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Equatorial currents

Q: When did “Ecuadoran” become “Ecuadorian”? Why do we need “Ecuadorian”? It sounds illiterate, Bushlike.

A: We’re sorry to be the bearers of bad news, but we checked half a dozen dictionaries and none of them consider “Ecuadoran” the preferred  English adjective or noun for Ecuador and its citizens.

Most of the dictionaries list “Ecuadorian” as the standard noun and adjective. The most common alternative given is the spelling variant “Ecuadorean.”

The two standard dictionaries we consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.)—don’t include “Ecuadoran” as a variant. Neither does the Oxford English Dictionary.  

We could find only two standard dictionaries that consider “Ecuadoran” a variant spelling: the Collins English Dictionary and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

In the OED’s entry for “Ecuadorian,” the earliest example of the adjective (defined as “of, belonging to, or characteristic of Ecuador”) is from an 1860 issue of The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London.

The earliest example of the noun (“a native or inhabitant of Ecuador”) is from an 1861 issue of the same journal.

Though the spellings do vary a bit in the OED’s earliest examples (“Equatorian,” “Ecuatoreans,” etc.), the number of syllables is consistent, and all entries end in either “-ian” or
“-ean.”

As the OED explains, the suffixes “-ian” and “-an” are used to form adjectives and nouns that convey the meaning “of or belonging to.” Some words have the extra letter (“Parisian,” “Bostonian,” “Italian”) and some use the shorter “-an” suffix (“American,” “Ohioan,” “Roman”).

Not surprisingly, the word ecuador is Spanish for “equator,” the imaginary circle that divides the earth into northern and southern hemispheres. And Ecuador is one of 14 countries through which the equator passes.

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English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Pronunciation Punctuation Slang Spelling Usage

Pat in NY Times on Web. 3 furor

Read Pat’s review in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review on the furor over Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. She’s reviewing The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published, by David Skinner.

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English language Etymology Punctuation Spelling Usage

Something for the weekend?

Q: Before 1945, there was, in effect, no “weekend.” My father worked Saturday and half Sunday up to the late ’40s. Also, my memory is of a hyphenated “week-end.” It must have changed over the late ’50s and early ’60s.

A: The two-day weekend break (three or more days on holidays) may be relatively new, but the word “weekend” isn’t. It dates back to the 17th century.

As for that hyphen, “weekend” evolved like most compound words: they usually begin life as two separate words, are later hyphenated, and finally become one solid word, though this process can be a bit messy.

We checked nine standard dictionaries in the US and the UK, and all of them now list “weekend” without the hyphen.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary still hyphenates the word in its main entry (“week-end”), though the term is hyphen-free in all OED citations from the 1970s onward.

What is a “weekend”? Well, some dictionaries consider it Saturday and Sunday, others include Friday night, and still others describe it as the period between the end of one workweek and the start of another. (A “long weekend” is one extended by adjacent days.)

When the word entered English nearly 400 years ago, it simply meant the end of the week—at least, that’s the apparent sense in the OED’s earliest citation, a 1638 quotation reproduced in the Victoria County History of Yorkshire:

“The greatest weight of the said exaction will fall upon very poor people … who making every week a coarse kersey and being compelled to sell the same at the week end … are nevertheless constrained to yield one half penny apiece.” (Kersey is a heavy wool or wool and cotton fabric.)

In the next OED citation, from The Journal of the Rev. William Bagshaw Stevens (1793), the author seems to be using the word “weekend” in the sense of a period of leisure between two workweeks.

In a journal entry, Stevens, headmaster of the Repton School in Derbyshire, notes his plans to visit a friend, the Rev. John D. Dewe, a master at the Appleby School:

“Wrote to Dewe that I would put on my seven league boots next weekend and stretch my course to Appleby.”

(The excerpt comes from a version of the journal edited by Georgina Galbraith and published in 1965. The editing may account for this early appearance of “weekend” as a solid word.)

The next two OED citations, from the 19th century, are more specific about the meaning of the term.

Here’s an example from the Food Journal (1870): “ ‘Week-end,’ that is from Saturday until Monday,—it may be a later day in the week if the money and credit hold out,—is the season of dissipation.”

The journal Notes and Queries printed this passage in 1879: “In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.”

But the fun begins on Friday in this example from Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s novel The Day Will Come (1889):

“Theodore and his friend betook themselves to Cheriton Chase on the following Friday, for that kind of visit which north country people describe as ‘a week end’.”

As we’ve said, none of the OED citations for “weekend” since the 1970s have hyphens. Here are a few examples, with “weekend” used attributively—that is, as an adjective:

“Lieutenant Mark Phillips, on weekend leave from Germany, went hunting on Saturday with Princess Anne.” (From the Guardian, 1973.)

“A weekend bag packed with scent, toothbrush and so forth.” (From Julia O’Faolain’s novel The Obedient Wife, 1982.)

“Humphrey Brooke was only a weekend gardener until … he decided to retire.” (From Harper’s and Queen, 1974.)

“Weekending French families setting out in their saloons for the countryside.” (From Anthony Grey’s novel Some Put Their Trust in Chariots, 1973.)

In Western countries, the week is typically divided into a workweek of Monday through Friday, and a weekend of Saturday and Sunday.

However, the usual workweek is often longer in other parts of the world. And the weekend can fall on other days, depending on the predominant religion in the area.

We won’t get into a detailed history of the two-day weekend, except to note that Henry Ford began giving his auto workers Saturday and Sunday off in 1926, the year the American Federation of Labor set a five-day, 40-hour week as one of its goals.

By the summer of 1929, according to a report by CQ Researcher, from one-half to three-quarters of a million American wage earners had a five-day week.

We should note, though, that many Americans don’t have a traditional workweek. When we were journalists, for example, we often worked on Saturday and Sunday, and had our days off on weekdays.

We’ll close this with a usage that was new to us. The phrase “something for the weekend” is a British euphemism for a condom (and sometimes for another sexual aid, like an aphrodisiac).

The OED explains the origins of this colloquialism: “Traditionally, as part of a question that barbers were said to have put to their customers.”

According to a 1987 citation in the Sunday Times of London, “Barbers would ask our fathers: ‘Anything for the weekend, sir?’ ”

This would seem to give a whole new meaning to the question, “How was your weekend?”

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English language Etymology Phrase origin Spelling Usage

Who was the first nosy parker?

Q: I’m curious about the origin of the expression “nosy parker.” Could it be referring to a nosy (or is it a “nosey”?) hotel valet who looks through your glove compartment, etc., after parking your car?

 A: Well, an overly curious parking attendant could be referred to as a “nosy parker,” but the phrase has been around a lot longer than valet parking.

As it turns out, nobody knows how “nosy parker” originated, though there are several dubious theories.

The most often-heard suggestion is that the term is a reference to Matthew Parker, a 16th-century Archbishop of Canterbury who was known for poking his nose into the qualifications and activities of his clergy.

The big problem here is that Parker had been dead for several centuries before the term “nosy parker” appeared in print for the first time.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the May 1890 issue of Belgravia Magazine: “You’re a askin’ too many questions for me, there’s too much of Mr. Nosey Parker about you.”

Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says the phrase may be a reference to peeping Toms or nose-twitching rabbits at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. But Partridge offers no evidence to support either idea.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has yet another theory—that “nosy parker” evolved from “nose poker” (someone who pokes his nose in other people’s business). But Oxford has no evidence of the term “nose poker.”

The OED, which doesn’t mention any of these theories, says in an etymology note that the phrase is a combination of the adjective “nosy” and the surname “Parker.”

The dictionary adds that a 1907 postcard with the caption “The adventures of Nosey Parker” is apparently using the phrase “with reference to a (probably fictitious) individual taken as the type of someone inquisitive or prying.”

As more and more archives are digitized, we may eventually find out who this “(probably fictitious) individual” was.

How, you ask, is this inquisitive adjective spelled? Most of the dictionaries we’ve checked list “nosy” as the primary spelling, with “nosey” as a variant. The “e”-less version is far more common (twice as many hits on Google).

By the way, the earliest citation for “valet parking” in the OED dates from 1960, though some companies that offer valet parking say the use of attendants to park cars at hotels and restaurants originated in the 1930s.

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The case of the missing clew

Q: Can “clue” and “clew” be used interchangeably? I was browsing in the Chicago Tribune archive and came across this headline: “CLEWS FADING IN MURDER OF CLERIC, WIFE.”

A: Not really. Although a few standard dictionaries include “clew” as a variant spelling of “clue,” the usage is unusual and we wouldn’t recommend it. Many readers would consider it a misspelling.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says this use of “clew” is chiefly British, but the British dictionaries we checked describe the spelling as rare or archaic.

“Clue,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, is “has now become the prevailing form” for this meaning of the word.

You can still find the “clew” spelling in old American newspapers, however, as you learned when you came across that Oct. 1, 1969, headline about the murder of the Rev. Bruce W. Johnson and his wife, Marjorie Eugenia.

Your question gives us a chance to discuss the fascinating history of “clew,” a very old word whose meaning as well as spelling evolved over the years.

The OED says “clew” originally meant a ball formed by rolling pieces together, as in a ball of yarn or twine. To this day, the word for a ball of yarn is spelled “clew” in Scotland and the north of England, the OED says.

The word was recorded in Old English (usually spelled cliwen or cleowen) as long ago as 897. In the Middle English period the “n” was dropped and the “ew” spelling was introduced.

Such “ew” spellings were once more common in English than they are today. Several English words now spelled “ue” were once spelled “ew,” including “blew” (for blue), “glew” (for glue), “rew” (for rue), “dew” (for due), “sew” (for sue), and “trew” (for true).

These spellings all became “ue” in modern English, and the same happened with “clew.”

The “clue” spelling first appeared in the 1400s, became frequent in the 1600s, and is now the dominant form of the word.

So how did the ball of yarn become the word we know from crime reports and mystery novels?

The sense of “clew” or “clue” as a key to a problem emerged in the early 1600s, originally as a figurative use of that earlier word.

As the OED explains, it meant “a ball of thread, employed to guide any one in ‘threading’ his way into or out of a labyrinth … or maze.”

This notion is at least as old as Greek mythology. Legend has it that Theseus unwound a ball of string as he made his way to the heart of the Labyrinth, then killed the dreaded Minotaur and followed the string to find his way out again.

As an extension of this idea, “clew” or “clue” subsequently came to mean “a fact, circumstance, or principle which, being taken hold of and followed up, leads through a maze, perplexity, difficulty, intricate investigation, etc.,” the OED says.

The OED’s first citation for this use of the word comes from a poem written by Michael Drayton in 1605: “Loosing the clew which led vs safely in, [We] Are lost within this Labyrinth of lust.”

Soon the literal sense of the word took a back seat to the figurative one, the OED says.

By the 17th century, a “clew” or “clue” meant “that which points the way, indicates a solution, or puts one on the track of a discovery; a key. Esp. a piece of evidence useful in the detection of a crime.”

The 19th-century writer Fergus Hume, for instance, used the word this way in The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886): “Another hansom cabman … gave a clue which will, no doubt, prove of value to the detectives in their search after the murderer.”

Although the “clue” spelling is now the prevailing one for this sense, the old spelling can still be found in American newspapers from as recently as the 1970s. You might regard these sightings as clues to the word’s history.

[Update, Nov. 18, 2016. A reader of the blog has informed us of a Jan. 29, 2012, article in the Chicago Tribune that explains the origin of the newspaper’s spelling of “clew” for “clue.”

“From Jan. 28, 1934, to Sept. 28, 1975,” the article says, “the newspaper adopted a system of simplified spelling, a cause dearly felt by publisher Col. Robert McCormick.”

In addition to “clew,” other spellings included “burocrat,” “hocky,” “skilful,” “sofomore,” “thru,” and “thoro.”

Readers of the blog have also noted that “clew” has several other meanings today, including one of the two lower corners of a square sail and the lower aft corner of a fore-and-aft sail. And of course it’s still used now for a ball of yarn or thread.]

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Is “seabome” a word?

Q: I was reading a financial report about ocean shipping that referred to “seabome” transportation. How was this word being used there?

A: We searched the Oxford English Dictionary as well as half a dozen standard dictionaries, including Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, and couldn’t find an entry for “seabome.”

We did find a few examples of the word on the Internet, but they were mainly in English-language reports apparently written by people who weren’t native English speakers.

For instance, a Vietnamese government website had a report on “Developmental orientation for fleet of ships to meet the requirements of Vietnamese Seabome Strategy until the year 2020 and international integration.”

And an online help-wanted advertisement  said “A Market Leader in Seabome Transport of Energy” is looking for a Mumbai-based risk and compliance analyst.

If we had to guess, we’d say “seabome” is simply a typo for “seaborne,” an adjective that showed up in English in the 17th century.

The adjective was first used to describe cargo or passengers conveyed by sea, but by the 19th century, it was also being used to describe the seagoing ships themselves.

Of course “seaborne” is made up of two older words. Both “sea” and “borne” are derived from Old English words that first showed up in Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as the year 725. (We had a posting recently about “born” and “borne.”)

Interestingly, people may not be the only ones to mix up “seabome” and “seaborne.” Some search engines apparently read the “rn” combination as an “m,” so they can’t distinguish the real thing from the typo.

A search of Google Books for “seabome” (as we tediously found out) brings up many pages with the word “seaborne” highlighted.

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Vowel mouthed

Q: My boyfriend and I were sitting on my balcony, perhaps drinking too much, when the talk turned to vowels. At some point, he said, “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and w.” ALL I said was this: “I learned only y. I never heard w called a vowel.” Before long, we were hurling insults at each other’s schools (mine in Iowa and his in New Jersey). Now I’m beginning to wonder if my mind is playing tricks on me. So here’s my question: Pat is from Iowa. Did she learn her vowels with just y or with y and w?

A: Some people learned that old school jingle with just “y,” some with both “y” and “w,” and some without either one.

When Pat was going to elementary school in Iowa in the ’50s, she learned that the vowels were “a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes w and y.” When Stewart was learning his vowels in New York in the ’40s, he learned just “a, e, i, o, u.”

Five years ago, we ran a brief entry on “w” and “y” as vowels. To make a long story short, they’re generally consonants at the beginning of a syllable and vowels at the end. They’re also vowels when they’re part of a diphthong, as in “boy” or “cow.”

Writers on language have singled out “w” and “y” as special cases since at least as far back as the late 1700s.

This is from A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, by the influential 18th-century lexicographer John Walker: “The vowels are, a, e, i, o, u; and y and w when ending a syllable. The consonants are, b, c, d, f, [etc.] …; and y and w when beginning a syllable.”

Walker also says two vowels forming one syllable are a diphthong, three are a triphthong. His examples include the “aw” in “law”; the “ay” in “say”; the “ew” in “jewel”; the “ey” in “they”; the “ow” in “now”; the “oy” in “boy”; the “uy” in “buy”; the word “aye”; and the “iew” in “view.”

After discussing “w” and “y,” he concludes: “Thus we find, that the common opinion, with respect to the double capacity of these letters, is perfectly just.”

We quoted from a 1797 edition of Walker’s book, first published in 1791 and widely reprinted throughout the 19th century.

We also found several mid-19th-century books that describe “y” and “w” variously as “vowel consonants” or as letters that unite or straddle the two categories.

But whatever you were told in school, the subject of what we call consonants and what we call vowels is very slippery and often misleading.

Sometimes, as with “say” and “now,” the “y” and “w” are vowels. But in some other words they’re obviously consonants, even though their sounds could be respelled with a pair of vowels.

For example, the name “Danielle” is sometimes spelled “Danyel.” In the traditional spelling, “ie” is a vowel cluster. Yet in the alternate spelling, “y” is a consonant, since it’s a hard or voiced “y” as in “yellow.” Same sound, different symbols, different labels (vowel vs. consonant).

And to use a “w” example, the French oui and the English “we” sound alike, yet “ou” is a consonant cluster while the “w” in “we” is clearly a consonant, as in “well.” Again, same sound, different symbols, different labels.

As you can see, the “vowel” vs. “consonant” labels sometimes break down when applied to spellings.

You might even argue that “y” and “w” are always diphthongs to some degree or other, since even when they’re consonants at the beginning of a syllable—as in “yet” and “wet”—they’re still combinations of vowel sounds (“ee-eh” and “oo-eh”).

At many points, the old categories let us down and stop being useful. This is more apparent now than when we were kids, because scholars of linguistics and phonology have developed more sophisticated ways of looking at our sound/spelling systems.

A “vowel” is a kind of sound, or the letter that represents it. Similarly, a “consonant” is a kind of sound, or the letter that represents it. If a particular letter can represent either kind of sound, then it can be both a vowel and a consonant.

Here’s what the linguists Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum write in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language:

“The categories vowel and consonant are defined in terms of speech. Vowels have unimpeded airflow through the throat and mouth, while consonants employ a significant constriction of the airflow somewhere in the oral tract (between the vocal cords and the lips).”

Thus, they write, “we do not follow the traditional practice of simply dividing the alphabet into five vowels (a, e, i, o, u) and twenty-one consonants.” This traditional classification, they say, “does not provide a satisfactory basis for describing the spelling alternations in English morphology.”

The authors don’t even use the terms “vowel” and “consonant” alone in referring to writing. For example, they describe y as a “vowel letter in fully,” as a “consonant letter in yes,” and as “just part of a composite vowel symbol in boy.”

They describe u as a “vowel letter in fun,” as a “consonant letter in quick,” and as “part of a composite symbol in mouth.”

And “y,” “w,” and “u” aren’t the only in-between letters. “H” is a consonant in “heavy” but a vowel in “dahlia.”

In his book American English Spelling (1988), Donald Wayne Cummings summarizes the situation this way:

“Thus we get the following categories: (1) letters that are always vowels (a, e, i, and o); (2) letters that are sometimes consonants but usually vowels (u and y); letters that are sometimes vowels but usually consonants (h and w); and (4) letters that are always consonants (b, c, d, f, g, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, x, and z).”

So in the grand scheme of things, it’s hardly worth it for you and your boyfriend to throw insults at each other over vowel language. Still, we’ve had some pretty silly language arguments too, ones that you’d probably find pointless.

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The borne conspiracy

Q: I recently submitted an essay that discussed whether the French Revolution had sprung from the philosophical tenets of the Age of Reason. One sentence referred to the belief the revolution was so horrific that it “couldn’t be born of a time of reason.” I now wonder if I should have written “borne” instead of “born.” What are your thoughts?

A: You used “born” correctly in your essay. As we’ll explain later, “born of” is sometimes used figuratively to mean “sprung from.”

But first things first. The verb “bear” has two past participles that sound identical and look very similar: “borne” and “born.” You’re not alone in finding them confusing!

The thing to keep in mind is that “bear” has two distinct meanings: (1) to carry, support, endure, uphold, and so on; (2) to bring forth or give birth to.

The simple past tense, “bore,” is the same for both meanings, as in (1) “She bore a heavy burden” … “He proudly bore his father’s name”; (2) “The tree bore both flowers and fruit” … “She bore a child.”

But the past participles (the ones used with auxiliary verbs) differ.

“Borne” is used for all senses, both No. 1 and No. 2, when the auxiliary verb is a form of “have.” For example:

(1) “She had borne a heavy burden” … “He has proudly borne his father’s name”; (2) “The tree has borne both flowers and fruit” … “She had borne a child.”

The other form, “born,” is used only in passive constructions referring to birth (literally or figuratively), and is accompanied by a form of the verb “be”: “I was born in Cincinnati” … “Has the baby been born yet?” … “Puppies are born with their eyes closed” … “His wisdom was born of experience.” (Think of the familiar expression “Man is born of woman.” 

The differing forms have had a long and complicated history, with three past participles—“bore,” “borne,” and “born”—being shuffled like cards over the years since “bear” was first recorded in Old English (as beran) in Beowulf, perhaps as early as 725.

The various past participles didn’t sort themselves out until the mid-1700s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

That’s when “bore” disappeared as a past participle, leaving “borne” and “born,” which took on separate functions in conventional usage.

“Born,” according to convention, is used only in the sense of giving birth, either literally or figuratively, and only in the passive voice without the preposition “by” (“Sarah’s twin sons were born”).

“Borne” is used in every other sense—carrying, supporting, enduring, and giving birth in the active voice (“Sarah has borne twin sons”) or in the passive with “by” (“Twin sons were borne by Sarah”).

Getting back to your question, you used the word “born” correctly in your essay when you wrote that the revolution “couldn’t be born of a time of reason.”

As the OED says, “born” is used figuratively when it means “come into existence, sprung.”

The dictionary provides examples in which authors have used “born” figuratively as you did, including the following two:

“These distinctions, born of our unhappy contest” (from a speech on American taxation by the politician Edmund Burke, 1775).

“The Roman Empire and the Christian Church, born into the world almost at the same moment” (from Charles Kingsley’s novel Hypatia, 1853).

 If you’re still confused, here’s a tip: “born” is misused a lot more often than “borne.”

As the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes, “Our collection of errors shows that born is used in place of borne about twice as often as borne for born. The errors are both British and American.”

We hope we haven’t bored you! (No, the verbs “bear” and “bore” are not related.)

[Update, Sept. 17, 2021. A reader asks, “The 3M company has long used the tagline ‘Borne of Innovation.’ Shouldn’t that be ‘Born of Innovation’?” You are right. Used figuratively, “born of” means sprung from.  As we mentioned above, most people err in the other direction, using “born” where “borne” belongs. But here, it seems, 3M has taken innovation a step further!]

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Was the Founders’ English less than perfect?

Q: A coworker points out that the Founding Fathers used “insure” incorrectly. Of course no one wants to say Thomas Jefferson was wrong! And as you note, “ensure” and “insure” have much in common.

A: The Constitution and its Preamble were written in 1787, and the language, capitalizations, and spellings reflect the usage of the day. The Preamble reads:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

We’ve reproduced the original 1787 spellings, quoting from the document held in the National Archives. The spellings “defence” (still used in British English) and “insure” were common usage in the 18th century.

As we’ve written before on our blog, in current usage to “insure” is to issue or buy insurance against financial loss, while to “ensure” is to make certain of something.

That’s the usual practice, and the one recommended by usage guides, though dictionaries say the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Meanwhile, in current usage to “assure” means to reassure or remove doubt, though the British sometimes use the term in the technical sense of to underwrite financial loss.

As you can see, English usage changes over time!

Thomas Jefferson used “insure” in the general sense in a memoir he wrote in 1825, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A recurrence to these letters now insures me against errors of memory.”

Jefferson, by the way, didn’t write the Preamble or any other part of the Constitution. He was ambassador to France at the time, and was out of the country during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

But he did write the Declaration of Independence in 1776, though a few touches were added by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

The authorship of the Preamble and much of the rest of the Constitution is credited to another of the Founders, Gouverneur Morris, who was a Pennsylvania delegate to the 1787 convention.

In the past, we’ve answered several other questions about the Preamble, in case you’re interested.

In 2011, we had postings in May and November about the phrase “We the People.” And in 2008, we had postings in January and November about the phrase “more perfect.”

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Theater (or theatre) piece

Q: I review “theatre.” Or should I say “theater”? Which do you prefer, and why? Actually, why is there a choice at all?

A: There’s been a lot of nonsense written about “theater” and “theatre”—that one is for movies and the other is for plays; or that one refers to a building and the other to an art form; or that one spelling is lowbrow while the other is refined.

But these are merely variant spellings of the same noun.

“Theatre” is the only spelling now recognized in Britain. “Theater” is the traditional American spelling, but “theatre” is now equally acceptable in the US, according to standard dictionaries.

Personally, we prefer “theater,” but you’re free to make your own choice. No matter how you spell it, the meaning is the same.

We suspect that some Americans lean toward “theatre” because of its British associations (just as the spelling “colour” appeals to Anglophile cosmetics manufacturers). In other words, it has snob appeal.

The truth is that the spelling of this word has fluctuated over the centuries, and “theatre” hasn’t always been the preference in the British Isles.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “earliest recorded English forms, c1380, are theatre and teatre.” But, the OED adds, “from c1550 to 1700, or later, the prevalent spelling was theater.”

So Chaucer, writing in Middle English in the late 1300s, used “theatre.” Two hundred years later, Shakespeare and Spenser used “theater.”

Why the change?

It helps to know that the word is ultimately derived from the Latin theatrum, and that its spellings in other languages are roughly divided along linguistic lines—Romance versus Germanic.

In Romance languages, the final syllable is spelled with –tr rather than -ter. For example, teatro in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; teatru in Romanian; and théâtre in French.

The word was teatre in Old French, and theatre in 12th- to 13th-century French (a spelling that, in light of the Norman Conquest, may have influenced the Middle English).

In Germanic languages, on the other hand, the word ends in -ter. For example, theater in German and Dutch, and teater in Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish. So it’s not surprising that English, a Germanic language, would have adopted the “ter” spelling at some point.

So far so good. But then why did the British switch back to “theatre” in the 1700s?

At the time, all things French were fashionable among the English upper classes. Besides, French became established as the language of diplomacy early in that century. Et voilà—French spellings crept into British usage.

As the OED says, “between 1720 and 1750, theater was dropped in Britain, but has been retained or (?) revived in U.S.” The question mark seems to indicate that it’s more likely the Colonists kept the old spelling.

We included a section about French-influenced British spellings in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions.

As we wrote, British and American preferences today reflect those of the language’s two great lexicographers—the Englishman Samuel Johnson in the 18th century and the American Noah Webster in the early 19th:

“Many of the words that are now spelled one way here and another there had multiple spellings once upon a time. When the two lexicographers wrote their influential dictionaries, Webster chose one and Johnson another. But the story isn’t as simple as that. Johnson adopted many Frenchified spellings that had been introduced in Britain in the eighteenth century. But Webster often stuck with older spellings, the ones the Colonists had brought from England in the seventeenth century.

“Webster wanted, among other things, to purge English of words ‘clothed with the French livery’ and rid spelling of the ‘egregious corruptions’ imposed by Francophiles. He considered the eleventh-century conquest of Britain by French-speaking Norman princes the ‘dark ages of English.’ Johnson, on the other hand, wanted to preserve the spelling of his day, even if ‘it is in itself inaccurate, and tolerated rather than chosen.’ He was well aware of the Gallic corruptions but chose not to fiddle with them ‘without a reason sufficient to balance the inconvenience of change.’ ”

So we can largely blame two cranky old men for the fact that we have both “theatre” and “theater” today.

Something similar happened with other “er” words (“center/centre,” “fiber/fibre,” “luster/lustre,” and others). The Colonists took the “-er” endings with them to the New World, but British writers shifted their allegiance to French spellings.

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