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Let’s get physical

Q: More and more, I hear sportscasters use the word “physicality” to describe the physical strength of a football player or other athlete. Is this even a word? And what would be a better one to refer to a physically strong person?

A: “Physicality” is a legitimate word. Whether it’s a good choice as a sports term is another matter.

The noun “physicality” entered English in 1592, when it was another word for medicine or medical practice, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1827, it was first used to mean “the fact, state, or condition of being physical (as opposed to mental, spiritual, etc.),” the OED says.

In 1844, “physicality” began to be used in another sense: “the awareness of the body or of bodily sensation; a bodily function or experience.”

At the same time, it came to mean “the quality of being physically demanding; physical intensity; strong physical presence or appeal.” For example, a 1994 citation the OED refers to “the sheer physicality of the work.”

These days, sportscasters and sportswriters use the term in a couple of ways the OED hasn’t caught up with.

For some, as you point out, “physicality” means fitness and good physical conditioning.

But for others it means physical violence – “the collision part of collision sports,” as a Denver Post sports columnist put it.

This ambiguity alone may be reason enough to retire “physicality” from sports terminology. 

As an example of the more benign usage, Graham Watson, a blogger on ESPN, said in April that San Diego State’s football team was looking to improve its “strength and physicality.” By this he meant the team’s physical conditioning.

He quoted San Diego State’s coach, Brady Hoke, as saying, “We’re really concentrating on the strength and weight part of it and body composition part of it right now.”

But the darker side of “physicality” is apparently more common.

In an article last March on, a basketball game was described as “a brutal slugfest” and the columnist, Mike Freeman, referred to the aggression as “physicality.”

An Associated Press article in April said “the trash-talking, in-your-face forward” Matt Barnes had brought “physicality” to the Orlando Magic’s lineup.

The article went on to describe Barnes’s aggressive elbowing, bumping, shoving, yelling, screaming, and generally menacing behavior.

Finally, a hockey article a month ago on the New England Sports Network was headlined “Cody McCormick Hopes to Bring Physicality to Sabres Lineup.”

The article read as though “physicality” here referred to a player’s willingness to bloody a few noses.

You ask whether there’s a better word than “physicality” to describe the physical strength of an athlete. How about simply “strength” or “fitness” or “stamina” or “power”?

And, of course, there are lots of better words than “physicality” to refer to roughness on the court or field. But it’s obvious to us why writers and coaches prefer “physical” and “physicality.”

Words that might more honestly assess this kind of behavior – “brutality,” “cruelty,”  “violence,” etc. – sound so darned unsportsmanlike! 

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An educated opinion

Q: I work for a population research organization in Washington. I wonder which of these phrases are correct: 1) “Children by household head’s educational (or “education”) attainment,” and 2) “Per-pupil educational (or “education”) expenditures adjusted for regional cost differences.”

A: Both “educational” and “education” can perform the function of adjectives. When the noun “education” is used as an adjective, it’s called an attributive noun.

But just because a noun can be used attributively as an adjective doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate to use the noun that way. Sometimes a straight adjective (like “educational”) is better. 

In the first phrase you’ve asked about, we’d recommend the straight adjective (“educational attainment”).

Why? Because we’re speaking here of an attainment that’s “due to, or arising from, education,” to use the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “educational.” 

But in the second phrase either the straight adjective or the attributive noun would be fine to modify “expenditures.”

Our preference, though, would be for “education expenditures.”

Why? Because the expenditures are for education – they aren’t in themselves educational.

As you can see, however, the choice between a straight adjective and an attributive noun is quite often a judgment call.

We recently answered another question on the blog that involved attributive nouns. And we wrote a blog entry last year that deals with words like “botanic” and “botanical.”

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Why don’t we say a batter flew out?

Q: Is it OK for sportcasters to say “flied out” when the proper past tense should be “flew out”?  What’s your feeling on this?

A: The past tense and past participle of the verb “fly,” when it means to hit a fly ball, is “flied,” not “flew.”

So sportscasters who say “he flied out” and “he had flied out” are using the standard terminology.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) give “flied” as the only past tense for the word in its baseball sense.

The Oxford English  Dictionary, which isn’t quite so definitive, says the past tense of “fly” on the ball field is usually “flied.”

The OED’s first citation for the baseball verb is from a report in the Chicago Tribune on July 3, 1893, about a game between the Chicago Colts and the Boston Beaneaters: “Kittridge flied out to Brodie.”

However, The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.), by Paul Dickson, has a much earlier reference.

It comes from a report in the Boston Globe on June 13, 1872, about a game between the Boston Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics: “Cuthbert flied out to Harry Wright.”

So the verb had the past tense “flied” when it was first used in this sense, though the Dickson book notes that in the early days of baseball both terms (“flied” and “flew”) regularly appeared in sports writing.

The OED, for example, has this 1904 “flew” citation from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat: “Wallace flew to Lush for the third out.”

But the remaining OED citations use “flied”:

1912, from Christy Mathewson’s book Pitching in a Pinch: “Sheckard flied out to Seymour”;

1948, and from the Durant (Okla.) Daily Democrat: “Baker then flied to center and neither runner was able to advance.”

Eventually, “flied” beat out “flew.” As Dickson explains: “Although the past tense of this verb is sometimes stated as flew out, it is now customary to say or write ‘flied out.’ ”

Why? The probable explanation goes to the very structure of the language, specifically the two kinds of verbs we have in English.

There are regular verbs with modern “ed” endings in the past tense and past participle, like “walked,” “laughed,” “jumped,” “helped,” and so on.

And there are irregular verbs with older, Anglo-Saxon endings, like “drove/driven”; “wrote/written”; “sang/sung”; “rose/risen,” and of course “flew/flown.”

We have only about 200 of the older verbs left. As we form new ones or give new meanings to oldsters, we tend to give them modern “ed” endings in the past tense.

This is particularly true when we make a new verb out of a noun, even if that noun is related to an earlier verb with an irregular ending.

And the verb phrase “fly out” is derived not from the old verb “fly” but from the noun “fly,” a baseball term (for “fly ball”) that originated in 1860.

So even though the sports noun is based on the old irregular verb “fly,” the new verb arising from the noun is given a modern “ed” ending.

Here are some other examples of this principle at work:

The past tense of “stand” is “stood.” But the verb “grandstand,” formed from the noun “grandstand” (1834), has the past “grandstanded.”

The past of “grind” is “ground.” But if a stripper performs a “bump and grind” (a relatively new term for an old dance), we  say she “bumped and grinded.”

The past tense of “light” can be “lit” or “lighted.” But we use the modern “ed” ending to say someone “moonlighted” as a plumber.

The usual past of the verb “cost” is “cost.” But we say an accountant “costed” (that is determined) the company’s proposed project.

The past tense of “spin” is “spun.” But the past of “spin” in its newer political sense is a work in progress. Some people say a politician “spun” the incident while others say he “spinned” it. May the best word win!

The verb “snowblow” hasn’t yet made it into standard dictionaries, but it’s alive and well in snow country … with a modern past tense.

We should know. We “snowblowed” our way through many a winter in rural New England.

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Is this species of English extinct?

Q: I’m wondering if the phrase “go extinct” is correct, as in “That mammal has gone extinct.” Until recently, I’d always heard “become extinct.”

A: Just like other species of living things, words and phrases battle it out in a kind of linguistic version of natural selection. It appears that the verb phrase “go extinct” has made a place for itself.

In its earliest sense, the word “extinct” meant “extinguished,” and was a past participle of the verb “extinguish.”

It was first recorded in writing in the mid-15th century. Here’s the earliest citation (dated 1432-50) from the Oxford English Dictionary: “That fyre was extincte.” 

Soon the word was being used in an adjectival sense, as in this citation: “The lampe of grace in thy soule wyll soone be extinct” (1526).

“Extinct” can be used as a simple adjective to modify a noun, as in “an extinct volcano.” But when used with a verb, it has historically been accompanied by some form of “be” or “become.”

So the most common verbal usages for many centuries were “be/is/are/was/were extinct,” or “become/became extinct.”

The OED has no citations for the new verb phrase “go extinct,” which along with its variants gets hundreds of thousands of hits on Google.

But Oxford has many citations for the verb “go,” when accompanied by an adjective, to mean “to become, get to be (in some condition).”

The OED’s citations for this use of “go,” dating from the late 1500s to the present day, include the phrases “went low,” “went less,” “gone thick,” “go cold,” “went dead,” “go gray,” “gone mad,” and “goes sour.”

Also, “went scarlet,” “goes lame,” “gone vacant,” “go native,” “gone Hollywood,” “gone missing,” “go public,” “go ‘arty,’ ” “gone serious,” “going establishment,” “going nuclear,” and “go postal.”

(We wrote a blog entry a few years ago about the now popular “gone missing.”)

As you can see, “go extinct” has caught on for a reason: it has a long history of analogous usage behind it.

But the phrase “become extinct” is not about to go the way of the dodo. It still vastly outnumbers “go extinct” in Google hits.

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. If you miss a program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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Is “hearsay” a cousin of “heresy”?

Q: I wonder if there’s a connection between the words “hearsay” and “heresy,” or is the similarity just a coincidence?

A: The nouns “hearsay” and “heresy” come from very different sources and are not related.

“Hearsay” was first recorded in writing in 1532, and is described by the Oxford English Dictionary as a substitute use of the phrase “to hear say,” which in turn was in use before the year 1000.

The OED defines “hearsay” this way: “That which one hears or has heard some one say; information received by word of mouth, usually with implication that it is not trustworthy; oral tidings; report, tradition, rumour, common talk, gossip.”

The roots of the noun, the verbs “hear” and “say,” go back to Old English and have their origins in ancient Germanic sources.

The noun “heresy,”  on the other hand, is from Greek.

It was borrowed into English, probably before 1200, from the Old French word eresie or heresie, an adaptation of the Latin haeresis, which comes from the Greek hairesis.

The meaning in the classical languages was broader than in English and referred to a taking, a choosing, a school of thought, a set of philosophical principles.

The English “heresy” is defined by the OED as “theological or religious opinion or doctrine maintained in opposition, or held to be contrary, to the ‘catholic’ or orthodox doctrine of the Christian Church, or, by extension, to that of any church, creed, or religious system, considered as orthodox.”

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Hear Pat today on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll appear on Talk of Iowa after the news at 10 AM Central Time (11 Eastern) to answer questions from listeners about the English language.

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How do we know when usage changes?

Q: You’ve written that it’s acceptable (though perhaps pretentious) to use “utilize” instead of “use.” I’d venture to say “utilize” has nearly replaced “use.” It seems most people prefer three syllables to one; I do not. How do you judge when popular usage overwhelms tradition? Why do you accept “utilize,” for instance, but not “fun” as an adjective, though you acknowledge it’s common too?

A: You ask a very complicated  question, and the answer won’t be black and white.

When we make a judgment about a  usage, we consult many sources: the OED as well as current standard dictionaries (and sometime older ones, for historical perspective); old and new usage guides; scholarly studies where available; and articles in journals like American Speech.

This gives us a feel for whether educated opinion about a usage has changed.

The examples of “use/utilize” and “fun” as an adjective are different.

No one denies that “utilize” is a legitimate verb and part of the language. It’s been used in the sense of “to make useful” for a couple of hundred years.

Although “utilize” originally suggested putting something to a new or expanded use, dictionaries now accept the looser meaning of putting something to use – that is, using it.

The question here is not legitimacy; it’s style: is “utilize” a more or less felicitous choice than “use”?

But the increasingly common use of the noun “fun” as an attributive adjective represents a change in part of speech – a change that’s still labeled nonstandard by many (though not all) sources.

Changes in grammatical function are much slower to gain acceptance than relatively small changes in the meaning of a word where no new function is involved.

I hope this doesn’t just muddy the waters. Many of these things are judgment calls that leave room for disagreement.

As we wrote in our 2008 posting about “utilize,” it’s not a word we like but we can’t call it incorrect. And we think it’s more likely to be used in writing than in speech.

People like to be pretentious in writing, but they tend to use more natural English in speech.

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Why are British names so odd?

Q: I once heard a theory as to why British names are so strange – Biggerstaff, for example. I’m hoping you can help me track it down.

A: We did a bit of poking around on the Internet, but couldn’t find such a theory – at least one that made any sense to us. If you come across that theory again, let us know.

We agree with you that some British names are indeed odd. We’re reminded of a New York Times article earlier this year about the amusing names of British streets and villages.

Here are some beauts: Crapstone, Pratts Bottom, East Breast, North Piddle, Spanker Lane, Crotch Crescent, Thong, Penistone, Tumbledown Dick Road, Titty Ho, Wetwang, Slutshole Lane, and Butt Hole Road.

You’re undoubtedly aware that some British surnames are not only odd, but also pronounced very differently from their spellings.

Examples: Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), Featherstonehaugh (“Fanshaw”), Marjoribanks (“Marchbanks”), Brougham (“Broom”), and Beauchamp (“Beecham”).

There’s a wonderful Monty Python sketch (which we’ve referred to before on the blog) about the odd pronunciation of odd British names.

A character in the sketch is named Raymond Luxury Yacht. As he explains, “My name is spelt  ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced Throatwobbler Mangrove.”

But let’s not get too smug. The British like to poke fun at American names too.

A favorite author of ours, the British writer Angela Thirkell, did a lot of such poking in a series of comic novels set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

One of her offstage characters is a sexy movie star named Glamora Tudor, whose steamy productions pack ’em in at the Barchester Odeon on Friday nights.

Miss Tudor’s hunky American leading men have names like Hash Gobbet, Hastings Pond, Hank Hawksfoot, Crab Doker, Croke Scumper, Hake Codman, Washington Swop, Buck Pickaback, Hick Pilldozer, and Hank Pilsener.

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Does the majority rule?

Q: Even people on NPR will speak of a “majority” of something when I’d use “most.” Doesn’t one deal with a number of items while the other with a portion of something? Or has usage changed when I wasn’t looking?

A: Many usage guides discourage the use of “majority” for things that aren’t being counted. So they would frown on “The majority of the cake was eaten,” or “He slept through the majority of the ballet.”

In such instances, usage commentators would prefer “most.” They would save “majority” for referring to more than half of a number of items, as in “a majority of votes” or “the majority of the contestants.”

However, the majority rules in English, and dictionaries now accept using “majority” in a looser sense.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) includes “the greater number or part” among its definitions of “majority.”

And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes this definition: “the greater quantity or share (the majority of the time).”

In fact, the noun “majority” meant simply a state of superiority when it entered English in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It wasn’t until the late 17th century that the word took on its meaning of more than half the number of items.

Although most of the OED citations for this sense use “majority” strictly, an 1882 item from the journal Nature takes a looser approach: “The majority of the coral which I collected … was obtained by divers.”

Today, as we’ve said, standard dictionaries consider the looser meaning standard English. Can the usage guides be far behind?

But just because lexicographers (or language mavens) say a usage is OK doesn’t mean you have to use it.

We’d rather eat most of the cake, not the majority of it – that is, if we weren’t on a diet!

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Is “these ones” legit?

Q: We live in Iowa and we’re bothered when we hear people say “these ones,” as in “Do you want these ones?” or “These ones are for sale.” Is this acceptable English?

A: Let’s begin by looking at the singular version: “this one.”

The main part (or head) of the phrase is “one” (an indefinite pronoun, not the number 1), modified by “this” (a demonstrative adjective). Together they form a noun phrase: “I like this one.”

Logically, the plural form of this noun phrase would be “these ones.” And logically, we can’t see any reason why this would be grammatically incorrect. “Which ones do I like? I like these ones.”

The chief argument against “these ones” is that “these” alone would suffice (“I like these”). But the same objection could be made against the singular form: Instead of “I like this one,” you could simply say “I like this.” So that argument isn’t convincing.

Now, we have to admit that to our ears “these ones” sounds like a childish usage. We never say or write “these ones” (or “those ones”). But our prejudice against it doesn’t make it grammatically incorrect.

The linguist Arnold Zwicky, writing on the Language Log, says that apparently the use of “these ones” is widespread in Britain, where it’s not considered odd or nonstandard at all.

The situation is less clear in our neck of the woods. Is it acceptable in the US or not?

Educated users of the language seem to differ, and your opinion many depend on where you grew up, according to Zwicky.

”It’s possible that in North America these/those ones’ is a variant in the gray area between standard and nonstandard – fully acceptable to educated middle-class speakers in some areas, but not fully acceptable, though not actually stigmatized, to such people in other areas,” he writes.

Like many questions of English usage, this one has a fuzzy answer. We can’t find any evidence that “these ones” is grammatically incorrect. The only reason to discourage it is that many – perhaps most – Americans find it objectionable.

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Does this usage get you to thinking?

Q: I was reading a blog entry by an expert on the English language, and I noticed that he used the expression “I got me to thinking.” Is this proper English?

A: No, “I got me to thinking “ is not a grammatical construction. Anyone who uses it is probably joking or being folksy or making a typo.

So let’s assume the blogger meant to write “It got me to thinking.” This is a very common way of speaking – but is it acceptable English?

When we use the verb “get” in a causative way (meaning something is caused to happen), the verb that follows is usually either an infinitive or a present participle:

(1) “It got me to think” (“to think” = preposition + infinitive).

(2) “It got me thinking” (“thinking” = participle).

These are both standard English, and very common. But there’s also a third construction, one that appears to be a hybrid of the other two:

(3) “It got me to thinking” (“to thinking” = preposition + participle).

The verb phrase at the center of all this is “get to thinking,” which consists of verb (“get”) + preposition (“to”) + present participle (“thinking”).

This is an extremely common way of using the verb “get.” We hear things like “we got to talking” and “I got to thinking” all the time.

The verbs “fall” and “set” were once commonly used this way, too, and such usages can be found in older writing.

Examples: “He fell to eating” … “We fell to laughing” … “They set him to working” … “She set to making the beds.”

In usages like these, “get to” and “fall to” and “set to” all mean something like “start.” Some activity –represented by the participle (the “ing” word) – is being caused, or put into play.

But back to your question or rather the usage behind the apparent typo that inspired it. Is “get to thinking” legitimate English?

As common as this is, we haven’t found much about it in usage guides or dictionaries.

One of the few authorities that has any comment at all is the Longman English Dictionary, which calls it an “informal” usage.

Longman says the phrase “get to thinking/wondering something” means “to start thinking something,” and gives this example: “He got to thinking how disappointed his parents would be.”

The Macmillan Dictionary does not give this usage a label one way or another. It simply notes that “get to doing something” means “start doing something,” and gives this example: “He got to thinking that it was all his fault.”

In this sense, according to Macmillan, “get to” means “start on,” “begin,” “set about,” “embark on,” etc.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary has little to say on the subject. Under its entry for the verb “get,” it notes that the verb is sometimes followed by a present participle (as in “get talking”).

It dates this construction from 1727 (in the phrase “get writing”), and it includes some very modern-sounding citations: “I got thinking” (1872), and “they got talking” (1889).

The very familiar “get going” was first recorded in writing in 1897 and has been going strong ever since.

But Oxford has no comment on the version that includes the preposition, as in “get to thinking” or “get to talking.”

We tend to agree with Longman that phrases like these seem more at home in informal English. But then so do the shorter versions, “get thinking” and “get talking.”

All of them are normally used in conversational English and casual writing. And in our view, that’s probably where they belong. 

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A piece of cake

Q: I’m a fourth-grade teacher in Massachusetts. My students have been reading Pat’s grammar book for kids, Woe Is I Jr., and they’ve asked why we say “I’d like some pieces of candy” as opposed to “I’d like some pieces of candies.”

A: We’re talking here about “candy” as a general category. The word “candy” doesn’t stand for an individual object, but for an entire category of food, like “meat” or “bread” or “fruit” or “cake.”

When this is the case, the thing you’re counting (“candy”) remains singular, whether you’re talking about one piece or many.

That’s is why we say “pieces of meat” and “pieces of bread” and “pieces of fruit” and “pieces of cake.” We don’t say “pieces of meats” or “pieces of breads” or “pieces of fruits” or “pieces of cakes.”

If you look on pages 24 and 25 of Woe Is I Jr., you’ll find a section on how to use phrases like “kinds of” and “sorts of” and “types of” with plural words.

However, these phrases can also be followed by singular words if those words represent an entire category of something.

This is true with the phrase “pieces of” as well as “kinds of,” “breeds of,” “brands of,” “varieties of,” and others.  

Here’s how it works:

“Our teacher has an important piece of information” … “Our principal has two important pieces of information.”

“Emma’s mom made one kind of chicken” … “Jordan’s mom made two kinds of chicken.”

“I am familiar with only one breed of dog” … “At the dog show, there were fifty breeds of dog.”

“He likes one brand of cereal” … “She likes three brands of cereal.

“This painting has one variety of red” … “That painting has three varieties of red.”

“Our kitchen has only one piece of furniture” … “Our living room has eight pieces of furniture.”

In all these cases, the noun following “of” (that is, “candy,” “information,” “chicken,” “dog,” “cereal,” “red,” “furniture”) doesn’t represent a single object but a category of something, so it remains singular. 

We hope your students find this answer a piece of cake!  

And by the way, Pat would like to inform you and the class about an error in Woe Is I Jr.

On page 99, the second sentence of the second paragraph should read:

“Most of the time, we use an in front of a vowel, or soft letter, and a in front of a consonant, or hard one.”

Please mark this in your book, which mistakenly has the rule reversed! Pat hopes this will be corrected in later printings.

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Is it proper to refer to oneself as “Esq.”?

Q: I’m bothered by the use of the honorific “Esq.” for a lawyer. I believe it should signify a gentleman. I’m also bothered that lawyers, both men and women, tack the honorific on their own names. It should be conferred by others as a term of respect, and only on men.

A: We wrote a brief blog item a few years ago about the use of “Esq.” as an honorific, but it’s time for an update that includes some history of how the noun “esquire” gave us this title of respect.

Before going on, however, we should mention that the title is treated differently in Britain and the United States, which has led to some confusion about the usage.

In our earlier posting on the subject, we cited A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, whose author, Bryan A. Garner, is both a lawyer and the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary.

For this update, we checked out the new third edition of the usage guide (now called Garner’s Modern English Usage), which reiterates that “Esq.” in American English “typically signifies that the person whose name it follows is a lawyer.”

“The mild honorific is used nowadays,” Garner’s notes, “with the names of men and women alike; it is incorrect, however, to use it with any other title, such as Mr. or Ms.”

The title, as you point out, should be conferred by others; it’s not proper legal etiquette to use “Esq.” to refer to oneself.

Somehow, the idea has gotten out that Esq. is something you put after your own name,” Garner’s says, adding, “In fact, it is quite non-U for a lawyer to put Esq. on cards, stationery, and self-addressed envelopes.”

The reference also notes that in British English “esquire is used of any man thought to have the status of a gentleman.” (More on that later.)

The noun “esquire” has had an interesting history. It entered English in the late 15th century, borrowed from the Old French esquier,  literally “shield-bearer,” and ultimately from the Latin scutum, “shield.”

In 1460, when “esquire” first appeared in writing, it meant a man belonging to the higher gentry, just below a knight, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “squire,” from the same Old French word esquier, is much earlier, and was first recorded in writing in 1290.

In the feudal military system of the 13th century, a “squire” was “a young man of good birth attendant upon a knight,” the OED says.

In 1475, “esquire” was first used as a term in chivalry to mean the same thing: “a young man of gentle birth, who as an aspirant to knighthood, attended upon a knight, carried his shield, and rendered him other services.”

In later usages, “esquire” took on these meanings: an officer in the service of a king or nobleman (1495); an armor-bearer (1553); a landed proprietor or county “squire” (1597); a title accompanying a man’s name (1552-53); and a gentleman who attends (or “squires”) a lady in public (1824).

However, “esquire” does not precisely mean “gentleman” in Britain. As the OED explains, some authorities believe esquires fall into five classes:

(1) younger sons of peers and their eldest sons; (2) eldest sons of knights, and their eldest sons; (3) chiefs of ancient families; (4) esquires by creation or office, such as judges, officers of state, military officers, justices of the peace, barristers-at-law; (5) esquires who attend the Knight of the Bath on his installation.

“The correctness of this enumeration, however, is greatly disputed,” the OED adds. “It would be impossible here to state the divergent views on the subject.”

As for “Esq.,” the OED says the title “is now commonly understood to be due by courtesy to all persons (not in clerical orders or having any higher title of rank) who are regarded as ‘gentlemen’ by birth, position, or education.”

The dictionary notes, however, that “in the U.S. the title belongs officially to lawyers and public officers.”

In summary, lawyers should not tack “Esq.” onto their own names. But in the US it may properly be used in reference to them – women as well as men.

Note that even in Britain, barristers may be entitled to “Esq.” after their names.

We hope this satisfies any lingering doubts you may have.

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Do MDs misuse the verb “present”?

Q: I heard Pat joke on WNYC a few months ago that doctors are the only people who use the verb “present” incorrectly. Since I’m starting my residency in July, I was wondering if you could explain. I’d rather not make this mistake in my career.

A: The remark Pat made on the Leonard Lopate Show was that doctors are the only people who use “present” as an intransitive verb. This usage isn’t a mistake, but it’s largely confined to the medical profession.

A verb can be transitive or intransitive or both.

A transitive verb needs a direct object to make sense; we call it “transitive” because the action is being transmitted from the subject to an object.

An intransitive verb, on the other hand, doesn’t need an object to make sense.

Many verbs in English are used both transitively and intransitively. The verb “grow,” for example, can be transitive (“He grows dahlias) or intransitive (“Dahlias grow quickly).

And “give” can be used  transitively (“He gave a donation) or intransitively (“He gave already).  So can “see,” which is either transitive (“We saw it) or intransitive (“We saw clearly).

Some verbs are strictly one or the other. They’re either transitive (like “lay and “raise) or intransitive (like “be,” “die,” “fall,” “go,”lie,” and “rise).

For most people, “present” is solely transitive, even at a medical office: “The receptionist presented the dermatologist’s bill to me.

But doctors often use it intransitively too: “The head of the fetus is presenting” … “The patient presented in my office with symptoms of fibromyalgia.

The verb’s use in obstetrics dates back to the early 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For a fetus, to “present” means “to be positioned (in a particular way) for delivery.” And for part of a fetus, it means “to appear first at the mouth of the uterus during labour.”

The OED‘s earliest citation is from a translation of Pierre Dionis’s A General Treatise of Midwifery (1719): “The Exercise they use near their Time occasions the Child to turn sooner that it ought, and to present less favourably.”

The more general medical meaning dates to the 19th century and is defined this way in the OED:

“Of a condition, symptom, physical sign, etc.: to show itself, to appear, to be manifest, to occur, esp. in a certain manner, position, etc. Of a patient: to come to medical attention, esp. with a particular symptom, etc.”

Oxford‘s first citation for this usage is from 1836, but it’s questionable. This more definite example is from A System of Medicine, edited by Sir Thomas Clifford Allbutt (1897): “A periœsophageal abscess frequently presents laterally.”

So, the intransitive “present” has a past. Feel free to use it, especially among doctors, but be aware that the rest of us may find it a bit strange.

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Is the band Phish singular or plural?

Q: I have a question about band names. Which is correct: “Phish is from Burlington” or “Phish are from Burlington”?

A: If the name of a band is inherently plural (like “the Doors” or “the Beatles”), then treat it as plural and use a plural verb (“are”).

If the band’s name is inherently singular (say, “Snow Patrol” or “Radiohead”), then treat it as singular and use a singular verb (“is”).

The name “Phish” (like “fish”) could be construed as either singular or plural. We’d come down on the side of the singular (“is”). 

In fact, that’s how the band treats itself on its website, as in this March 15, 2010, news item: “Phish Performs At 2010 Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.”

The band, formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont, was first called Blackwood Convention (a reference to the bidding term in bridge), but it soon began performing as Phish.

Why Phish? There are lots of explanations, but the one heard most often is that the name refers to the band’s drummer, John Fishman, commonly known as Fish.

If you’d like to read more about band names, we wrote a blog post a while back on this subject.

In American English, by the way, a collective noun like “band” is construed as singular. The Brits, on the other hand, treat collective nouns as plural.

If you’re still game, we wrote a blog item some time ago about differences between US and UK English.

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Can we be too possessive?

Q: How do you explain the common construction seen in sentences like “It is a book of Bob’s” and “That is a stamp collection of Jane’s”?

A: We assume you’re referring to using both “of” and an apostrophe plus “s” to show possession.

This construction, often called a double possessive or a double genitive, is perfectly standard English. We wrote a brief blog item about it a few years ago, but it’s time for a more extensive update.

In the 18th century, some Latinists criticized this usage for not conforming with the grammar of their favorite language. The first one to look askance at it was Robert Lowth, the guy who gave us the myth that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.

But as the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, the double possessive is “an idiomatic construction of long standing in English” and “a perfectly acceptable, perfectly normal form in modern English.”

In a construction like this, the preposition “of” is “followed by a noun in the genitive case or a possessive pronoun,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Examples of this usage go back to the early 1200s, and would include phrases like the ones you mention as well as “a relative of hers” and “a customer of theirs.” There’s nothing wrong with any of them.

In fact, as the OED points out, possessive pronouns like “hers” and “theirs” are in effect double possessives already (at one time they were written “her’s” and “their’s”), and were formed “by association with the possessive case in such phrases as ‘a friend of John’s.’ ”

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage notes that the double possessive also can be a very handy tool for sharpening an ambiguous possessive:

“In practice one of its most useful functions is that it enables English speakers to distinguish between the simple types a picture of the king (= an actual portrait of him) and a picture of the king’s (= one owned by him).”

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Same old, same old

Q: As a young airman in Japan during the 1950s, I often heard locals (and GIs) use the expression samo, samo to mean the same. Did this usage give us the expression “same old, same old”?

A: The use of samo, samo in Asia apparently predates the appearance of American GIs by quite a few years.

An English buccaneer noticed this use of the phrase among the people of Mindanao in the 1600s. Back then in the Philippines, it didn’t exactly mean “same old, same old,” but it did refer to sameness.

We came across this information in an 1862 reference book, A Dictionary of English Etymology, by Hensleigh Wedgwood, with notes by George P. Marsh.

In a bracketed note­­, Marsh cites this passage from A New Voyage Round the World (1703), by the much-traveled adventurer and explorer William Dampier:

“They would always be praising the English, as declaring that the English and Mindanaians were all one. This they exprest by putting their two fore-fingers close together, and saying that the English and Mindanaians were samo, samo, that is, all one.”

Marsh, in his note, wonders whether samo in that quotation was “a native word, or had the people of Mindanao borrowed it from earlier English visitors?”

(Dampier, who lived from 1652 to 1715, really should be the subject of a splashy Hollywood spectacle, but that’s another story.)   

So did those 17th-century islanders have their own word samo, or did they adapt “same” from English explorers? We’d guess that the usage was influenced by earlier explorers.

In checking a few modern Filipino dictionaries, we find the verb sámò (to cry or plead) and the noun samò (an entreaty), but no indication that either word could refer to sameness.

In a 2001 posting to the Linguist List, Douglas G. Wilson says samo doesn’t appear in Japanese dictionaries either, but samo, samo apparently exists as a dialectal variant of a Malay term meaning same or together.

Perhaps this dialectal variant is related to the samo, samo that Dampier heard in the Philippines on his round the world trip. But we suspect that the Malay term may have been influenced by English-speaking visitors.

Our word “same” entered English in about 1200, probably influenced  by the Old English swa as well as similar words in Scandinavian languages.

It has cousins in Old Saxon, Old High German, Gothic, Old Irish, Latin, Greek, Lithuanian, Old Slavic, Russian, Sanskrit, and the prehistoric language families proto-Germanic (reconstructed as samaz) and Indo-European (reconstructed as somos).

But back to “same old, same old,” an expression suggesting that nothing has changed in one’s life.

The usage first showed up in the 1970s in American black English, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang.

Did it originate in the phrase samo, samo that you heard while stationed in Japan in the 1950s?

Maybe it did … and maybe it didn’t. Here’s the story.

In “Bamboo English,” a 1955 article in the journal American Speech, Arthur M. Z. Norman suggests that samo, samo originated in the Japanese tendency to use reduplication when speaking pidgin English. (In linguistics, reduplication is the repetition of the root of a word or part of it.)

“The changey-changey samey-samey phenomenon heard among the Japanese,” Norman writes, “is responsible for samo-samo ‘the same’ in American Slang.”

But Wilson, in another 2001 posting to the Linguist List, raises the possibility that samo, samo may have been coined not by the Japanese but by US soldiers – as baby talk the GIs used in an attempt to communicate.

“It is possible that ‘samo’ or even ‘samo-samo’ was simply a nonsense augmentation of ‘same’ by American servicemen,” he says.

Channeling a ’50s GI, Wilson adds: “That’s how we used to say ‘same’ in Tijuana, maybe it’ll work here too,” or “I think these people will understand English if you repeat each word slowly, with ‘o’ or ‘a’ on the end; they understood me fine that way in Manila.”

In answer to your question, the 1950s phrase samo, samo, meaning the same, may have evolved into the 1970s expression “same old, same old,” meaning nothing’s changed, but this isn’t certain.

Although some word sleuths see a connection between the two expressions, Cassell’s describes “same old, same old” as merely a slang version of the standard English “same old thing.”

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Just an FYI

Q: Why do people write things like “Just an FYI”? Isn’t “an” supposed to be used before a word starting with vowel, not a consonant?

A: In the phrase “Just an FYI,” the abbreviation “FYI” is being used as a noun. It’s similar to saying “an SOS” or “an RSVP.”

But why, you ask, do we use “an” instead of “a” in front of “FYI,” a word beginning with a consonant, not a vowel?

When choosing which indefinite article (that is, “a” or “an”) to use before a word, the key is the sound the word begins with, not the letter of the alphabet.

If the word begins with a vowel sound, the article is “an” (as in “an apple,” “an hour,” or “an RSVP”).

If the word begins with a consonant sound, the article is “a” (as in “a house,” “a university,” “a PhD”).

We use the article “an” before “FYI” because the pronunciation of the abbreviation begins with a vowel sound: eff-why-eye.

If you’d like to read more about this “a”-versus-“an” business, we discussed it last year in a blog item about which article to use before the word “herb.”

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A moment in time

Q: I’ve been thinking about the expression “moment in time.” In physics, a moment can describe more than time (a moment of force, for example). So the explosion of a star 2,000 years ago would be a significant moment in time. Moment = star exploding. Time = 2,000 years ago.

A: We can’t find any etymological evidence that the phrase “moment in time” has been used – at least to any significant extent – in the technical sense you mention.

The noun “moment” originally meant a small quantity of something, especially a small period of time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It entered English in the 1300s from Middle French, but it ultimately comes from the classical Latin momentum, which in turn is derived from the from the verb movere (move). 

The OED defines the noun “moment” as a “very short period of time, particle, movement, impulse, influence, importance, decisive stage.”

In English, as we all know, “moment” has had many meanings that have nothing to do with  time.

It can mean significance or importance; an influence or consideration; a small particle; a small weight or counterweight; or momentum.

And as you suggest, “moment” also has several technical meanings in mathematics, physics, and statistics.

But in the common English expressions we’re all familiar with, “moment” does have its usual temporal meaning.

These include “in a moment,” “at a moment’s notice,” “not for a moment,” “at any given moment,” “never a dull moment,” “at (or “for”) the moment,” “on the spur of the moment,” and “live for the moment.”

Also, “of the moment,” “for one moment,” “from this moment on,” “any moment now,” “one has one’s moments,” “moment to moment,” “moment of truth,” “moment of silence,” and of course “moment in time.”

All these phrases have to do with time and its duration, whether literally or figuratively.

As for “moment in time,” the expression that’s on your mind, the rather redundant “at this moment in time” is the only version given in the OED’s entry on the noun “moment.”

It was first recorded in 1972, and all the quoted citations in the dictionary’s entry mean simply “now” or “at the present instant.”

However, the OED has several additional versions of the phrase, in citations for other entries, that refer to specific times in the past, present, or future.

The earliest of these citations, in a 1959 issue of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, is “the most favorable moment in time.”

Others include “at that moment in time” and “the imaginary moment in time.”

As for that explosion of a star 2,000 years ago, it could indeed be described, in either the usual or the technical sense, as a significant moment in time!

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Do you dis “disenfranchise”?

Q: I graduated from Bennington College in the late ’60s. My wonderful European history teacher insisted that “disenfranchise” was incorrect, and that “disfranchise” must be used instead. I’ve always done so, not that I often have occasion to. (He also wore a red shirt each year on Garibaldi’s birthday.)

A: “Disfranchise” and “disenfranchise” are synonymous, and both are legitimate verbs (no disrespect to your teacher is intended!).

Let’s start with the original, “franchise,” a verb that once meant to set free or liberate.

It entered English around 1393, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it existed in Anglo-Norman in the early 1100s and had its origins in the old franc (“free”).

The original sense of the verb is now rare. The most recent published usage cited in the OED is from “Renaissance,” a poem by Thomas Sturge Moore (1931):

“Do thou forget / All that, until this joy franchised thee, / Tainted thee, stained thee, or disguised thee.”

In its usual modern sense, the verb means to grant a commercial franchise. The usage, dating from 1940, originated in the United States, according to the OED.

As for the noun “franchise,” it originally meant “freedom, immunity, privilege.”

The noun entered English about 1300, and was also recorded in Anglo-Norman in the mid-1100s. Early senses of the word included “a special privilege or right to own property, earn income, trade, etc.,” the OED says.

The modern commercial sense, which originated in the US and dates from 1903, is an authorization to do business in a particular area for a stated period in return for a share of the profits. The term also applies to the business or the territory.

But back to verbs!

“Enfranchise” was first recorded in the early 1500s and meant either “to admit to freedom, set free (a slave or serf),” or “to admit to municipal or political privileges.”

The earliest use in writing, the OED says, is from an act of Henry VIII in 1514: “The crafte and misterye of Surgeons enfraunchesid in the Citie of London.”

Today, to “enfranchise” is to grant the privileges of citizenship, especially the right to vote.

And to “disenfranchise” – or to “disfranchise” – is to remove those privileges. Both are bona fide verbs, though the shorter version came first. The OED dates “disfranchise” from 1467 and “disenfranchise” from 1664.

Standard dictionaries leave the choice to us. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines “disfranchise” by merely cross-referencing it to “disenfranchise,” which gets a full entry.

On the other hand, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “disenfranchise” as “to disfranchise,” and the latter entry gets the full treatment.

But the longer version may be more popular today. The words “disenfranchise,” “disenfranchised,” and “disenfranchisement” far outnumber the “en”-less versions in Google hits.

I think  the reason is obvious. Someone who has the right to vote is “enfranchised,” not “franchised.” So the opposite form “disenfranchised” seems more natural and symmetrical.

By the way, if you dis the verb “disrespect” or its short form “dis,” check out this blog item we wrote a few years ago.

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Lying in wait

Q: What part does “in wait” play in “lie in wait”? I’d say it’s an adverbial phrase, since it modifies the verb. But then I start to make myself nuts when I consider something like “lie in bed,” where “in bed” is just a preposition and a noun.

A: An adverbial phrase is simply two or more words functioning as an adverb – that is, modifying a verb. 

The phrase “lie in bed,” for example, consists of the verb “lie” plus the adverbial phrase “in bed.”

The adverbial phrase here consists of a preposition (“in”) plus a noun (“bed”). It’s a prepositional phrase in itself, but in this sentence it’s also adverbial in that it functions as an adverb would.

Similarly, the phrase “lie in wait” consists of the verb “lie” plus the adverbial phrase “in wait.” The adverbial phrase consists of a preposition (“in”) plus a noun (“wait”).

By the way, the noun “wait” once had more meanings that it does today. For example, it used to mean a watchman or guard.

Today we use it mostly to mean a period of waiting (as in “an hour’s wait”), but something of the old meaning survives in the expressions “lie in wait” (dating from around 1440) and “sit in wait” (before 1300).

In the sense of lying in ambush, English speakers once also used the phrases “lie at catch” and “lie upon the catch.”

A prepositional phrase can also function as an adjectival phrase, as in “They bought the house in the cul-de-sac.” Here, the prepositional phrase “in the cul-de-sac” functions as an adjectival phrase modifying the noun “house.”

Finally, the word “in” isn’t always a preposition. It’s an adverb, for example, in the verb phrase “lie in” (as in, “On Saturdays, I like to lie in,” or “Don’t call before 9, since I’ll be lying in”).

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What do you call a man-hater?

Q: I’ve been wondering if there’s a female version of “misogyny” that would indicate a woman’s hatred of men. Can you help me?

A: The parallel term for “misogyny” (hatred of women) is “misandry” (hatred of men). They’re pronounced mis-AHJ-uh-nee and mis-AN-dree.

The Greek roots of these words are misos (hatred), gyne (woman), and andros (man).

“Misogyny,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women,” was first recorded in English in 1656.

“Misogynist” came along in 1620 and “misogynistic” in 1821.

“Misandry,” defined as “the hatred of males; hatred of men as a sex,” was first recorded in 1898.

The OED says it was formed “after misogyny,” which we assume means it was developed specifically to be the feminine counterpart.

(We’ll resist the temptation to call these “companion words,” since they’d make such uncomfortable companions!)

“Misandrist” was a latecomer and didn’t appear in print until 1952; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) labels it as both noun and adjective.

We’d hate to conclude the subject of hating one sex or the other without mentioning “misanthrope,” the word for an equal-opportunity hater.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines “misanthrope” as “one who hates or distrusts humankind.”

It first showed up in English in 1683, according to OED citations. We borrowed it from the French misanthrope, perhaps because of familiarity with the Molière comedy of manners Le Misanthrope (1666).

In Plutarch’s Lives, the term was used to describe Timon, an Athenian with a reputation for misanthropy, and an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.

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Toot suite

Q: My landlord says his daughter, a tutor of something or other, is looking for an office to “tut” in. He pronounces it TOOT, which has me wondering if “toot” is the root of “tutor”?

A: How we wish the answer were “yes”! But unfortunately, “toot” is not the root of “tutor.”

The noun “tutor,” first recorded in writing in 1377, originally meant “a guardian, custodian, keeper; a protector, defender,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the 1380s, the OED says, it was also used in the sense of “one who has the custody of a ward; a guardian.”

The surviving meanings of the word – someone who teaches or supervises young people, whether in a university or in a private household – evolved in the 1390s and later.

The verb “tutor,” which first was recorded in 1592, has always had the modern meaning – to instruct or teach.

The OED says the noun was directly adopted into English either from the Old French or Anglo-French tutour, or from the Latin tutor (watcher or protector). The ultimate source was the Latin verb tueri (watch or guard).

The verb “toot” (to blow a horn) has Germanic roots, not Latin ones. It was first recorded in English in 1510, according to citations in the OED, but it existed earlier in other Germanic languages.

Why “toot”? It’s probably an imitative word, one whose sound echoes its meaning.

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Can there be two main points?

Q: Is it possible to have more than one MAIN point? Example: “The main points are #1 and #2.” Doesn’t the word “main” mean the most important and therefore all other points are less important? Or am I splitting hairs? 

A: Yes, we do think you’re splitting hairs.

It’s possible, for example, that some argument or case could have five significant points, two of them more important than the others.

An author might legitimately call points #1 and #2 the “main” points. Points #3, #4, and #5, while still significant, could then be described as “secondary.”

You might employ this usage, for instance, if your two top points are of equal (or nearly equal) significance, and only numbered 1 and 2 for convenience’ sake.

Although the adjective “main” may refer to the single most important thing, the word has had many looser meanings over the years.

In fact, “main” referred to “the great size or bulk” of something when it first showed up in writing in the 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A few other senses of the word, now archaic or obsolete or regional, have been powerful, mighty, strong, large, potent, highly remarkable, and very great.

The adjective took on its meaning of chief or principal around 1400, according to OED citations, but the word has often been used since then to refer to more than one important thing.

Shakespeare, for example, referred in All’s Well That End’s Well (1601-05) to the “main consents” and “main parcels.”

We hope this eases your mind!

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A rule made of whole cloth?

Q: A colleague studying English was reprimanded by her teacher for saying a “piece” of clothing, rather than an “item” or “article.” A Google search, however, results in over five million hits for “a piece of clothing.” Is the teacher right or is that rule made of whole cloth?

A: There’s nothing wrong with calling an item of clothing a “piece.” Garments are often referred to this way. In fact, the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary repeatedly use “piece” in definitions to refer to items of clothing.

I can’t imagine what the teacher’s objection could be, unless he or she believes a “piece” can only be an incomplete, broken-off part of something else.

But “piece” has been used to mean a separate, individual item (as in a “piece of artillery”) for centuries.

Even if you regard a “piece” as incomplete, the phrase “a piece of clothing” makes sense. You could regard a “piece” of clothing as part of a person’s general apparel, which would include other such “pieces.”

The OED says that “piece” has been used to refer to a length of cloth since the 12th century or earlier. (Even today in the textile industry, a “piece” or bolt of cloth is 50 or 70 yards long.)

For several hundred years, the word has also been used to refer, among other things, to a coin (as in “pieces of eight”), a plot of land, a cask of wine, a roll of wallpaper, and a heavy firearm, as well as a literary, musical, or artistic composition.

So, yes, that English teacher’s rule against saying a “piece” of clothing is indeed made of whole cloth.

By the way, the expression “made of whole cloth” didn’t always mean false or without foundation.

When the phrase “whole cloth” entered English in the 15th century, it referred to an entire, manufactured swath of cloth before pieces were cut off for garments.

People began using the phrase figuratively in the 16th century in expressions like “cut out of the whole cloth.”

For a few hundred years, these expressions had various positive meanings. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that “made of whole cloth” took on its negative sense.

Finally, a few words about your Google search and those five million hits for “a piece of clothing.” We won’t say that millions of Google hits can’t be wrong, but in this case they’re right on the money.

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Firstly, secondly, and thirdly

Q: I’ve noticed a proliferation of “firstly,” “secondly,” “thirdly,” even “lastly.” These words do appear in my dictionary, but aren’t they rather obsolete? I hear them on news interviews in particular.

A: The “ly” enumerations (“firstly,” “secondly,” “thirdly,” “lastly”) have been around for a very long time. They may  be old, but they’re not exactly obsolete today. Far from it.

Here’s the Google scorecard: “firstly,” 22.4 million hits; “secondly,” 33.1 million; “thirdly,” 8.85 million, and “lastly,” 21.1 million.

Starting at the top, “firstly” was first recorded in writing about 1532, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The now obscure “firstmost” came earlier, with published references dating from 1400. 

The adverb “secondly” dates from around 1374, “thirdly” from 1509, and “lastly” from 1375.

Over the years, some (but not all) style and usage books have recommended “first,” “second,” and so on for making enumerations, instead of the “ly” versions.

Other guides have argued that “secondly” and “thirdly” are the preferred forms for numbers two and three.

Why? Because if the writer’s (or speaker’s) second and third points are very far from number one, the reader (or listener) may need an “ly” ending as a reminder that another point is about to be made.

Advocates of “secondly” and “thirdly” often recommend using “firstly” for the sake of conformity. But consistency may not be everything. As the OED explains, “many writers prefer first, even though closely followed by secondly, thirdly, etc.” 

We think it’s OK to use either the long or short adverbs to make your points. But if you’re going to use the “ly” endings, we’d recommend “finally” instead of the awkward “lastly.”

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Street smarts

Q: I’m confused when addressing letters. When do you use numerals and when do you spell the number out? If you use numerals, do you need the “st,” “nd,” “rd,” and “th” endings? Can “d” alone suffice for “nd” and “rd”? Do you need superscript or is regular type OK? Help!

A: If you want to be formal, The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.) recommends that the name of a numbered street or thoroughfare should be spelled out if it’s one hundred or less (as in “First Avenue” or “Ninety-fifth Street”) and given in figures if it’s over one hundred (“122nd Street”).

However, if you’re not writing for publication and you’re simply addressing a letter, you can be more relaxed in using figures instead of spelled-out numbers.

You might, for example, follow New York Times style. The Times spells out numbered street names from “First” through “Ninth” and uses figures for “10th” and above.

The Times also uses “st,” “nd,” “th,” and “rd” with figures where appropriate: “21st Street,” “12th Avenue,” “52nd Road,” “73rd Street,” etc.

In ordinary news copy the newspaper spells out “Street,” “Avenue,” “Road,” and so forth. But in addressing a letter, according to the Chicago Manual, abbreviations are fine: “St.” and “Ave.” and “Rd.”

When we went to work at the Times in the early ’80s, the paper used “d” alone for the endings of ordinal numbers in addresses like “73d Street” and “52d Road”), but the latest Times stylebook recommends “nd” and “rd” endings.

This is a matter of style, not grammar, so the choice is yours. In legal writing, for example, “2d” and “3d” are  the standard abbreviations used in citing court cases, but that doesn’t mean lawyers necessarily  address their letters that way!

A Google search indicates that “2nd” is much more popular than “2d,” but another search finds that “3d” is far more popular than “3rd” (this is misleading, though, since many “3d” references are abbreviations of  “three dimensional”).

As for superscript, it’s not necessary in street addresses, but again the choice is up to you.

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Can function follow form?

Q: I can’t help but pause when I encounter contradictory prepositions, as in sentences like these: 1) “Leslie went out in the woods” and 2) “Morgan is off on an errand.” Is this usage legitimate?

A: The function a word performs depends on how it’s used in a sentence. What looks like a preposition may actually be an adverb. 

Words like “in,” “out,” “off,” “on,” “over,” “down,” “under,” and many more can be adverbs as well as prepositions. So what appears to be a contradictory set of prepositions may in fact be a quite sensible adverb-preposition combination.  

In sentences like “Leslie went out in the woods” and “Morgan is off on an errand,” the words “out” and “off” are adverbs. The words “in” and “on” are prepositions.

Further examples: “Leslie looked in [adverb] on [preposition] the baby” … “Morgan looked on [adverb] over [preposition] my shoulder” … “She looks down [adverb] upon [preposition] the valley.”

There are many other combinations of adverbs and prepositions that look contradictory in isolation, but aren’t at all contradictory in actual use.

Examples: “While swimming, he went under [adverb], over [preposition] his mother’s objections” … “The child acted out [adverb] in [preposition] typical fashion” … “We went over [adverb] under [preposition] protest” … “The alarm went off [adverb] on [preposition] time.”

We hope this solves the mystery!

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Who is the Tom in tomboy?

Q: I wonder if you can answer my 14-year-old goddaughter’s question: “Who is the Tom in tomboy?”

A: The name “Tom,” short of course for “Thomas,” has often been used as “a generic name for any male representative of the common people,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A good illustration is the expression “every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” (We once wrote a blog item about this phrase.)

In fact, “Tom” has been used in this way, more or less as a quasi-name or nickname for an ordinary guy, since the 1300s.

To cite another example, in the 1600s, speakers of English used the expression “Tom of all trades” as well as “Jack of all trades.”

And in the 1700s, people began using “tom” as a lower-case noun for a male animal (as in “tom cat,” “tom turkey,” etc.).

When “tomboy” was first recorded in writing (as “Tom boy”) in 1553, it meant “a rude, boisterous, or forward boy,” the OED says.

How did it get this meaning? Here’s one possibility.

Since “Tom” was a name for the common or archetypal male, a particularly rowdy boy was perhaps called a “Tom boy” as another way of saying he was especially boyish – a boy’s boy, in other words.

“Tomboy” soon took on another meaning, according to the OED, that of “a bold or immodest woman.”

This sense was first recorded in 1579, the OED says, in a commentary on Calvin’s sermons.

Here’s the quotation: “Sainte Paule meaneth that women must not be impudent, they must not be tomboyes, to be shorte, they must not bee unchast.”

Why this meaning of “tomboy”? Here again, we can only guess. It would seem that naughty adult women were perceived as behaving like wayward boys.  

By 1592, the OED says, the term was being used to mean “a girl who behaves like a spirited or boisterous boy; a wild romping girl; a hoyden.”

Again, it would appear that rowdy behavior was thought to be more characteristic of boys than of girls.

The term was defined in a 17th-century glossary as meaning “a girle or wench that leaps up and down like a boy.”

In Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730-36), it’s defined as “a ramping, frolicsome, rude girl.”

And an 1802 journal describes “The violent exercise of the skipping-rope, which is … only fit for some Miss Tom-boy.”

The word “hoyden,” by the way, also began life as a masculine term (“a rude, ignorant, or awkward fellow”).

It was first recorded in the late 1500s, according to citations in the OED, and it took nearly a century for it to be used to mean an ill-bred, rude, boisterous, or noisy girl.

Speaking of boisterous behavior, it’s time for Pat to jump on her tractor and tame the overgrown trails through our meadows and woods.

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A “tri”-ing question

Q: In a book of mine about triathlon training for women, I used the short “tri” many times and I pluralized it as “tris.” But my daughter tells me that I should have used an apostrophe, making the plural “tri’s.” Is she right?

A: No, it’s incorrect to form the plural of a noun by adding an apostrophe plus “s.” So writing “tri’s” for the plural of “tri” would be like writing “apple’s” for the plural of “apple.”

You’d write the possessive as “tri’s” (as in “the “tri’s fourth year”), but the plural would be “tris.”

Ordinarily, “tri” is a prefix, not a word in itself. When you decide to use a prefix as a short  form for an entire noun, you pluralize it the same as you would any other noun – usually by adding “s” or “es.”

So “sub” (short for “submarine”) would be pluralized as “subs,” “ex” (for “ex-husband”) as “exes,” “semi” (“semi-trailer truck”) as “semis,” and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have an entry for “tri” as short for “triathlon,” but it does have one for “tri” as a clipped word for “trimaran,” a boat with a central hull and a float on each side.

The OED describes a triathlon as “an athletic or sporting contest composed of three different events.”

In the dictionary’s earliest citation, dating from 1973, the three events are “clay pigeon shooting, fly fishing and riding a handy hunter-course over jumps.” The events are now usually swimming, cycling, and running.

With some prefixes (like “tri” for “triathlon” or “trimaran”), the plural may not be familiar to readers. But follow the rules you must! (This means you have to tri harder.)

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Food pathology

Q: I’m a medical student with a linguistic question. There are a lot of references to food in pathology: “nutmeg liver,” “berry aneurysm,” “orange peel ulcer,” “maple syrup urine,” etc. What part of speech are these food terms?

A: In a phrase like “berry aneurism,” the noun “aneurism” is being modified by an adjective: “berry.” In this case, the adjective is in fact a noun (“berry”) used adjectivally.

This is quite common. Take these examples: “bird brain,” “flower child,” “stone wall,” “car salesman,” “dog fight.” When a noun performs the function of an adjective, it’s sometimes called an attributive noun. 

Any adjective (whether or not it’s also a noun) performs a similar function – it casts its own attributes onto the word it modifies. 

So in the noun phrase “pink socks,” which is a more typical adjective-noun combination, the adjective lends its attributes (pinkness, mostly) to  the socks.

And in the noun phrase “berry aneurism,” the noun “berry,” functioning as an adjective, lends its attributes (the characteristic size, shape, consistency, etc., of a berry) to the aneurism.

To sum up, the food terms in the phrases you mention are all attributive nouns – that is, nouns functioning as adjectives.

In case you’re interested, we recently answered another question that involved an attributive noun: a doctor wondered whether he should be called a “retina surgeon” or a “retinal surgeon.”

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An alleged pronunciation

Q: I’ve noticed that people have recently begun to pronounce the adjective “alleged” with three syllables, not two. Have you a theory about how this happened, and when? Perhaps the three-syllable pronunciation has been influenced by the four syllables in “allegedly.”

A: The  adjective “alleged” can properly be pronounced with either two syllables or three, according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

So either a-LEJD or a-LEJ-id would be correct. However, this is a relatively recent development.

Our old copy of the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), printed in 1956, doesn’t even list a separate adjective. It merely lists the two-syllable pronunciation for the past tense and past participle of the verb.

This leads us to believe that the old Webster’s would have regarded the adjectival “alleged” as a participial adjective and would not have given it an extra syllable. 

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994) as well as M-W’s updated concise edition (2002) say both pronunciations are acceptable.

But the more conservative Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), published in 2009, still recommends two syllables, not three.

Nevertheless, once mainstream dictionaries like American Heritage and M-W’s Collegiate accept a new pronunciation, it has to be regarded as standard English.

As you suggest, it seems likely that the new pronunciation of the adjective was influenced by the four-syllable adverb “allegedly.”

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Etymological teamwork

Q: A LinkedIn recommendation describes my husband as “the smartest person I have ever teamed with.” I’m pretty sure that should be “teamed up with,” not “teamed with.” Do you agree?

A: Sorry, but we don’t agree with you that the verb phrase “team with” is incorrect.

Yes, the usual phrase is “team up with.” (The Google scorecard: 24.9 million hits for “team up with” versus 9 million for “team with.”) But there’s nothing wrong with the “up”-less version.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The word “team” in its modern sense began as a noun. As far back as the year 825, it meant a set of draft animals; it’s derived from old Germanic sources having to do with drawing or pulling. 

Later, in the early 1500s, the noun was first used to refer to people, either working together or associated in some joint endeavor. (This sense of the noun has given us the sports uses, such as “team player,” from 1886.)  

The verb “team” also showed up in the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally meant to harness or yoke, as a farmer might “team” horses or oxen.

We still use the verb more or less this way, but with things instead of animals.

Today, a woman might “team” a tweed skirt and a silk blouse. A decorator might “team” a plaid sofa and striped curtains. Or a cook might “team” barbecued ribs with cornbread and a salad.

Usages like these were first recorded in the 1940s.

Finally we arrive at the usage that bothers you so much: “team with.”

The OED says this use of the verb, first recorded in the 1930s, appears “chiefly with up,” and means “to join together in or as in a team; to ally oneself or get together with someone.”

That “chiefly with up” notation says it all. Though most of the OED’s citations include “up,” we haven’t seen any usage guide that rejects the “up”-less version.

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Walking on eggs or eggshells?

Q: I was born in 1942 and grew up with the expression “walking on eggs.” During the last 30 years or so, I hear only “walking on eggshells.” Has this expression morphed from “eggs” to “eggshells”?

A: In its first incarnation, the expression involved the whole egg, not just the shell. The original, 18th-century version was to “tread on eggs,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to walk warily, as on delicate ground.”

The only two citations for the whole-egg version in the OED are from the same author, Roger North, and appear in biographical works he published around 1734. Here are the quotations:

“This gave him occasion … to find if any slip had been made (for he all along trod upon eggs).” And, “He had his jury to deal with, and if he did not tread upon eggs, they would conclude sinistrously.”

The eggshell version showed up more than a century later, and has more examples cited.

The OED defines the phrase “walk on eggshells” and its variants as meaning “to be extremely cautious in one’s actions or words, esp. so as to avoid offending or angering others.”

The earliest citation given is from Wilkie Collins’s suspense novel The Woman in White (1860): “With that woman for my enemy … I walk, in your English phrase, upon egg-shells!”

In another citation, Ernest Rhys wrote in his Lyric Poetry (1913): “To speak of these things is to walk on egg-shells.”

The phrase also made an appearance in the title of a 1962 novel by Herbert Simmons, Man Walking on Eggshells.

And here’s a more recent example, from the British edition of Cosmopolitan magazine (1999): “He suffers from mood swings – you tread on eggshells because there’s no knowing what will set him off.”

All four OED citations for the expression since the early 1960s involve eggshells, not eggs. And Google hits run six-to-one in favor of eggshells.

In answer to your question, the expression does seem to have morphed. The eggshell version (whether one treads or walks on them) is by far the more popular form today.

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