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

Shedding a little night light

Q:  To quote James Taylor, would you please “shed a little light” on this? Is the fixture a “night light,” “night-light,” or “nightlight”?

A: It depends on which standard dictionary you consult.

The word is hyphenated, “night-light,” in four US dictionaries: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged).

However, it’s two separate words, “night light,” in Webster’s New World and in a British dictionary, Collins. And it’s a single unhyphenated word, “nightlight,” in these four British dictionaries: Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Macmillan, Cambridge, and Longman.

Our vote goes to the British foursome, and “nightlight.” As we’ve written several times on the blog, most recently in 2019, many compounds start out as two words, then acquire a hyphen, and finally become a single word.

We predict that as time goes on, the form “nightlight” will become more widely adopted in standard dictionaries.

When the term entered English, hyphenated at first, it didn’t mean something plugged into an electrical outlet, or even using candlelight. It meant “the faint natural light perceptible at night,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED, which gives the term as “night light,” cites this 17th-century example as the earliest known use in writing: “Nachtlicht, night-light, Night-shine” (from a 1648 Dutch-English dictionary by Henry Hexham).

Elizabeth Barrett (before she married Robert Browning) used this sense of “nightlight” poetically in her verse play A Drama of Exile (1844), rhyming the line “In the sunlight and the moonlight” with “In the nightlight, and the noonlight.”

But by that time, “nightlight” had also become a household item. The OED defines this sense as “a light source designed to provide faint illumination in a room at night; spec. a small, thick, slow-burning candle or an electric light of low power, used in the bedroom of a child or sick person.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a long poem by Robert Bloomfield, Good Tidings, first published in London in 1804. Here he describes a mother at her son’s sickbed: “Hour after hour, when all was still beside, / When the pale night-light in its socket died, / Alone she sat.”

Such a useful word was bound to survive into the age of electricity. This OED citation is from the late 20th century: “The light’s meager appetite for electricity … makes it the most environmentally sensible night-light around.” (From a British magazine, Harrowsmith Country Life, Dec. 14, 1994.)

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On ‘damage’ and ‘damages’

Q: In the last year or so, I’ve been irked to hear mass nouns being replaced by countable counterparts. Examples: “check the car for damages” … “economic supports for workers” … “non-profits are feeling pressures.” Is this a trend? Am I right to feel irked?

A: Let’s begin with “damage.” Yes, it’s a mass noun, but we wouldn’t describe “damages” as a count or countable noun.

As you know, a count noun (like “chair”) is one that can be counted—that is, modified with a numeral, an indefinite article, or a quantitative adjective like “few” or “many.” A mass noun (like “furniture”) can’t be counted. You can say “a chair,” “two chairs,” or “many chairs,” but not “a furniture,” “two furnitures,” or “many furnitures.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language considers “damage” a mass noun (it uses the term “noncount”), but lists “damages” among “plural-only nouns” for which “the singular form exists, but not with the standard sense relation to the plural.” It’s in a group of plural nouns that “have to do with compensation and reward for what has to be done,” such as “dues,” “earnings,” “proceeds,” “reparations,” and “wages.”

In contemporary English, as you point out, the singular noun “damage” means loss or harm to someone or something, while the plural “damages” refers to monetary compensation for loss or injury. Those are the meanings in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

However, a cursory search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles, indicates that “damages” is indeed often used now with what standard dictionaries consider the meaning of “damage.”

Here’s a recent example: “Damages from a two-alarm fire Friday morning at a commercial building near Funkstown could exceed $2 million, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s office” (Herald-Mail Media, Hagerstown, MD, April 17, 2020).

Centuries ago, however, both “damage” and “damages” were used to mean a loss as well as compensation for such a loss. Here’s an example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the plural used in the sense of loss or injury: “Repairing the damages which the kingdom had sustained by war” (The History of England, 1771, by Oliver Goldsmith).

And here’s an OED citation for the singular used in the legal sense: “He shall therefore pay 500li to the King and 200li Dammage to Mr Deane and make recognition of his fault and wrong” (from a 1631 case cited in Reports of Cases in the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, 1886, edited by Samuel R. Gardener. A star chamber is a secret or executive hearing).

As for the other two nouns you’re asking about, dictionaries generally regard “support” as a mass noun when used to mean financial assistance, but they say “pressure” can be either a mass or a count noun when used to mean stressful demands.

Here are two examples from the “pressure” entry in Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online: “backbenchers put pressure on the government to provide safeguards” (mass noun) … “‘the many pressures on girls to worry about their looks” (count noun).

Do you have a right to feel irked about a questionable usage? Well, you have that right, but when we come across a usage we don’t like, we usually laugh it off or simply ignore it. And every once in a while we learn that a bugbear of ours is not only legitimate but has been used for hundreds of years by writers we respect.

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San fairy ann: Why a duckboard?

Q: During World War II, my soldier brother used to say “san fairy duckboard” instead of “san fairy ann” when he meant “it doesn’t matter.” I asked him once why he replaced “ann” with “duckboard,” and he said duckboards were everywhere in the army. Do you have any information about this usage?

A: The expression “san fairy ann,” meaning “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s nothing” or “never mind,” originated as a World War I infantryman’s version of the French phrase ça ne fait rien.

And “duckboard,” another WWI term, was what soldiers called the slatted flooring placed in muddy trenches and camps.

We haven’t found a single published example that combines the terms into “san fairy duckboard,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used in speech by the American doughboys, British Tommies, Australian diggers, and other English speakers who fought in the war.

And assuming they used the phrase, we can guess what it meant—something like “it doesn’t mean duckboard” or “it’s not worth duckboard” or “it doesn’t matter any more than duckboard.” In such an expression, “duckboard” could have been a euphemistic substitute for an obscenity.

We do know that another word familiar from trench warfare, “sandbag,” was merged with “san fairy ann.” The phrase “sandbag Mary Ann” was used as a variation on “san fairy ann.” Well, the French used by English-speaking soldiers may have been wanting, but their English was certainly inventive.

The OED’s entry for “san fairy ann” calls it a “jocular form representing French ça ne fait rien ‘it does not matter,’ said to have originated in army use in the war of 1914–18.” The dictionary defines it as “an expression of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase, spelled somewhat differently, is from Walter Hubert Downing’s Digger Dialects (1919), a collection of Australian soldier slang:  “San ferry ann … it doesn’t matter.”

As for “duckboard,” the OED says that during WWI it was used, generally in the plural, to mean “a slatted timber path laid down on wet or muddy ground in the trenches or in camps.”

The dictionary’s earliest use is from a British wartime magazine: “Walking wounded are helped along the duck-boards that flank the light railways.” (The War Illustrated, March 17, 1917.)

In short, soldiers familiar with both “san fairy ann” and “duckboard” may very well have combined the expressions, even though we can’t point to a published example.

The original “san fairy ann” has had many variants, according to findings in the OED as well as our own researches.  The first element can be “san” or “son”; the second “fairy,” “faery,” or “ferry”; and the third “Ann,” “Anne,” “Anna,” “Han,” or “Aunt.”

It’s also been mushed together as “sanfairyann” and “sanferriens.” And besides the aforementioned “Sandbag Mary Ann,” we’ve seen “Sally fair Ann,” “Aunt Mary Ann,” and “Send for Mary Ann.” Finally, as the OED says, it’s been shortened to the simple “Fairy Ann.”

While “san fairy ann” originated during WWI and was mostly used a century ago, it survived into the WWII era and beyond, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED includes a 1956 example from a story by the novelist Frederick B. Vickers, who served in the Australian armed forces during WWII. We’ll quote a slightly different part of the passage to clarify the speaker’s meaning: “ ‘Don’t mention it, Joe,’ I said. … ‘San ferry ann, Joe.’ ” (From “Make Like You,” published in the story collection Coast to Coast, 1956.)

And this example, also cited in the OED, is from a British novel: “ ‘I wish you’d thought of my ulcer before you—’ he began, and then broke off. ‘Oh, san fairy anne!’ ” (It’s a Free Country, 1965, by Leonard Brain.)

Finally, Oxford quotes a 1970s newspaper advertisement: “San fairy Ann. … It doesn’t matter to us.” (The Times, London, June 22, 1973.)

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Drunk as a skunk

Q: I wonder about the derivation of “drunk as a skunk” and other skunkish expressions.

A: Through no fault of its own (or none that it can help), the unfortunate skunk has inspired many expressions, none of them complimentary.

But we believe that “drunk as a skunk,” an American expression that originated in the 1920s, is merely rhyming slang and has no real connection with skunkdom.

We say this because for more than 600 years, the inebriated have been described as “drunk as a” something-or-other, animate or inanimate. And generally the noun of comparison has little to do with alcohol consumption.

The formula “drunk as a …” began appearing in the late 14th century “in various proverbial phrases and locutions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original version was “drunk as a mouse,” the OED says. This is from “The Knight’s Tale” (1385), the first of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and we’re expanding the Oxford citation to add context:

“We fare as he þt dronke is as a Mous / A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous / But he noot which the righte wey is thider” (“We act like one that is drunk as a mouse. / A drunk man knows well that he has a house, / But he does not know which is the right way there”).

We found another use by Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “If that I walke or pleye unto his hous. / Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous” (“If I go for amusement to his house, / You come home as drunken as a mouse”).

The association of mice with drunkenness may have begun with an ancient fable about a tipsy mouse who’s rescued by a cat after becoming trapped in a vessel of wine or beer. Versions of the fable, first recorded in Latin by Odo of Cheriton in his Parabolæ in the early 1200s, was much repeated in various collections during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it may be that “mouse” was chosen simply to rhyme with “house.” In several songs and poems after Chaucer’s time, lines ending “drunk as a mouse” rhymed with “house” or “alehouse.”

But as we mentioned, the expression “drunk as a …” has accommodated a Noah’s Ark of animals. Since Chaucer’s time,  according to slang dictionaries, “mouse” has been joined by “swine,” “hog,” “sow,” “pig,” “duck,” “owl,” “dog,” “cat” “kit,” “rat,” “monkey,” “jaybird,” “loon,” “bat,” “coon,” “fish,” “fly,” “fowl,” “tick,” “donkey,” “coot,” “goat,” and of course “skunk.”

Humans have also joined the inebriated crew, and “drunk as a …” has included “lord,” “earl,” “emperor,” “pope,” “fiddler,” “beggar,” “bastard,” “piper,” “poet,” “sailor,” “cook,” “parson,” “porter,” and “tinker.”

And let’s not forget inanimate objects: “drum,” “sack,” “besom” (a broom), “log,” “wheelbarrow,” “top,” and “little red wagon.” We can certainly imagine a couple of those wobbling erratically.

In this long litany of inebriation, many of them hundreds of years old, “skunk” is a latecomer. The OED’s earliest use of “drunk as a skunk” is less than a century old: “O Dan, you’re drunk! You’re drunk as a skunk!” (From The Heart of Old Kentucky, collected in New Plays for Mummers, 1926, by Glenn Hughes.)

Our bet is that earlier uses of “drunk as a skunk” will turn up, because the “drunk”/“skunk” rhyme scheme had already suggested itself generations earlier. We found a couple of 19th-century examples:

“My wife she is a hateful scold, / And when I am half drunk, / She will begin to fret and scold, / And call me a dirty skunk.” (From “Soliloquy of a Drunkard,” published in the Philadelphia Scrap Book, April 26, 1834.)

“Ter see a man come home so drunk / It makes her loathe him like a skunk.” (From a temperance poem in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, January 1876.)

So much for skunks and alcohol. You asked about other “skunkish expressions,” and most of them have to do with things (or people) that are to be avoided or scorned.

Since the early 19th century, the OED says, “skunk” has been a colloquial noun for “a dishonest, mean, or contemptible person,” a usage the dictionary describes as “chiefly North American.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is about politics: “There were five skunks, who apostatized from Republicanism, within a few months back, and voted the Federal ticket on Monday last” (the Maryland Republican, Annapolis, Oct. 12, 1813).

And the adjectives “skunk-like” (1815) and “skunkish” (1831), the OED says, have meant “dishonest, mean, or contemptible” … “reminiscent of a skunk, esp. in odour or appearance” … “resembling or suggestive of a skunk.”

The word has also been a verb since the 19th century. To “skunk” someone means to defeat or get the better of (1832), as in “I skunked her at backgammon.” It can even mean to swindle or defraud someone (1867), as in “He skunked me out of $10.” Both senses are also used passively, and to be “skunked” is to be unsuccessful or to be cheated.

“Skunk” is also etymologically interesting. The animal is a native of the Americas, and its name is thoroughly American too.

As the OED says, it was borrowed into English from a “Southern New England Algonquian language.” And it’s apparently connected to the notion of a urinating fox.

Though the original Algonquian source is uncertain, the word has cousins in related languages: Western Abenaki (segôgw), Unami Delaware (šká:kw), and Meskwaki (shekâkwa), the last of which consists of the Algonquian elements shek– (to urinate) and wâkw– (fox).

In English, the word was first recorded as “squuncke” in 17th-century New England, the OED says. The earliest known use is in a list of animals likely to rob a henhouse: “The beasts of offence be Squunckes, Ferrets, Foxes” (from New Englands Prospect, 1634, by William Wood).

[Note: An Australian reader of the blog writes on June 19, 2020, with a courtroom quip attributed to the early 20th-century British statesman and lawyer Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead: “Smith (to the Court): At the time, my client was as drunk as a judge.  Judge (interjecting): Mr. Smith, I think you’ll find the phrase is ‘as drunk as a lord.’ Smith: As your lordship pleases.”]

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Depart … or depart from?

Q: My impression is that we used to “depart from” a location but that now, under the influence of airline-speak, we just “depart.” Example: “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland.” I’m a copy editor. Should I put that “from” back in, or is it acceptable without it?

A: The verb “depart” can properly be used with or without “from,” though it’s more often found with the preposition.

The two versions represent different uses of the verb—one transitive and the other intransitive. Both forms of “depart” have been in use since the 14th century, and both are still recognized as standard English.

In “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland,” the verb is being used transitively—that is, with a direct object.

Here are some other examples: “the train departed the station” … “the enemy has departed our shores” … “the judge has no plan to depart the bench” … “she departed this life in 1902” … “he departed the office of ombudsman last year.”

Used intransitively—without a direct object—the verb may or may not be followed by a prepositional phrase (like “from the Port of Oakland”). The prepositional phrase is used adverbially.

Here are other intransitive examples, using different prepositions or none at all: “he departed for home” … “the boat departs in 15 minutes” … “the bus departs at 5 p.m.” … “we departed on time” … “they’re ready to depart” … “the ship departs soon.”

You’ve probably noticed that the first bunch of examples, the transitive ones, have a somewhat formal or literary feeling—a jargony one in in the case of the ship’s departure. (Airlines in particular seem to prefer “depart” without “from” or “at,” as in “Flight 202 will depart Gate 5” and “it now departs 12:45.”)

The intransitive “depart,” used with “from” (or “at”), seems more natural to us than the transitive use without the preposition. But as we’ve said, both transitive and intransitive uses have been around since the Middle Ages.

The intransitive use was known earlier. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s implied in a 12th-century manuscript, though more definite sightings showed up in the 14th century.

A few examples, with and without prepositions: “we fra þe depart” (“we from thee depart,” c. 1300); “departed well erly from Parys” (1490); “yff I depart” (1526); “depart from Portsmouth” (1817); “the train departs at 6.30” (1895).

The transitive version of “depart”—with a direct object and without “from”—has been used to mean “to go away from, leave, quit, forsake” since about the mid-1300s, according to OED citations.

A range of examples: “departe vs nouȝt” (“depart us not,” circa 1340); “departed their company” (1536); “to depart the toune [town]” (1548); “may depart the Realm” (1647); “to depart Italy” (1734); “to depart the kingdom” (1839).

The dictionary says the transitive use is “now rare except in to depart this life.” But the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it hasn’t “fully updated” its entry for “depart” since it was published in 1895. And none of the examples—for any senses of the verb—go beyond the 1800s.

We don’t agree that the transitive “depart” is rare, and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “If the transitive was rare at the end of the 19th century, it no longer is,” the usage guide says, adding that “it seems common enough in American English.”

However, it may be that the use has declined in British English over the years. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2015), says “except in the formal or literary phrase departed this life, the construction no longer forms part of the standard language in Britain.”

Opinion is mixed in current standard dictionaries. The ten that we usually consult—five American and five British—all recognize the transitive “depart” as standard English. However, three of the five British dictionaries label it a North American usage. Apparently, a use that once was ordinary in both varieties of English has fallen off in the UK but survives in the US.

Nevertheless, some American news organizations have discouraged the use of “depart” without a preposition since at least as far back as the 1970s.

The revised 1977 edition of a stylebook adopted jointly by the Associated Press and United Press International has an entry for “depart,” with examples, saying it must be followed by a preposition. The entry concludes, “Do not drop the preposition as some airline dispatchers do.”

The most recent editions of the AP stylebook still have that entry for “depart,” identical except for the admonition at the end. The entry now reads, “Follow it with a preposition: He will depart from LaGuardia. She will depart at 11:30 a.m.

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Coots, feathered and otherwise

Q: Why is an old guy referred to as a “coot”? And what about “geezer”?

A: The use of “coot” for an old man, especially an oddball, seems to have evolved from the early use of “coot” as an informal name for various seabirds, at first apparently the common murre or guillemot (Uria aalge), and later the Eurasian coot (Fulica atra).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the name “coot” was “originally given vaguely or generically to various swimming and diving birds. In many cases it seems to have been applied to the Guillemot.”

Afterward, the OED says, the term “coot” was given to the Eurasian coot “and generically extended to all the species of Fulica.” (A murre in the US is a guillemot in the UK, the latter borrowed from French in the 17th century.)

The dictionary notes that in Dutch, the common murre is Zeekoet or sea coot, and the Eurasian coot is Meerkoet or lake coot. It also mentions a similar “Low German word, the earlier history of which is unknown.”

So how did “coot” evolve in English from the name for a bird to a noun for an old person, especially an eccentric or crotchety old man?

The usage may have been influenced by the odd behavior of the common murre during its breeding season and the similarity in pronunciation of the Eurasian coot’s Latin genus, Fulica, to the English word “fool.”

The common murre has often been referred to as the “foolish guillemot,” a name the English naturalist Thomas Nuttall attributed to “their fatuity in the breeding season, in allowing themselves sometimes to be seized by the hand, or killed on the spot without flying from their favorite cliffs” (A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada, Vol. 2, 1834).

In fact, “coot” originally referred to a foolish person when it showed up as a noun for a human being, a usage that the OED suggests may have been inspired by the foolish guillemot.

And Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests the foolish usage may have originated as a “play on Lat. Fulica.” In classical Latin, fulica referred to a water bird believed to be a coot.

The earliest Oxford example for the noun “coot” used in the avian sense is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “An ostriche, and a nyȝt [night] crowe, and a coote, and an hawke” (Leviticus 11:16).

In the 15th century, writers began using the noun in descriptions of people. The first Oxford citation is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, a Middle English poem written from 1412 to 1420:

“And yet he was as balde as is a coote.” This was apparently a reference to the Eurasian coot, which has often been referred to as the bald coot because of the white frontal shield on the forehead of the primarily black bird.

The OED has examples for “bare as a coot” and “black as a coot” from the 17th century:

“They poled him as bare as a Coot, by shaving off his Hair” (The Honour of the Merchant Taylors, 1687, by the English poet and biographer William Winstanley).

“The Proverb, as black as the Coot” (The Academy of Armory, 1688, a treatise on arms, armor, heraldry, etc., by the English herald painter and genealogist Randle Holme III).

When “coot” appeared in the 18th century as a noun for a person, it referred to a “silly person” or “simpleton,” according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from A Compleat Dictionary English and Dutch (1766), by William Sewel: “COOT, Een Zeekoet … A very coot, (or fool) Een gek in folio.”

Although “foolish guillemot” may very well have influenced this usage, that avian phrase didn’t appear in writing until somewhat later in the 18th century, according to our searches of digitized books.

The first example we’ve found is from an October 1779 entry in the account of Capt. James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific.

The term “Foolish guillemot” appears in a list of web-footed waterfowl found during a stop at the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. (Cook had died on Feb. 14, 1779, in a clash with Hawaiians, and the account of the voyage was completed by Capt. James King.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for the avian use of “guillemot” by itself is on a list of sea birds in The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick (1678): “the guillemot or sea-hen.” Willughby was an English ornithologist and ichthyologist.

The noun “coot” came to mean an old man in the 19th century. The earliest citation in Green’s Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, is from High Life in New York (1844), by Jonathan Slick, Esq., pseudonym of Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens: “There is no cheating that old coot, he’s wide awake as a night hawk.”

And we found this early example referring to an old man who isn’t quite so wide awake: “Yet the silly old coot couldn’t think of anything himself; and never was a husband so decidedly hen-pecked, and at the same time in such blissful ignorance of it, as this same gentleman” (from Female Life Among the Mormons, 1855, an anonymous work often attributed to Maria Ward, pseudonym of Elizabeth Cornelia Woodcock Ferris).

Finally, here’s an example of a female “coot,” from a March 30, 2020, story on Fox News in Seattle about a 90-year-old woman who survived Covid-19:

“Her daughter Neidigh said, ‘She’s one stubborn old coot (laughs).’ Her mother chimed in, ‘I’d admit I’m stubborn and I’m a fighter and I have a lot to live for and a lot of things I want to do.’ ”

As for “geezer” used to mean an old man, we discussed the usage in a 2018 post about the different senses of “geezer” and “geyser” in the US and the UK.

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Did she coin ‘wuss’ and ‘wussy’?

Q: The words “wuss” and “wussy” did not appear for the first time in the 1970s among college students, as you say. In 1966, when I was a junior at Bayonne High School in New Jersey, I asked the boys to use “wuss” and “wussy” because “pussy” made me feel uncomfortable.

A: Etymologists, the people who trace the history of words, generally date the origin of a usage from when the term was first recorded—in newspapers, magazines, books, radio programs, TV shows, and so on. That’s because the first recorded use of a word can be proven.

Most new words show up in speech before they appear in writing or other recorded forms.  You may have inspired the use of “wuss” and “wussy” in their weak or effeminate sense at Bayonne High School in 1966. However, there’s no way of proving this, unless you can provide dated evidence of the usage. For instance, a yearbook or school newspaper from 1966. (Note: She didn’t have such evidence.)

Your email inspired us to look further into the history of these terms. As a result, we’ve found several “wussy” examples from the late 1800s, beginning with its use to mean “pussy” in the feline sense.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an English version of the “Puss in Boots” fairy tale. Here “pussy-cat” and “wussy-cat” are used as rhyming terms:

“Pussy-cat, wussy-cat, with a white foot, / When is your wedding? for I’ll come to’t. / The beer’s to brew, the bread’s to bake, / Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, don’t be too late” (Mother Goose’s Melodies or Songs for the Nursery, 1878, edited by William A. Wheeler).

The next example is from a travel book that refers to two young women with “Pussy” and “Wussy” as nicknames:

“Pussy and Wussy at once took their places on the front seat. It was a little way of theirs always to look out for themselves—at least, Pussy did it, and Wussy followed suit” (The Foreign Freaks of Five Friends, 1882, by Cecilia Anne Jones).

In the early 20th century, the term “pussy-wussy” came to be used as an adjective or noun with the sense of weak, ineffectual, or effeminate. The  earliest example we’ve found uses it in the ineffectual sense.

In a speech on July 14, 1915, the American suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway used the term adjectivally to criticize prohibitionists as “white-ribboned sisters of virtue” who “depend on a pussy-wussy piece of white ribbon for protection from themselves.” (The white ribbon has been a symbol of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union since the 19th century.)

A year later, the term showed up as a noun for an effeminate man. In Drink and Be Sober (1916), a book calling for the prohibition of alcohol, Vance Thompson writes that the prizefighter Jess Willard was “unafraid of being laughed at as a ‘sissy’ or a ‘pussy-wussy’ ” for supporting the temperance movement.

We’re adding a note to our 2016 post about this early etymology. As we say in that post, the terms “wuss” and “wussy” appeared in writing by themselves in the second half of the 20th century, first in the weak or ineffectual sense, and later in the effeminate sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is for “wuss” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person:

“Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.” From “Campus Slang,” a Nov. 6, 1976, typescript of slang terms collected by Connie C. Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Eble had asked her students to contribute current slang terms on index cards.

When “wussy” showed up in print the following year, it was an adjective meaning effeminate: “Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” From the Harvard Crimson, Sept. 12, 1977.

A few years later, according to Oxford citations, “wussy” appeared in writing as a noun meaning “a weak or ineffectual person” as well as “an effeminate man.”

The first example uses the term jokingly in the weak or ineffectual sense: “Kong’s a wussy. … That wasn’t him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape” (Washington Post, July 18, 1981).

The OED says “wussy” originated with the addition of the suffix “-y” to the noun “wuss.” And it suggests that “wuss” may have originally been a blend of “wimp” and “pussy” used to mean a cat.

However, the evidence we’ve found indicates that “wussy” originated as a rhyming term for “pussy,” and that “wuss” is simply a short form of “wussy.” In fact, “wussy” showed up in English dozens of years before the first OED sighting of “wimp” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person (1920).

As for “pussy,” it originated in the 16th century when the “-y” suffix was added to “puss,” a proper or pet name for a cat.

Oxford’s earliest citation for “puss” used as a cat’s name is from an early 16th-century play: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat / Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.” From Johan Johan the Husband (1533), John Heywood’s comedy about an Englishman who believes his wife is cheating on him with the local priest.

When the suffixed “pussy” first appeared, the OED says, it was chiefly a colloquial term for “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability. Frequently used as a pet name or as a term of endearment.”

The first citation is from a bawdy ballad, perhaps written some time before 1560: “Adew, my pretty pussy, Yow pynche me very nere” (from Jacobite Songs and Ballads of Scotland from 1688 to 1746, edited by Charles Mackay, 1860).

In the late 17th century, “pussy” came to be used for both a cat’s name and the female genitals. The earliest example is from a risqué  song in which the word is used in both senses, Oxford says:

“As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.” From “Puss in a Corner,” in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by Thomas  D’Urfey.

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Why a black swan is a rara avis

Q: Lately I have seen several references to “black swan” meaning an unexpected event or an anomaly. Is this new or just new to me? I can guess how it originated but would love to hear from you about it.

A: The use of the phrase “black swan” to mean a rare or unexpected occurrence ultimately comes from a passage in the Satires of the Roman poet  Juvenal. The Latin passage is also the source of another English term for a rarity, “rara avis.”

In Satire VI,  Juvenal describes a wife with what he considers all the right qualities—looks, charm, money, fertility, and ancestry—as “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” (“a bird rare on earth and similar to a black swan”).

When Juvenal was writing in the late first and early second centuries, Romans believed that all swans were white, so a black swan would have been an impossibility. We know now, though, that black swans (at least mostly black ones) do indeed exist. More on this later.

When the phrase “black swan” first showed up in Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used in contrast to emphasize the whiteness of the European swan:

“The swan hatte signus in latyn and olor in grew [Greek] for he is al white in fetheres, for no man findiþ [findeth] a blak swan.” (From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.)

In the 16th century, the OED says, the usage took on the sense of “something extremely rare (or non-existent); a rarity, rara avis.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a sermon denouncing sensuality: “Captaine Cornelius is a blacke Swan in this generation.” (Earlier, the virtuous captain’s deeds are praised as “musicke to God.”) From a sermon on Easter Tuesday, 1570, by Thomas Drant at St. Mary Spital, a priory and hospital (lodging for travelers) in Spitalfields, London.

The next Oxford example is from a play that satirizes the theater: “The abuse of such places [ancient Roman theaters] was so great, that for any chaste liuer [liver] to haunt them, was a black swan, & a white crow” (from Schoole of Abuse, 1579, by Stephen Gosson).

In the late 17th century the term “black swan” appeared literally, in reference to Cygnus atratus, a swan that’s native to Australia. It’s mostly black, with a red bill and some white wing feathers.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1698 report in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: “Black Swans, Parrots and many Sea-Cows were found there.” The sightings were in Australia, known at the time as Hollandia Nova, New Holland, or Nieuw Holland, a usage introduced by the Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman in 1644.

As for “rara avis,” when the phrase appeared in English in the early 17th century it meant “a person of a type rarely encountered; an unusual or exceptional person; a paragon,”  according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford example is from The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, a 1607 play George Wilkins: “And by that, thou hast beene married but three weekes, tho thou shouldst wed a Cynthia rara avis, thou wouldest be a man monstrous: A cuckold, a cuckold.”

In the mid-17th century, the phrase came to mean “that which is seldom found, a rarity; an unusual, exceptional, or remarkable occurrence or thing.”

The earliest OED example is from a 1651 issue of the Faithfull Scout, a London weekly:  “Moderation, which may well be intituled the Rara avis of these times.”

Today, according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged, “rara avis” means “a rare person or thing.” The dictionary gives this example from the Atlantic: “that rara avis of politics, a disinterested man.”

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Sea chantey or shanty?

Q: Hello, my hearties. My husband, who had a recording company for years, was writing about an album of sea chanties he recorded when his spellchecker changed it to “sea shanties.” Surprised, he typed “sea chantey or sea shanty?” in Google and was told the proper spelling was “shanty.” How does this kind of nonsense take hold?

A: You’d better batten down the hatches before reading on. All 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult consider “shanty” an acceptable spelling of the word for a sailor’s song.

All five of the American dictionaries have entries for “chantey,” with standard variant spellings given as “chanty,” “shanty,” and “shantey.” All five British dictionaries list “shanty” as the only standard spelling, though one includes “chantey” as an “archaic North American” usage.

No matter how it’s spelled, the musical term is usually pronounced the same, SHAN-tee, in the US and the UK, according to the dictionaries.

Interestingly, the word was spelled with both “ch-” and “sh-” when it showed up in English in the mid-19th century. Here are the two earliest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence:

“The anchor came to the bow with the chanty of ‘Oh, Riley, Oh’ ” (Seven Years of a Sailor’s Life, 1867, by George Edward Clark).

“Sailors’ Shanties and Sea-Songs” (an article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, Dec. 11, 1869).

As for the origin of the spelling, the OED says the musical terms “shanty,” “chanty,” and “chantey” are “said to be a corruption of French chantez, imperative of chanter to sing.” The dictionary defines the usage as “a sailor’s song, esp. one sung during heavy work.”

Why is an English word derived from the French chantez often spelled “shanty”? Perhaps because “shanty” comes closer than “chantey” to the pronunciation of the French word: shahn-TAY.

However, it’s natural for English words of foreign origin to take on new spellings, pronunciations, meanings, forms, and so on.  For example, why should an English speaker now spell and pronounce “afraid” as effrayé because both terms ultimately come from the Old French verb esfreer?

As for the word meaning a small, crudely built shack, all 10 standard dictionaries agree that it should be spelled “shanty.” It’s also believed to come from a French word beginning with “ch”—in this case, chantier, Canadian French for a hut in a lumber camp.

The OED cites this English translation from the chantier entry in Dictionnaire Canadien-Français (1894), by Sylva Clapin: “an establishment regularly organized in the forests in winter for the felling of trees; the head-quarters at which the woodcutters assemble after their day’s work.”

The first Oxford example, which we’ll expand here, is from the journal of Zerah Hawley, a Connecticut doctor who spent a year in Ohio in the early 19th century.

In an entry dated Oct. 7, 1820, Hawley describes visiting “a child sick of the intermittent fever, whose parents with two children, lived in what is here called a shanty. This is a hovel of about 10 feet by 8, made somewhat in the form of an ordinary cow-house.”

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Is ‘butt’ short for ‘buttock’?

Q: I’ve long wondered about the use of the American word “butt” to denote the backside. Is it simply a shortened form of “buttock” or something else entirely?

A: Although the use of “butt” in this sense is now chiefly an American usage, it originated in British English—first as an animal’s hindquarters and later as the backside of a man.

So which term for a backside came first, “butt” or “buttock”? Probably “butt,” but like so much about language it’s not certain. Here’s the story.

When this sense of “butt” first appeared in writing in the early 15th century (spelled bott in Middle English), it referred to the hindquarters, especially of an animal, or a piece of meat consisting of the hindquarters, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from a recipe for beef and mutton in a medieval cookbook:

“Take fayre Bef of þe quyschons, & motoun of þe bottes, & kytte in þe maner of Stekys” (“Take fair rumps of beef, and butts of mutton, and cut in the manner of steaks”). From Harleian Ms. 279, dated 1430, in the Harley collection at the British Library.

In the 17th century, the term came to be used colloquially in northwestern England to mean a person’s buttocks or anus, according to the OED. The first Oxford example is from Burlesque Upon Burlesque (1675), by Charles Cotton, a satire based on the dialogues of Lucian, a second-century Assyrian who lived in the Roman Empire and wrote in Greek:

“For to behold those goodly horns, / That py’d beard, which thy face adorns, / That single wagging at thy Butt, / Those Cambrils [hocks], and that cloven foot.” Mercury, a god in Roman mythology, is speaking here to his son Pan, who has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. Mercury is the equivalent of Hermes in Greek mythology.

The OED’s earliest US example for “butt” used to mean the hindquarters is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1859), which defines it this way: “The buttocks. The word is used in the West in such phrases as, ‘I fell on my butt,’ ‘He kick’d my butt.’ ”

As for which came first, “butt” or “buttock,” the OED says “buttock” was “apparently formed” by adding the diminutive suffix “-ock” to “butt.”

However, the dictionary points out that “butt” was “first attested later” than “buttock” in the hindquarters sense. In other words, “butt” apparently existed in speech, but not writing, before “buttock” was recorded.

The dictionary defines “buttock” as  “either of the two round fleshy masses (comprising the gluteal muscles and surrounding tissues) situated beneath the lower back, that together form the bottom or rump, and support the body’s weight when seated.”

The earliest OED citation for “buttock” is in a description of the fetal position from a medieval treatise on science written around 1300:

“The heles atte buttokes, the kneon in aither eye” (“The heels at the buttocks, the knees in either eye”). From Popular Treatises on Science Written During the Middle Ages, edited by Thomas Wright, 1841.

In Anglo-Saxon days, a much older, similarly spelled word, buttuc, could mean the end of something, a small piece of land, a slope, or a ridge, according to various Old English dictionaries. The -uc ending here was a diminutive, so buttuc apparently referred to a little butt, though butt by itself wasn’t recorded in Old English.

Are the unrecorded Old English word butt and its diminutive buttuc ancestors of the modern words “butt” and “buttock”? Possibly. The OED says the use of buttoc in Anglo-Saxon times “with reference to topographical features, perhaps ‘one of two rounded slopes or banks’ is perhaps implied” by this passage from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:

“Þanon suðriht on ðæne heafodæcer. Of ðam heafdon on ðæne weg. Of ðam wege on ða buttucas. Of ðam buttucon on ðone broc” (“Straight south from the acre at the head of the field. Out of the headland on to the path. Out of the path on to the buttucas. From the buttocon at that brook”).  From a deed dated 1023, published in Anglo-Saxon Charters (1968) by Peter Sawyer. The property was in Evesham, a market town in Worcestershire.

However, the OED adds that the passage “is perhaps more likely to show a different formation,” a ridge or raised strip of cultivated land, a usage that’s now regional in the UK.

We should mention here that there are many other “butt” words in modern English. Here are some common ones: an object of ridicule (“the butt of their jokes”); the thicker end (“the butt of a rifle”); an unburnt end (“the butt of a cigar”); to hit or push (“he butted his head against the wall”; to interfere (“they butted in”); to adjoin (“the house butted up against a bowling alley”).

Most of the “butt” words (including the one for a fanny) ultimately come from a prehistoric root reconstructed as bhau- (to strike), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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Why fourteen isn’t onety-four

Q: Why do we say “twenty-four,” “thirty-four,” “forty-four,” etc., but we don’t say “onety-four” for “fourteen”?

A: The suffix “-ty” here denotes multiples of ten, so “twenty-four” would be two tens plus four, “thirty-four” would be three tens plus four, and so on.

The “-ty” suffix is used for multiples of two to nine tens. When only one ten is involved, it’s represented by the suffix “-teen.” So “fourteen” would be four plus ten, “fifteen” would be five plus ten, and so on.

This system dates back to Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, where “-ty” was tig, “twenty” was twentig, and “thirty” was þrítig. In Old English writing, “-teen” was –téne, -tīene, etc., “fourteen” was féowerténe, and “fifteen” was fífténe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

You may be wondering why “eleven” isn’t “oneteen” and “twelve” isn’t “twoteen” in Modern English. This usage also dates back to Old English, where “eleven” was endleofan, and “twelve” was twelf.

Although there’s some doubt about the ultimate origin of “eleven” and “twelve,” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the usage comes from prehistoric Germanic: “eleven” from ain-lif (“one left” beyond ten) and “twelve” from twa-lif (“two left” beyond ten).

Finally, we should mention that English has another “-ty” suffix, one used to form nouns denoting a quality or condition, such as “ability,” “certainty,” “modesty,” and “responsibility.” These nouns ultimately come from Latin, though many arrived in English by way of French.

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‘The coronavirus’ or ‘coronavirus’?

Q: It’s everywhere but how do we say it? It’s “a coronavirus,” but many people refer to it as “the coronavirus.” It seems obvious that we shouldn’t use the definite article. We also need to consider that the virus is actually SARS-CoV-2.

A: Scientists and the general population often use different terms for the same thing. In fact, scientists themselves often use a clipped form of a cumbersome technical term.

The name of the virus, “SARS-CoV-2,” for example, is an abbreviated version of “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.” And the name of the disease, “Covid-19,” is short for “coronavirus disease 2019” (the year it emerged).

However, in general, nontechnical English, as you’ve noticed, the disease and the pathogen that causes it are often referred to as “the coronavirus.”

We see this as simply an elliptical, or shortened, way of saying “the new [or novel or 2019] coronavirus.” Using the article makes the noun particular, so that it means the one of current concern.

Neither the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, nor any standard dictionary comments specifically on the use of articles with the noun.

However, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) consistently uses “the coronavirus” in an explanatory essay: “a pandemic like the coronavirus” … “words related to the coronavirus” … “the difference between the coronavirus and the plague,” and so on.

You have to recognize that the nontechnical usage is still a work in progress. News organizations have reported on the current pandemic for only a few months, sometimes using “the coronavirus” and sometimes only “coronavirus.”

A search of newspaper and news agency archives suggests that we’re now seeing a preference for “the.” In the April 25 edition of the New York Times, for instance, we found many more noun uses of “the coronavirus” than just “coronavirus.” Here’s a small sampling:

“deaths linked to the coronavirus” … “the coronavirus has added danger” … “without catching the coronavirus” … “died of complications of the coronavirus” … “the fallout of the coronavirus” … “the fight against the coronavirus” … how the coronavirus behaves.”

As you know, there are dozens of pathogens called coronaviruses, and different ones cause different diseases, also called coronaviruses. These illnesses range from the common cold to SARS and now Covid-19.

When people use the term “coronavirus,” it’s often difficult to tell which is meant, the disease or the virus. But in most cases that makes little practical difference.

Again we’re talking here about nontechnical English, as opposed to the more specific terms used in scientific language (which we’ll get to in a moment). But nontechnical doesn’t mean nonstandard English.

Nearly all American and British dictionaries recognize “coronavirus” as standard English for a virus of this kind. And two of them have recently expanded their definitions to include a disease caused by such a virus.

Right now there are entries for “coronavirus” in nine out of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. All nine (five American and four British) define it as a noun meaning one of the family of viruses known as coronaviruses.

And two (one American, one British) add that it also means a disease caused by one of those viruses. Here, for instance, are Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “coronavirus”:

“1: any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19.”

“2: an illness caused by a coronavirus, especially COVID-19.”

The British dictionary Macmillan also has both definitions. For #2, it says the word appears “in general use to refer to the disease Covid-19 that is caused by a novel type of coronavirus.”

We expect that as time goes by, more standard dictionaries will recognize definition #2, with “coronavirus” meaning a disease, especially Covid-19. (On our blog, we capitalize only the “C,” as do many news organizations, including the New York Times.)

For now, the OED has only the virus definition. Its entry was last updated in 2008.

Oxford defines “coronavirus,” as “any member of the genus Coronavirus of enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses which have prominent projections from the envelope and are pathogens of humans, other mammals, and birds, typically causing gastrointestinal, respiratory, or neurological disease.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a scientific report in the journal Nature (Nov. 16, 1968): “In the opinion of the eight virologists, these viruses are members of a previously unrecognised group which they suggest should be called the coronaviruses, to recall the characteristic appearance by which these viruses are identified in the electron microscope.”

Viewed microscopically, the viruses are roundish and have projections forming a “corona” like that seen during a solar eclipse (the Latin noun corona means a crown or wreath).

In scientific as opposed to general English, “coronavirus” isn’t normally used by itself, without any modifiers, to mean the virus or the disease of the current pandemic.

The virus’s official name, announced on Feb. 11, 2020, by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” abbreviated as “SARS-CoV-2.”

As for the disease, its official name, announced the same day by the World Health Organization, is “COVID-19,” an abbreviation of “coronavirus disease 2019.”

The two international agencies, according to the WHO, “were in communication about the naming of both the virus and the disease.” But in its own communications with the public, the WHO says it won’t use the official taxonomic name of the virus (“SARS-CoV-2”), instead using more general terms like “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus.”

The agency decided this in part, it says, because “using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.”

The disease SARS (for “severe acute respiratory syndrome”) is now inactive. But outbreaks of MERS (officially “Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus,” or “MERS-CoV”), were still being reported in late 2019 in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, according to WHO reports.

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Why bacon strips are ‘rashers’

Q: At breakfast on Shrove Tuesday, we had a big platter of bacon strips, and wondered, “Why do you suppose they’re called rashers?” So I checked to see if you’d covered that topic and came up dry. Is this worth a column?

A: Yes, indeed. As you already know, a “rasher” is a strip of bacon, and “rashers” means several strips (who can eat just one?).

The usage is chiefly British, according to some standard dictionaries, and like you we’ve sometimes wondered where it comes from. As it happens, etymologists have wondered too, but they haven’t come up with an ironclad answer.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the word is “of uncertain origin” but it does point readers to a likely source: the now obsolete verb “rash,” meaning to slice or cut.

That old verb, the dictionary says, may be derived from a defunct meaning of the verb “raze” (to scrape or shave off), from rādere, which is “scrape” in Latin.

If that’s the origin of “rasher,” then it perhaps originally referred “to the practice of scoring a slice of meat before grilling or frying it,” the OED adds.

However it developed, the noun “rasher” has existed in writing since the 1500s, and its original definition hasn’t changed over the centuries. Oxford defines it as “a thin slice or strip of bacon, or (less commonly) of other meat,” either cooked or intended to be cooked “by grilling, broiling, or frying.”

In early times, “rashers” were evidently cooked over coals, as in the OED’s earliest example: “If I venture vpon a full stomacke to eat a rasher on the coales” (from John Lyly’s Elizabethan comedy Sapho and Phao, 1584).

The dictionary has several similar examples involving coals, including these from the poetry of John Dryden: “snatch the homely Rasher from the Coals” (1678), and “Rashers of sindg’d bacon on the coals” (1700).

Occasionally, the word has been applied to other cuts of meat, as in these OED citations: “A rasher of Mutton or Lambe” (1623); “some rashers of pork” (1756); “Great rashers of broiled ham” (1841); and “rashers of smoked whale” (1861).

By extension, the word has also been used to mean “a slice or portion” of any other food, the OED says. Its examples include “a Cherry-Tart cut into Rashers” (1634); “a rasher of watermelon” (1890); and “a rasher of light bread” (1965).

You may be wondering whether there’s a connection between “rasher” and two familiar English words—the medical noun “rash,” for a skin condition, and the adjective “rash,” meaning impetuous or foolhardy. Well, the answer is mixed.

The noun “rash” is probably related to “rasher,” though very distantly.

The medical term came into English in the late 17th century, Oxford says, “probably” from an obsolete French word for a skin eruption (rache or rasche). That French noun, like the later verb racher (to scrape or scratch), ultimately comes from the Latin verb rādere (to scrape), which we mentioned above as a possible ancestor of “rasher.”

This is the OED’s earliest known use of “rash” in the medical sense: “Measles, Small-pox, Red-gum, Rash, Blasts, spotted, viz. Red and Purpre Fevers” (Gideon Harvey’s A Treatise of the Small-pox and Measles, 1696).

Harvey uses the word many times in his treatise, so we’ll also give this more colorful passage: “He that mistakes a Rash (a term of art used by Nurses) for the Measles or Small-pox, can be no other than an illiterate drunken bold Fool.”

The medical term led to a later figurative use, meaning an outbreak or a spate of something, “esp. something unwelcome or undesirable,” as the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is of raindrops upon a woman’s skin: “Wet through and through: with her feet squelching and squashing in her shoes whenever she moved; with a rash of rain upon her classical visage” (Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, 1854).

Among the dictionary’s later examples are “a rash of diminutive chapels”  (1871); “a perfect rash of [labor] strikes” (1929); and “a rash of exclamation marks” (1980).

The adjective “rash” is another story. It comes from Germanic, not Latin, and it’s not related to either of the nouns. Here’s the OED definition: “Hasty, impetuous; acting or speaking without due consideration or regard for consequences; reckless, thoughtless, foolhardy.”

This word is also older than the nouns. It was first recorded in The Pearl, an allegorical poem written in Middle English in the late 14th century (some date it from around 1350). Here’s the passage, as cited in the OED: “Of raas þaȝ I were rasch and ronk, Ȝet rapely þerinne I watz restayed” (“Though I rushed, rash and headstrong, / Yet quickly I was restrained in my course”).

The word may be older than that, however. Oxford says the Middle English adjective was “probably” a form of an earlier one that existed in Old English but hasn’t been found in writing. The dictionary points to similar words in other Germanic languages, including rasch in older as well as modern forms of Dutch and German.

Before we go, a note about that scratchy Latin verb rādere (scrape), the probable ancestor of the nouns “rash” and “rasher.” It’s also the ultimate source of “abrade,” “erase,” “razor,” and perhaps “rascal” and “rapscallion,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As we all know, rascals and rapscallions are people who take more than their share of the bacon.

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A flight of chardonnays

Q: In recent years, I’ve observed “flight” used in restaurant menus for a selection of alcoholic drinks in a wine, beer, or whiskey tasting. Where does this usage come from?

A: The word “flight” has been used for centuries as a collective term for an airborne group of things—birds, insects, angels, arrows, even clouds.

In this usage, which began appearing in the mid-1200s, “flight” means “a collection or flock of beings or things flying in or passing through the air together,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But “flight” as a restaurant term for a sampling of foods or drinks is much more recent, dating from the late 1970s. The OED defines this sense as “a selection of small portions of a particular type of food or drink, esp. wine, intended to be tasted together for the purpose of comparison.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is about a wine tasting: “There were four flights of wines, as they say in the trade, four spätleses, four ausleses, four beerenausleses and four trocks [trockenbeerenausleses]” (New York Times, March 29, 1978. The terms describe late-harvest wines of varying sugar content).

The OED also has this example in which the “flight” is a selection of edibles: “They turned the dinner into a smoked salmon tasting…. Each flight of the tasting was garnished differently” (Washington Post, Dec. 14, 1983).

We’ll end with a flight of alcoholic examples from the OED:

“An inviting line-up of the famous single malt whiskeys available in tasting flights” (Sydney Morning Herald, June 17, 1997).

“The tasting bar offers three to six flights of wine in several categories: classic, prestige, all white, and all red” (Wine Lover’s Guide to Wine Country, by Lori Lyn Narlock and Nancy Garfinkel, 2005).

Cheers!

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A little off the fringe?

Q: Recently I came across an old postcard that offers advice to young men on how to choose a wife. Tip No. 3 says, “SEE that she has One Nose, One Mouth, One Tongue (a short one), One Fringe, and one only.” I am curious about this use of “fringe.” Any clues?

A: Sexism aside, how is “fringe” being used on that vintage postcard, and what’s the joke?

In searching for clues as to its origin and date, we found the card you’re probably referring to on a collectors’ site, and fortunately there are front-and-back images.

On the front side, one tip for choosing a wife suggests a reward of “£ 1000” for “a Girl who can Cook like Mother.” And the reverse side reads, “Affix Half-penny Stamp.”

Since British currency is mentioned, along with halfpenny stamps (which were used in Britain from 1870 into the mid-1930s), we know the card was printed in Britain between 90 and 150 years ago.

So “fringe” is meant in the British sense—a section of hair cut short across the forehead. In other words, what we in the US would call “bangs” (more on that later).

But why the advice to seek a wife with “One Fringe, and one only”? Our guess is that it means she shouldn’t have facial hair—that is, a second “fringe” on her upper lip or chin. Well, that’s vintage humor for you.

The hair sense of “fringe”—that is, bangs—originated in 19th-century British English and is still used in Britain today.

This sense of “fringe” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a portion of the front hair brushed forward and cut short.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an Australian newspaper in the 1860s: “There was something noble and majestic in his tall and upright form, his stately head and weather-beaten face, with its shaggy white eyebrows and the fringe of white hair that hung about his high forehead” (Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 1863).

The OED’s earliest examples are from the 1870s and come from England or Scotland. The first is from an advertisement in an illustrated magazine aimed at women: “Curled or waved fringes for the front hair” (the Queen, July 29, 1876).

This OED citation is from a periodical published a couple of years later: “None of that affected ‘Grecian fringe’ with which modern ‘girls of the period’ strive to hide what little forehead they possess” (Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1878).

However, “fringe” was used decades earlier to mean a man’s facial hair, as in this OED citation for “Newgate fringe,” a term for a beard that survived well into the 20th century:

“I seized my best razor, and, as a great example, shaved off the whole of the Newgate fringe from under my chin!” (from a letter of Charles Dickens, Oct. 25, 1853).

This sighting, which we found in an Australian newspaper, refers to a mustache: “The mouth is large and wide; the lips are hideous, clothed with a scanty fringe of hair” (from the Empire, Sydney, July 10, 1862).

The grooming use of “fringe” is one of several senses that have developed from the original, centuries-old meaning of the word in English—an ornamental border. Etymologists say the word’s medieval ancestor is a word in colloquial Latin, frimbia, an alteration of the classical Latin fimbria (border).

The noun came into Middle English by way of Old French (frenge) and was originally spelled “frenge.” (The change in later English from “e” to “i” was normal before a soft “j”-like sound, the OED says, noting the similar cases of “hinge” and “singe.”)

When first recorded in the 14th century, “fringe” meant a narrow ribbon or band with threads attached, either dangling or gathered in tassels or twists, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is a 1327 entry in the wardrobe and household accounts of King Edward III: “14 uln. frenge, serico nigro, per uln’, 3d.” (The entry is for 14 ulns of black silk fringe at 3 pence per uln. Here “uln”—short for “ulna,” the long bone of the forearm—was an archaic unit of measurement something like the “ell,” “eln,” or “cubit,” all based on the length of a man’s arm or parts of it.)

In medieval times, a “fringe” could be used to ornament such things as garments, helmets, or a saddle, as in this example: “A sadel Þat glemed ful gayly with mony golde frenges” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a romance from the late 1300s).

In later centuries, other meanings of “fringe” developed, and they too are still in use today.

For instance, since the first half of the 17th century, “fringe” has been used to mean something marginal or existing on the edge, figuratively or literally. This accounts for uses like “the fringes of Paris,” “the fringe of society,” “fringe theater,” “the fringe vote,” and so on.

And since the latter half of the 17th century, “fringe” has been used for something resembling an edge or border, especially if broken or serrated, as in “a fringe of foam” on a beach or “a fringe of trees.”

Getting back to hair, we’ve written before about “bangs,” a 19th-century American noun derived from the equine term “bangtail.”

In a 2011 post, we say a “bangtail” is an animal’s tail that’s been grown long, then cut straight across horizontally and abruptly (as if with a “bang!”). The word can also be a noun for the animal itself (usually a horse), or an adjective, as in “a bangtail mare.”

The horse in question might even be pulling a surrey with fringe on top!

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To internet, or not to internet?

Q: I saw this in a New York Times article the other day: “The Virus Changed the Way We Internet.” And this was the tagline of a recent Bayer TV commercial: “This is why we science.” Am I just an old fogy or can any noun be turned into a verb these days?

A: You won’t find the verbs “internet” or “science” in standard dictionaries, but there’s a case to be made for the verbing of the noun “internet.” In fact, the verb showed up in print just a year after the noun, though not in the sense you’re asking about.

When the noun “internet” first appeared in 1975, it referred to “a computer network comprising or connecting a number of smaller networks,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. When the verb appeared in 1976, it meant “to connect by means of a computer network.”

The usual sense of the noun now—a global computer network that allows users around the world to communicate and share information—evolved over the 1980s and ’90s. The verb took on the sense you’re asking about—to use the internet—in the 1990s.

Here are the two earliest OED citations for the verb used in that way: “A number of providers want you to Internet to their services” (Globe & Mail, Toronto, May 13, 1994) … “I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat. I just internetted” (Associated Press, Aug. 21, 1994).

Oxford doesn’t include a usage label that would suggest the verb is anything other than standard English. However, none of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have an entry for “internet” as a verb. (The collaborative Wiktionary includes it as an “informal” verb meaning to use the internet, and offers this example: “Having no idea what that means, I am internetting like mad.”)

As for the verb “science,” we couldn’t find an entry for it in either the OED or standard dictionaries. However, Oxford and four standard dictionaries include the adjective “scienced” as a rare or archaic usage.

Oxford describes the adjective as “now rare” when used to mean “knowledgeable, learned; skilled or trained in a specified profession or pursuit; (in later use also) adopting a scientific approach.” It says the term is “now somewhat archaic” when used in the sense of “well versed or trained in boxing.”

(Wiktionary includes the “colloquial, humorous” use of the verb “science,” meaning “to use science to solve a problem.” It also includes the adjective “scienced,” meaning “knowledgeable, learned; skilled or trained in a specified profession or pursuit.” It doesn’t cite any examples.)

Speaking for ourselves, we aren’t likely to use “internet” or “science” as a verb, at least not yet. Neither usage is widespread enough. However, we see nothing wrong in principle with the verbing of nouns. In a 2016 post, we defended it as process that dates back to the early days of English.

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Link, a bendable word

Q: There was a headline describing something as “linked with” cancer. I thought it should have said “linked to” cancer. But I am not sure why or if both are permissible.

A: Both prepositions are acceptable. You can link something “to” or “with” something else. In fact, the “with” usage is somewhat older, though writers have used both prepositions for hundreds of years.

Before we discuss the prepositions, let’s look at the history of “link,” which is ultimately derived from kleng-, a reconstructed prehistoric root meaning to bend or turn, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

That ancient Proto-Indo-European term gave Old English the noun hlęnce (plural hlęncan), meaning armor or a coat of mail.

Then it gave Middle English (by way of Old Norse) the word lynk, lynke, linke, etc., a noun for a section of a chain, and in the plural, chains or fetters.

Finally, lynk and its variations led to the Middle English verb linken, meaning to bind or fasten things together.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the bending sense of the prehistoric root “implies ‘joints’ and ‘links,’ and this is the meaning which the word is presumed to have had when it passed into Old Norse as hlenkr—from which English acquired link.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have any Old English citations for hlęnce or hlęncan used to mean armor, but here’s an example and a translation from the Boswell-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:

“Moyses bebeád … frecan árísan habban heora hlencan … beran beorht searo” (“Moses bade the warriors arise, take their coats of mail, bear their bright arms”). From a retelling of Exodus in the Junius Manuscript, believed written in the late 900s. We’ve added ellipses to show where words in the original manuscript are missing from the Boswell-Toller citation.

The first OED citation for the noun “link” is from a poem based on an Aesop fable: “Thinkand thairthrow to lok him in his linkis” (“Think and thereby lock him in his chains”). From “The Fox, the Wolf and the Husbandman,” in The Morall Fabillis of Esope, circa 1480s, by the Scottish poet Robert Henryson.

In the 16th century, the noun took on the more general sense of a connecting part, whether literal or figurative. In the first Oxford example, “link” refers to a political marriage: “A conuenient mariage … whiche should be a lincke necessary, to knit together the realme of Scotlande and England.” From The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall.

As for the verb “link,” the OED says it’s derived from the noun “though recorded somewhat earlier.” In other words, the verb appeared first in writing but it’s believed to have come from the earlier use of the noun in speech.

The earliest citation for the verb is from a poem about the friendship between two merchants: “In love he lynketh them that be vertuous.” From “Fabula Duorum Mercatorum” (“Tale of Two Merchants”), written sometime before 1412 by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.

Getting back to your question about prepositions, the earliest OED example for “link with” is from a poem by Lydgate about the rise and fall of Troy: “So was malice linked with innocence” (Troy Book, written from 1412 to 1420).

The first “link to” citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an allegorical poem in which spiders and flies stand for opposing Protestants and Roman Catholics during the 16th-century reign of Queen Mary I:

“Our chaine / That lingth [linketh] vs to credence: is not auctoritie [authority], / But good vse of auctoritie, by honestie” (The Spider and the Flie, 1556, by John Heywood).

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Is the pun in the pudding?

Q: In your discussion of “the proof is in the pudding,” you seem to have missed the pun. Puddings, as in doughs, etc., require proofing before baking.

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but there are several problems with your suggestion.

First of all, the word “proof” in bread baking means to make dough rise by means of yeast. And yeast is not normally an ingredient in puddings—even ones that are baked.

Second, that old proverb—“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”—dates from the early 1600s, as we wrote in our 2012 post. There, “proof” is a noun meaning something like a test. But “proof” in the culinary sense, a verb, wasn’t recorded until the second half of the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And third, “pudding,” a word dating from the Middle English of the late 13th century, originally meant a kind of sausage—that is, an animal’s stomach or intestine, stuffed with various ingredients and boiled.

This sense of “pudding” survived into the late 19th century, as we wrote in a 2016 post (even today, the Scottish dish haggis is sometimes referred to as a “pudding”). So the “proof of the pudding” proverb was probably about sausage.

Over time, of course, “pudding” was also used for other sorts of savory and sweet dishes. But it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that it arrived at its most common meanings in American and British English today.

In the US, it means a sweet dessert of a custard-like consistency, a sense first recorded in the 1890s.

In the UK, it means any sweet dessert, a usage first recorded in the 1930s. An unsweetened exception is Yorkshire pudding, a dumpling-like side dish made of batter (not dough), and no yeast.

So if puddings aren’t made with yeast, what does “proof” mean in the old proverb? Well, it’s not about baking.

As the OED explains, the noun as used in the proverb originally meant a “test” but is “now sometimes understood” to mean “evidence.” And “the proof of the pudding”—a popular phrase derived from the longer proverb—means “that which puts something to the test or (in later use) proves a fact or statement.”

As we mentioned earlier, the kitchen use of “proof” is much more recent than the proverb. This baking term (as in “to proof dough”) appeared in the 1870s, a couple of decades after a similar use of “prove” (as in “the dough proved quickly”).

“Proof” here is a transitive verb (one requiring an object) while “prove” is an intransitive verb (one that doesn’t require an object).

The OED defines “prove” in the baking sense this way: “Of bread or dough: to become aerated by the fermentation of yeast prior to baking; to rise. Occasionally also of yeast: to cause such aeration.”

Here’s Oxford’s earliest example: “The whole of the flour is … left about an hour … to prove” (from Charles Tomlinson’s Cyclopædia of Useful Arts, 1852).

The OED defines “proof” in this sense as  “to aerate (dough) by the action of yeast before baking.” This is the dictionary’s first example:

“After this laborious process the finished dough is covered over for some time … during which fermentation again begins, and the mass is ‘proofed’ ” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition, Edinburgh, 1875).

Those early examples of “prove” and “proof” in baking were probably printed in italics and quotation marks because the usages were unfamiliar to 19th-century readers.

To conclude, when that old proverb appeared there was no pun intended.

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Help bake, or help to bake?

Q: “I helped him bake cookies,” or “I helped him to bake cookies”? Which is right?

A: The short answer is that both are right. However, there are some occasions when the verb “help” is more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive, and some by a “to”-less infinitive, though either construction would be correct.

When “help” itself is a “to” infinitive, for example, the following verb tends to be bare, or “to”-less.

As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), English speakers have a “natural reluctance to allow the sequence to help + to-infinitive, that is, to repeat to. This reluctance means that the bare infinitive is usually chosen in such cases, but not always.”

For an early example of such avoidance, Butterfield cites this passage from Shakespeare’s Richard III (circa 1593): “The time will come when thou shalt wish for me / To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad.”

When the verb “help” appears without “to,” however, Shakespeare routinely follows it with a “to” infinitive, as in this example we’ve found from The Tempest (c. 1611): “Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate / A contract of true love; be not too late.”

Style may also play a role, with “help” more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive in some formal or literary writing. As Butterfield points out, “no doubt formality and literariness also have an influence.”

He gives this literary example, which we’ve expanded, from The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), a novel by Iris Murdoch: “Hattie decided against the new dress which would look out of place on such a dismal wet morning, but she allowed Pearl to help her to stack up her hair.”

And we’ve found this formal example in nonfiction: “English language learners need visual stimulus to help them to process and store the information that comes from words” (What Every Teacher Should Know About Media and Technology, 2003, by Donna Walker Tileston).

Aside from special cases like those, Butterfield says, the use of the bare infinitive after the verb “help” is “preferred in everyday written and spoken English.” We’d say it’s more common, not necessarily preferred, in everyday English. And we’ll repeat here that both usages are standard English.

As for the etymology, the verb “help” meant to aid or assist when it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (c. 897), King Ælfred’s Old English translation of a sixth-century treatise by Pope Gregory:

“He nyle gifan ðæt him God geaf, and helpan ðæs folces mid ðæm þe he his healp” (“He is not willing to give what God gave him, and help the people with his help from God”).

In the 12th century, writers began using “help” with an infinitive—it was a “to” infinitive at first. The OED includes two examples from around 1175:

“to seke gan, and þa deden helpen to buriene” (“to seek to go, and help to bury the dead”), from the Lambeth Homilies, a collection of Old English sermons.

“forr hemm itt hallp biforenn godd / to clennsenn hemm off sinne” (“for them, it helped to cleanse themselves of sin before God”), from the Ormulum, a book of biblical commentary.

In the 16th century, writers began using “help” with bare infinitives, as in these two Oxford examples:

“To helpe garnishe his mother tongue” (from a 1548 translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin).

“I wyll helpe synners turne to the [thee]” (from Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songs, 1535, Miles Coverdale’s translations of German hymns by Martin Luther and others).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed infinitives several times on the blog, including a post in 2013 that explained why “to” isn’t part of the infinitive. It’s generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle.”

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Which virus is more deadly?

Q: Coronavirus is said to kill a larger percentage of those who catch it than the flu, but the flu is said to kill more people overall. Which disease is more deadly? The news media says coronavirus is deadlier. Is that an accepted technical usage?

A: As far as we can tell, the word “deadly” doesn’t have a technical sense that differs from its usual meaning.

We’ve found only one technical reference with an entry for the adjective. The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary says it means “likely to cause or capable of causing death.”

That’s pretty much the same definition given in any standard dictionary. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines the term in its medical sense as “tending to produce death: productive of death.”

So “deadly” can refer to either the overall number of people killed by a disease or the percentage of infected people who die of it. Since the term can be used both ways, we think writers should clearly indicate which sense is being used when comparing the deadliness of two diseases, such as coronavirus and influenza.

Without a vaccine and adequate public-health measures, coronavirus may turn out to be deadlier than the latest influenza strains in both ways. We assume you’ve seen the recent report by the COVID-19 Response Team at Imperial College in London.

Etymologically, “deadly” comes from adding -lic (an Anglo-Saxon version of the suffix “-ly”) to the Old English noun déad. The usage is ultimately derived from the reconstructed prehistoric root dheu- (to die), says The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

When “deadly” showed up in Old English, it meant “causing death, or fatal injury; mortal, fatal,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earliest OED citation, which uses deadlicne (the accusative, or objective, form of the adjective), is from a ninth-century translation of a Latin history:

“Forbræcon Romane heora aþas … and þær deadlicne sige geforan” (“The Romans broke those pleasant oaths … and carried out their deadly victory”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), a fifth-century work by Paulus Orosius.

In the late 14th century, the sense of the adjective widened to include something “having the property or capacity of causing death or fatal injury,” according to the OED.

The first citation is from a Middle English sermon by John Wycliffe, written around 1380: “Dedli drynke, ȝif þei taken it … anoieþ hem not” (“Deadly drink, if they have taken it … knoweth them not”).

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When ‘drastically’ is too drastic

Q: I see “drastically” used in this way more and more: “We call on NYPD to drastically increase police visibility in Orthodox communities” (from a Dec. 27, 2019, tweet by the NYC Jewish Caucus). Doesn’t “drastic” have negative connotations? Wouldn’t “dramatically” or “significantly” be more accurate?

A: We agree that “drastically” is jarring in that tweet, which followed a series of anti-Semitic incidents. The adverb “drastically,” like the adjective “drastic,” is generally used in connection with measures that are extreme, severe, or harsh.

The adverb is commonly seen in reference to sharp cuts or steep reductions, rather than to buildups or increases (especially if they’re beneficial ones).

It’s also used in reference to extreme change, as in “drastically different” or “drastically altered.” Generally, though, the implication is that the change is a negative one, not a cause for celebration.

We do occasionally see news items online with phrases like “drastically improve,” “drastically higher,” “drastically raise,” even “drastically benefit.”

But examples like those are rare in major news outlets, where the English is edited—unless they’re in quotations. We agree with you that “significantly” or “dramatically” would be appropriate to describe an increase or buildup.

Most standard dictionaries don’t have separate entries for “drastically,” merely noting that it’s the adverbial form of “drastic.” One exception, Merriam-Webster, says the adverb means “in a drastic manner” and is synonymous with “severely” and “seriously.”

We’ll focus here on “drastic,” a word that in modern English, Merriam-Webster says, means “acting rapidly or violently,” or “extreme in effect or action,” synonymous with “severe.” (Some other dictionaries add “harsh” or “with harshness.”)

Originally, however, “drastic” had a much more specific meaning as a medical term. It was used for medicines that induced a sudden and violent “unloading of the bowels” (to use a phrase common to 18th- and 19th-century physicians).

In bygone days it was used by doctors both as an adjective (“drastic remedy,” “drastic purgative”), and as a noun for the medicine (“a drastic”).

The adjective came into English in the mid-17th century from a Greek word meaning active, δραστικός (drastikós). This is its original definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of medicines: Acting with force or violence, vigorous; esp. acting strongly upon the intestines.”

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ll expand for context, is from a description of a case of blindness supposedly cured by 10 to 12 hours of violent purging:

“Within three or four days after this single taking of the Drastick Medicine had done working, he began to recover some degree of Sight, and within a Fortnight … would discern Objects farther and clearer then most other Men.” The “drastick medicine” given was mercury, and not only the patient’s bowels were emptied but also his stomach, bladder, tear ducts, pores, and salivary glands. He’d been warned beforehand of the “torment of the Cure.”

(From Some Considerations Touching the Vsefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy, a treatise by the chemist Robert Boyle. Natural philosophy, the study of nature, was a precursor of modern science. The OED doesn’t give a precise date, but the earliest copy we’ve found was printed in 1663.)

The adjective “drastic” caught on and flourished in medical writing, and in the 18th century doctors also began using the word as a noun. A “drastic,” according to the OED, meant “a drastic medicine” or “a severe purgative.”

The earliest known use of the noun, Oxford says, is from the 1783 volume of an annual compendium, Medical Communications: “Large quantities of the pills … acting as a drastic.”

Searches of old newspaper databases show that both forms of “drastic”—noun and adjective—were common medical terms until the late 1800s, familiar not only to doctors but to laymen as well. This is to be expected, since some doctors considered purging a panacea and prescribed it for almost everything, particularly in the first decades of the 19th century.

Much of the credit for this—or rather the blame—is due to an Edinburgh physician, James Hamilton, author of Observations on the Utility and Administration of Purgative Medicines (1805). The book went into many editions in Britain and the US, and was translated into Italian, German, and French.

Hamilton’s methods were widely adopted, and his adherents believed that a violent emptying of the bowels could cure typhus, rabies, mental illnesses, fevers, skin diseases, menstrual irregularities, heart palpitations, sore throat, and bad breath, among other things.

We mention this long-discredited medical practice only to illustrate how commonplace “drastic” was in its original senses.

The noun “drastic” is uncommon today, and few standard dictionaries still include it. One exception is Merriam-Webster, which defines it as “a powerful medicinal agent; especially: a strong purgative.” You’ll also find it in the collaborative Wiktionary (“a powerful, fast-acting purgative medicine”).

But the adjective “drastic” is another story. By the early 19th century, the OED says, it had taken on a “transferred” meaning derived from the medical sense: “vigorously effective; violent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citations are from British writers who were political philosophers and economists:

“In consideration of their too extensive and too drastic efficacy” (Jeremy Bentham, Scotch Reform, 1808).

“Occasions … in which so drastic a measure would be fit to be taken into serious consideration” (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848).

Around this same time the new adverb “drastically” emerged. Oxford’s definition: “in a drastic manner; with drastic remedies or applications; with effective severity.”

The earliest example we’ve found has no medical connection. It’s from a tongue-in-cheek comment on jurisprudence in foreign lands:

“In the East, where there are despots equal to our judges … they punish first offences, drastically it is true, but in a manner which still recommends itself to our secret prejudices” (The London Magazine, Nov. 1, 1827).

But at times in the 19th century, “drastically” was still associated with medical purges. Discussing cholera in a letter dated October 1849, a Manchester physician wrote of bile secretions that are “rendered drastically purgative instead of gently aperient” (Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, November 1849).

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Tidbit or titbit?

Q: Why do Americans use “tidbit” for a word that we in the UK properly spell “titbit”?

A: Americans may spell it “tidbit” because that’s how the term was pronounced when it first appeared in English in the 17th century as “tyd bit.”

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term may have originated as a combination of the adjective “tid” (playful, frolicsome, lively, etc.) and the noun “bit” (biting or a bite), though it says “the form tidbit is now chiefly North American.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the “titbit” spelling in the UK “probably” resulted from the “alteration of the first element after the second”—that is, the British turned “tid” into “tit” to make it rhyme with “bit.”

However, Oxford notes what it apparently considers a less likely explanation—that “titbit” was “perhaps” influenced by “tit” and “tittle” (terms for various small things).

No matter how the first part was spelled, the terms originally meant “a small piece of tasty food; a delicacy, a morsel,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a collection of proverbs and phrases spoken in Gloucestershire, a county in southwestern England:

“A tyd bit, i.e. a speciall morsell reserved to eat at last.” From A Description of the Hundred of Berkeley in the County of Gloucester and of Its Inhabitants, 1639, by the antiquarian John Smyth. (The “Hundred of Berkeley” refers to a section of the county.)

The work was later edited by John Maclean and published in 1885 as The Berkeley Manuscripts. Maclean writes in his preface that Smyth finished the work on Dec. 21, 1639.

The OED says the term showed up as “tit bit” two years later: “A Man-servant … should goe into a Victualers service, because he hopeth for tit bits either of gift, or by stealth, and relicks more ordinary of his Masters Dishes.” From A Right Intention (1641), John Dawson’s translation of a Latin treatise by Jeremias Drexel.

The term, Oxford says, soon came to be used figuratively to describe “a person or thing likened to a delicacy or morsel,” as in this 1650 citation from a London weekly overseen by John Milton: “The Kirk longs much, and is like to miscarry for a Tid Bit of yong Tarquin” (Mercurius Politicus, No. 3, June 20-27).

In this figurative sense, the term was spelled “tidbit” as well as “titbit” by British writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, as in these expanded OED examples:

“Author. Now for a taste of Recitativo. My farce is an Oglio of tid-bits,” from Eurydice, A Farce, by Henry Fielding. (The play was withdrawn after two performances in 1737 because of hissing. It was published for the first time in Miscellanies, 1743, as Eurydice, A Farce: As it was d-mned at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.)

“And except on first nights or some other such occasion, or during the singing of the well-known tit-bits of any opera, there was an amount of chattering in the house which would have made the hair of a fanatico per la musica stand on end” (What I Remember, an 1887 memoir by Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the oldest brother of Anthony Trollope).

In the early 19th century, the term took on its modern sense of “a small and particularly interesting item of news, gossip, or information,” according to OED citations: “Another tit bit of domestic scandal” (Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, December 1809).

The use of the “titbit” spelling in the UK, especially in the news and gossip sense, may have been reinforced by the name of a mass-circulation British newspaper that specialized in easy-to-read human-interest stories.

As the OED explains, “Tit-Bits (later Titbits) was the name of a British weekly newspaper devoted to such items and is regarded as one of the progenitors of popular journalism. First published on 22 Oct. 1881, it ceased publication in 1984.”

Tit-Bits was the first general-interest publication to buy a humor piece by P. G. Wodehouse, one of our favorite writers. You can read the Nov. 24, 1900, piece, “Men Who Have Missed Their Own Weddings,” on Madame Eulalie, a website devoted to Wodehouse’s early works.

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Is the parrot willful or willing?

Q: I suppose you’re going to inform me that, as has happened with so many other words, the meaning of “willfully” now has a positive connotation. The Daily Kos recently cited a study showing that the African gray parrot “willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy.”

A: No, “willfully” hasn’t changed. The writer no doubt meant “willingly,” not “willfully.” The headline on that Jan. 14, 2020, article, “African gray parrots voluntarily show kindness to others,” is a clue.

In an article on the kindness, even altruism apparently shown by parrots, the appropriate adverb would have been “willingly,” a positive term meaning voluntarily or gladly, not “willfully,” a negative one meaning deliberately, obstinately, even maliciously.

Here’s a fuller excerpt from the article: “It’s been known for a few years that some other higher primates (especially orangutans) will voluntarily help others, especially if they think they’ll get something in return, and that doesn’t seem too surprising. But a nicely conceived test of the very intelligent African gray parrot shows that it willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy when presented with the opportunity.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include the two terms, without definitions, as adverbial forms of the adjectives “willful” and “willing.” In other words, “willfully” means in a willful manner and “willingly” in a willing manner.

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) is one of the few standard dictionaries to define the two adverbs. It uses “wilfully,” the British spelling, for the word Americans usually spell as “willfully.” Here are Lexico’s definitions and examples:

willingly: Readily; of one’s own free will. she went willingly.”

wilfully (US willfully): 1. With the intention of causing harm; deliberately. she denies four charges of wilfully neglecting a patient. 2. With a stubborn and determined intention to do as one wants, regardless of the consequences. he had wilfully ignored the evidence.”

The adverbs were derived from their corresponding adjectives. The first, “willing,” was recorded in compounds in the late 800s; the second, originally spelled “wilful,” is believed to have existed by about 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though there are no surviving examples in Old English writing.

As for the meaning of the adjectives, Merriam-Webster says in usage notes that “willing implies a readiness and eagerness to accede to or anticipate the wishes of another,” while “willful implies an obstinate determination to have one’s own way.”

Getting back to the adverbs, the older of the two, “willingly,” first appeared in writing in the 900s, spelled willendlice, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

(The -líce suffix in Old English, precursor to the “-ly” ending we know today, was used to form adverbs out of adjectives. The modern spelling, “willingly,” evolved in the mid-1500s.)

The earliest Oxford citation for “willingly” is from a 10th-century Latin-Old English dictionary in which the Latin diligenter (diligently, conscientiously) is translated as willendlice.

A later Latin-English dictionary, this one from the 16th century, defines the Latin libenter (eagerly, cheerfully) as “wyllyngely, gladly.”

The OED, which defines “willingly” as “with a ready will, consentingly, without reluctance,” says the adverb can convey “various shades of meaning from ‘with acquiescence, submissively’ to ‘with pleasure, cheerfully, gladly’ or ‘wishfully, eagerly.’ ”

Most uses in modern English conform to the Oxford definition, as exemplified by this citation from a 19th-century novel:

“Often have I observed one … of the sisters willingly go without her dinner … in order that her portion might be reserved for Mr. Stallabras” (The Chaplain of the Fleet, 1881, by Walter Besant and James Rice).

And that’s still the chief use of the word today, though at times in the past it has had less altruistic meanings, even crossing into the negative senses of “willfully.” Those uses are now obsolete, the OED says.

The adverb often appears in the phrase “would willingly,” Oxford adds, which means “should like to,” while “would not willingly” means “would rather not.”

As for “willfully,” the dictionary says the word was first recorded around the year 1000, spelled wilfullíce in late Old English. It originally had senses similar to  “willingly”—voluntarily, of one’s own will—but those uses are obsolete, the dictionary says.

Today “willfully” has only two meanings, both negative. These are the OED definitions for those senses, which began to appear in the late 1300s and late 1500s, respectively:

(1) “Purposely, on purpose, by design, intentionally, deliberately. Chiefly, now always, in bad sense” and “occasionally implying ‘maliciously.’ ” (2) “In a self-willed manner, perversely, obstinately, stubbornly.” The two meanings are often hard to tell apart.

Here’s the earliest Oxford example for the purposely or deliberately sense, which we’ve expanded to add more context:

“Yf þat he wole take of it no cure, Whan þan it cometh, but wylfully it weyuen, Lo neyþer cas nor fortune hym deseyuen, But right his verray slouþe and wrecchednesse” (“If he will not take advantage of it when it comes, but willfully dismiss it, then neither chance nor fortune deceive him, but only his own sloth and wretchedness”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1374.

And in the dictionary’s first example for the self-willed or obstinate sense, a hard-hearted mother is willfully intent on marrying her daughter to a rich creep:

“The mother … beyng determinately (least I shoulde say of a great Lady, wilfully) bent to marrie her to Demagoras.” From The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney, 1590.

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‘Outshone’ or ‘outshined’?

Q: Is it “outshone” or “outshined”? Merriam-Webster says “outshone,” but wouldn’t “outshined” be better? What do you recommend?

A: Merriam-Webster, which is updated regularly online, says that either “outshone” or “outshined” can be the past tense and past participle of the verb “outshine.” Both variants are considered standard English. The last two print editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the 10th and 11th) have similar entries.

As M-W explains, “When a main entry is followed by the word or and another spelling, the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants. If two variants joined by or are out of alphabetical order [as is the case here], they remain equal variants. The one printed first is, however, slightly more common than the second.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult list only “outshone” as the past tense and past participle. However, Webster’s New World and Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) agree with Merriam-Webster and include both “outshone” and “outshined.”

The verb “outshine,” which showed up in the late 16th century, can have either a literal meaning (to shine brighter) or a figurative one (to surpass).

The two senses are combined in this example, the earliest in the Oxford English Dictionary: “His zeale out shinde, the Papists taper lights” (from the English author George Whetstone’s 1585 biography of Francis Russell, second Earl of Bedford).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the verb was formed within English by the addition of the prefix “out” to the much older verb “shine,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

As we say in a 2014 post, standard dictionaries generally accept either “shone” or “shined” as the past tense and past participle of “shine.” However, the dictionaries often note that “shone” is usual when the verb is intransitive and “shined” when it’s transitive.

(A verb is transitive when it needs an object to make sense: “He shined his shoes.” An intransitive verb makes sense without one: “The sun shone.”)

In the earlier post, we cite an American Heritage usage note: “By tradition, the past tense and past participle shone is used when the verb is intransitive and means ‘to emit light, be luminous’: The full moon shone over the field. The form shined, on the other hand, is normally used when the verb is transitive and means ‘to direct (a beam of light)’ or ‘to polish,’ as in He shined his flashlight down the dark staircase or The butler shined the silver.”

As for the etymology, the verb “shine” is Germanic in origin and first appeared in Old English in the early eighth century, spelled scynan, scine, scaan, and so on. The earliest citation in the OED is from a glossary of Latin and Old English that dates from around 725: “Ardebat, scaan.” (The Latin ardebat means burns, glows, or sparkles.)

The spelling of the past tense roughly evolved from scan and scean in Old English to scean, schon, shoon, etc., in Middle English, and finally to “shone” and “shined” in the 1500s, during the early Modern English period.

In this example from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written in the 1590s), Hippolyta says: “Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace.”

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Courting a honey or a heartache

Q: “Court” seems to be an incredibly adaptable word—a royal court, a tennis court, a court of law, courting a beau or a client, heartache or disaster. Where did it all begin?

A: All those senses of “court” (in law, romance, diplomacy, sports, etc.) ultimately come from cohors, classical Latin for an enclosed area—what we’d now call a courtyard.

As cohors evolved in Latin, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “it came to stand for those assembled in such a yard—a crowd of attendants or company of soldiers; hence the meaning of cohort familiar today.”

“But both in its original sense and as ‘retinue’ the word took another and rather more disguised path into English,” Ayto writes.

While the English word retained “the underlying notion” of an enclosed area, he says, it added a judicial sense because of “an early association of Old French cort [a judicial tribunal] with Latin curia [a legal tribunal or sovereign’s assembly].”

The respect and attention that one offers at a judicial court led to the diplomatic, romantic, and summoning senses of the term, while the sports sense comes from the original meaning of cohors in Latin as an enclosed area.

When “court” first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a meeting of a ruler with his retinue as well as the place where such a meeting was held.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the term (spelled “curt” here) in the sense of “a formal assembly held by the sovereign at his residence” with “his councillors and great lords, for purposes of administration”:

“Þa he to Engle land com. þa was he under fangen mid micel wurtscipe. and to king bletcæd in Lundene on þe Sunnen dæi. be foren midwinter dæi and held  þær micel curt” (“When he came to England, he was received with great honor. He was consecrated King in London on the Sunday before Christmas Day, and then he held a great court there”).

The passage is from an 1154 entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the death of King Stephen, the arrival from France of Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, and his consecration in London as King Henry II.

The next Oxford example, which we’ve also expanded, uses the term in the sense of “the place where a sovereign (or other high dignitary) resides and holds state, attended by his retinue.” This comes from a parable in the Cotton Vespasian A. Homilies, dated at sometime before 1175:

“þat an rice king wes. strang and mihti. his land gélest wide and side. his folc was swiðe ærfeð-telle … and he nam him tó rede þat heom wolde ȝearceon anæ grate laðienge. and þider ȝeclepíen all his underþeód. þat hi bi éne féce to his curt come sceolde and sette ænne déȝie” (“there was a rich king who was strong and mighty; his land stretched far and wide; his people were numerous … and he decided to prepare a great feast and call all his subjects thither so that they should come at the same time to his court”).

The word took on its legal sense in the late 13th century when “court” came to mean “an assembly of judges or other persons legally appointed and acting as a tribunal to hear and determine any cause, civil, ecclesiastical, military, or naval.”

The first OED citation is from a treatise in Middle French that sets forth the laws of England (early legal works in England were in Latin or French): “en dreit de nous mesures et de nostre Curt” (“with regard to ourselves and our Court”). From Britton, 1292, a work whose origin and author are in dispute; some early sources say John le Breton, bishop of Hereford, wrote it at the direction of King Edward I.

The first Oxford example that’s written in Middle English is from a 1297 entry in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history: “The king wolde, that in is court the ple solde be driue” (“The king willed that the plea be pursued in his court”).

In the early 16th century, “court” took on the sense of  “an enclosed quadrangular area, uncovered or covered, with a smooth level floor, in which tennis, rackets, or fives are played.” (In fives, an English sport, players use bare or gloved hands to hit a ball against the walls of a court with three or four sides.)

The first OED citation uses the term in reference to a court for lawn tennis: “Hen. Smith, for ceiling the great armoury house at Greenwich, the Friar’s wharf, the tennis court at Richmond, and other places, 200l.” From a March 1519 entry in King Henry VIII’s Book of Payments. At the time, the verb “ceil” meant to add a canopy.

In the late 16th century, the noun “court” took on the sense of “homage such as is offered at court,” specifically as “attention or courtship shown to one whose favour, affection, or interest is sought.” The earliest OED example uses the term in its diplomatic sense: “Him the Prince with gentle court did bord [address]” (from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, 1590).

The verb “court,” which showed up in the early 1500s, originally meant to live at a royal court or spend a lot of time there. But by the late 1500s it was being used in its romantic sense.

The first Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is also from The Faerie Queene: “And in the midst thereof vpon the floure, / A louely beuy [bevy] of faire Ladies sate, / Courted of many a iolly Paramoure, / The which them did in modest wise amate.”

In the early 1600s, the use of the verb began expanding to include the seeking of things other than romance, such as power, friendship, publicity, or popularity: “Never would he have had the face to have courted the Crown Imperiall” (The Historie of the Holy Warre, 1639, by Thomas Fuller).

And by the mid-19th century, according to our searches, the verb broadened even more to include inviting or provoking something negative. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book of homespun philosophy:

“Therefore, in the first, saints and martyrs have fulfilled their mission, / Conquering dangers, courting deaths, and triumphing in all” (Proverbial Philosophy, 1843, by Martin Farquhar Tupper).

The verb phrase “court disaster” showed up a dozen years later, according to our searches: “Gladwyn discouraged the enterprise, conceiving it, doubtless, as rash and perilous to court disaster” (History of American Conspiracies, 1863, by Orville J. Victor).

Over the years, many other descendants of the Latin cohors have appeared in English, including “courtier” (circa 1290), “courtesy” (before 1200), “courtly” (c. 1450), “courthouse” (1483), “cohort” (1489), “courting” (1530), “curtsy” (noun, 1513; verb, before 1556), “courtyard” (1552), “courtesan” (1549), “courtship” (1597), “pay [or make] one’s court” (1667), and “courtroom” (1677). (In a 2017 post, we discussed “courtesy” and “curtsy.”)

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A ‘they’ by any other name

Q: You have defended the singular “they” when it applies to an unknown person of unknown gender. OK. But how about for a known person of unknown gender? A recent news article that said “they were fired” caused me to search back and forth to find who else was fired. A waste of time.

A: We have indeed defended the use of “they” in the singular for an unknown person—an individual usually represented by an indefinite pronoun (“someone,” “everybody,” “no one,” etc.). Some examples: “If anyone calls, they can reach me at home” … “Nobody expects their best friend to betray them” … “Everyone’s looking out for themselves.”

As we’ve said on the blog, this singular use of “they” and its forms (“them,” “their,” “themselves”) for an indefinite, unknown somebody-or-other is more than 700 years old.

You’re asking about a very different usage, one that we’ve also discussed. As we wrote in a later post, this singular “they” refers to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female and prefers “they” to “he” or “she.” Some examples: “Robin loves their new job as sales manager” … “Toby says they’ve become a vegetarian.”

This use of “they” for a known person who’s nonbinary and doesn’t conform to the usual gender distinctions is very recent, only about a decade old.

When we wrote about the nonbinary “they” three years ago, we noted that only one standard dictionary had recognized the usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language included (and still does) this definition within its entry for “they”: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard but adds a cautionary note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”

Since then, a couple of other standard dictionaries have accepted the usage, but without reservation.

Merriam-Webster’s entry for “they” was updated in September 2019 to include this definition: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

A British dictionary, Macmillan, now has a similar definition: “used as a singular pronoun by and about people who identify as non-binary.” Macmillan’s example: “The singer has come out as non-binary and asked to be addressed by the pronouns they/them.”

Neither dictionary has any kind of warning label or cautionary note. Other dictionaries, however, are more conservative on the subject, merely observing in usage notes that the nonbinary “they” is out there, but not including it among the standard definitions of “they.”

For instance, Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) says in a usage note that the use of “they” and its forms “to refer to a single clearly specified, known, or named person is uncommon and likely to be noticed and criticized. … Even so, use of they, their, and them is increasingly found in contexts where the antecedent is a gender-nonconforming individual or one who does not identify as male or female.”

And Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) has this in a usage note: “In a more recent development, they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop). Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, the singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, added the binary use of “they” and its forms in an October 2019 update.

This is now among the OED’s definitions of “they”: “Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Twitter post (by @thebutchcaucus, July 11, 2009): “What about they/them/theirs? #genderqueer #pronouns.” Oxford also has two later citations:

“Asher thought they were the only nonbinary person at school until a couple weeks ago” (the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, Los Angeles, Sept. 25, 2013).

“In 2016, they got a role on Orange Is the New Black as a wisecracking white supremacist” (from a profile of Asia Kate Dillon on the Cut, a blog published by New York magazine, June 3, 2019).

We agree with you that this usage can confuse a reader. When a writer uses “they” in an article, we’re sometimes left to wonder how many people are meant.

But a careful writer can overcome this problem. The use of “they” in that last OED citation (“they got a role”) is not confusing because it links the pronoun with a single role  And elsewhere in the article, the author, Gabriella Paiella, took pains to be clear (“they’re arguably Hollywood’s most famous nonbinary actor, one whose star turn came on an unlikely television series”).

As we noted in our nonbinary “they” post, “Clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when ‘they’ refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.” We also noted that “when ‘they’ is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: ‘Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.’ ”

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An etymological valentine

(Note: In observance of Valentine’s Day, we’re repeating a post that originally appeared on Feb. 23, 2012.)

Q: I wished a colleague happy Valentine’s Day earlier in the month and was told there is no apostrophe plus “s” in the name of the holiday. There is, isn’t there?

A: Yes, there is an apostrophe + “s” in “Valentine’s Day.” The longer form of the name for the holiday is “St. Valentine’s Day.”

And in case you’re wondering, the word “Valentine’s” in the name of the holiday is a possessive proper noun, while the word “valentines” (for the cards we get on Feb. 14) is a plural common noun.

“Valentine’s Day” has the possessive apostrophe because it’s a saint’s day. In Latin, Valentinus was the name of two early Italian saints, both of whom are commemorated on Feb. 14.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the phrase “Valentine’s Day” was first recorded in about 1381 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English poem The Parlement of Foules:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (In Chaucer’s time, possessive apostrophes were not used.)

Chaucer’s lines would be translated this way in modern English: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird comes here to choose his mate.” (The title means a parliament or assembly of fowls—that is, birds.)

As a common noun, “valentine” was first used to mean a lover, sweetheart, or special friend. This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in 1477, according to OED citations.

In February of that year, a young woman named Margery Brews wrote two love letters to her husband-to-be, John Paston, calling him “Voluntyn” (Valentine).

As rendered into modern English, one of the letters begins “Right reverend and well-beloved Valentine” and ends “By your Valentine.” (We’re quoting from The Paston Letters, edited by Norman Davis, 1963.)

In the mid-1500s, the OED says, the noun “valentine” was first used to mean “a folded paper inscribed with the name of a person to be drawn as a valentine.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, adds Oxford, that “valentine” came to have its modern meaning: “a written or printed letter or missive, a card of dainty design with verses or other words, esp. of an amorous or sentimental nature, sent on St. Valentine’s day.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from Mary Russell Mitford’s book Our Village (1824), a collection of sketches: “A fine sheet of flourishing writing, something between a valentine and a sampler.”

This later example is from Albert R. Smith’s The Adventures of Mr. Ledbury and his Friend Jack Johnson (1844): “He had that morning received … a valentine, in a lady’s hand-writing, and perfectly anonymous.”

What could be more intriguing than that?

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All het up

Q: The other day I came across the phrase “all het up” and wondered if it’s dialect for “all heated up.” Is this worthy of an expansive look?

A: The colloquial expression “all het up,” meaning angry, upset, or worried, can be traced back to an old use of “het” as the past tense and past participle of the verb “heat.” As odd as this use of “het” for “heated” may seem now, similar forms are standard with some other verbs, like “meet” (“met”), “feed” (“fed”), and “lead” (“led”).

The past tense and past participle forms of “heat” have been spelled all sorts of ways since the verb first appeared in Old English as hǽtan, haten, hatten, and so on. In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the past was hǽtte or hætte, while the participle was gehǽt, gehǽted, or gehǽtt. In Middle English, spoken from roughly 1250 to 1500, the past was hatte, hette, het, etc., while the participle was hatte, hette, het, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes het among the usual past tenses and participles of “heat” in Middle English, but adds that it was considered dialectal from the 19th century on. As the OED explains, “The past tense and participle underwent in Middle English various shortenings, some of which are still dialectal; the literary language now recognizes only heated.”

Old English inherited the verb “heat” from prehistoric Germanic, a language reconstructed by linguists. The earliest Oxford example is from the Épinal manuscript in The Épinal-Erfurt Glossary, a Latin-English glossary that the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.” In Latin, calentes is a participle of caleo (to be hot). In Old English, haetendae means heated.

The earliest example in the OED for “het” used as the past tense of “heat” is from a medieval Scottish life of St. Thomas the Apostle: “[He] in þe fyre gert het þam wele” (“[He] in the great fire heated them well”). From Legends of the Saints in the Scottish Dialect of the Fourteenth Century, edited by William M. Metcalfe in 1896 for the Scottish Text Society.

The dictionary’s first example of “het” used as a participle is from a Middle English translation of a collection of spurious letters supposedly written by Aristotle to Alexander the Great:

“Hit ys cold and nedith to be het” (“It is cold and needs to be heated”). From Secret of Secrets, circa 1400, a translation of the Latin Secreta Secretorum. Scholars believe the work originated in Arabic in the 10th century and was translated into Latin in the 12th century. In Arabic, it’s known as Kitāb Sirr al-Asrā.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the terms “het,” “het up,” and “all het up” appeared as colloquial or dialectal adjectives meaning angry, upset, or excited. The earliest example we’ve found for “het” used alone in this sense is from a poem by James Russell Lowell:

“Don’t you git het: they thought the thing was planned; / They’ll cool off when they come to understand.”  From The Biglow Papers, Second Series, London, 1862. The OED has an abbreviated version from the 1867 American edition.

The first Oxford example of “het up” used adjectivally, which we’ll expand here, is from “A Walking Delegate” (1894), a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her [a horse-drawn carriage] under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.” The story appeared first in the Century Magazine (December 1894) and later in Kipling’s collection The Day’s Work (1898).

The longer term you’re asking about, “all het up,” showed up in the early 20th century, Oxford says: “But you mustn’t get yourself all ‘het up’ before you take the plunge” (Letters From a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, a 1902 novel by George Horace Latimer).

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Not a man but felt this terror

Q: I have a question about the strange use of “but” in the following letter of Emerson to Carlyle: “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.” I see no modern definition of “but” that fits here. Is the usage archaic?

A: Yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of “but” is archaic in that sentence, but the usage is still occasionally seen in contemporary historical novels.

The sentence is from a letter Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle on Oct. 30, 1840. In it, Emerson refers to the plans of American social reformers to set up utopian communities inspired by the ideas of the French social theorist Charles Fourier.

The passage is especially confusing because it has principal and subordinate clauses with elliptical, or missing, subjects. The “but” is being used to replace a missing pronoun (the subject) in the subordinate clause and to make the clause negative.

Here’s the sentence with all the missing or substitute parts in place: “There is not a reading man who has not a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “but” is being used here “with the pronominal subject or object of the subordinate clause unexpressed, so that but acts as a negative relative: that … not, who … not (e.g. Not a man but felt this terror, i.e. there was not a man who did not feel this terror, they all felt this terror). Now archaic and rare.”

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a medieval romance: “There be none othir there that knowe me, but wold be glad to wite me do wele” (“There are none there that know me who would not gladly expect me to act well”). From The Three Kings’ Sons, circa 1500. Frederick James Furnivall, who edited the manuscript in 1895 for the Early English Text Society, suggested that David Aubert, a French calligrapher for the Duke of Burgundy, may have been the author.

The most recent Oxford example for this use of “but” is from a 20th-century historical novel for children:

“There is scarce one among us but knows the fells as a man knows his own kale-garth” (“There is scarce one among us who doesn’t know the hills as a man knows his own cabbage garden”). From The Shield Ring, 1956, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

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‘Premier’ or ‘premiere’?

Q: Is it the “premier” or “premiere” episode of a TV series? I see it both ways in print. Which would you use?

A: “Premier” can be an adjective meaning first, best, or most important, as well as a noun for the leader of a national or regional government, according to standard dictionaries.

“Premiere,” with an “e” at the end, can be a noun for the first performance of a play, movie, opera, etc., or a verb meaning to give or have a first performance.

Only three of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult accept the use of “premiere” as an adjective meaning first.

Despite what the majority of these dictionaries say, “premiere” is often used adjectivally to describe the first episode of a TV series.

In fact, a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares terms in digitized books, indicates that “premiere episode” has increased in popularity over the last 50 years and is now significantly more common than “premier episode.” The “premiere” version is also overwhelmingly more popular in the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles since 2012 from online newspapers and magazines.

We suspect that the seven standard dictionaries that don’t include the usage will eventually add “premiere” as either an adjective or a noun used attributively—that is, adjectivally—to mean first.

Which would we use, “premier” or “premiere,” to describe the initial episode of a TV series? Neither. We’d use “first episode,” a usage that’s far more popular than either the “premier” or “premiere” versions, according to Ngram Viewer.

The adjective “first” has referred to an initial item since late Anglo-Saxon days.The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 12th-century section of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that describes the consecration of St. Ethelwold in 963 as bishop of Winchester:

“Sancte Dunstan him gehalgod to biscop on þe fyrste Sunnondæg of Aduent” (“Saint Dunstan [the Archbishop of Canterbury] consecrated him bishop on the first Sunday of Advent.”

As for “premier” and “premiere,” why does English have two spellings? Perhaps because 18th-century Francophiles tried to make an already French word (premier) seem even more French by using the feminine form (première).

The first of these words to show up in English was the adjective “premier.” The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says English borrowed it in the 15th century from Anglo Norman and Middle French, where the similarly spelled premier meant “first in a sequence or series.”

The OED defines the English adjective as “first in importance, rank, or position; chief, leading, foremost.” In the dictionary’s earliest citation, the adjective (here spelled “primier”) meant first in importance:

“Maisters Gower, Chauucer & Lydgate, Primier poetes of this nacion” (from The Active Policy of a Prince, a poem by George Ashby, believed written in 1470 or ’71. In the poem, Ashby offers advice to Edward, Prince of Wales).

In the 17th century, writers began using the adjective in the noun phrase “premier minister,” meaning the chief officer of an institution or the chief minister of a ruler. The earliest OED citation is from “The Kings Vows,” a 1670 poem by Andrew Marvell:

“Of my Pimp I will make my Minister Premier.” (In the poem, Charles I cheerfully recites some of his misdeeds. He was beheaded in 1649 on a charge of treason against England.)

When the noun “premier” appeared a few years later, it also referred to the chief officer of an institution or chief minister of a ruler. In the first Oxford example, it had the institutional sense:

“Mr. William Colvin late premier in the college of Edinburgh” (from a 1675 entry in a register of burials in the Greyfriars burying-ground in Edinburgh).

In the early 18th century, the noun came to mean a British prime minister or the chief minister of a self-governing British colony: “The Premier and his brother of All Souls called on me last week on their way to young Bromley’s” (from a June 23, 1726, letter by the Duke of Portland).

And in the 19th century, the term took on its wider modern sense of a prime minister of a national government or chief minister of a regional government: “Jiji Sanjo … is the son of an official who has been somewhat vaguely described as the Premier of Japan” (the Times, London, Oct. 13, 1871).

The adjective “premiere” showed up in the mid-18th century as a borrowing of première, the French feminine adjective for first. The OED says the “reason for the borrowing of the feminine form (alongside earlier premier adj.) is unclear.”

At the time, there was a vogue in London for all things French, and our guess, as we mentioned above, is that “premiere” looked Frenchier and thus tonier than “premier.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the adjective “premiere” is from The Life and Adventures of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull (1768), by William Donaldson: “The venerable dame of antiquity, who was recommended … to superintend my premiere actions, till I should grow into power to assist myself.”

In the mid-19th century, “premiere” took on the sense of “first in importance or position; foremost, leading; outstanding,” according to Oxford. The first example given is from Tom Burke of “Ours” (1844), a novel by Charles James Lever about an Irish exile who fights for France: “Ah, François, these Mamelukes were not of the ‘premiere force,’ after all. I have only been jesting all this time—see here.”

When the noun “premiere” appeared a couple of decades later (originally italicized and with a grave accent), it referred to a ballerina: “The dancer who has passed the chrysalis ballet-girl stage, and is now a full-fledged, butterfly première” (from the August 1867 issue of the Galaxy, a magazine later absorbed by the Atlantic Monthly).

The OED describes “premiere” here as a shortening of première danseuse, French for a leading female dancer, especially in a ballet company. The longer French term first appeared in English publications in the early 19th century, according to OED citations:

“The following performers have already been engaged. … For the Ballet … Madame Anatole, Premiere Danseuse at the Royal Academy of Music” (Times, London, Jan. 5, 1822). All but one of the six later citations italicize the phrase and use the accent in première.

The term “premiere” soon evolved in English to mean a first performance or showing of a play, film, musical composition, and so on: “The première of the Tzigane [a work by Maurice Ravel] was a very brilliant affair. Of course, the usual elegant audience … was in force” (from the Spirit of the Times, an American weekly, Nov. 24, 1877).

When the verb “premiere” showed up in the early 20th century, it meant  to make a first appearance in a play, film, opera, and so on. The earliest OED example refers to a first appearance in baseball: “Rogers Hornsby … premiered against the Philadelphia Nationals” (Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, April 12, 1927).

The verb soon also meant to present something for the first time. In this Oxford example, the setting of an opera has its debut: “His new setting of ‘Don Giovanni’ is to be premiered at the San Carlo of Naples (Musical Times, March 1, 1929).

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 4, 2020, after a reader of the blog called our attention to the popularity of “premiere episode” in online searches.]

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Knit picking

Q: Please settle a dispute. Which is the correct past tense—“I knit a sweater” or “I knitted a sweater”?

A: They’re both correct. You can say “I knit a sweater last week” or “I knitted a sweater last week.” In fact, an Anglo-Saxon would have used the same word in Old English (cnytte) for the present and past tenses of “I knit,” though knitting back then wasn’t quite the same as it is now.

Most of the 10 contemporary standard dictionaries that we regularly consult say the past tense of “knit” can be either “knit” or “knitted.” All five American dictionaries and two of the five British dictionaries agree with that. Three British dictionaries consider “knitted” the only past tense.

When the verb showed up in Old English as cnyttan (to knit), it meant “to tie in or with a knot; to tie, fasten, bind, attach, join, by or as by knotting,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin, written around 995: “Ic cnytte, necto” (ic is “I” in Old English; necto is Latin for “I bind, tie, fasten, connect,” etc.).

It wasn’t until the early 1500s, as Middle English gave way to early Modern English, that “knit” took on the sense of “to form (a close texture) by the interlooping of successive series of loops of yarn or thread.”

The first OED example is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I knyt bonettes or hosen.”

Interestingly, the c of cnyttan was pronounced like the “c” of “cat” and the k of knytten (the usual spelling of the infinitive in Middle English) was pronounced like the “k” of “king.”

As the OED explains, “kn– is an initial combination common to all the Germanic languages and still retained by most. In English, the k is now silent, alike in educated speech and in most of the dialects; but it was pronounced apparently till about middle of the 17th cent.”

“In the later 17th and early 18th centuries,” the dictionary adds, “writers on pronunciation give the value of the combination as = hn, tn, dn or simple n. The last was probably quite established in Standard English by 1750. The k is still pronounced in some Scottish dialects; in others the guttural is assimilated to the dental, making tn-, esp. after vowels, as a tnife, my tnee.”

Why did English speakers stop pronouncing the “k” in words like “knee,” “knife,” “knot,” and “knowledge”? Probably because it was too much trouble.

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Scrambled yeggs?

Q: Your article about “yegg” traces its use for a bank robber back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, a recent reprint of an 1856 article in Scientific American uses “yeggman” similarly. Evidently the word originated long before your citations.

A: The date on that Scientific American reprint is wrong; it should be 1906, not 1856. The brief item mushes together two sections of an extensive article published on Jan. 27, 1906. We emailed the magazine for a comment but it hasn’t responded.

The Jan. 2, 2020, reprint that you saw was among the “Artifacts From the Archive” published to celebrate the magazine’s 175th anniversary. We reproduce it here in its entirety:

Want to Crack Open a Safe? Try Nitroglycerine

Originally published in January 1856

Today the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. For the introduction of nitroglycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated onerous labor, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one. The modern “yeggman,” however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.
Scientific American, January 1856

The original 1906 Scientific American article, headlined “The Ungentle Art of Burglary,” includes the following sections, which were edited and linked in the reprint:

Burglary—specifically safe-breaking—has in the last decade gradually ceased to be an exact science. To-day the safe-breaker no longer requires those beautifully fashioned, delicate yet powerful instruments and tools which were formerly both the admiration and the despair of the safe manufacturer. The modern “yeggman,” tramping it casually along a country road with a three-ounce phial of nitro-glycerine, a tiny battery, a few yards of wire, and an ignition-cap in his pocket, is able to open and rob almost any kind of a safe, if not with neatness, certainly with dispatch. No longer is the ambitious “strong-arm” man doomed to hours of exhausting and necessarily noiseless drilling, wedging, spreading, or jacking; for the introduction of nitro-glycerine, “soup” in technical parlance, has not only obviated these onerous labors, but has again enabled the safe-cracking industry to gain a step on the safe-making one.

**********

The yeggman, however, is often an inartistic, untidy workman, for it frequently happens that when the door suddenly parts company with the safe it takes the front of the building with it, and consequently the selection of the valuables desired from the contents of the strongbox is often so hurried that it is only partially successful. The bombardment of the surrounding territory with portions of the Farmers’ National Bank seldom fails to rouse from slumber even the soundly-sleeping tillers of the soil.

As we say in our June 19, 2015, post about “yegg,” it apparently showed up in the late 19th century as a noun for a beggar and a verb meaning to beg. A reader of our blog found both usages in the Jan. 14, 1894, issue of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

It’s uncertain how “yegg” and “yeggman” soon came to mean a burglar or a safecracker. The most common suggestion is that the criminal use derives from “John Yegg,” the alias of a bank robber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest examples we’ve found, from 1901, appeared almost five years before the original Scientific American piece.

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Disoriented or disorientated?

Q: In listening to P. D. James books with the Libby app, I often hear “disorientated,” and it always sounds uneducated to me. I know it’s standard in the UK and nonstandard in the US. My question: If I’m in London or Cambridge or Oxford and use “disoriented,” will a fellow academic think my usage nonstandard?

A: As far as we can tell, “disorientated” as well as “disoriented” are standard in British English, though “disorientated” is more popular. We’ve found both of these terms in searches of the British National Corpus, with “disorientated” about twice as common as “disoriented.” In fact, both appear in P. D. James novels.

All five standard British dictionaries that we regularly consult—Cambridge, Collins, Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Longman, and Macmillan—include both “disoriented” and “disorientated” as standard, but most of them describe the longer term as a British usage.

Interestingly, four of the five American dictionaries we consult the most—Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged), Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World—include “disorientated” as well as “disoriented” as standard. American Heritage has only “disoriented.”

Dictionaries aside, would academics in the UK raise an eyebrow at the use of “disoriented” by an American? Well, perhaps. But their objections wouldn’t be justified. Both forms have been used by respected writers for centuries.

As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), the two verbs that gave us those participial adjectives and past tenses “have a long history (disorient first recorded in 1655, disorientate in 1704) and both are still in use (corresponding to the noun disorientation).”

“In most contexts, disorient, being shorter, is the better form, and it is about three times as frequent in the OEC [Oxford English Corpus] data,” Butterfield writes. “Curiously, to judge by the same data, British English shows a marked preference for disorientate. As a result, disorient may be viewed by some BrE speakers as a pernicious Americanism; conversely, many AmE editors detest the longer form.”

Like Butterfield, we also prefer the shorter form in most cases, though we see no reason why a writer couldn’t use the longer version for stylistic reasons—to improve the rhythm of a sentence, for example, or to avoid an awkward rhyme.

We suspect that P. D. James varied the use of “disoriented” and “disorientated” for stylistic reasons. Here are some examples from her novels:

“But, disoriented in the claustrophobic darkness, she could no longer distinguish the ceiling from the walls” (Death of an Expert Witness, 1977).

“The contrast between the sun-warmed  terrace, where once again, luncheon was set out on a linen-covered trestle table, and the dark, rank-smelling pit of the Devil’s Kettle was so great that Cordelia felt disoriented” (The Skull Beneath the Skin, 1982).

“These patients become quite disorientated during treatment” (A Suitable Job for a Woman, 1991).

“The path was barely visible but for most of the route it was fringed with brambles, a welcome if prickly barrier when, momentarily disorientated, he lost his way” (The Black Tower, 1975).

James sometimes uses both terms in the same novel, as in these two examples from A Mind to Murder (1963), the second of her Adam Dalgliesh books: “Her patient would be far too disoriented to hear or understand” … “The woman was still weak and a little disorientated and sat holding tightly to her husband’s hand.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “disorient” in the mid-17th century from désorienter, a French verb meaning to turn from an eastward position, to cause to lose one’s bearings, or to embarrass.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “disorient” had similar meanings in English when it appeared in Elise, or, Innocencie Guilty: A New Romance (1655), John Jennings’s translation of a novel by Jean-Pierre Camus: “ ’Twas Philippin who was disoriented, but more Isabella.”

The OED, citing the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, says the longer verb “disorientate” showed up in the 1704 first edition of Lexicon Technicum, an encyclopedia of the arts and sciences by the English writer John Harris.

However, Oxford doesn’t provide a citation, and we couldn’t find one in searchable online versions of Johnson’s 1755 dictionary or the 1704, 1708, 1716, and 1725 editions of Lexicon Technicum.

In the 1734 fifth edition of Lexicon Technicum, updated by others 15 years after Harris’s death, “disorientated” is defined in astronomy as “turned from the East or some other of the Cardinal Points,” and “in a figurative Sense, for the disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way or Element, as if you discourse of Law to a Physician, and Physick to a Lawyer, they will all be disorientated.”

The description above of the figurative sense reads a lot like this earlier entry for “disorientated” in Cyclopædia, a 1728 encyclopedia of the arts and sciences by the English writer  Ephraim Chambers:

“The Word is most frequently us’d in a figurative Sense, for the Disconcerting, or putting a Man out of his Way, or Element. Speak of Law to a Physician, or of Physic to a Lawyer, and they will all be disorientated.” As far as we can tell, this 1728 example, which the OED cites, is the first appearance of “disorientated” in print.

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post in 2012 about the verbs “orient” and “orientate.” Like “disorient” and “disorientate,” the shorter form is more common in the US and the longer one in the UK.

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Doing hard time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Memes, tropes, and notions

Q: Is there a distinction between a meme, a trope, and a notion? This came up during a discussion I had with a couple of English professors. We would appreciate your advice and have agreed to follow it.

A: This is the kind of question that can lead into the great Grimpen Mire. Vogue words—and “meme” is especially hot right now—tend to blur as they’re tossed around indiscriminately.

But these three words do have distinct meanings. Simply put, a “notion” exists in a mental form, like an idea or a desire. A “meme” exists in a more tangible form and is contagious, like a quirky fashion or a video clip that goes viral. Finally, a “trope” exists in a literary form, like a figure of speech or a thematic device.

The definitions in standard dictionaries are fairly straightforward. We’ll use those from Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online), along with examples of our own in italics.

  • notion: “A conception of or belief about something.” (That’s not my notion of an inexpensive lunch.) … “An impulse or desire, especially one of a whimsical kind.” (She had a notion to send him flowers.)
  • meme: “An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.” (Robotic dogs were a cultural meme a few years ago.) … “An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.” (Who ever thought that a funny cat photo would become a meme?)
  • trope: “A figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.” (The author’s favorite trope is hyperbole.) … “A significant or recurrent theme; a motif.” (The play’s references to wills and inheritance serve as a trope.)

As for their etymologies, all these words are derived from Latin or Greek.

“Notion” was a direct borrowing from Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In classical Latin, nōtiōn- or nōtiō meant “concept, idea, legal or intellectual examination,” the OED says, and in post-classical Latin it also meant “knowledge, understanding.” The ultimate source is nōtus (known).

The word entered English in the late 14th century with religious and philosophical meanings that are now rare and have to do with incarnations of the Trinity or with operations in logic. In the 15th century, a more personal meaning emerged, and a “notion” came to mean a whim or an inclination to do something.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a set of mystery plays—that is, dramas depicting biblical events—known as the York Plays, dated sometime before 1450. In the passage, from Play 32 (The Remorse of Judas), Caiaphas rebukes Judas:

“Nowe be my nociens, myght I negh nere þe … schulde I lere þe / To lordis to speke curtaisely” (“Now I have a notion, might I come near thee … to teach thee to speak courteously to lords”).

This more recent example for that sense, from Rebecca West’s novel The Fountain Overflows (1957), will sound more familiar to modern ears: “She could not understand why they had got this silly notion of wearing coats and trousers in bed when nightshirts were so much easier to iron.”

Oxford says a new sense of the word emerged in the 16th century: “a general concept, category, or designation.” The earliest known use is from a Latin grammar, Rudimenta Puerorum in Artem Grammaticalem (2nd ed., 1531), by the Scottish grammarian John Vaus:

“I haue collekit als scortly as I ma, in manere of rude introductione, generale notionis of the aucht partis of orisone” (“I have collected as briefly as I may, as a sort of rough introduction, general notions of the eight parts of speech”).

Related meanings of “notion” followed: a belief, opinion, or theory (first recorded in 1603); an idea or concept (1607); and an inkling, suspicion, or hint (1698). As the OED notes, that last one is common in negative constructions, like “I had no notion,” “they haven’t the slightest notion,” “little notion did he have,” and so on.

Unlike “notion,” the noun “meme” is a modern invention. It was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and first appeared in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). He adapted it, the OED says, from the ancient Greek noun μίμημα (mīmēma, something imitated), which comes from the verb μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai, to imitate).

Here’s the OED citation from Dawkins’s book, in which a “meme” is an element of culture that’s passed along much like a gene:

“The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. … It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’ Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”

A generation later, “meme” acquired its Internet meaning, which was first recorded in the late 1990s. The OED’s earliest example refers to an animation of a dancing baby: “The next thing you know, his friends have forwarded it on and it’s become a net meme.” (From a transcript of a CNN program, Science and Technology Week, Jan. 24, 1998.)

Finally we come to “trope,” the oldest of the three words. It was borrowed into Old English from Latin or Greek, apparently forgotten, and then reborrowed in the 16th century. As the OED explains, “trope” was “probably a borrowing from Latin” but “perhaps” came from the earlier Greek.

The Latin tropus (figure of speech) can be traced to the Greek noun τρόπος (tropos, turn, direction, or way), from the verb τρέπειν (trepein, to turn, direct, or change). The etymology makes sense if you think of a “trope” as a turn of phrase.

The English word first appeared in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a late 10th-century translation of a Latin work that was probably completed in 731 by the Venerable Bede. This is the OED’s citation:

“Boc de metrica arte, & oþere to þisse geþydde be scematibus & tropes boc” (“A book on the art of meter [poetry], to which is appended another book on figures and tropes”).

After that sighting, the word vanished for centuries, then was reborrowed into English in the time of Henry VIII. (As the OED says, “there is no continuity of use” from Old English to the 16th century.) Here’s the word’s reappearance:

“If ye be so sworne to the litteral sense in this matter, that ye will not in these wordes of Christe, Thys is my bodye, &c., admitte in so playne a speache anye troope.” (From William Tyndale’s The Souper [Supper] of the Lorde, 1533. His argument that the Eucharist should not be interpreted literally led to his death at the stake in 1536.)

Today “trope” also has technical meanings in music, astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics. But it’s still used in many disciplines as it was in Tyndale’s time, to mean figurative or metaphorical language.

The OED’s most recent use is by a specialist in Asian-American studies: “[George F.] Kennan’s writing … is replete with tropes and metaphors of disease … and health” (Jodi Kim’s Ends of Empire, 2010).

“Trope” is also used in cultural criticism to mean “a significant or recurrent theme” or “motif,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a book review: “Barthelme is funning with the eternal trope of fatherhood” (the Chicago Tribune, Dec. 14, 1975).

In science, by the way, the word elements “-trope,” “-tropic,” and “-tropism” are found in words that have to do with change, alteration, turning, revolving, and so on. Examples include “heliotrope” (a plant whose flowers bend toward the sun), “phototropic” (attracted toward light), “geotropism” (growth in response to gravity), and “hydrotropism” (growth directed toward moisture).

In fact, as we wrote on the blog in 2012, “tropism” is a word in itself. It’s a scientific term that means a turning, but it’s also used metaphorically in the sense of an attraction or an inclination toward something.

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