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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Oh, dear! Oh, deer!

Q: I’ve just begun The Age of Deer, a book by Erika Howsare that explores the connections between deer and humans. Are the words “dear” and “deer” also related, or merely two different words with the same pronunciation?

A: The short answer is that “dear” and “deer” may very well be etymologically related, not just homonyms, but the evidence isn’t conclusive.

In Old English, the language spoken from roughly 450 to 1150, the noun “deer” (spelled dior or deor, and occasionally dear) meant something like “beast” and referred to wild animals in general, especially four-legged ones. The usual word for the animals with antlered males was heort or heorot, ancestor of “hart.”

Meanwhile, the adjective “dear” came in two versions: deore (beloved or valuable) and deor (brave, ferocious, savage, or wild, an obsolete sense apparently associated with the noun “deer”).

Linguists have disagreed over whether deore and deor were two separate adjectives or one adjective with two senses. If Old English had just one adjective, then the modern words “dear” and “deer” would probably be related.

The Oxford English Dictionary says both deore and deor come from prehistoric Germanic, an ancient language reconstructed by linguists, but it adds that deor is “of uncertain etymology.”

However, the linguist Anatoly Lieberman argues in a May 19, 2021, post on the blog of Oxford University Press, publisher of the OED, that the two terms come from the same ancient source:

“Some good authorities hesitatingly (very hesitatingly!) admit that Old English dēor(e) and dēor are two senses of the same word. In my opinion, both their hesitation and the common statement ‘origin unknown,’ applied to dēor ‘savage, fierce,’ are groundless.”

Liberman says, “it is probably reasonable to assume that the most ancient meaning of the adjective dear was ‘requiring a strong effort’; hence ‘fierce, wild; hard to obtain; costly; precious,’ and of course ‘dear,’ whether ‘expensive’ or ‘priceless.’ ”

“According to what we know about the Old Germanic ethos,” he adds, “monsters and heroes were believed to be endowed with similar qualities, but what was ‘noble, valorous, praiseworthy’ in the hero was ‘ferocious, deadly’ in his enemy.”

If Lieberman is right—and we hesitantly agree with him—then “dear” and “deer” are related.

In the first OED citation for the noun “deer,” it’s spelled dear and means a large beast: “Se camal þæt micla dear” (“The camel that great deer”). From an interlinear Old English gloss, or translation, of the Latin in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Luke 18:25.

Here’s a full version of the verse, in Early Modern English, from the King James Version: “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun “deer” used in its modern sense (as the horned animal that’s often hunted) is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written in Middle English sometime before 1200: “To huntien after deoren.”

The OED notes an earlier Old English passage that mentions hrana (reindeer) among a large group of wild animals: “syx hund. Þa deor” (“those 600 hundred deer”).

As for the adjective “dear,” the dictionary says the affectionate sense gradually evolved in Old English from “esteemed” to “beloved,” but “the  passage of the one notion into the other is too gradual to admit of their separation.”

The OED’s first citation (with “dear” describing Jesus) is from Juliana, an Old English poem by Cynewulf about the martyrdom of Saint Juliana of Nicomedia. In this passage, Juliana asks all of humankind to pray for her:

“meotud bidde þæt me heofona helm helpe gefremme, meahta waldend, on þam miclan dæge, fæder, frofre gæst, in þa frecnan tid, dæda demend, ond se deora sunu” (“pray to the creator that the guardian of heaven, the wielder of powers, the father, the holy spirit, the judge of deeds, and his dear son may help me in that time of terror, on that greatest of days”).

Moving on to the costly sense of the adjective, the first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an entry for the year 1044 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“On ðisum gere wæs swyðe mycel hunger ofer eall Englaland and corn swa dyre swa nan man ær ne gemunde  swa þæt se sester hwætes eode to LX pen” (“In this year there was very great hunger over all England and corn [grain] so dear as no man remembered before so that a sester [a dry measure] of wheat went for 60 pence”).

Over the years, the adjective has taken on many other uses, including to fondly or respectfully address someone (circa 1250), to mean scarce (before 1330), to address the recipient of a letter (c. 1402), and to describe money that can be borrowed only at a high interest rate (1878).

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

Footing the bill

Q: How did “foot” come to be used in “He’ll foot the bill”? And doesn’t it sound awkward to say “He footed the bill”?

A: The use of the verb “foot” in the expression “foot the bill” ultimately comes from the use of “foot” as a noun for the lower part of something—in this case, the total at the bottom of a bill.

When “foot” first appeared in Old English, it referred (as it does now) to the part of the leg below the ankle. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the epic poem Beowulf, dating back to as early as 725:

“Sona hæfde unlyfigendes eal gefeormod fet ond folma” (“Soon he’d devoured the lifeless body, feet and hands”). The passage describes the monster Grendel eating one of his victims.

The noun “foot” soon took on the additional sense of something resembling a foot. The OED’s first citation for this meaning, which we’ve expanded here, is from an Old English riddle that refers to the base of an inkhorn (an inkwell made from an antler) as a foot, spelled fot:

“nu ic blace swelge wuda ⁊ wætre … befæðme þæt mec on fealleð ufan þær ic stonde eorpes nathwæt hæbbe anne fot” (“now I swallow the black wood and water.  … I embrace within me the unknown darkness that falls on me from above. Where I stand on something unknown, I have one foot”). From the Exeter Book, “Riddle 93.”

In the early 15th century, the OED says, the noun “foot” took on the sense of “the sum or total of a column of numbers in an account, typically recorded directly below the final entry in the column.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a 1433 financial report in the records of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, a merchant guild:

“First, the saide maister and constables hafe resayved [have received] in mone tolde [money counted], iiijli. ijs. xd., as it profes be [proves by] the fote [foot] of accounte of the yere past” (from The York Mercers and Merchant Adventurers 1356–1917, a 1918 work by the British historian Maud Sellers).

A similar use of “foot” as a verb appeared in the late 15th century, according to the OED, which defines the term as “to add up (a column of numbers, or an account, bill, etc., having this) and enter the sum at the bottom.”

The earliest Oxford citation, with “footed” spelled “futit,” is from a record of judicial proceedings in Scotland: “The tyme that his compt [account] wes futit.” From The Acts of the Lords of Council in Civil Causes, 1478–95 (edited by Thomas Thomson, 1839).

The sense of “foot” you’re asking about showed up in the early 19th century. Oxford defines it as “to pay or settle (a bill, esp. one which is large or unreasonable, or which has been run up by another party).”

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from A Pedestrious Tour, of Four Thousand Miles, Through the Western States and Territories, During the Winter and Spring of 1818, an 1819 memoir of a walking tour by Estwick Evans, a New England lawyer and writer:

“My dogs, knowing no law but that of nature, and having forgotten my lecture to them upon theft, helped themselves to the first repast presented, leaving their master to foot their bills.” (The dogs were later killed by wolves in the Michigan Territory as Evans was on his way to Detroit.)

As for “footed,” it may sound awkward, but it’s the only past tense and past participle listed in the standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

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Mixed marriage: two ways to wed

Q: Should one officiate a wedding or officiate at a wedding? Or is either fine? Using it as a transitive verb sounds odd to me.

A: The verb “officiate” has been used both transitively (with a direct object, as in “officiate the wedding”) and intransitively (without the object, as in “officiate at the wedding”) since it appeared in the 17th century. But the intransitive usage was long considered the traditional form, and was much more common until the late 20th century.

Today, dictionaries of American English recognize both the transitive and intransitive uses of “officiate” as standard. Dictionaries of British English recognize only the intransitive usage.

The transitive usage is especially popular in the US in reference to officiating in sports and in marriages performed by friends or relatives ordained online.

Merriam-Webster.com, an American dictionary, has nearly identical definitions for “officiate” used intransitively and transitively in senses related to performing a ceremony, serving in an official capacity, or acting as an official at a sporting contest.

M-W has “officiate at a wedding” as an intransitive example, and has these transitive examples: “Two referees officiated the hockey game” … “The bishop officiated the memorial Mass.”

The verb is defined similarly in the Oxford New American Dictionary and Dictionary.com, an updated online dictionary based mainly on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. (American Heritage describes the transitive sense as a usage problem, but bases that view on a 1997 survey of the AH usage panel and may not reflect recent developments in American English.)

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, shows that both senses are now equally popular in American English. The intransitive use doesn’t register at all in a search of British English.

Getting back to your question, the transitive usage also sounds unnatural to us, and we don’t use it. But as language commentators, we accept the view of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

“Let us assure you that officiate can be used transitively to mean ‘to carry out (an official duty or function),’ ‘to serve as a leader or celebrant of (a ceremony),’ or ‘to administer the rules of (a game or sport) esp. as a referee or umpire.’ ”

As for the verb’s etymology, English adopted “officiate” in the early 17th century from two post-classical Latin terms: officiat-, the past participial stem of officiari (to perform a function), and officiare (to officiate, say mass, to serve a church, and so on), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When the term first appeared in English, it was transitive and meant “to perform the duties of (an office, position, or place),” the OED says. Its first citation is from The Historie and Lives of the Kings of England (1615), by the English lawyer and historian  William Martyn:

“Because the Emperour intended to giue vnto her for her Dowrie, the Provinces of the Low Countries … his desire was, that forthwith shee might be sent thether to officiate the Protectorship of them in his absence.”

The dictionary says “officiate” soon took on the sense of performing a religious service or rite such as marriage, the use you’re asking about. The first Oxford citation for this sense uses “officiate” transitively, with a direct object preceding the verb:

“Deacons had the charge to … helpe the Priest in diuine Seruice (a place officiated now by our Parish Clerkes).” From Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), by the English poet and antiquary John Weever.

The intransitive use of this particular sense of “officiate” appeared a decade later: “There were many Parish Churches … as doth appeare by Epiphanius … who … tells us also who officiated in the same, as Presbyters.” From The Historie of Episcopacie (1642), by the Anglican clergyman and historian Peter Heylyn.

As we’ve said, the intransitive usage was predominant until the transitive form was revived in the late 20th century. Here’s a recent transitive example from a headline in Entertainment Weekly (Jan. 2, 2024): “Susan will officiate Gerry and Theresa’s ‘Golden Wedding.’ ”

And here’s an example from the website of  the Universal Life Church, which offers “Fast, Free, & Easy” ordinations to people who want to marry friends or relatives: “Get Ordained Online, Officiate A Wedding.”

The OED defines the sports sense of the verb “officiate” as “to act as a referee, umpire, or other official in a match or game.” The dictionary says the sports usage first appeared in the late 19th century.

The earliest Oxford citation is from a London newspaper that uses the term intransitively: “Mr. Walker officiated as referee, and Messrs. Davies and Bryan as umpires” (The Times, Sept. 15, 1884).

The transitive use of “officiate” in sports appeared a century later. The dictionary’s first example is from The Washington Post, May 24, 1978 (we’ve corrected the date):

“There was considerable comment when referee-in-chief Scotty Morrison selected Van Hellmond, Newell and Bob Myers to officiate the finals, passing up more senior referees.”

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Left for dead

Q: I’m curious when the phrase “left for dead” became common usage. Why is the phrase not “left to die”? I saw the “for dead” version recently in an article and I began wondering.

A: The expression “leave for dead” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times and has been used regularly since then to mean abandon someone or something almost dead or certain to die.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded here, is from a passage concerning St. Paul in The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church, First Series, written around 990 by the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:

“Æne he wæs gestæned oð deað, swa ðæt þa ehteras hine for deadne leton, ac ðæs on merigen he aras, and ferde ymbe his bodunge” (“Once he was stoned unto death, so much so that the persecutors left him for dead, but on the morrow he arose and went about his preaching”). In Old English, “hine for deadne leton” is literally “him for dead left.”

As the OED explains, the preposition “for” is being used here “with an adjective as complement.” This use of “for,” the dictionary adds, is now found chiefly in “set expressions, as in to give a person up for lost, to leave a person for dead, to take for granted, etc.”

In early Old English, the preposition “for” began being used similarly with a noun to mean “with a view to; with the object or purpose of; as preparatory to,” according to the OED.

Here’s a citation from the Gospel of John, 11:4, in the West Saxon Gospels: “Nys þeos untrumnys na for deaðe, ac for Godes wuldre” (“This sickness is not for death, but for the glory of God”). Jesus is speaking about the ailing Lazarus.

Getting back to your question, one could say “left to die” as well as “left for dead.” Both have been common for centuries. In fact, “left to die” is slightly more popular, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.

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Did you warsh behind your ears?

Q:  Can you suss the pronunciation of “wash”?  I’m from central Illinois and I forced myself as an adult to pronounce it “wawsh” instead of the colloquial “warsh.”

A: In American English, the word “wash” is usually pronounced “wawsh” or “wahsh” (wɔʃ or wɑʃ in the International Phonetic Alphabet), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. However, a lot of Americans pronounce it with an “r” before the “sh,” a usage that may be dying out.

The Dictionary of American Regional English describes the dialectal “warsh” or “worsh” pronunciation (wɑrš or wɔrš in DARE’s phonemic system) as widespread in the US but especially frequent in the Midland, a belt that extends roughly from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina across the country to Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska.

The earliest recorded example in the regional dictionary is from the late 19th century, though the pronunciation almost certainly appeared in speech before that. Here’s an expanded version of the citation from “Rubáiyát of Doc Sifers,” a poem about a doctor in Indiana, by James Whitcomb Riley (The Century Magazine, November 1897):

He orders Euby then to split some wood, and take and build
A fire in kitchen-stove, and git a young spring-chicken killed;
And jes whirled in and th’owed his hat and coat there on the bed,
And warshed his hands and sailed in that-air kitchen, Euby said.

DARE has examples from Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin. The latest, a 2003 report from Iowa in the dictionary’s own files, uses “wersh” for the pronunciation spelling of the term: “My sister-in-law says ‘I’m going to do the ‘wersh’ (wash as in laundry).”

Pat, who grew up in Iowa, remembers childhood admonitions like “Go warsh your hands” and “Did you warsh behind your ears?”

Interestingly, the dialectal pronunciation of “wash” with an “r” was first recorded in southern England, not in the American Midland. Here’s the earliest example we’ve found:

“I’ve a yeard em zay he don’t make nort of a leg o’ mutton, and half a peck o’ cider to warsh-n down way” (one of two examples in “The Dialect of West Somerset,” a paper by the philologist Frederick Thomas Elworthy, read at a meeting of the Philological Society in London, Jan. 15, 1875).

We’ve seen no evidence that immigrants from southern England brought the usage to the US Midland, but linguists have found indications that  Scotch-Irish immigrants from Ulster may have been the source of the usage.

The authors of the book Pittsburgh Speech and Pittsburghese (2015) maintain that the dialect spoken by the Scotch-Irish, the first Europeans to settle in southwestern Pennsylvania in large numbers, spread from Pennsylvania across the Midland region.

“The English they spoke became the substrate founder dialect for the area (as for much of the U.S. Midland),” write Barbara Johnstone, Daniel Baumgardt, Maeve Eberhardt, and Scott Kiesling. “Although we have very limited evidence about Scotch-Irish phonology, words and morphosyntactic patterns that are indisputably Scotch-Irish are still prevalent in the area.”

The authors refer to the “r” in “warsh” as an “intrusive” or “epenthetic” (inserted) letter before “ʃ” (the IPA symbol for the “sh” digraph, technically a voiceless postalveolar fricative), and say the usage is declining in American English.

“Epenthetic /r/ was once fairly widespread in the U.S. Midwest and the South,” they write, “but it is becoming less common, as it seems to be in southwestern Pennsylvania, as well.”

As for the word “wash,” it first appeared in Old English, the language spoken from around 450 to 1150, as a verb spelled wæscan, wacsan, waxan, wacxan, or waxsan, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Anglo-Saxon versions of “wash,” the dictionary notes, were nearly always used in the sense of cleaning things, not people. A different verb, þwean, was used for washing the human body (the þ, or thorn, at the beginning of þwean was pronounced as “th”).

The OED’s earliest “wash” example, which we’ve expanded here, is from a collection of  Anglo-Saxon charters: “hi sculan waxan sceap and sciran” (“they shall wash and shear the sheep”). From Diplomatarium Anglicum Aevi Saxonici (1865), by Benjamin Thorpe.

The first Oxford citation for the verb “wash” used for people is from a late Old English version of the Gospel of Matthew, 27:24: “þa genam he water, and weosc hys handa beforan þam folce” (“he [Pilate] took water and washed his hands before the people”). From the Hatton Gospels, written around 1160 in the West Saxon dialect.

The earliest OED example for the noun “wash” in the sense of the cleaning of clothes is from an interlinear gloss, or translation, of the Latin vestimentorum ablutio as the Old English reafa wæsc (“garment wash”). From “De Consuetudine Monachorum” (“Concerning the Habit of the Monks”), an article in Anglia, a German journal of English linguistics, Nov. 27, 2009.

However, that sense of the noun doesn’t appear again in the dictionary until the early 18th century: “Wearing Linen from the Wash” (London Gazette, 1704).

When the noun “wash” was first used for people, it referred to the washing away of stains on one’s honor or morality, as in the OED’s first two examples:

  • “The Blemish once received, no Wash is good For stains of Honor, but th’ Offenders blood” (from The Adventures of Five Hours, a 1663 comedy by the English playwright Samuel Tuke).
  • “A Baptism in Reserve, a Wash for all our Sins” (from a 1666 sermon by William Sancroft, dean of St. Paul’s and later Archbishop of Canterbury).

Finally, the first Oxford citation for the noun used in the sense of physically cleaning oneself is from The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839), by Charles Dickens: “Mind you take care, young man, and get first wash.” (The passage refers to getting to a well first.)

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‘Dad wouldn’t have a bar of it’

Q: Can you shed any light on the origin of the (mainly) Australian phrase “wouldn’t have a bar of it,” especially what “bar” is doing in there?

A: The expression “not to stand [or “have” or “want”] a bar of something” first appeared in Australian English in the early 20th century, according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang.

The earliest example in the dictionary is from a Sydney newspaper: “He attributes most of his trouble to the fact that he is a married man and father of a grown-up family, but neither wife nor children will stand a bar of him at any price” (Truth, May 21, 1904).

This more recent example, which we’ve expanded, is from Tales of the Honey Badger (2015), a collection of short stories by the Australian rugby star Nick Cummins: “I grabbed a board and paddled straight out, knowing full well Dad wouldn’t have a bar of it.”

Green’s describes the usage as Australian and New Zealand slang meaning “to detest, to reject, to be intolerant of.” However, the dictionary doesn’t explain how “bar” came to be used in the expression.

The Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English and The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English also have entries for the usage, but no etymological information.

Three standard English dictionaries—Cambridge, Collins, and Oxford—have entries that label the expression “informal,” but again don’t discuss its history.

The Oxford English Dictionary, our go-to etymological reference, doesn’t have an entry for the expression. However, the OED entries for “bar” used as a verb and as a preposition offer possible clues to its use as a noun in “not to stand a bar of something.”

When “bar” first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century, it was a noun meaning “a stake or rod of iron or wood used to fasten a gate, door, hatch, etc.”

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175): “Det is he to-pruste pa stelene gate. and to brec pa irene barren of helle” (“He [Jesus] is the one who will thrust open the steel gate, and break the iron bars of hell”).

When the verb “bar” appeared in the 13th century, it meant “to make fast (a door, etc.) by a bar or bars fixed across it; to fasten up or close (a place) with bars.”

The earliest OED citation is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at sometime before 1300. In this passage, Lot secures the door of his home in Sodom to keep a mob outside from molesting two angels inside: “faste þe dores gon he bare” (“firmly he did bar the doors”).

In the 15th century, the verb “bar” came to mean “to exclude from consideration.” The earliest Oxford citation, which we’ve edited, uses the gerund form of the verb in referring to one piece of linen set aside from a sale:

“vj.xx yardes, barin one pese, of lynnen cloth” (“six score yards, barring one piece, of linen cloth”). From The Household Books of John Howard, Duke of Norfolk, 1462-1471, 1481-1483 (1992), introduction by Anne Crawford.

[Note: Counting in the Middle English of the 15th century was often in scores written in superscript, and the letter “j” often replaced a final “i” in Roman numerals. In the number above, “vj” is six and the superscript xx  is a score, so “vj.xx” is six times 20, or 120.]

And now a numberless example from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, written in the late 16th century. After promising Bassanio to act properly, Gratiano adds, “Nay but I barre [exclude] to night, you shall not gage [judge] me / By what we doe to night.”

In the mid-17th century, “bar” came to be a preposition with the sense of “excluding from consideration” or “leaving out.” The first OED citation is from an epigram in Hesperides (1648), a poetry collection by Robert Herrick. Here’s the epigram in full:

“Last night thou didst invite me home to eate, And shew’st me there much plate, but little meate. Prithee, when next thou do’st invite, barre state [omitting formality], And give me meate, or give me else thy plate.”

Our guess is that the use of the verb to mean “exclude from consideration” and the preposition for “excluding from consideration” may have inspired the use of “bar” in “to not stand a bar of something.” However, we’ve seen no evidence to support this.

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Wanna look like a chumbolone?

Q: Have you come across the word “chumbolone”? It’s a new one for me. I found it on John Kass’s website. He was a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and now writes a lot of angry screeds about the state of everything.

A: It was unknown to us, too.

The rare slang term “chumbolone” was first recorded about a decade and a half ago at the federal trial of Anthony Dale, a former Chicago police officer accused of leaking information to the mob.

Here’s the relevant passage: “ ‘I  don’t wanna look like a ‘chumbolone,’ an idiot,’ said Doyle, using street slang” (from a report by Jeff Coen in the Chicago Tribune, Aug. 24, 2007).

In commenting on the trial later that day, the Tribune columnist John Kass had this expanded version of Doyle’s testimony about a conversation in code with the mobster Frank Calabrese:

“ ‘I gave him lip service,’ Doyle said. ‘I didn’t know what he was talking about. I don’t wanna look like a chumbolone, an idiot, stupid.’ ” (It’s “pronounced chum-buh-LOAN,” according to Kass.)

Doyle’s remarks appeared in some newspapers and broadcasts around the country, but the usage didn’t catch on. It’s not in standard dictionaries or in the Oxford English Dictionary, the leading authority on English etymology.

It’s also not in the Dictionary of American Regional English or the updated online edition of Green’s Dictionary of Slang, a three-volume reference compiled by the lexicographer Jonathon Green.

Although the term appears in a few smaller slang dictionaries that aren’t updated regularly, it’s rarely seen outside Chicago, and it’s not all that common in the city.

Most of the “chumbolone” examples we’ve found in searching digitized databases are from one writer, Kass, who has trademarked the term and uses it to sell merchandise on his website, such as this “No Chumbolone Zone Hat”:

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How unnatural is ‘preternatural’?

Q: Why do I see the word “preternatural” all the time, especially in The New York Times? I don’t see it elsewhere. What’s the story?  I had to look it up!

A: The adjective “preternatural” (extraordinary, unnatural, supernatural) dates from the late 16th century. It was quite common in the 1700s and 1800s, then gradually fell out of favor. It was relatively rare by the early 1900s, but rebounded somewhat at the end of the 20th century.

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “preternatural” began rising in the 1990s. Although the usage appears often in The Times, as both an adjective and an adverb (“preternaturally”), it shows up in many other publications as well.

The term’s first appearance in The Times was in an editorial about the pleasures of journalism, published on March 24, 1860, nine years after the paper’s founding in 1851.

The editorial, entitled “An Oratorical Windfall,” says that despite the occasional weariness of recording commonplace events, journalism can offer “gleams of an almost preternatural absurdity which it is at once a pleasure and a wonder to pursue.”

And this recent use of “preternatural” is from an article in The Times on Dec. 12, 2023, about Shohei Ohtani, a pitcher and designated hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers and his previous team, the Los Angeles Angels:

“For Angels fans, Ohtani brought more to the ballpark than just his preternatural, comic-book-like talent at swatting home runs and striking out batters.”

Here’s an adverbial example from a Times article on Jan. 2, 2024, about how the American skier Mikaela Shiffrin sees Taylor Swift’s career as a guide for navigating fame and adversity:

“That long-distance tutelage began when the preternaturally gifted Shiffrin, nurtured in the Colorado mountains and at a venerable Vermont ski academy, won three World Cup races and a world championship gold medal as a high school senior.”

As we’ve said, The Times isn’t the only publication to use “preternatural.” Here are a few recent examples from others:

“Martin Scorsese’s career-capping Killers of the Flower Moon likely never would have happened without David Grann, the New Yorker writer with a preternatural knack for unearthing astonishing, dramatic stories from history” (Slate, Oct. 22, 2023).

“Padres Expert Pleads Fans to Not Forget Juan Soto’s Preternatural Talent” (Sports Illustrated, April 29, 2023).

“15 preternatural podcasts to ring in spooky season” (The Boston Globe, Oct. 22, 2021).

As for its etymology, the Oxford English Dictionary says “preternatural” is based on the post-classical Latin praeternaturalis, formed from the classical Latin phrase praeter naturam (beyond or outside nature).

The term first appeared in the early modern English of the late 1500s. The earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter by the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey to the English poet Edmund Spenser about a 1580 earthquake in the Dover Straits, the narrowest part of the English Channel:

“an Earthquake might as well be supposed a Naturall Motion of the Earth, as a preternaturall, or supernaturall ominous worke of God” (from Three Proper and Witty Familiar Letters, 1580, published anonymously, apparently by Harvey).

A note in Merriam-Webster online about the history of the term says: “unusual things are sometimes considered positive and sometimes negative, and throughout its history preternatural has been used to refer to both exceptionally good things and unnaturally evil ones.”

“In its earliest documented uses in the 1500s, it tended to emphasize the strange, ominous, or foreboding, but by the 1700s, people were using it more benignly to refer to fascinating supernatural (or even heavenly) phenomena. Nowadays, people regularly use it to describe the remarkable abilities of exceptional humans.”

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‘You had your will of me’

Q: James Joyce mentions “The Lass of Aughrim” at the end of “The Dead.” I looked the song up online, but was puzzled by the use of “will” here: “Oh Gregory, don’t you remember, / In my father’s hall. / When you had your will of me? / And that was the worst of all.”

A: Joyce has only a small excerpt from the ballad in “The Dead,” the last story in his collection Dubliners (1914): “O, the rain falls on my heavy locks / And the dew wets my skin, / My babe lies cold…”

“The Lass of Aughrim” is an Irish version of “The Lass of Roch Royal,” a Scottish ballad that “relates the story of a young woman who seeks admittance for herself and her baby to the dwelling of her lover, Lord Gregory,” according to Julie Henigan, an authority on Irish music.

In “The Old Irish Tonality: Folksong as Emotional Catalyst in ‘The Dead’ ” (New Hibernia Review, Winter 2007), Henigan says that “the Scottish variants of the ballad tend to provide greater detail than the Irish ones,” but most contain this skeletal plot:

“Lord Gregory’s mother, feigning the voice of her sleeping son, asks the girl to identify herself by naming love tokens that she and Lord Gregory have exchanged, and eventually turns the young woman away. When Lord Gregory awakens and learns of his mother’s treachery, he curses her and sets off in pursuit of his lover and child.”

While Henigan refers to Lord Gregory as a “lover,” some other scholars use more critical terms. Richard Ellman, for example, calls him a “civilized seducer” (James Joyce, 1957), and Margot Norris sees his conduct as “date rape” (“Stifled Back Answers: The Gender Politics of Art in Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’ ” Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn 1989).

The ballad first appeared in a manuscript written in the 1700s but not published until the late 1800s, according to Francis James Child, a literary scholar and folklorist at Harvard University.

In The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98), where the manuscript was first published, Child writes that the oldest copy “is from a manuscript of the first half of the eighteenth century.”

Here’s an excerpt from the old manuscript in the Child Ballads, as the book is popularly known: “Lord Gregory, mind’st thou not the grove, / By bonnie Irvine-side, / Where first I own’d that virgin-love / I lang, lang had denied.”

And this is the much-altered later Irish version that you found online: “Oh Gregory, don’t you remember, / In my father’s hall. / When you had your will of me? / And that was the worst of all.”

“Will” here has the sense of sexual desire. The Oxford English Dictionary says it refers to “physical desire or appetite; esp. (and usually in later use) sexual desire.” The dictionary labels the usage “obsolete.”

The OED’s earliest example for “will” used in that way is from the Old English Blickling Homilies, believed written in the late 10th century: “Þa flæsclican willan & þa ungereclican uncysta” (“the desires of the flesh and the untamed vices”).

In a construction like “you had your will of me,” the OED says, the noun “will” refers to “that which a person desires, (one’s) desire. Chiefly as object of to have. Often followed by of indicating the person affected.” It labels that usage “now archaic or poetic.”

Finally, here’s an example that we found in an 18th-century English translation of Don Quixote, the epic novel by Cervantes that was originally published in Spanish in the early 1600s.

In this passage from Charles Jarvis’s 1742 translation, Donna Rodriguez asks Don Quixote to force a wayward lover to marry her daughter:

“my desire is, that, before you begin making your excursions on the highways, you would challenge this untamed rustic, and oblige him to marry my daughter, in compliance with the promise he gave her to be her husband, before he had his will of her.”

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On ‘giving’ and ‘giving back’

Q: Charitable giving is often characterized as “giving back,” which has a connotation of paying something owed.  My wife and I make substantial donations. I think of this as freely giving, not paying a debt.

A: We’ve also made quite a few charitable donations over the years, and done many hours of volunteer work. And like you, we see this as giving freely of our savings and our time rather than repaying a debt to society.

Merriam-Webster defines the phrasal verb “give back” in this sense as “to provide help or financial assistance to others in appreciation of one’s own success or good fortune,” and has this example: “The community had people with time to volunteer and give back.”

We’d add that the way charities now use the term strikes us as marketing jargon that conveys a sense of obligation to contribute, as well as guilt for not doing so.

A less promotional version of the usage dates back to the 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a speech given Dec. 27, 1877, by W. M. Brooks, president of Tabor College, at a meeting in Cedar Rapids of the State Teachers’ Association of Iowa:

“I believe in general it is true, both of private and State schools, that they are doing their work so faithfully as to give back to the community vastly more than enough to repay the outlay.” In that example, “give back” is used literally (“to repay the outlay”).

We especially like this example from “Problems of Property,” an article by George Iles in The Popular Science Monthly, July 1882:

“It used to be thought that the sons or grandsons of rich Americans could be relied upon to give back to the community their inherited wealth through demoralization and incompetence; but that reliance is proved baseless in a noteworthy proportion of cases in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.”

And here’s a turn-of-the-century example from “The University and the City,” a speech by Seth Low, president of Columbia University, given at the University of Rochester on Oct. 11, 1900:

“The cities can justify themselves, in thus absorbing the population of the land, only by demonstrating that they have the capacity to give, as well as to take. If they take the people out of the country, they must not only give to these individuals enlarged opportunity and greater happiness, but, through them and through their own sons, they must give back to the country in a thousand ways what they have taken from it.”

The sense of repaying an obligation is even clearer in a Jan. 27, 1964, speech by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine at the Women’s National Press Club in Washington.

One reason she decided to seek the Republican nomination for President, she says, “is that women before me pioneered and smoothed the way for me to be the first woman to be elected to both the House and the Senate—and that I should give back in return that which had been given to me.”

The use of the term was relatively rare until the 1980s, according to a search for “give back to the community” in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.

Business executives began using the expression at the time in describing charitable contributions by their companies, as in this example from a business forum in The New York Times, Jan. 3, 1988:

“The challenge in business is to find a socially responsible niche where you can effectively give back to the community in which you operate and in which you have prospered” (M. Anthony Burns, chairman of Ryder Systems).

The term is now often used by businesses, public figures, charities, and volunteers in connection with the Giving Tuesday movement, begun in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York and the United Nations Foundation:

“Giving Tuesday 2023: 27 brands giving back: Giving Tuesday is a day for people and businesses to give back after Black Friday and Cyber Monday—here’s how to participate this year” (from the website of NBC News, Nov. 28, 2023).

In looking into the usage, we found an article in which Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, says the “demand that wealthy should ‘give back’ is heard mostly from progressive or leftist voices.”

In “Giving vs. ‘Giving Back’ ” (Philanthropy Daily, Jan. 4, 2012), Merrill says the “Harvard political theorist John Rawls gave expression to this view in his highly influential A Theory of Justice (1971).”

However, Rawls doesn’t use the term “give back” in his book about distributive justice, the fair allocation of resources. And we’ve seen no indication that people using the expression are particularly progressive, leftist, or aware of his work.

We’ll end with a passage from the book Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country (1990), by William F. Buckley Jr. In discussing the impossibility of repaying our cultural inheritance, he gives several examples, including this one about our musical heritage:

“If you listen, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in May of every year, to four hundred musicians performing the St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach, it becomes numbingly plain that there is simply no way in which one can ‘repay’ the musical patrimony we have inherited.”

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A tale of two suffixes

Q: I have a question about how suffixes are chosen. Specifically, why did the noun/verb “impact” turn into an adjective by adding “-ful” instead of “-ive”?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear that both “impactive” and “impactful” can be found in standard dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster, for example, defines “impactive” as “having an impact or marked effect,” and “impactful” as “having a forceful impact: producing a marked impression.” It treats both as standard English.

M-W has this “impactive” example (which we’ve expanded) from F. Scott Fitgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is the Night: “Feeling the impactive scrutiny of strange faces, she took off her bath-robe and followed.”

And here’s the dictionary’s “impactful” example: “Fashion loves a big expansive gesture, but a small one can be pretty impactful, too” (from an article by Mark Holgate in Vogue, Oct. 30, 2017).

The two adjectives were originally formed by adding the suffixes “-ive” and “-ful” to the noun “impact,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun is believed to come from the Latin impactus, the participial stem of impingere (to impinge). The OED adds an asterisk to impactus, indicating that it’s “a word or form not actually found, but of which the existence is inferred.”

As it turns out, “impactive” showed up nearly a century before “impactful” appeared in the late 1930s, but the younger term is by far the more popular now, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books.

The earliest example we’ve found for “impactive” is from The League’s Convert, an 1847 play by Henry W. Pearson about a king’s daughter who falls in love with a populist leader.

In this passage, she appeals to her lover to make peace with her father: “With philanthropic eye, review our race / As an impactive body, whereof they, / The members, serving the prime good of all.”

However that early literary example seems to be an outlier. The other 19th-century examples we’ve found are in technical works that describe the force of something, such as weight or wind or waves, on various structures.

For instance, the Scottish structural engineer William Fairbairn writes that the weight and speed of trains are “severe tests of impactive force on every structure, whether beams or bridges” (On the Application of Cast and Wrought Iron to Building Purposes, 1854).

As for “impactful,” the earliest example cited by the OED is from The Commentator magazine (June 29, 1939): “The coronation of a pope, the non-stop European crisis—these and kindred events become right-of-way news on radio—more immediate and impactful than even the front page.”

That example also appears in a 2019 post of ours about “impactful,” a word criticized by some language commentators. Although it’s standard English, we think many other words have more impact—“powerful,” “persuasive,” “forceful,” and so on.

As for the suffixes, let’s begin with “-ive,” which the OED says is derived from –ivus, a Latin suffix that formed adjectives when added to the participial stem of verbs (act-ivus, active) or nouns (tempest-ivus, seasonable).

The dictionary says the suffix is generally used in English to form words based on Latin terms with -ivus suffixes or to “form words on Latin analogies, with the sense ‘having a tendency to, having the nature, character, or quality of, given to (some action).’ ”

As for the English suffix “-ful,” Oxford says it’s used to form “adjectives with the sense ‘full of, or (more generally) having or characterized by (what is expressed by the first element)’. Also combined with verbs with the sense ‘liable or tending to —.’ ”

The OED adds that the suffix is derived from the Old English adjective full (“containing or holding as much or as many as possible; having within its limits all it will hold; having no space empty; filled to capacity”).

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the Old English adjective ultimately comes from the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic root fulla (full) and the Proto-Indo-European pelə- (to fill).

The OED notes that “in Old English the adjective full, like its cognates in the other Germanic languages, was frequently used as a suffix in combination with a preceding noun.”

In modern English, “-ful” usually combines with nouns derived from Old English or other Germanic languages (“harmful,” “tearful,” “frightful,” “playful,” “skillful”). But it’s also seen with nouns from Romance languages or Latin (“beautiful,” “colorful,” “fateful,” “graceful,” “masterful,” “tactful”).

Why have both “-ful” and “-ive” joined with “impact” to give us the adjectives “impactful” and “impactive”? And why does the more popular, “impactful,” link a prefix derived from Old English to a noun believed to come from Latin?

Why not? English is a Germanic language with many borrowings from non-Germanic languages, especially Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French. We’ve written several times about this, including a 2018 post, When English met Latin.

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The first exclamation point!

Q: You wrote recently about the increasing use of exclamation points. When did this overused punctuation mark first appear and who was responsible for it?

A: The exclamation point or exclamation mark first appeared in Medieval Latin in the 14th century, but its parentage is somewhat uncertain.

It was originally called a puncto exclamativus (exclamation point) or puncto admirativus (admiration point), according to the British paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes.

In Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993), Parkes notes that the Italian poet Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed in 1360 to have invented the exclamation point:

“ego vero videns quod exclamativa vel admirativa clausula aliter soleat quam continuus vel interrogativus sermo enunciari, consuevi tales clausulas in fine notare per punctum planum et coma eidem puncto lateraliter superpositum.”

(“Indeed, seeing that the exclamatory or admirative clausula was otherwise accustomed to be enunciated in the same way as continuing or interrogative discourse, I acquired the habit of pointing the end of such clausulae by means of a clear punctus, and a coma placed to the side above that same punctus.”)

The translation is by Parkes, who found the citation in “Di un Ars Punctandi Erroneamente Attribuita a Francesco Petrarca” (“On a Punctuation Erroneously Attributed to Petrarch”), a 1909 paper by Franceso Novati for the Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere.

The passage cited by Novati is from “De Ratione Punctandi Secundum Magistrum Iacopum Alpoleium de Urbesalia in Forma Epistole ad Soctorem Quendam Salutatum” (“On the Method of Punctuation According to the Teacher James Alpoleius de Urbasalia in the Form of an Epistle to a Certain Teacher Salutatum”).

The first actual example of an exclamation point in Pause and Effect is from De Nobilitate Legum et Medicinae (“On the Nobility of Laws and Medicine”), a 1399 treatise by that “certain teacher” mentioned above, Coluccio Salutati, a Florentine scholar and statesman. The slanting exclamation point can be seen here, just after the word precor near the end of the second line:

This is the relevant passage in clearer Latin, with our English translation. It begins with the last three words of the first line:

“Ego temet et alios medicos obteso et rogo. repondete michi precor!” (“I am afraid and entreat you and other doctors, answer me, I pray!”).

As for the English terminology, the Oxford English Dictionary says the “punctuation mark (!) indicating an exclamation” was originally referred to as a “note of exclamation” or “note of admiration.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation uses both: “A note of Exclamation or Admiration, thus noted!” (from The Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail’d, 1656, by the Anglican clergyman John Smith).

As far as we can tell, the term “exclamation point” first appeared in the early 18th century in a work by a British grammarian, classicist, and mathematician:

“! Exclamation-point is us’d in admiring, applauding, bewailing, &c.” (English Grammar Reformd Into a Small Compass and Easy Method for the Readier Learning and Better Understanding, 1737, by Solomon Lowe).

The term “exclamation mark” appeared a century later. The earliest example we’ve seen is from A Third Book for Reading and Spelling With Simple Rules and Instructions for Avoiding Common Errors (1837), by the American educator Samuel Worcester:

“How long do you stop at a comma? – at a semicolon? – at a colon? – at a period? – at an interrogation mark? – at an exclamation mark?”

The OED’s first example for “exclamation mark” is from A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by the English lexicographer and grammarian Henry W. Fowler:

“Excessive use of exclamation marks is, like that of italics, one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.”

In other words, the overuse of exclamation points that you mention in your question and that we discuss in our 2023 post is apparently nothing new.

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Wordle fancies: ‘bezel’ vs. ‘bevel’

Q: I recently encountered the word “bezel” while playing Wordle. When I looked it up, several definitions mentioned the word “bevel,” which I’m more familiar with. Do these two words come from similar places, or did they evolve separately to mean similar things?

A: We’ve seen no evidence that “bezel” and “bevel” are etymologically related. Although the two words have somewhat similar meanings, they’re believed to come from different Old French terms.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “bezel” is derived from the “Old French *besel, *bezel, in modern French biseaubizeau,” while it says “bevel” apparently comes from the “Old French *bevel, not found, but implied in the modern French beveaubeauveaubeuveau.”

(An asterisk in the OED “indicates a word or form not actually found, but of which the existence is inferred.”)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says “bezel” ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European root dwo- (two), while “bevel” ultimately comes from bat- (yawning), a presumed Latin prefix of unknown prehistoric origin.

(Proto-Indo-European, a prehistoric language reconstructed by linguists, is the ancestor of most European and some Asian languages.)

The OED says the noun “bezel” has three meanings: (1) “A slope, or a sloping edge or face: esp. that of a chisel or other cutting tool,” (2) “The oblique sides or faces of a cut gem,” and (3) “The groove and projecting flange or lip by which the crystal of a watch or the stone of a jewel is retained in its setting.”

The dictionary defines the noun “bevel” as “a slope from the right angle, an obtuse angle; a slope from the horizontal or vertical; a surface or part so sloping.” It defines the verb “bevel” as “to cut away or otherwise bring to a slope.”

A possible source of confusion may be a suggestion in the OED that readers compare “bezel” with the obsolete use of “bevel” to mean “a staggering blow.” We compared them and didn’t see a connection

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Bookworms, in etymology & entomology

Q: In Danger Calling, a 1931 mystery by Patricia Wentworth, it’s said that an obsessive bibliophile “will turn into one of those long, flat, grey unpleasant insects which live in the bindings of old books.” Are those insects the source of the word “bookworm”?

A: Yes, “bookworm” originated by joining “book” with “worm” used in its early sense of an insect that eats holes in the binding and paper of old manuscripts.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “worm” here as “the larva of an insect; a maggot, grub, or caterpillar, esp. one that feeds on and destroys flesh, fruit, leaves, cereals, textile fabrics, and the like” and used “with defining term prefixed, as book, canker, case,” etc.

The dictionary’s first citation for this sense of “worm” alone is from an Anglo-Saxon riddle about a book-eating moððe, or moth, a word that originally referred to the destructive larvae of various insects.

Here’s an expanded version of the dictionary’s excerpt from “Riddle 47” in the Exeter Book, an Old English manuscript believed to date from the 10th century. It’s followed by our translation:

Moððe word fræt. Me þæt þuhte wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn, þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes, þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs wihte þy gleawra, þe he þam wordum swealg.

(A moth ate words. When I discovered this wonder, it seemed to me a remarkable fate, that the worm, a thief in the night, had eaten the words of a man, a brilliant saying and the deep thought behind it. Though the thieving stranger swallowed the words, it was no whit the wiser.)

One possible answer to the riddle could be “bookworm,” but an answer isn’t given in the surviving manuscripts, and we haven’t seen any recorded examples of an Old English version of “bookworm.”

When “bookworm” first appeared in English writing in the mid-16th century, it was a negative term for an indiscriminate reader whose face was always in a book, much as we’d now regard a smartphone addict.

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ve cut in some spots and expanded in others, is from The Praise of Folie, Thomas Chaloner’s 1549 translation of the 1509 Latin essay by Erasmus:

“those that take upon theim to write cunnyngly to the judgement of a fewe” suffer “many travailes, and beatyng of theyr braines” so “they maie have theyr writyng allowed at one or two of these blereied [blear-eyed] bokewormes hands.”

The OED’s next citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter by the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey to the English poet Edmund Spenser.

In this passage, Harvey attacks Sir James Croft, a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s Privy Council, for being overly devoted to books and liquor, among other things:

“a morning book-worm, an afternoon malt-worm, a right juggler, as full of his sleights, wiles, fetches, casts of legerdemain, toys to mock apes withal, odd shifts and knavish practices as his skin can hold” (from Three Proper and Witty Familiar Letters, 1580, published anonymously, apparently by Harvey).

The use of the term for “any of various insects that damage books; spec. a maggot that is said to burrow through the paper and boards” appeared in the mid-17th century, according to OED citations.

As the dictionary explains, “A number of insects damage books in various ways, but the only ones that actually bore through the paper are the larvae of wood-boring beetles.”

The first Oxford example for “bookworm” used in reference to insects is from a satirical book about the manners of the English:

Book-worme is of all Creatures the longest lived.” From Ζωοτομ́iα; or, Observations on the Present Manners of the English (1654), by the Oxford scholar Richard Whitlock. (The title uses Greek letters to render the post-classical Latin zootomia, source of the English term “zootomy,” the study of the dissection or anatomy of animals.)

The negative sense of “bookworm” when used for people was undoubtedly reinforced by the figurative use of “worm” since Anglo-Saxon days for a contemptible person, a sense that first appeared in Old English in the Vespasian Psalter, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript:

“Ic soðlice eam wyrm & nales mon, edwit monna & aworpnes folces” (“I am truly a worm and not a man, the scorn of mankind and cast away by the people”). Psalm 21:7 in Vespasian, Psalm 22:6 in modern translations.

In fact, for hundreds of years “bookworm” was usually a negative term, according to OED citations and our own searches of digitized writing.

In The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels (1601), a satirical play by Ben Jonson, Hedon says to Anaides: “Heart, was there ever so prosperous an invention thus unluckily perverted and spoiled, by a whoreson book-worm, a candle-waster?”

The poet Alexander Pope, in a 1717 letter to his friends Teresa and Martha Blount, describes his arrival at the University of Oxford: “I wanted nothing but a black Gown and a Salary, to be as meer a Bookworm as any there.”

In A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson cites Pope’s comment in defining “bookworm” as a “student too closely given to books; a reader without judgment.”

And in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), Noah Webster defines “bookworm” as a “student closely attached to books, or addicted to study; also, a reader without judgment.”

But today “bookworm” is generally a positive term. Merriam-Webster.com, an online descendent of Noah Webster’s dictionary, defines it simply as “a person unusually devoted to reading and study.” Other standard dictionaries have similar definitions.

However, the negative usage still shows up on occasion, as in this comment by the novelist Jojo Moyes in an interview with The New York Times (Feb. 9, 2023):

“I was an only child and a voracious reader. My grandmother called me a bookworm, and it wasn’t a compliment, as my weekly visits to her were usually spent with my nose buried between the pages.”

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Gob on a stick

Q: As a retiree, I often check out the website Ask a Manager to marvel at what goes on in the workplace these days. A post from a Brit described a job recruiter as a “typical gob on a stick.” I’m not familiar with the expression, but the poster was using it playfully, not snidely.

A: The slang expression “gob on a stick” is relatively new in British English, dating from the late 20th century, and hasn’t yet made its way into standard or slang dictionaries.

The word “gob” here is an old term for the mouth, so the expression literally means a “mouth on a stick.” It’s generally understood in the UK to be to someone who talks a lot, especially a broadcast “talking head.”

How did “gob” come to mean mouth? The usage likely originated in Celtic and migrated into English from Ireland and Scotland, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original Celtic gob was “probably expressive” in origin, the dictionary says—in other words, it was pronounced with a gaping jaw and evoked the thing it described.

The usage originally appeared in “Scottish, English regional (northern), and Irish English,” the OED says, and now survives in slang, mostly British.

When “gob” first appeared in the 14th century, it was a noun that meant “a mass, lump, or heap,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first citation is from the Wycliffe Bible of the early 1380s:

“Who heeng vp with thre fingris the gobbe of the erthe” (“Who held up the mass of the Earth with three fingers,” Isaiah 40:12). The passage is from the early version of the Wycliffe Bible. In the more scholarly later version, “gobbe” is “heuynesse” (heaviness or weight).

In the 16th century, “gob” came to mean a mouth or a slimy substance like phlegm. We’ll skip the phlegm and get to the mouth. The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an anonymous Middle Scots poem about a brawl at a country fair:

“Quhair thair gobbis wer vngeird / Thay gat vpoun the gammis / Quhill bludy berkit wes thair beird” (“When their mouths were unguarded / They got upon the games / Until their beards were covered with blood”). From “Christis Kirk on Grene” (1568).

Here’s an example from a 16th-century flyting, a literary duel in which Scottish poets traded insults. In this passage, a kite (a bird of prey) is used figuratively to mean a person who preys on others:

“Meslie kyt, and þow flyt deill dryt in thy gob” (“Leprous kite, and thou spew devil’s dirt from thy mouth” (from “Flyting with Montgomerie,” before 1585, a poem by Patrick Hume of Polwarth about a flyting with Alexander Montgomerie.

And here’s a 17th-century OED citation from a list of dialectal words in northern England: “A Gob, an open or wide mouth” (“North Countrey Words,” in A Collection of English Words Not Generally Used, 1691, by the naturalist John Ray).

As for the modern slang usage you’re asking about, the expression “gob on a stick” apparently showed up in the 1990s. The earliest example we’ve found is from an article about the Scottish author, broadcaster, and journalist Muriel Gray:

“She’s more than a gob-on-a-stick. She has opinions” (from The Scotsman, Sept. 30, 1994).

Although the expression can be negative when used generally for a talkative person, it’s often used in a humorous, self-deprecating manner by broadcasters speaking of themselves.

A Dublin newspaper, for example, comments on a BBC broadcaster’s comically modest reference to himself: “Terry Wogan on BBC2: ‘I’m only a gob on a stick’ (some gob. some stick). ‘I’m not a barrister’ ” (from the Sunday Independent, Aug. 31, 1997).

We’ll end with the closing words of the British football commentator Simon Hill in his 2017 memoir, Just a Gob on a Stick: The Voice Behind the Mic:

“I’ve been very blessed, and if I don’t know where my real home is, I do know I feel at home when surrounded by football. Not a bad place to be, for someone who is still, and will always be, just a gob on a stick.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Speaking of the silent final ‘e’

Q: I’ve long been curious about words that are spelled alike except for a silent “e” at the end: “dot”-“dote,” “fat”-“fate,” “hat”-“hate,” “not”-“note,” “win”-“wine,” etc. I suppose their etymology must be different. Why is their orthography so similar?

A: Your supposition is correct! None of those pairs are related etymologically. Their orthographic similarities are coincidental.

The adjective “fat,” for example, is derived from the Old English fætt and the reconstructed prehistoric Germanic faitjan (to fatten), while “fate” comes from Latin fatum (“that which has been spoken”).

Pairs like this are quite common in English, a big, diverse language with many coincidental similarities. As we wrote in 2018, English is a Germanic language that has absorbed words from dozens of languages (the major source is Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French).

As for that silent “e” at the end of the words you’re asking about, the usage evolved over the centuries to indicate the pronunciation of a preceding vowel that can have different sounds.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the “e” at the end of a word following a consonant “is almost invariably silent.” And when it’s found in this position, “it has a number of different orthographic functions.”

One of these functions, the OED says, is to indicate “that the vowel in the preceding syllable is (from a historical perspective) long, as in wine (compare win), paste (compare past), where this is not already indicated by a digraph spelling, as in e.g. soonmean.”

In some cases, the dictionary says, the “final e is retained in spelling where a vowel has since become short, as in infiniterapine.”

Oxford adds that the “silent final is usually omitted before suffixes beginning with a vowel.” So the “e” of “dote” and “hate” would be dropped in the gerunds “doting” and “hating.”

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Some ‘randy’ thoughts

Q: I was looking up some Hindi words and noticed that “randi” is a derogatory term for a “woman of ill repute.” I assume it’s the source of the English word “randy,” probably as a result of Britain’s involvement in India.

A: English has borrowed many words from Hindi (“bungalow,” “cot,” “dinghy,” “loot,” “shampoo,” “thug,” and others), but “randy” isn’t one of them.

Simply because the Hindi word रंडी and the English word “randy” are pronounced similarly and both have sexual senses doesn’t mean they’re related etymologically.

Two words that are etymologically related are called “cognates,” while two words that seem to be related but aren’t (like रंडी and “randy”) are referred to as “false cognates.”

For instance, the anatomical “ear” and the “ear” of corn are false cognates derived from different Old English words. The first comes from ære (the organ of hearing) and the second from æhher (the seed-bearing head of cereal grasses).

We haven’t seen a single authoritative etymological reference that suggests the Hindi term रंडी in the source of the English adjective “randy.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, the most authoritative English etymological reference, says “randy” is probably derived from the verb “rant,” which used to have the variant spelling “rand.”

In addition to its sense of speaking wildly, the OED says, “rant”/“rand” once meant “to lead a riotous or dissolute life.”

That riotous or dissolute sense of “rant” is now obsolete, except in Scottish English, where “randy” first appeared, according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation for “rant” used in its riotous sense, which we’ve expanded, is from the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor:

“Look where my ranting host of the Garter comes: there is either liquor in his pate or money in his purse when he looks so merrily.”

The dictionary says “randy” first appeared in Scottish English with the sense of “having a rude, aggressive manner; loud-mouthed and coarsely spoken.”

The earliest citation is from a 1665 letter by the Earl of Argyll: “Profane randy beggars” (Letters From Archibald, Earl of Argyll, to John, Duke of Lauderdale, 1829, edited by George Sinclair and Charles K. Sharpe).

In the early 18th century, “randy” came to mean “boisterous, riotous, disorderly; wild, unruly, unmanageable” in Scottish English and regional English dialects.

The first OED citation is from “The Knight,” a 1723 poem by the Scottish writer William Meston: “A rambling, randy Errant Knight.”

In Scottish and regional English of the late 18th century, “randy” took on its usual modern sense of “lustful; eager for sexual gratification; sexually aroused.” The earliest OED example is from The Curate of Coventry (1771), a novel by the English writer John Potter:

“A pox on these old maids, they’re as randy as a he goat.” (The comment is by the local squire, who uses many colloquialisms. The author includes a footnote defining “randy” as “lascivious.”)

We’ve seen no evidence that “randy” comes from Hindi. By evidence, we mean something like its use in a letter from an English trader or the log of an English ship that visited India in the 17th or 18th century.

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A note to our readers

Because of the holiday, we’re publishing our usual Monday post on Wednesday. In case you missed it, check out our Dec. 4, 2023 post about the origins of the terms “Hanukkah” and “Christmas.”

Merry Christmas,

Pat and Stewart

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Something wicked this way comes

Q: “Wicked,” which used to mean evil only a few decades ago, now also seems to mean cool, mischievous, or so bad it’s good. How did it get these polar opposite connotations?

A: This phenomenon you’re noticing is an example of the loss or reduction of meaning in a word, but the weakening of “wicked” isn’t a recent phenomenon—it dates back to Shakespeare.

When “wicked” appeared in the 12th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it referred to people “bad in moral character, disposition, or conduct; inclined or addicted to wilful wrongdoing; practising or disposed to practise evil; morally depraved.”

As if that’s not strong enough, the OED adds that “wicked” in its original sense is a “term of wide application, but always of strong reprobation, implying a high degree of evil quality.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written in Middle English sometime before 1200. In this passage, Rowena is about to poison her stepson, King Vortimer:

Herne ou ȝeo tock an; þes wickede wifman.
In hire bosome ȝeo bar bi-neoþe hire tyttes.
one ampulle; of hatter ifulled.

(Harken, take heed of this wicked woman.
In her bosom, she carried beneath her tits
an ampoule filled with poison.)

In the late 16th century, the OED says, the adjective took on a “weakened or lighter sense” that was “usually more or less jocular” and could mean “malicious; mischievous, sly.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the weakened sense is from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, believed to have been performed in 1599 but not published until the First Folio of 1623. In this expanded passage, Rosalind describes Cupid as wicked:

“No, that same wicked Bastard of Venus, that was begot of thought, conceiu’d of spleene, and borne of madnesse, that blinde rascally boy, that abuses euery ones eyes, because his owne are out, let him bee iudge, how deepe I am in loue.”

In the early 20th century, the OED says, “wicked” took on the sense of  “excellent, splendid; remarkable.” This expanded citation is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Sde of Paradise:

“ ‘Tell ’em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane. ‘You two order; Phoebe  and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’ ”

As we noted in a  2021 post, it’s not uncommon for the sense of a usage to weaken over time, a development that linguists might refer to as “semantic weakening,” “semantic bleaching,” “semantic loss,” or “semantic reduction.”

As for the word’s earlier etymology, the OED says “wicked” is apparently an expanded form of the now-obsolete adjective “wick,” which was apparently an adjectival use of the Old English noun wicca (wizard), the masculine version of wicce (witch).

We’ll end with a few wicked words from the Second Witch in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

By the pricking of my Thumbes,
Something wicked this way comes:
Open Lockes, who euer knockes.

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

Dog days: Are you pooped?

Q: How did the expression “dog days” change from meaning the hottest time of the year to a period of sluggishness or stagnation?

A: When “dog days” first appeared in English in the 16th century, it referred to the hottest part of summer in the Northern hemisphere, a period once considered unhealthy and evil.

Because of the lethargy caused by the heat or fears of malignant influences, the term came to mean a period of stagnation and inactivity. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “dog days” as “the hottest part of the summer, associated in ancient times with the heliacal rising of the Dog Star in the Mediterranean area, and formerly considered to be the most unhealthy period of the year and a time of ill omen.”

The expression has its roots in Greek mythology, where Sirius is the name of the hunter Orion’s dog. In the Iliad (Book XXII), Homer refers to the star as κύν᾽ Ὠρίωνος (kun Orionos, Orion’s dog).

English borrowed the phrase from the post-classical Latin caniculares dies (dog days), which was borrowed in turn from the Hellenistic Greek κυνάδες ἡμέραι (kunades hemerai, dog days).

When the phrase first appeared in English the 16th century, it referred to the hottest days of summer. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from The Dictionary of Syr Thomas Eliot Knyght (1538):

“Canicula, a lyttell dogge or bytche. Also a sterre, wherof canicular or dogge days be named Dies caniculares.”

The dictionary says the phrase soon took on the figurative sense of “an evil time; a period in which malignant influences prevail.” The earliest citation for this sense is from a letter by a Protestant clergyman (and later martyr) to a fellow inmate at Newgate Prison in London:

“Neither that any giddy head in these dog-days might take an ensample [example] by you to dissent from Christ’s true church” (from a 1555 letter by John Philpot in The Examinations and Writings of John Philpot, 1842, edited by Robert Eden).

The OED says the evil figurative usage is seen “now (in weakened sense): a period of inactivity or decline.”

It’s not uncommon for the sense of a usage to strengthen or weaken over time, as we note in a 2021 post. A linguist might refer to weakening as “semantic loss” or “semantic reduction.”

It’s unclear when the weakened sense of “dog days” first appeared in English, though this Oxford citation may be an early sighting or a perhaps an indication of things to come:

“What then shall wee now expect in these dogge-dayes of the worlds declining age?” (Achitophel; or, the Picture of a Wicked Politician, 1629, three sermons by the philosopher and Anglican clergyman Nathanael Carpenter).

The dictionary’s first clear example of the weakened sense, which we’ve expanded, is from a July 12, 1992, article in The New York Times about mid-level bosses being laid off in troubled economic times:

“One possibly beneficial byproduct of the managerial dog days may be that it will prepare younger people for the job- and career-jumping likely to be their lot.”

And here’s the OED’s most recent example: “In the dog-days of The Beatles, one of Paul’s plans for holding it all together had been for the world’s most fabled band to just go out and play” (“The Beatles: Stoned, sloppy—shelved!” Mojo, February 2002).

Oxford notes that “the dog days have been variously reckoned, as depending on either the Greater Dog Star (Sirius) or the Lesser Dog Star (Procyon), and on either the heliacal rising or the cosmical rising (which occurs at an earlier date).”

The heliacal rising of a star occurs when it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise. The cosmical rising occurs when it rises in the morning at the same time as the sun.

“The timing of these risings depends on latitude, and they do not occur at all in most of southern hemisphere,” the OED says, adding that “very different dates have been assigned for the dog days,” with their beginning “ranging from 3 July to 15 August, and their duration varying from 30 to 61 days.”

In the Calendar of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, the dog days run from July 7 to Sept. 5. In current calendars, Oxford says, “they are often said to begin on 3 July and end on 11 August (i.e. the 40 days preceding the cosmical rising of Sirius at the latitude of Greenwich).”

The dictionary says the usage “arose from the pernicious qualities of the season being attributed to the ‘influence’ of the Dog Star; but it has long been popularly associated with the belief that at this season dogs are most liable to go mad.”

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Christmas English English language Etymology Expression Hanukkah Language Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Happy Chanucha & Merry Xpes mæsse

Q: Why don’t we spell it “Honica” instead of “Hanukkah”? When a word is adopted into English from a non-Latin language, wouldn’t the change be toward the closest pronunciation? What else would influence the re-spelling?

A: The English name for Hanukkah has been spelled many ways over the years, just as the English name for Christmas has had many spellings.

The Oxford English Dictionary has these spellings for Hanukkah since it first  appeared in English in the 17th century: Chanucha, Chanuchah, Hanuca, Hanucka, Chanuca, Chanucah, Chanucca, Chanuccah, Chanuka, Chanukah, Chanukka, Chanukkah, Hanucah, Hanucca, Hanuccah, Hanucha, Hanuckah, Hanuka, Hanukah, Hanukka, Hanukkah, Khanukah, Khanukka, and Khanukkah.

The OED has even more spellings for Christmas since it showed up in Old English in the 10th century, but here’s a very abbreviated list: Cristesmæsse,  Xpes mæsse, Cristesmas, Crystesmasse, Kyrstemas, Kyrstemasse, Kyrstemaste, Kyrstemes, Cristmas, Crestmas, Crystmasse, Curstmas, Christmasse, Chrystmas, Christmass, and Christmas.

The two most common English spellings now for the Jewish holiday are “Hanukkah” and “Chanukah.” The only English spelling now for the Christian holiday is of course “Christmas,” though the short form “Xmas” is often seen and has been for hundreds of years. We’ll have more on “Christmas” and “Xmas” later in this post.

So why does the name for the Jewish holiday sometimes begin with “h” and sometimes with “ch,” and why does it sometimes have one “k” and sometimes two?

Those variations reflect the difficulty of rendering חנוכה, the Hebrew word for the holiday, in English. The letters ח (chet) and כ (kaf) are the problems, since they represent sounds not found in the English alphabet. (Hebrew is read right to left, so the ח is the first letter of חנוכה.)

In ancient times, the chet was likely pronounced as a throaty “h” (technically, a voiceless pharyngeal fricative), though it’s now usually pronounced like the “ch” in the German Bach, Scottish loch, and English interjection “yech” (a voiceless uvular or velar fricative).

The majority Ashkenazic Jews (those with roots in Eastern and Central Europe) generally use the newer pronunciation in speaking Hebrew. Sephardic Jews (those who  were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century and settled in North Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, and elsewhere) tend to use the older pronunciation.

As for the Hebrew letter kaf, it was apparently pronounced in ancient times as a doubled (or geminate) “k,” similar to the sound of the “kk” in the English word “bookkeeping.”

The kaf is usually pronounced now in Hebrew as a simple “k,” though the “kk” spelling in English has survived as a reminder of the word’s history.

Of the two usual English spellings of the holiday, “Hanukkah” is probably closer to the original Hebrew pronunciation while “Chanukah” is more like the modern Hebrew pronunciation.

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult list “Hanukkah” as the usual English spelling of the holiday and “Chanukah” as a common variant. Standard dictionaries indicate how a language is used now. A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer of digitized books confirms that “Hanukkah” is more popular than “Chanukah.”

As for the etymology, the Hebrew word for the holiday, חנוכה, literally means dedication; it’s derived from חנך (hanak), a verb meaning to dedicate. The holiday marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish Maccabees wrested control of it from the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire in the second century BCE.

The OED says the Hebrew term was first recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish teaching believed to date from as early as the third century CE. In Shabbat 21a of the Talmud, rabbis discuss which wicks and oils can be used for Sabbath and Hanukkah lights. Here’s an excerpt; we’ll underline בחנוכה (b’hanukkah, “on Hanukkah”):

אמר רב הונא פתילות ושמנים שאמרו חכמים אין מדליקין בהן בשבת אין מדליקין בהן בחנוכה בין בשבת בין בחול

(“Rav Huna said: Those wicks and oils that the Sages said one may not use to light the lamp on Shabbat, one may not use to light the lamp on Hanukkah either—whether it falls on Shabbat or during the week.”)

The OED says the English term for the holiday is derived from both the Hebrew חנוכה and the Latin word for the holiday, chanuca. The dictionary’s earliest English example is from a translation of an Italian book about Jewish rituals:

“Of the Feast of Lights, called also Chanucha.” From The History of the Rites, Customes, and Manner of Life, of the Present Jews, Throughout the World (1650), Edmund Chilmead’s translation of a work by Leo Modena, a Venetian rabbi.

As for the various spellings of Christmas, the holiday marking the birth of Jesus, the earliest recorded example in the OED appeared in Old English as Cristesmæssan:

“Leohtgescot gelæste man be wite to Cristesmæssan and to candelmæssan and to eastron” (“The light fee should be paid at Christmas and at Candlemas and at Easter”). From Be Cristendome (“About Christianity”), a 10th-century homily by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York. The fee was for church candles.

The term is spelled Xpes mæsse (“Christ’s mass”) in the OED’s next example, an Old English entry for the year 1021 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“And se eorl Rodbeard her oð Xpes mæsse forneal mid pam cynge wunode” (“And Earl Robert stayed here [in Westminster] with the king [William II, son of William the Conqueror] almost until Christmas”).

The “Xp” at the beginning of Xpes mæsse comes from the Greek letters Χ (chi) and ρ (rho), the first letters of the word for “Christ” in ancient Greek, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ or χριστoς (christos, anointed one).

Medieval scribes commonly abbreviated  “Christ” as “X” or “Xp” in copying religious manuscripts, a practice that led to the use of “Xmas” as a shortening for “Christmas,” as we wrote in a 2006 post.

Although the Greek χ was rendered as “ch” in classical Latin, the use of the “ch-” digraph in English for “Christ” and its derivatives was an etymological latecomer.

As the OED explains, “The spelling with initial ch- is comparatively infrequent” until the 1500s. The earliest OED example is from a 16th-century description of King Henry II’s celebration of the holiday in 1166. Here’s an expanded version:

“And after his returne he went to Windsore, where he made his abode and kept his Christmas, and the greatest part of all the Nobles of the realme were there with him.” From A Chronicle at Large and Meere History of the Affayres of Englande and Kinges of the Same (1569), by Richard Grafton.

Nevertheless, “X-” spellings continued to be used in English, as in  “X’temmas” (1551), “Xtmasse” (1660), and finally “Xmas.” The OED’s first example for “Xmas,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Oct. 17, 1721, letter from an English landowner to a son away at school:

“I hope you will eat at Xmas some roast beef out of the old kitchen.” From John Buxton, Norfolk Gentleman and Architect: Letters to His Son 1719-1729, edited by Alan Mackley and published by The Norfolk Record Society in 2005.

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Why we’re in cahoots

Q: I don’t know if you care about older columns, but you may want to update your 2011 item about “cahoot.” It seems silly to say, as your source does, that this Western Americanism descends from French. Many (most?) Westernisms come from Mexican Spanish.

A: The term “cahoot” first appeared in the American Southeast in the early 19th century and didn’t show up in the West until decades later, so it’s unlikely that the usage comes from Mexican Spanish.

In the early days, the word was singular (“cahoot”) and could refer to either a legitimate partnership or a devious collaboration. It’s now used primarily in the scheming sense in plural constructions such as “in cahoots” and “in cahoots with.”

The first known use of the term, tracked down by the linguist Ben Zimmer, is from “Barney Blinn,” an anonymous sketch in a Georgia newspaper about a fictional backwoods orator:

“I ha’nt read newspapers for nothing–Gin’ral Government and the ministration are going in cahoot to undermine and overrule the undertakings of the free People of Georgia” (The Augusta Chronicle, June 20, 1827).

We found the following example, which appeared a year later in a public notice in a Mississippi newspaper:

“I have reason to beleve, that a certain clan, cahoote of connexion, and othrs residing in the vicinity of my residence are predisposed to create, unnecessary and illegal liabilities on me, thro, the agency of my wife, LOUISA HOLMES” (Statesman & Gazette, Natchez, July 24, 1828).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, is from a list of “provincialisms and vulgarisms” in “Md. Va. Ky. or Miss.,” with “improper” examples followed by “corrected” ones:

“Hese in cahoot with me. He is in partnership with me” (Grammar in Familiar Lectures, 1829, by Samuel Kirkham).

This South Carolina example, found by the language researcher Pascal Tréguer, is from a list of “cracker” slang: “Co hoot—Copartnership” (City Gazette and Commercial Daily Advertiser, Charleston, May 14, 1830).

And here’s an example from a February 1839 speech on the floor of the House of Representatives by Rep. Alexander Duncan, a Democrat from Ohio:

“Only think of this! A rank Abolition Whig from the North in ‘cahoot’ with a rank anti-Abolition Whig from the South” (from the Congressional Globe, predecessor of the Congressional Record).

The OED cites a different passage from the same speech: “I will splice the member from North Carolina to you, and for a short time will consider you one person, or in ‘cahoot.’ ”

The first Oxford citation for the plural “cahoots” is from a manuscript diary of G. K. Wilder (1862): “Mc wished me to go in cahoots in a store.” And “cahoots” it’s been ever since.

In his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), John Russell Bartlett describes “cahoot” as a term used in “the South and West to denote a company or union of men for a predatory excursion, and sometimes for a partnership in business.”

However, the only Western example cited by Bartlett is from what we would now consider the Midwest. The passage, from a humorous newspaper sketch, describes an encounter on a Mississippi steamship:

“One day, the confidential hoosier took him aside, told him that there was a ‘smart chance of a pile’ on one of the tables, and that if he liked, he (the hoosier) would go in with him—in cahoot!” (from “A Resurrectionist and His Freight,” by J. M. Field, in The St. Louis Reveille, March 9, 1846).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “cahoot” used in the region now considered the West is from a newspaper in the Oregon Territory:

“I’m much obleeged to ye, sir; but old Betsey Baker (Betsey Baker was the name he gave to his own rifle) hev ben so long in cahoot together, that I hev a kind of efiction for the old lady” (from the Oregon Spectator, Oregon City, Oct. 18, 1849).

As for the origin of “cahoot,” the OED, an etymological dictionary updated regularly online, says the term is “probably a borrowing” from cahute, French for a hut or shack, and notes that “cahute” meant a cabin in the Scottish English of the 1500s.

The dictionary has two 16th-century citations (the earliest is from 1508 and describes a “foule cahute,” or foul cabin, on a ship).

Other modern etymological references are more hesitant than the OED to link cahute and “cahoot.” Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, for example, says “cahoot” is “of uncertain origin; occasionally thought to be borrowed from French cahute cabin.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang and Green’s Dictionary of Slang have similar entries. Green’s also has the French term cohorte, which gave English the word “cohort,” as a possible source of “cahoot.”

The OED doesn’t indicate how an obsolete Scottish term of French origin came to mean a partnership or conspiracy in the American South of the 19th century. The idea perhaps is that the cabin suggests people working together in private.

We’ve searched newspaper and book databases for the use of “cahoot” in various spellings by Scottish and Latin American immigrants  in the late 18th century and early 19th.

We also checked such sources as Dictionaries of the Scots LanguageDiccionario Etimológico Castellano En Línea, and Dictionary of American Regional English for hints of a possible Spanish or Scottish connection to the American usage. No luck.

We’d describe the origin of “cahoot” as uncertain.

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The rustle of a print dress

Q: Sometimes in books set in the 1920s and ’30s, mainly in Agatha Christie’s books, I’ll see a reference to a maid wearing a “print dress,” but the dress actually seems to be a solid color. Can you shed any light on this?

A: As far as we can tell, the term “print dress” has always meant a garment made of a fabric with a printed design, though it’s often used without describing the design or the color.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adjective “print” here has referred to a garment “made of printed fabric” or a fabric “bearing a printed pattern or design” since the usage first appeared in the mid-19th century.

The OED’s earliest citation for the phrase “print dress,” which we’ve expanded, is from Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe:

“Fanny herself was arrayed in a very pretty print dress, which her father had brought home in a recent visit, with a cape of white muslin.”

The dictionary includes an earlier example of “print” used to describe curtains: “a cylinder fall writing desk, sets of modern cotton print window curtains, 2 chimney glasses” (from an ad listing property “of a Gentleman quitting his residence,” The Times, London, May 8, 1820).

In the 17th century, “print” was used as a noun in a similar sense, which Oxford defines as “a printed (usually cotton) fabric; a piece of such fabric; the pattern printed on the fabric. Also: a garment or other article made from printed fabric.”

The dictionary cites a list of items in a 1679 probate inventory: “36 tufted fringe … 5 score and 13 yards of print … 8 Hand fringes” (from Probate Inventories of Lincoln [England] Citizens, 1661-1714, edited by J. A. Johnson in 1991).

Middle English borrowed the noun from Anglo-Norman and Middle French, where preinte referred to an “impression or imprint made by the impact of a seal or stamp.”

Getting back to your question, in The Body in the Library (1942), Agatha Christie uses “print dress” without any additional information in describing the early morning household noises as Mrs. Bantry awakens at Gossington Hall:

“They would culminate in a swift, controlled sound of footsteps along the passage, the rustle of a print dress, the subdued chink of tea things as the tray was deposited on the table outside, then the soft knock and the entry of Mary to draw the curtains.”

But when additional information is given in some other Christie works, the dress is clearly made of a fabric with a printed pattern, as in these examples:

“A real chambermaid looking unreal, wearing a striped lavender print dress and actually a cap, a freshly laundered cap” (At Bertram’s Hotel, 1965).

“ ‘My dear,’ he exclaimed, ‘do you see what she’s got on? A sprigged print dress. Just like a housemaid–when there were housemaids’ ” (“Greenshaw’s Folly,” a short story in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, 1960).

We couldn’t find examples of the phrase “print dress” in Christie’s novels from the 1920s or ’30s, but here’s one from Sweet Danger (1933), by Margery Allingham:

“Her costume consisted of a white print dress with little green flowers on it, a species of curtaining sold at many village shops. It was cut severely, and was rather long in the skirt.”

When one color is mentioned, it probably refers to the background or the predominant color. Here’s an example from Jacob’s Room (1922), by Virginia Woolf: “Not that any one objects to a blue print dress and a white apron in a cottage garden.”

A design is assumed even if no color or pattern is described: “Poor Cecily! To go to church in a faded print dress, with a shabby little old sun-hat and worn shoes!” (The Golden Road, 1925, by Lucy Maud Montgomery).

The OED’s most recent example for “print dress” is from Timebends: A Life, a 1987 memoir by the playwright Arthur Miller. In this passage, Miller describes the dress worn by the grandmother of his first wife, Mary Slattery, at their wedding reception in 1940:

“She wore a flowered blue cotton print dress, high-crowned tucked bonnet of the same material with a visor ten inches deep.” (We’re quoting from the hardcover original; Oxford cites a shorter version in the 1988 paperback.)

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Why ‘sightseeing,’ not ‘siteseeing’?

Q: Since both “sight” and “site” can refer to a place, why do we use the first one, not the second, in the term “sightseeing”?

A: The word “sight” in the sense of something worth seeing is derived from a prehistoric Germanic term for “to see.” It appeared in Old English hundreds of years before Middle English borrowed “site” from the Latin term for a location.

With that history in mind, it’s not at all surprising that we now use “sight” for a place of interest to a “sightseer,” and “site” for a place to put up a building, hold an event, read the news online, and so on.

Despite their different meanings, the two terms can sometimes refer to the same place, as in “The site [location] of the Battle of Gettysburg is a sight [something worth seeing] that attracts many sightseers.”

Before giving some early examples, we should mention that spelling varied widely in the Middle Ages. In The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), for example, Chaucer spells “sight” as “site” in “The Clerk’s Tale” and as “sighte” in “The Knight’s Tale.”

The arrival of the printing press in England in the late 15th century and the spread of printing in the 16th and 17th helped standardize English orthography, including the spellings of “sight” and “site.”

The older of the terms, “sight,” is ultimately derived from a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed by linguists as sek(to perceive or see), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

This ancient root led to the prehistoric Germanic root sehwan (to see) and the Old English noun sihð (a vision or spectacle), the ancestor of our  modern word “sight.” The Old English noun was pronounced like “sixth” (the final letter in sihð was the runic letter ð, or eth, which sounded like “th”).

The earliest example of “sight” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 10th-century Old English gloss, or translation, of the Latin from Mark 9:8 in the Lindisfarne Gospels, dating from around 700:

“[He] bebead ðæm þætte ne ænigum … ða sihðo gesægdon” (“[He] commanded them that no one … be told of the sight”).

The word “sight” was also spelled “siþe,” “sith,” “syth,” “sythte” “sighð” “sihȝeðe” “ziȝþe,” “zyȝþe,” “syhte,” “sichte,” “seȝt,” “siȝhte, “sygte,” “syghte,” “sighte,” and so on before “sight” was established in Modern English.

As for “site,” it’s ultimately derived from the Indo-European root tkei- (to settle, dwell, be at home), source of the Latin situs (position of a thing). Middle English borrowed it in the late 14th century from the Anglo-Norman site (position, location).

The OED’s first English citation for “site” is from John Trevisa’s translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.

The word “site” is spelled “sight” in this passage: “Þe water addre … infecteþ þe place þat he glydeþ inne and makeþ þe sight smoky” (“the water adder infecteth the place that he glideth in and maketh the site smoky”).

“Site” was spelled variously as “sighte,” “siȝt,” “siȝte,” “siht,” “siyt,” “syȝte,” “syhte,” “syyt,” “site,” “cite,” and so on before “site” was established in Modern English.

As for “sightseeing,” it first appeared in the early 19th century. The OED describes it as a compound of the nouns “sight” and “seeing,” and defines it as “the action or occupation of seeing sights.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an Oct. 21, 1824, entry in the journal of Reginald Heber, the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta: “Morning rides, evening sight-seeing” (published in Heber’s Narrative of a Journey Through the Upper Provinces of India, 1828).

Many people are led astray by “sight” and “site” because they’re homonyms, words with the same spelling or pronunciation but different meanings and origins. In this case, the pronunciation is the same and the spelling similar—a double whammy!

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When a diet is a journey

Q: Is it my imagination or has “journey” become a ubiquitous term for going mentally or spiritually between points A and B? Is this one more example of making ordinary things seem precious, special, and a bit sanctimonious? I cringe when I hear it but I am a dinosaur way behind the times.

A: Yes, “journey” is used a lot these days in its mental or spiritual sense, and it’s often used to make ordinary things seem special: “my ukulele journey” … “our puppy’s housebreaking journey” … “her scrapbooking journey” … “their weight-loss journey.”

Interestingly, the term was used figuratively when it first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century. It originally referred to a pilgrimage through life, a more weighty version of the examples above.

The word “journey” has been used for both literal and figurative travels since English borrowed it from journee, an Old French word adopted from diurnum, Latin for day.

In Old French, a journee could be a day’s travel, a day’s work, or simply a day,  according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Modern French, journée has similar senses: journée de repos (day off), dans la journée (during the day), etc.

When “journey” showed up in Middle English writing, the OED says, the meaning was “figurative, esp. the ‘pilgrimage’ or passage through life.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ancrene Riwle (also known as Ancrene Wisse), an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200.

The OED cites The English Text of the Ancrene Riwle (1972), edited by Eric John Dobson. But to make clear that the passage refers to a spiritual journey, not a geographic one, we’re using an expanded version of the passage from Ancrene Wisse (2005), edited by Bella Millett and based on Dobson’s work:

“þe pilegrim i þe wor[l]des wei, þah he ga forðward toward te ham of heouene, he sið ant hereð unnet, ant spekeð umbe hwile; wreaðeð him for wohes, ant moni þing mei letten him of his iurnee” (“The pilgrim on his way in the world, though he goes forward toward his home in heaven, he sees and hears and speaks unworthily once in a while, and becomes angry over injustice, and many things may hinder his journey”).

In the late 13th century, a “journey” came to mean a day’s travel, which the OED notes was “usually estimated in the Middle Ages at 20 miles.”

The first Oxford citation is from The South English Legendary (circa 1290), a Middle English collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures. This passage is from the life of St. James:

“Þis holie Man ladde þene dede forth … fyftene Iorneies grete are day … to þe mount of Ioie” (“This holy man led the dead man forth … fifteen great journeys are the distance … to the Mount of Joy”).

The usual modern sense of “journey” as a “course of going or travelling, having its beginning and end in place or time, and thus viewed as a distinct whole,” appeared in the late 14th century, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Legends of the Holy Rood, a collection of medieval tales loosely based on the Bible: “When he was þus cumen hame ogayn, / Of his iorne he was ful fayne” (“When he was thus come home again, Of his journey he was very glad”).

Like you, we often see “journey” used to make ordinary things (gardening, sewing, banjo playing, etc.) seem special, but this doesn’t particularly bother us.

We’ll end, however, with an example of “journey” in a 14th-century lullaby that does make us cringe. This excerpt is from “Thou Wandrest in This Fals World,” one of the earliest lullabies in the English language:

Child, thou nert a pilgrim bot an vncuthe gist,
Thi dawes beth itold, thi iurneis beth icast;
Whoder thou salt wend north or est,
Deth the sal betide with bitter bale in brest.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, this wo Adam the wroght
Whan he of the appil ete and Eue hit him betacht.

(Child, you are not a pilgrim but an unknown guest,
Your days are counted, your journeys are cast;
Wherever you may go, to the north or east,
Death will come to you with bitter sorrow in your breast
Lullay, lullay, little child, Adam wrought this woe for you,
When he ate the apple and Eve gave it to him.)

[Note, Oct. 24, 2023: A reader of the blog asks whether the words “est” and “brest” at the end of the third and fourth lines of the lullaby above are supposed to rhyme. They no doubt were intended to rhyme. In Middle English, words were generally spelled as they were pronounced: “east” could be spelled “eest” or “est,” plus a few variations, and “breast” could be written “breest” or “brest,” plus variants.]

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Why a ‘beef’ is a complaint 

Q: How did the word “beef” come to mean a complaint?

A: The use of “beef” in the sense of a complaint or a grievance first appeared in American English as a verb in the late 19th century and as a noun at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, the source of the usage dates back to the early 18th century when to cry “beef” in British criminal slang meant to raise an alarm, with “beef” used as rhyming slang for “thief.”

The British lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, traces the usage back to an anonymous 18th-century British dictionary of underworld slang:

“BEEF, to alarm, as To cry Beef upon us; they have discover’d us, and are in Pursuit of us” (A New Canting Dictionary, 1725). The term “cant” refers to the slang used by London’s criminals to conceal illicit activities.

In the early 19th century, “beef” came to be a short, rhyming way of saying “stop thief,” as in this example cited in Green’s:

“BEEF: stop thief! to beef a person, is to raise a hue and cry after him, in order to get him stopped” (A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, 1812, by James Hardy Vaux).

Two decades later, the expressions “stop thief” and “hot beef” were apparently confused by a police officer in this Green’s citation about the arrest of a street urchin in London:

“The policeman would not swear that the boy did not cry ‘Hot beef’ and that he might not have mistaken it for a cry of ‘Stop thief’ ” (The Morning Post, Oct. 4, 1832).

The policeman arrested the boy for shouting “stop thief” as a joke. However, the boy was released by a magistrate after testifying that he had been selling roast beef on the street and shouted “hot beef” to attract customers.

Reports of the incident in several newspapers led to the use of “hot beef” as rhyming slang for “stop thief”—on the street as well as at the theater. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is theatrical:

“There is a regular run over the stage crying ‘Hot beef! hot beef!’ (instead of ‘Stop thief!’).” From London Labour and the London Poor (1861), by Henry Mayhew.

The slang use of “beef” and “hot beef” for “stop thief” apparently paved the way for the usage you ask about—“beef” in the sense of a complaint or a grievance.

The earliest OED citation for “beef” as a verb meaning to complain is from The (New York) World, May 13, 1888: “He’ll beef an’ kick like a steer an’ let on he won’t never wear ’em.”

The first OED example for the noun is from Fables in Slang (1900) by the American humorist George Ade: “He made a Horrible Beef because he couldn’t get Loaf Sugar for his Coffee.”

The OED says Middle English borrowed the word “beef” from the Old French boef. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval romance about the life of Alexander the Great:

“To mete was greithed beef and motoun, / Bredes, briddes, and venysoun” (“To feed [them] were prepared beef and mutton, roast meats, birds, and venison”).

By the way, we published a post in 2007 on how English originally got many of its meat terms. Here’s an excerpt:

Many of our words for barnyard animals are of Anglo-Saxon origin: “calf,” “cow,” “ox,” “pig,” “hog,” “swine,” and “sheep.” But many of the words for the meat that comes from those animals are of French Norman origin: “veal,” “beef,” “pork,” and “mutton.”

No big surprise here, of course, since Anglo-Saxon peasants raised farm animals for the Norman aristocracy that ruled them. In Ivanhoe, set in the 12th century, Sir Walter Scott’s Saxons see livestock in light of farming and husbandry while his Normans see it as something to go on a platter.

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How ‘chintz’ became ‘chintzy’

Q: I assume “chintzy” (gaudy, cheap, trashy) is derived from “chintz” (the multicolored cotton fabric). But chintz isn’t necessarily gaudy, cheap, or trashy. How did “chintzy” get its negative sense?

A: You’re right that the adjective “chintzy” comes from the name of the usually glazed printed cotton fabric known as “chintz,” which isn’t particularly inexpensive or garish.

The adjective got its negative sense in the mid-19th century when British textile factories were making cheap imitations of the original handmade chintz from India.

English borrowed the noun “chintz” in the early 17th century from Hindi, where छींट (chint) referred to the fabric. The Indian term comes from चित्र (chitra), Sanskrit for bright, spotted or variegated.

The earliest English example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a list of trade goods in a collection of stories by sailors about their travels:

“Callicoes white and coloured” and “Pintados [floral cottons], Chints and Chadors.” From Purchas His Pilgrimage (1614), stories collected by the Anglican clergyman Samuel Purchas.

(Interestingly, the mention of “Cublai Can” and his palace at “Xamdu” in a 1625 edition of Purchas His Pilgrimage inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” according to the website of the British Library.)

The next OED citation for “chintz” is from an entry for Sept. 5, 1663, in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Bought my wife a Chinke; that is, a paynted Indian Callico for to line her new Study.”

The first Oxford example with the modern “chintz” spelling appeared about a century later: “Japan wares, calicoes, chintz, muslins, silks” (from The History of America, 1783, by the Scottish historian William Robertson).

The adjective “chintzy” began appearing in the 19th century, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED defines it as “decorated or covered with chintz; suggestive of a pattern in chintz.” And in extended use, the dictionary says, it means “suburban, unfashionable, petit-bourgeois, cheap; mean, stingy.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “chintzy” is from a Sept. 18, 1851, letter by George Eliot, pen name of Mary Ann Evans, to her half-sister Fanny Evans Houghton.

In this expanded version of the citation, Eliot is apparently using “chintzy” in the extended sense of unfashionable when she asks Fanny to choose a fabric for her:

“I should like a muslin with a more prevailing hue. The quality of the spotted one is the best, but the effect is chintzy and would be unbecoming. The one with the reddish flowers would have a better effect but the quality is not so good. I am sure you can judge what I want. If among the new ones, Bailey has a muslin with flounces, having a certain tone of colour not yellow or pink—in fact such an one as I know you would like—pray choose. I want poor old Mrs. West to make it while I am here, so I shall be glad to have it soon. Do not be anxious about it as it can be exchanged if unsuitable.”

So how did “chintzy,” an adjective derived from “chintz,” a luxurious hand-painted or hand-printed fabric from India, get this negative sense?

Sarah Fee, editor of Cloth That Changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz (2020), says “chintzy” appeared at a time when “Britain’s factories had flooded world markets with cheap imitations of chintz.”

Fee, a senior curator of fashion and textiles at the Royal Ontario Museum, says the industrial imitations made the fabric “widely available to the masses, disassociating any original connotation of luxury.”

She made her comments on websites of the BBC and ROM. Here’s  an image from the BBC page of a palampore (a wall or bed hanging) made in southeast India for the Western market, around 1720-1740:

Finally, we should mention that “cheetah,” the name of the large, spotted cat, comes from चीता (chita), Hindi for the cat, and चित्र (chitra), Sanskrit for bright, spotted or variegated.

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Is this ‘which’ dead?

Q: I’m curious about this use of “which” in a US Supreme Court opinion from April 30, 1934: “Upon the submission of the cause the appellant made a motion to amend its assignments of error, which motion is now granted.”  I assume “which” is used here to avoid ambiguity. Why isn’t it used that way now?

A: Yes, the relative adjective “which” is being used in that opinion (Dayton Power & Light Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) to avoid ambiguity. Although the usage isn’t seen much these days, it does show up at times.

This more recent example is from an April 7, 2020, resolution by the Louisville, CO, City Council on holding electronic hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic under rules set by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment:

“Whereas, also on March 25, 2020, the CDPHE issued an Amended Public Health Order 20-24 Implementing Stay at Home Requirements, which Order has since been updated twice.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “which” here is a “relative adjective, introducing a clause and modifying a noun referring to (and esp.) summing up the details of the antecedent in the preceding clause or sentence.”

The usage dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, when “which” (spelled huælchuelchwilc, etc.) was originally part of a prepositional phase that modified a noun.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a forged writ composed in the 12th century that purports to be King Edward the Confessor’s recognition of gifts by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Lady Godgifu (Godiva) to build a monastery in Coventry in the 11th century:

“For uræ Drihten on larspelle þuss cweþ, Gestrynaþ eow sylfum mid ælmesdædum madme hord on heofonan and wunnunge mid ænglum. For hwilcæ neodlicum þingan icc cyþe eow eallum þæt icc ann mid fulre unne þæt þa ilce gyfe þæt Leofric eorl 7 Godgyfu habbað gegiuen Criste.”

(“For our Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Enrich yourselves with almsgiving, gain a treasure in heaven and a home with the angels.’ For which matter, it is necessary that I make known to you all that I confirm with full consent the gift that Earl Leofric and Godiva have given to Christ in the same way.”)

The OED’s first citation for “which” used similarly by itself, as in your example, is from Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession, circa 1390), a Middle English poem by John Gower. Here’s an expanded version:

“So sit it wel to taken hiede / And forto loke on every side, / Er that thou falle in homicide, / Which Senne is now so general, / That it welnyh stant overal, / In holi cherche and elles where.”

(“So it is well to take heed / And to look on every side, / Ere that you descend to homicide, / Which sin is now so general, / That it well nigh stands over all, / In holy church and elsewhere.”)

We don’t know why this usage is seen less often now, but English speakers have other ways to clarify a sentence like the one you cite.

Here, for example, is a somewhat less lawyerly phrasing of that Supreme Court opinion: “The motion of the appellant to amend its assignments of error is now granted.”

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On ‘cul de sac’ and ‘dead end’

Q: I’m curious if/when “dead end” replaced “cul de sac” as a street with an entrance but no outlet. Is this traditionally an American usage?

A: No, “dead end” is not an Americanized version of “cul-de-sac.” In the US as well as the UK, either term can refer to a street that’s closed at one end.

When the two expressions first appeared in English, “dead end” was a plumbing term for the closed end of a pipe, while “cul-de-sac” was an anatomical term for a pouch branching off a hollow organ like an intestine. Each term later developed the sense of a street with no outlet.

English borrowed the oldest of the two terms, “cul de sac,” from French, where it meant “bottom of a sack” literally and “street without exit” figuratively.

The English usage first appeared in an 18th-century medical treatise, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this passage, it describes an abnormal pouch, or diverticulum, near where the colon joins the abdominal wall:

“An Infundibuliform [funnel-shaped] Cul de Sac or Thimble-like cavity” (from “Miscellaneous Remarks on the Intestines,” by Alexander Monro, in Medical Essays and Observations, 1738).

In the early 19th century, the term took on the sense of “a street, lane, or passage closed at one end, a blind alley; a place having no outlet except by the entrance,” the OED says.

However, the earliest OED example uses the term figuratively in describing the difficulty of sending a diplomatic letter by courier from Palermo:

“This is such a cul de sac that it would (be) ridiculous to attempt sending you any news. Perhaps, indeed, from Malta you might receive it as fresh from hence as any other place” (from a letter written May 10, 1800, by Sir Arthur Paget to Sir Charles Whitworth, and published in The Paget Papers, 1896, edited by Sir Augustus Paget).

The first Oxford citation for the street sense is from an April 19, 1828, entry in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (1941), edited by John Guthrie Tate: “Coming home, an Irish coachman drove us into a cul de sac, near Battersea Bridge.”

(Although cul de sac can still mean a dead-end street in French, the more common terms are impasse and voie sans issue.)

The expression “dead end” showed up two decades later, in the mid-19th century. The OED defines it as “a closed end of a water-pipe, passage, etc., through which there is no way.”

The earliest examples we’ve found are in an 1851 report to the General Board of Health in London on the sewers, drains, and water supples of Halifax in Yorkshire.

The term is used here in a description of a drain: “No. 6 a branches from No. 6 at the upper end of the bridge, and passes by the churchyard, where it terminates in a dead end.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries “dead end” developed several figurative senses, such as a policy, plan, or road that leads nowhere.

The earliest figurative example we’ve seen is from an anonymous 1874 pamphlet, “A Voice From the Signal Box: or Railway Accidents and Their Causes,” by “a Signalman.”

The author suggests that the trains of engine drivers who ignore signals at dangerous junctions should be forced “into a dead end, blocked up with ballast, and interlocked with the main line signals.”

The earliest roadway example we’ve found refers to the end of a road: “Franklin street from Washington avenue south to dead end” (from a March 27, 1901, Philadelphia ordinance to repave several roads).

Finally, “dead end” here refers to an entire road: “Cannon Street is a dead end—it don’t lead nowhere” (from “An Eddy of War,” a short story by Charles Vickers and Ernest Swinton in Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1907).

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Every man and every woman

Q: When you use “every” multiple times in a sentence, do the subjects still take a singular verb? For example, “Every man and every woman is/are entitled to fair pay.” The singular seems right, but can you help me understand why?

A: You can use either a singular or a plural verb when “every” appears one or more times in a compound subject joined by “and,” but the singular usage is more common.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “When every modifies two or more nouns joined by and, there is mixed usage, at least, in part, because of the rule that compound subjects joined by and are both grammatically and notionally plural.”

However, “every,” the usage guide adds, “tends to emphasize each noun separately,” and “our evidence shows that the singular verb is more common.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, agrees that when “every modifies two or more nouns joined by and, the verb should, technically, be plural, according to the notion that compound subjects conjoined by and are plural.”

But “the more common pattern is for the verb to be singular,” Fowler’s says. “The principle at work presumably is that the verb agrees in number with the last stated subject.”

An example from Fowler’s: “Every shot, every colour, every prop, and every costume tells its own story” (Oxford English Corpus, 2001).

We’ll add that a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books, indicates that the singular usage is much more common.

(Ngram Viewer doesn’t compare phrases longer than five words, so one “every” modifies two nouns in our searches: “every man and woman is” versus “every man and woman are.”)

As for the history of the usage, Merriam-Webster’s says “the possibility of nouns joined by and being considered individually and thus taking a singular verb has been recognized as early as Lowth 1762.”

We found this passage in A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), by Robert Lowth: “But sometimes, after an enumeration of particulars thus connected, the Verb follows in the Singular Number; and is understood as applied to each of the preceding terms.”

The use of singular verbs with “every” compounds was well established long before Lowth’s grammar book. Here’s an example from the late 17th century:

“So every man and every woman is to seek God for themselves; for he hath promised to be found of them that seek, him in uprightness of heart” (Truth Held Forth and Maintained According to the Testimony of the Holy Prophets, Christ and His Apostles Recorded in the Holy Scriptures, 1695, by Thomas Mall).

And here’s a much earlier plural example from a treatise by an English Roman Catholic priest who became an anti-Catholic writer:

“By popish doctrine every man and every woman of lawfull yeeres, are bound vnder paine of damnation, to the said confession” (from Thomas Bels Motiues Concerning Romish Faith and Religion, 1593, by Thomas Bell).

We’ll end with recent examples of the singular and plural usages from the Irish novelist John Banville and the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan:

“As Nietzsche said, every man and every woman is an artist when he or she sleeps—we make up worlds” (Banville, speaking at the Dalkey Book Festival, June 18, 2022).

“Every man and every woman are their own Rosebud, and the web can’t hide it” (O’Hagan, writing in The Guardian, June 17, 2017).

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A double-edged sword

Q: How did the expression “double-edged sword” come to mean something that has both positive and negative results?

A: The expression ultimately comes from the use of “two-edged sword” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the Bible to mean something very sharp, like a weapon or piercing words.

Here are a few examples we’ve found for “two-edged sword” in Hebrew (חרב פיפיות), Greek (μαχαιρας διστομου), and Latin (gladio ancipiti) from the Old and New Testaments:

• “רוממות אל בגרונם וחרב פיפיות בידם” (“Praise of God in their mouths and a two-edged sword in their hand”). From the 10th-century Aleppo Codex of the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 149:6 (thought to have originated around 1000 BCE).

• “υστερον μεντοι πικροτερον χολης ευρησεις και ηκονημενον μαλλον μαχαιρας διστομου” (“Later however you will find her [an immoral woman] more bitter than gall and sharper than a two-edged sword”). From the Septuagint, Proverbs 5:4, believed translated in the second century BCE.

• “vivus est enim Dei sermo et efficax et penetrabilior omni gladio ancipiti” (“for the word of God is living and powerful and more penetrating than any two-edged sword”). From the Vulgate, Epistle to the Hebrews 4:12, dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries of the Common Era.

(The medieval Jewish scholar Rashi [1040-1105] interprets Psalm 149:6 figuratively in the first example above: “With paeans to God in their throats, and these same are like two-edged swords in their hands.” Rashi’s Commentary on the Psalms, 2004, translated by Mayer I. Gruber.)

Why is the expression “two-edged sword” used in the Bible to describe the word of God? Perhaps because the Hebrew noun for “edge” here, פה, can also mean “mouth,” among other things.

The plural of פה is פיות (“edges” or “mouths”) and the construct state, or genitive, is פיפיות (“of edges” or “of mouths”). So חרב פיפיות (“a sword of edges,” usually translated as “two-edged sword”) could also mean “a sword of mouths”—that is, a source of sharp words.

Similarly, when the phrase “two-edged sword” first appeared in English, it was used to describe the word of God. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Hebrews 4:12 in William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament:

“For the worde of god is quycke and myghty in operacion and sharper then eny two edged swearde.”

As far as we can tell, the sense of “two-edged sword” as something with both good and bad consequences appeared a few decades later.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an English translation of a Latin sermon about the Apocalypse by the Swiss pastor, reformer, and theologian Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75):

“For a sharpe two edged sworde commeth out of the Lordes mouth. This swearde is the worde of God … And it is two edged, sharpe and pearsing, as well as in the heart of the Godly unto saluation, as well as in the heartes of the wycked to payne and condemnation.” (From A Hundred Sermons Vpo[n] the Apocalips of Iesu Christe, 1561, John Daus’s translation of Bullinger’s sermons.)

Getting back to “double-edged sword,” the usual wording now, the expression is used literally for an actual weapon in the earliest example we’ve found:

“And in their mouths let be the actes of God the mighty Lord / And in their hands let them beare a double edged sword” (Psalms 149:6, The Whole Books of Psalmes, 1581, by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others).

The first example we’ve found with the phrase used figuratively in its good-bad sense is from a sermon that says the Gospel has both “the power of God to salvation” and “the power of God to confusion”:

“It is a double-edged Sword, and giues, vel vitamvel vinditam, either instruction, or destruction” (from A Divine Herball Together With a Forrest of Thornes in Five Sermons, 1616, by the English clergyman Thomas Adams).

As for the ultimate origin of the “good/bad” sense of “double-edged sword,” Dictionary.com suggests that it “seems to be based on an idea that a sword with two edges poses a danger of bouncing back and cutting its own wielder.” However, we’ve seen no evidence to support this idea.

We’ve also seen no evidence that the English expression is ultimately derived from the Arabic term for a two-edged sword, سلاح ذو حدين, as suggested by the collaborative dictionary Wiktionary.

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Why ‘beggar’ isn’t spelled ‘begger’

Q: Is there any particular reason that “beggar” is spelled with an “-ar” suffix instead of an “-er” or an “-or”?

A: The word “beggar” used to be spelled with an “-er” suffix. That was the usual spelling for centuries after the word was first recorded in Middle English in the late 12th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says, “the spelling in -ar has been occasional from 14th cent.,” but the “-er” suffix was still “the usual form in 15-17th cent., as an ordinary agent-noun.”

An agent noun, one denoting the performer of an action (like “painter” or “actor”), usually ends in “-er” or “-or,” but the suffix “-ar” may appear in words influenced by their Latin or French forms.

As the OED explains, English agent nouns with an “-ar” suffix generally “show a remodelling or replacement of an earlier form in -er from Old French -ier, either after Latin (compare e.g. bursar n.medlar n., or mortar n.1), or after a corresponding French form in –aire (compare e.g. vicar n. and vicary n.1).”

Interestingly, the earliest Oxford example for the usage doesn’t end in “-er,” “-ar,” or “-or.” In the citation, a beggares is a woman who begs:

“Hit is beggares rihte uorte beren bagge on bac” (“It is right [for the] beggaress to carry a bag on [her] back”). From Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200.

The dictionary’s next example ends in an “-ere” suffix: “Þu wenest I beo a beggere” (“You think I am a beggar”). From King Horn, an anonymous Middle English romance written sometime before 1300.

And here’s an “-er” example from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “nedi and begger there shal not be among ȝow” (“there shall not be a needy man or a beggar among you”). Deuteronomy 15:4.

The earliest OED citation with the modern spelling “beggar” appeared in the late 14th century: “And now me bus [I must], as a beggar, my bred for to thigge [beg].” From an anonymous Middle English translation, dated sometime before 1400, of the Italian writer Guido delle Colonna’s Latin Historia Destructionis Troiae.

Despite that early appearance of “beggar,” the old form “begger” continued to be seen for hundreds of years.

Oxford has this biblical example, which we’ve expanded, from the King James Version of 1611: “And there was a certaine begger named Lazarus, which was layde at his gate full of sores” (Luke 16:20).

And here’s an expanded OED citation from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, believed written around the same time: “They will not giue a doit [a trivial sum] to relieue a lame Begger.” The reference is to an old Dutch copper coin, the duit.

Similar nouns ending in “-ar” today, besides “beggar,” “bursar,” and “vicar,” include “scholar,” “registrar,” “liar,” “burglar,” and “friar.”

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How special is ‘especially’?

Q: The adjective “special” becomes “especially” when used as an adverb. Why isn’t it “specially”? Have any other words had a similar historical development?

A: Both “special” and “especial” have been adjectives in English for hundreds of years. Likewise, “specially” and “especially” have been adverbs nearly as long.

The words are ultimately derived from specialis, a Latin adjective referring to a particular species or something special as opposed to general, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English borrowed “special” from Anglo-Norman, where speciall had the original Latin meaning of something specific. It borrowed “especial” from Old French, where the word had developed a secondary sense of preeminent or important.

In English, “special” is generally preferred in uses related to the original Latin sense, while “especial” is mainly used in the secondary Old French sense.

As the OED explains, “the two forms especial and special differ materially in use; the latter (owing perhaps to its closer relation to the Latin etymon) is preferred in applications arising proximately from the primary sense, while the former is chiefly confined to the derivative sense. The distinction is still more marked in the adverbs especiallyspecially.”

When the adjective “special,” the older of the English terms, appeared in writing in the late 12th century, it meant “having a close or exclusive connection with a specified person, thing, or set; own, particular, individual,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:

“Nule ich naut þet ani seo ow bute leaue habbe of ouwer special meister” (“I do not want anyone to see you unless he has leave of your special master”).

When “especial” showed up in the late 14th century, the OED says, it meant “pre-eminent, exceptionally distinguished,” and now chiefly refers to “feelings, qualities, or attributes.”

The first Oxford example is from Chaucer’s “Tale of Melibeus” in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386). In this passage, Prudence, the wife of Melibeus, advises him on how to deal with his enemies:

“First schul ye clepe to youre counseil a fewe of youre frendes that ben especial” (“First you shall call to your council a few of your friends that are especial [particularly esteemed]”).

When “specially,” the first of the adverbs, appeared in Middle English, it meant “for a special purpose,” according to the OED. The first Oxford citation is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history, written sometime before 1300.

In this passage, the King of Germany appeals to King John of England to accept being overruled by the Pope in a dispute over the choice for a new Archbishop of Canterbury:

“Þe king of alimayne sende specialliche inou to king Ion þat he wiþdrowe him of is wou” (“The king of Germany sent [a message] especially to King John to forget his wound”).

When the adverb “especially” showed up a century later, the OED says, it meant “in an especial manner; principally, chiefly.” The earliest example, which we’ve expanded here, is from The Chester Whitsun Plays, circa 1400:

“Sybbell, I praye thee especiallye, / By signe thou woulde me certiffye, / What tyme that lorde so royallye, / To raigne he shal begyne” (“Sibyl, I pray to thee especially to tell me with a sign what time the lord so royally shall begin to reign”).

Getting back to your question, English is a Germanic language that has many borrowings from non-Germanic languages. The major source of these loanwords is Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French.

And as we’ve noted above, the two etymological sources of “special,” “especial,” “specially,” and “especially” are Latin and French. In other words, they evolved much like many other English words.

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Steal a march

Q: I was wondering how the expression “steal a march” came to mean get an advantage over somebody.

A: When the verb “steal” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times it had the word’s usual modern meaning—to take something dishonestly, especially in secret.

That sense of acting secretly led to the use of the expression “steal a march” in the 18th century to mean get a secret advantage over a rival. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original sense of the verb as “to take away dishonestly (portable property, cattle, etc., belonging to another); esp. to do this secretly or unobserved by the owner or the person in charge.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham’s loose Old English translation, circa 1000, of Genesis in the Latin Vulgate:

“þæt feoh, pe we fundon on ure saccum, we læddon to þe of Chanaan lande. wenst þu, þæt we þines hlafordes gold oððe his seolfor stælon” (“That money, which we found in our sack, we brought to thee out of the land of Canaan. Think thou that we should steal thy lord’s gold or his silver?”). Genesis 44:8.

The verb “steal” has had many related meanings over the years, as in to steal happiness (circa 1374), steal a kiss (1390), steal writing (1544), steal a heart (1587), and steal a glance (1794).

The expression “steal a march” was originally used in a military sense, meaning to “succeed in moving troops without the knowledge of the enemy,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter dated March 27, 1716, by the Town Council of Edinburgh in praise of the Duke of Argyll, commander of British forces in Scotland during the Jacobite uprising of 1715:

“We saw him with incredible celerity steal a march for our preservation; And when, by his surprising Expedition he had chas’d the enemy from our gates.”

The OED says the expression soon came to be used more generally to mean “to get a secret advantage over a rival or opponent.” In this example, which we’ve also expanded, it refers to one theater company’s getting an advantage over another:

“After we had stolen some few Days March upon them, the forces of Betterton came up with us in terrible order.” (From An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, 1740, by Cibber, an actor and theater manager, as was Thomas Betterton.)

The dictionary’s next example is from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), by Tobias Smollett. In this expanded citation from the novel, the husband-hunting Tabitha Bramble tries to get a jump on her niece Lydia Melford:

“You must know, she yesterday wanted to steal a march of poor Liddy, and went to breakfast in the Room without any other companion than her dog, in expectation of meeting with the Baronet.”

We’ll end with an example from “The Oblong Box” (1844), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe: “He evidently intended to steal a march upon me, and smuggle a fine picture to New York, under my very nose.”

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Bobby pins, bobby socks, and bobbies

Q: What is the origin of the “bobby” in “bobby pins”? Is it related to the one in “bobby socks” or the “bobby” walking a beat in London?

A: The “bobby” in “bobby pins” and “bobby socks” (or “sox”) is believed to come from the use of “bob” and “bobbed” in reference to something shortened.

“Bobby pins” originally referred to sprung pins used with bobbed hair, while “bobby socks” referred to ankle socks, presumably because they were a shortened, or bobbed, version of knee socks.

The slang term for a police officer is understood to come from the given name of Robert Peel, who was England’s Home Secretary when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed in the early 19th century. In fact, bobbies are also called “peelers.”

As for the etymology, the noun “bob” first appeared in Middle English when it meant a bunch of leaves, flowers, fruit, and so on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a chivalric romance written in the late 1300s:

“Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe, Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare” (“But in one hand he held a bunch of holly, that is greatest in green when groves are bare”).

That early sense of “bob” evolved over the centuries to mean, among other things, bobbed hair.

In the 17th century, the OED says, it referred to “a knot or bunch of hair such as that in which women sometimes do up their back hair.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation refers to a wig with “the side or bottom locks turned up into Bobs or Knots, tied up with Ribbons” (from The Academy of Armory, 1688, by Randle Holme).

In the 18th century, “bob” came to mean “a horse’s tail docked short; a short knob-like tail.” The first Oxford example refers to “a high bob unusual in Horses” (The London Gazette, Dec. 1, 1711).

A century later, the OED says, the verb “bob” took on the sense of “to dock, cut short (a horse’s tail, etc.).” The dictionary cites this 1822 example describing feral horses:

“Two of them must have been in Hands [domesticated], as their tails were Bobed short” (from The Journal of Jacob Fowler, edited by Elliott Coues and published in 1898).

In the early 20th century, the noun “bob” took on the modern sense of “a style of cutting women’s hair short and even all round,” as well as “hair cut in this way,” the OED says.

The OED’s earliest citation is from The Silver Spoon (1926), one of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte novels: “Her hair, again in its more natural ‘bob’, gleamed lustrously under the light.”

Getting back to your question, Oxford defines a “bobby pin” as “a kind of sprung hair-pin or small clip, originally for use with bobbed hair.” It says the etymology is uncertain, but points readers to the verb for docking a horse’s tail.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a newspaper in Nyack, NY: “Her locks have just reached that trying length that require the existence of a ‘bobby pin’ ” (Rockland County Evening Journal, Oct. 2, 1928).

The OED’s first citation is from a novel published a few years later: “She wondered whether she had lost all the bobby-pins from her marcelled hair” (If I Have Four Apples, 1936, by Josephine Lawrence).

As for “bobby socks,” the OED defines them as “socks reaching just above the ankle, esp. those worn by girls in their teens.” It describes the etymology as uncertain, but again points readers to the verb for docking a horse’s tail.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a California newspaper: “Any bobby socks around school all week?” (from “The Hatchet,” a column about La Habra Grammar Schools in La Habra Star, May 29, 1929).

Oxford’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, describes the scene at a Frank Sinatra concert: “In CBS’s Manhattan playhouse, at the Paramount, at the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, hundreds of little long-haired, round-faced girls in bobby socks sat transfixed” (Time magazine, July 26, 1943).

Finally, we come to the constabulary “bobby.” Oxford defines it as “a slang nickname for a policeman” that’s “probably in allusion to the name of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Robert Peel, who was Home Secretary when the new Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1828.”

The dictionary’s first example, which we’ve expanded, is from testimony in a burglary case tried June 10, 1844, at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court:

“I heard her say something, but could not understand what it was exactly—I could not understand whether it was ‘a crush’ or ‘a bobby’—I cannot swear that I heard any words of that kind—I heard her say something—it was a signal to let them know a policeman was coming” (from Old Bailey Proceedings Online).

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