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Suffrage, then and now

Q: I was surprised by the use of “woman suffrage” rather than “women’s suffrage” in a history textbook. The term seems odd to me. Is “woman suffrage” just a less popular variant?

A: Both forms of the expression are common, “woman suffrage” and “women’s suffrage.” While publishers’ preferences may vary, one is no more “correct” than the other.

In the first version, “woman suffrage,” the noun “woman” is used attributively (that is, adjectivally, as in “man cave”). In the second, “women’s suffrage,” the genitive “women’s” is used to indicate “for whom”—suffrage for women.

While “woman suffrage” has been more common historically, a recent Ngram comparison shows that the two are now almost equal in popularity.

Now for a little history. “Suffrage” in these expressions means the right to vote in political elections. But the word didn’t always have that meaning.

When “suffrage” entered English in the 1300s it had religious meanings associated with the medieval Christian church. Used in the plural, “suffrages” were prayers, petitions, commemorations, pleas for intercession, and so on, often addressed to a particular saint.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, these prayers or petitions were “typically said at the end of one of the daily offices, or incorporated into a book of hours.”

The earliest known use is from Ancrene Riwle (“rule for anchoresses”), an anonymous Middle English guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts, some dating to the early 1200s; this OED citation is from a copy made in the late 1300s:

“On niȝth oiþer in þe Mornynge after þe suffrages seiþ þe commendacioun” (“Either at night or in the morning after the suffrages say the commendation”).

The word was borrowed into English partly from French and partly from Latin, and in those languages it had several meanings, according to the OED.

In Middle French, suffrage or soufrage meant “prayer, intercession, especially for the souls of the dead,” as well as a vote, an act of voting, and “help, support, assistance.”

In classical Latin, suffragium meant a “vote cast in an assembly, expression of approval, action of voting, right of voting, decision reached by voting, favourable influence, help.” Later, in post-classical Latin, it also came to mean “prayer, intercession.”

Though “suffrage” was exclusively a religious term in medieval Britain, it widened in the 16th century to include senses related to voting.

As a political term “suffrage” originally meant “the collective vote of a group of people, esp. that of a nation’s citizens eligible to vote in a political election,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use is from a letter written by the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot in 1531: “either by the acte of the senate, or by the peoples suffrage.”

A few years later, “suffrage” was being used to mean “the action or an act of casting a vote or votes; election by voting.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a treatise by John Aylmer, Bishop of London, in 1559: “to be chosen by lotte, or suffrage.”

The modern meaning of “suffrage” emerged later in the same century. The OED defines it as “the right, privilege, or responsibility of voting in political elections.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Some … were onely admitted into the Citie without suffrage, and for honours sake called Citizens.” (From The Counsellor, a 1598 translation of a political work written in Latin by a Polish bishop, Wawrzyniec Goślicki.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from the South African newspaper Business Day (March 3, 2016): “The women of Saudi Arabia voted for the first time, making the Vatican City the last state on earth in which women do not enjoy any form of suffrage.” [Note: The writer overlooks countries that do not allow elections at all.]

That brings us to the phrases “woman suffrage” and “women’s suffrage,” both dating from the 19th century and defined in the OED as “the right of women to vote in political elections.”

First on the scene was “woman suffrage,” according to OED citations. The earliest example is from a British newspaper:

“Give us the ‘People’s Charter,’ and then if found necessary he would be quite willing to go into the question of Woman Suffrage” (The Northern Star, Leeds, Oct. 24, 1846). The People’s Charter, cornerstone of the Chartist movement, was a manifesto aimed at giving working-class men the right to vote and to stand for election whether they owned property or not.

The first sighting of “women’s suffrage” is from another British newspaper: “A branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage” (The Times, London, May 11, 1868).

Now for a trick question: Which nation, the US or the UK, was first to give women the right to vote?

“In the United Kingdom,” the OED says, “the Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the franchise to women aged 30 and over who met certain property ownership qualifications, and all men over 21 regardless of property ownership. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act conferred voting rights on all women on equal terms to men.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, “sex-based restriction of voting rights was prohibited in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the constitution.”

So Britain first gave women limited voting rights, but the US first gave them full voting rights.

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Congregate or congregant care?

Q: Is health-care housing where lots of people live in close proximity “congregant” or “congregate” living? I see both terms used interchangeably, even within the same publication.

A: “Congregate” is overwhelmingly more popular than “congregant” as an adjective to describe group services or facilities for people, especially the elderly, who need supportive care. And it’s the only one of the two usages included in the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

American Heritage, for example, defines “congregate” as a verb meaning “to bring or come together in a group,” and as an adjective meaning “involving a group: congregate living facilities for senior citizens.” It defines “congregant” solely as a noun for “one who congregates, especially a member of a group of people gathered for religious worship.”

Collins, Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World have similar definitions. Lexico has similar definitions in its American English version but doesn’t include “congregate” as an adjective in its British version. Cambridge, Longman, and Macmillan don’t have either the noun “congregant” or the adjective “congregate.”

In the News on the Web corpus, a database from articles in newspapers and magazines on the Internet, the “congregate” usage is significantly more popular than the one with “congregant.”

Here are the results of some recent searches: “congregate living,” 820 examples; “congregant living,” 35; “congregate care,” 579; “congregant care,” 18; “congregate housing,” 95; “congregant housing,” 0.

In searches with Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, “congregant living” barely registered, while “congregant care” and “congregant housing” didn’t show up at all.

As for the etymology, both “congregate” and “congregant” are derived from congregare, classical Latin for to collect together into a flock or company, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Congregate,” the oldest of the two English words, showed up around 1400 as a verb meaning to collect or gather things together. In the 1500s, it took on the modern sense of to gather together into a group of people.

The adjective, which is derived from congregatus, past participle of congregare, appeared soon after the verb in this OED citation: “These men somme tyme congregate schalle goe furthe” (from an early 15th-century translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a 14th-century Latin work of history and theology).

The latecomer, “congregant,” is derived from congregantem, present participle of congregare. It showed up in the late 19th century as a noun that Oxford defines as “one of those who congregate anywhere; a member of a congregation; esp. a member of a Jewish congregation.”

We’ve expanded the dictionary’s first example: “The Bevis Marks synagogue, the only building of genuine historical interest in England which the Jews can boast, is at the present moment threatened with destruction at the hands of a portion of its own governing body, to the dismay of the majority of its congregants and of the community in general” (The Pall Mall Gazette, London, March 24, 1886).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “congregant” used as an adjective. As far as we can tell from a cursory search, the usage showed up in the 20th century, perhaps originally as an eggcorn, a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

Here’s an example from a few decades ago: “Joan is a young woman who does considerable work with older people and serves on the board of a congregant housing facility for the elderly” (from Ministry of the Laity, 1986, by James Desmond Anderson and Ezra Earl Jones).

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Can ‘were’ mean ‘would be’?

Q: I’m curious about W. Somerset Maugham’s use of “were” for “would be” in this passage: “I am eager to know if you still devote upon the ungrateful arts talents which were more profitably employed upon haberdashery.” I find the usage neat, though I suspect that it’s now an archaism.

A: The use of “were” in place of “would be” (as in “He were better dead” instead of “He would be better dead”) was outdated even in Maugham’s youth, when he wrote that sentence.

This “were” is a subjunctive form of the verb “be,” but it’s a particular subjunctive use that’s found only in older writing that would now be considered mannered and formal. (Some subjunctive uses of “were” are alive and well, as we’ve written previously.)

The passage you’re asking about is from The Magician, a Maugham novel written in 1907 and set in fin-de-siècle Paris. Fifty years later, in his Fragment of an Autobiography, he called the writing “turgid” and said he “must have been impressed by the écriture artiste [artistic writing] of the French writers of the time” and had “unwisely sought to imitate them.”

[By the way, as one reader has observed, the “were” in the passage could correctly be read as the simple past tense (not the subjunctive) if the artist being addressed had ever been a haberdasher. But that’s not the case (we read a good part of the novel to make sure). The speaker, a nasty and pompous man, uses “were” subjunctively to say haberdashery would have been a better career choice.]

As we said, even when Maugham wrote the novel that use of “were” was excessively formal. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry W. Fowler mentions the construction only briefly, and as something to avoid.

He cites these examples (the recommended uses in brackets are his): “it were [would be] better to leave the sculpture galleries empty” … “It were [would be] futile to attempt to deprive it of its real meaning.”

Fowler says there’s “nothing incorrect” in those examples, but the subjunctive uses “diffuse an atmosphere of dullness & formalism over the writing.”

The subject is treated even more briefly in the second edition (1965) of Fowler’s work, and is dropped altogether from the third (1996) and fourth (2015). Modern comprehensive grammars of English don’t mention it either. So we can safely call it archaic.

Here are some random examples from writings of the past:

“It were lost sorrow to wail one that’s lost.” (Shakespeare, King Richard III, circa 1593.)

“It were much better for your Lordship not to have vowed at all, then [than] not to perform after you have vowed.” (Miracles Not Ceas’d, a religious tract written anonymously by Sir Kenelm Digby, 1663.)

“From one worthy action, it were credulity, not charity, to conclude a person to be free from all vice.” (Hugh Blair, a minister and professor of rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. From the 5th edition of his Sermons, 1780.)

“ ‘It were different,’ continued the father, after a pause, and in a more resolute tone, ‘if I had some independence, however small, to count on.’ ” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, My Novel: Or, Varieties in English Life, 1853.)

Fowler included the use of “were” for “would be” among subjunctive “survivals,” forms that are no longer “alive” or natural in speech, and added this comment:

“Subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.” (We added the italics for emphasis. The subjunctives recognized as “living” in Fowler’s time are still alive today.)

[Note: This post was updated on March 5, 2021.]

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Whoa!

Q: When did people start using “woah” instead of “whoa”? Is this just a misspelling or is there more to it?

A: The usual spelling now is “whoa,” but several of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult accept “woah” as a variant or less common version. In fact, the word has been spelled all sorts of ways since it showed up in English in the 15th century as a variant of an older interjection, “ho.”

Three of the standard dictionaries (Collins, Dictionary.com, and Lexico) list “woah” as a variant spelling of “whoa.” Meriam-Webster, which doesn’t as of now include “woah” as a variant, has an interesting “Words We’re Watching” article entitled “Is it time to accept ‘woah’ as an acceptable spelling of ‘whoa’?”

M-W’s answer: “Woah is not yet in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as an official spelling variant of whoa, but its usage has increased dramatically in the current century. ‘Whoa’ is still much more common however, so only time will tell if this spelling variant is accepted.”

Our own search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, shows that as of 2019 “whoa” was overwhelmingly more popular than “woah.”

Both spellings have the same pronunciation (rhymes with “woe”), though sometimes the “h” is aspirated at the beginning of the word. The length and emphasis of the pronunciation varies, depending on the way the word is used—to express surprise, wonder, interest, a call to halt, and so on.

How do the lexicographers at a dictionary decide on an acceptable spelling?

As Merriam-Webster explains, “The spelling variants we include in our dictionaries are, like the words and their definitions, based on evidence, and primarily on evidence as found in published, edited text. It’s not that the language as it’s used outside of published, edited text is less effective in communicating; it’s that looking at the language as it’s used in published, edited text provides a scope for our work that is both useful to our readers and possible for our lexicographers.”

“We can’t scan the Facebook threads of millions of speakers of English for variant spellings,” the dictionary adds, “and most of you likely care more about whether a particular spelling has met the editorial standards of the likes of Forbes and The Atlantic than those of your cousin Steve. Is a particular spelling regarded as an error by the people whose jobs it is to consider such things? That’s the question we answer.”

As for the etymology, when the word “ho,” ancestor of “whoa,” showed up in the early 14th century, it was “an exclamation expressing, according to intonation, surprise, admiration, exultation (often ironical), triumph, taunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The earliest OED citation, dated at sometime before 1325, is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem: “ ‘Ho!’ all þan cun þai cri, ‘Qua herd euer sua gret ferli’ ” (“ ‘Ho!’ all then could cry, ‘Who ever heard of so great a wonder’ ”).

By the late 14th century, the interjection “ho” was being used as “a call to stop or to cease what one is doing.” Here’s the earliest OED citation: “Of golde he shulde such plente [plenty] / Receive, till he saide ho.” From Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession,” 1390), a long poem by John Gower.

And by the early 15th century, “ho” was also “an exclamation to attract attention.” The first OED citation is from “London Lickpenny” (circa 1430), a poem by John Lydgate: “Then hyed I me to Belyngsgate; / And one cryed, ‘hoo! go we hence!’ ”

In the early 19th century, “ho” was first used in writing as “a call to an animal to stop or stand still.” The earliest Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), by Noah Webster: “HO, exclam. A word used by teamsters, to stop their teams. … This word is pronounced also whō, or hwō.”

The OED says “whoa” emerged as a “variant of ho.” When “whoa” showed up in Middle English (originally spelled “whoo”), it was a command to either a person or an animal to stop.

In the earliest OED example, recorded around 1467, King Edward IV halts a joust in London when it becomes too violent: “Then the Kyng perceyvyng the cruell assaile, cast his staff, and with high voice, cried, Whoo!” (cited in Excerpta Historica, 1831, by Samuel Bentley).

Over the next few hundred years, according to Oxford citations, the word was spelled “whoo,” “who,” “whoe,” and “whoh” before “whoa” appeared at the beginning of the 19th century: “I could na bide it,—groaned so desperately.—Whoa! whoa! whoa! Jolly” (from an anonymous novel, The Knight and Mason, 1801).

By the end of the 19th century, the OED notes, “whoa” was being “used as a general interjection to command attention or express that one is surprised, impressed, interested, etc.” The dictionary’s first citation is from the lyrics of “Georgia Rabbit,” an anonymous Southern country song:

Georgia Rabbit, whoa, whoa!
Georgia Rabbit, whoa!
Stole my lover, whoa! whoa!
Stole my lover, whoa!

Gwine to git nudder one, whoa, whoa!
Gwine to git nudder one, whoa!
Jes’ like t’udder one, whoa, whoa!
Jes’ like t’udder one, whoa!

As for the “woah” spelling, it’s been around since at least the 18th century, according to OED citations. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is said to describe a 1762 incident in Bristol, England, in which a demon purportedly used the term when asked if it were a witch:

“Mrs. Elmes and the children heard it cry out, ‘Jee, woah,’ as waggoners used to say in driving horses.” From A Narrative of Some Extraordinary Things That Happened to Mr. Richard Giles’s Children (1800), by Henry Durbin. The event is also described in a Jan. 23, 1762, entry in The Diary of William Dyer: Bristol in 1762, edited by Jonathan Barry in 2012 for the Bristol Record Society.

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On and off the grid

Q: I’m curious about the deep root of the word “grid.” Could it come from an old Egyptian language? The reason I’m asking is that I saw grid-like hieroglyphs during a visit to the Ra-Mosa tomb at Luxor.

A: The English word “grid” is a short form of “gridiron,” which was originally a medieval instrument of torture. The etymology is uncertain beyond there, but one theory is that “grid” may ultimately come from a prehistoric Indo-European root that could also have given English the words “crate,” “grate,” “griddle,” “grill,” and “hurdle.”

We’ve seen no evidence that the English word is related to a term in Old Egyptian, which is derived from the reconstructed prehistoric language Proto-Afro-Asiatic. However, some linguists have written of similarities between Proto-Afro-Asiatic and Proto-Indo-European, so an ancient connection is not inconceivable.

When the noun “grid” showed up in English in the early 19th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant “an arrangement of parallel bars with openings between them; a grating.” The OED says “grid” is a back-formation from “gridiron.” A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an old one.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “grid” is from instructions on how to melt glass in a furnace: “A is the pot, resting upon the arched grid b a, built of fire-bricks, whose apertures are wide enough to let the flames rise freely, and strike the bottom and sides of the vessel.” From A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines, 1839, by Andrew Ure.

The older noun “gridiron” (spelled gredire in Middle English) originally referred to a frame of iron bars that held a person over a fire. The earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a 13th-century description of the torture of Saint Lawrence, the Archdeacon of Rome, who was beaten with iron scourges and burned to death on a gridiron, according to this medieval account:

“Strong fuyr he lieth maken and gret: and a gredire þar-on sette, bene holie Man, seint laurence” (“A strong, great fire lies made, and there on a gridiron sits the good holy man Saint Lawrence”). From a manuscript, written around 1290, in The South English Legendary, a Middle English collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures.

In the 14th century, according to OED citations, “gridiron” came to mean “a cooking utensil formed of parallel bars of iron or other metal in a frame, usually supported on short legs, and used for broiling flesh or fish over a fire.”

The dictionary’s first example of the cooking sense of the word (with “gridiron” written as gredyrne) is from a biblical passage on building an altar for burnt offerings: “Thow shalt make … a brasun gredyrne in the manere of a nett” (Wycliffe Bible of 1382, Exodus 27:4). A later Wycliffe version uses gridele, an early spelling of “griddle,” while more recent bibles generally use “grate” or “grating.”

The OED says the term “gridiron” has been used figuratively since the early 15th century for various “objects resembling or likened to a gridiron,” such as the grid-like pattern of streets in a city, tracks in a railroad terminal, or yard lines on an American football field.

The earliest football example we’ve found in searches of old newspaper databases is from an article about a Princeton-Yale game:

“Unlike former Princeton teams, the present one is without a star performer, that hero of the gridiron who is always likely to make a Lamar run or kick a goal from the forty-five yard line as Moffat did five years since.” From the Evening Herald (Shenandoah, Pa.), Nov. 26, 1891.

The OED’s earliest example appeared a little later, in a British article describing football in the US: “The ground here is marked out by white lines … thus giving it the appearance of a gigantic gridiron—which, indeed, is the technical name applied to an American football field.” From the Daily News (London), Dec. 10, 1896.

The words “grid” and “gridiron,” as well as “crate,” “grate,” “griddle,” and “hurdle,” may ultimately come from the Proto-Indo-European root kert- (to turn, entwine), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. A “hurdle” was originally a wickerwork frame used as a temporary fence for farm animals.

Finally, the expression “off the grid” (not connected to an electrical grid or other utilities) showed up in the late 20th century, initially in the adjectival and adverbial form “off-grid,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the full expression used in this sense is from Clicking: 16 Trends to Future Fit Your Life, Your work, and Your Business (1996), by Faith Popcorn and Lys Marigold:

“Mainly right-wing survivalists … basically want to be left alone to live ‘off the grid.’ Or to become nonexistent, as far as the government is concerned.”

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To welsh on a bet

Q: Where does “welsh on a bet” come from? A friend of mine says distrust of the Welsh by the English, but I’m skeptical. This seems too easy.

A: The use of “welsh,” meaning to renege on a bet, is of uncertain origin, but it may indeed have originated as a slur against the Welsh, the people of Wales. Four of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult consider the term offensive to one degree or another.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the usage is perhaps “on account of alleged dishonesty of Welsh people.” The OED notes that the verb “welsh” showed up in the mid-19th century shortly after two similar derogatory terms, the noun “welsher” and the gerund “welshing.”

The dictionary cites this passage from a Nov. 5, 1859, article in the Morning Chronicle (London): “The phrase ‘Welshing book-maker’ seems to owe its origin to a nursery rhyme, commencing with ‘Taffy was a Welshman, &c.,’ and, as we understand, means a dishonest betting man on the turf.”

As far as we know, the earliest example of the nursery rhyme is in Nancy Cock’s Pretty Song Book for All Little Misses and Masters, circa 1780.  Here are the opening lines:

“Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, / Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef.” The name “Taffy” may come from “Dafydd,” a Welsh name related to “David,” and the Taff, the river in Cardiff.

The OED defines the verb “welsh” as “to renege on payment of money owed to (a person) as winnings on a bet.” The word is spelled “welch” in the dictionary’s earliest citation: “The plaintiff denied that he had ever … ‘welched’ a man named Williams at Worcester in 1854” (Racing Times, Jan. 16, 1860).

Oxford defines the noun “welsher” as “a bookmaker at a race meeting who takes money for a bet, but absconds or refuses to pay after a loss.” The dictionary’s first example of the noun is also from the Racing Times (Oct. 19, 1852):

“One of the above fraternity [namely, betting impostors] was observed following his calling, by a former victim. … The ‘Welsher’ sneaked off to another corner of the field.”

And this is the dictionary’s earliest citation for the use of “welshing” to mean reneging on a debt: “The subterfuge and welching of the betting enclosure” (from the Era, a London weekly, June 11, 1854).

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Who was that masked-up man?

Q: Our governor in Michigan uses the phrase “mask up” a lot, but it sounds off to me. What do you think about it?

A: In our opinion, “mask up” was an inevitable usage. To “mask up” is to put on a mask, just as to “suit up” is to put on a uniform, to “saddle up” is to put a saddle on a horse, and to “lawyer up” is to put a lawyer on the case.

Several phrasal verbs formed with “up” imply preparing for something, with “up” used emphatically to imply that the preparation is necessary or important.

With people arming themselves against Covid-19, “mask up” was bound to emerge. In addition, many states, counties, and cities have joined the “Mask Up” campaign launched last summer by the American Medical Association. That and other influences have made the phrase fairly common.

So far, not one of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult has an entry for “mask up.” However, Merriam-Webster’s entry for the verb “mask,” in the sense of “to put on a mask” or “to cover the face with a mask,” says it’s “often used with up.”

The British publisher Macmillan has no entry for “mask up” in its standard dictionary either. But last July it added one to its crowdsourced Open Dictionary with this definition:  “to wear a mask or face covering.” The example given: “That’s why we are asking all Hoosiers to mask up—and speak up about how wearing your mask can save lives” (from an announcement by Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana, July 1, 2020).

When “mask up” was featured last summer as a “Word of the Day” on Macmillan’s blog, this explanation was given:

“The phrasal verb mask up is formed from the verb ‘mask’ and the adverb ‘up.’ ” The blog continued: “Although mask up isn’t new, you may have seen it around quite a bit recently. Mask up, like suit up or gown up, implies preparation for some particular activity, the ‘up’ part occurring in many phrasal verbs that indicate getting ready for something.”

Another British dictionary, Collins, says that “mask up” was submitted last September as a “new word suggestion” and that the term’s approval for the dictionary is “pending investigation.”

Later we’ll discuss some of the other phrasal verbs formed with “up,” but first a little more about “mask,” a word that probably comes from Arabic. Here’s the story.

In English, the verb “mask” was derived from the noun, both of which first appeared in English in the early 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun was borrowed into English from the French masque (a face covering), which in turn came from the Italian maschera (a mask), though the OED says any “further etymology [is] uncertain.”

However, Oxford and other sources suggest two possibilities for the origin of maschera in Italian. The less likely is that it came from the post-classical Latin masca (a specter or evil spirit), but that word too is of unknown ancestry.

A more probable source, and one that’s widely accepted, is the Arabic noun maskhara (a buffoon, joke, masquerade, or object of ridicule), derived from the verb sakhira (to ridicule or mock). In fact, many etymologists believe that maskhara is also the ultimate source of “masquerade” and “mascara” (the cosmetic).

Today the noun “mask” means a face covering, and that’s what it principally meant when it came into English in the early 1500s. But around the same time, a variant of the word was also used for a courtly entertainment in which masked participants danced and so forth. Early on, different spellings emerged for the two senses—“mask” for the first and “masque” for the second.

This is the earliest entry for the face-covering sense of “mask” in the OED: “The vices that they brought [from Asia] to Rome. … The patritiens [patricians] bearyng Measques, the Plebeyens usynge smelles [aromatic scents], and the emperours to weare purple.” John Bourchier’s translation from the Spanish of The Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius, by Antonio de Guevara, translated sometime before Bourchier’s death in 1533.

Here’s how the OED defines the original meaning of the noun: “A covering worn on or held in front of the face for disguise, esp. one made of velvet, silk, etc., and concealing the whole face or the upper part of it (except the eyes), worn at balls and masques.”

The verb “mask” came into English around the same time. Originally, in the 1520s, it meant to take part in a masque or masquerade, and later in the 1500s, to be disguised or to wear a mask.

These are the dictionary’s earliest citations for the verb meaning “to cover (the face or head) with a mask; to disguise with a mask,” both from Shakespeare:

“Where now I haue no one to blush with me … To maske their browes and hide their infamie” (Lucrece, 1594) … “The Trompet soundes, be maskt, the maskers come” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1598).

Over the centuries, both the noun and the verb have had dozens of meanings, literal and figurative. We’ll skip to the protective senses that concern us today.

The OED’s definition of the noun “mask” in this sense is “a covering worn over the mouth and nose in order to reduce the transmission of infectious agents, or to prevent the inhalation of pollutants and other harmful substances.”

The dictionary’s earliest example: “It is absolutely necessary for important operations … to use a mask, which will filter the expired air” (a paper by Dr. Henry Lewis Wagner, presented before the Medical Society of California, April 19, 1900).

This later Oxford citation looks more familiar: “Jefferson and colleagues … advise public health measures like frequent handwashing, quarantining infected people, and wearing masks and gowns” (HealthFacts, the monthly newsletter of the Center for Medical Consumers, Feb. 5, 2006).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, hasn’t yet caught up to the verb “mask” as found today—to use a protective cover for breathing. Standard dictionaries, however, are on the case.

For instance, Merriam-Webster defines this use of “mask” as “to put on a mask” or “to cover the face with a mask” and gives this example: “As workplaces reopen, employees must mask and wash hands frequently.”

As we mentioned earlier, M-W also says the verb is “often used with up.” It gives this example: “On a recent weekend, we masked up and went for a bicycle ride in Tokyo” (New York Times, June 7, 2020).

We can’t tell you when “mask up,” meaning to put on a protective breathing mask for medical reasons, first appeared. But we did find this late 20th-century example:

“In the 80’s, we made dentists aware of the need to glove and mask up for protection from AIDS and hepatitis B” (from an interview with a marketer of health-care products, New York Times, June 30, 1996).

Finally, a few other phrasal verbs that use “up,” along with definitions and the earliest OED citations:

“Saddle up,” meaning “to put a saddle on (a horse or other animal),” or “get in the saddle”; later (like “mount up”) it acquired an extended sense, to get ready or get going. Earliest use: “He sadled vp his horse, and roade in post away” (Tragicall Tales, 1587, G. Turberville’s translations of Italian poems).

“Suit up,” meaning to dress in or provide someone with “a set of clothes or garment (such as a spacesuit, wetsuit, etc.) designed or required for a particular activity or occupation”; or to dress smartly or in a suit. Earliest use: “Last year the team looked like a bunch of rag muffins and the University and students should see to it that the Baker team is suited up in the right manner this year” (from a Kansas newspaper, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, Feb. 28, 1912).

“Gown up,” meaning “to put on a surgical gown, esp. before taking part in an operation.” Earliest use: “My staff recognize my work even if they don’t actually see my face. But, of course, they did see it, before I gowned up” (P. D. James’s novel A Taste for Death, 1986).

“Lawyer up,” meaning “to request a lawyer when being questioned by the police” or, more generally, “to hire a lawyer.” Earliest use: “What really spooks the … detectives on ‘N.Y.P.D. Blue’ is the prospect of a suspect ‘lawyering up’ ” (New York Times, Feb. 23, 1995).

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The first wordsmith in chief

[Note: In observance of Presidents’ Day, we’re reprinting a post from Feb. 18, 2019.]

Q: I’ve read that Thomas Jefferson, our third president, liked to coin new words. He thought neologisms kept a language fresh. For Presidents’ Day, please write about some POTUS contributions to the English language.

A: Yes, Thomas Jefferson coined scores of new words, including “neologize.” He commented on the practice in an Aug. 15, 1820, letter to John Adams: “I am a friend to neology. It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.”

And Jefferson wasn’t the only wordsmith in chief. We can thank US presidents for coining or popularizing many of our most common words and phrases. George Washington was particularly inventive, so let’s focus today on his many neologisms.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites dozens of the first US president’s lexical firsts. Here are some of them:

  • “average” (verb): “A fat wether—it being imagind … would average the above weight” (from a note in Washington’s diary about a 103-pound castrated ram, February 1769).
  • “baking” (adjective): “The ground, by the heavy rains … and baking Winds since, had got immensely hard” (from a diary entry, May 9, 1786).
  • “commitment”: “If Mr Gouv’r Morris was employed in this business, it would be a commitment for his employment as Minister” (diary, Oct. 8, 1789).
  • “district court”: “The District Court is held in it [Salisbury, N.C.]” (diary, May 30, 1791).
  • “facilitated” (adjective): “It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions” (from a speech, Sept. 17, 1796).
  • “fox hunt” (verb): “Rid up to Toulston in order to fox hunt it” (diary, Jan. 24, 1768).
  • “heat” (sexual excitement in dogs): “Musick was also in heat & servd promiscuously by all the Dogs” (diary, June 22, 1768).
  • “indoors”: “There are many sorts of in-doors work, which can be executed in Hail, Rain, or Snow, as well as in sunshine” (from a letter to James Anderson, manager of the farms at Mount Vernon, Dec. 10, 1799).
  • “logged” (adjective): “A Logged dwelling house with a punchion Roof” (dairy, Sept. 20, 1784).
  • “out-of-the-way”: “They have built three forts here, and one of them … erected in my opinion in a very out-of-the-way place” (from a letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Governor of Virginia, Oct. 10, 1756).
  • “paroled” (adjective): “I cannot consent to send them to New York, as with an old Balance and those who have gone in with paroled officers, the enemy already owe us 900 Men” (from a letter to Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, Oct. 13, 1782).
  • “off-duty”: “The General earnestly expects every Officer and Soldier of this Army will shew the utmost alertness, as well upon duty, as off duty” (from orders issued on March 9, 1776, during the final days of the British siege of Boston).
  • “rehire” (noun): “Nor ought there to be any transfer of the lease, or re-hire of the Negros without your consent first had & obtained in writing” (from a letter written June 10, 1793, to his niece Frances Bassett Washington, offering advice on renting out an estate of hers).
  • “rent” (verb): “The Plantation on which Mr. Simpson lives rented well—viz. for 500 Bushels of Wheat” (diary, Sept. 15, 1784).
  • “riverside” (adjective): “Has 2 Pecks of sd. Earth and 1 of Riverside Sand” (diary, April 14, 1760).
  • “tow path”: “A tow path on the Maryland side” (diary, June 2, 1788).

Happy birthday, George.

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When maitre d’s are possessive

Q: I have an arcane punctuation question for you. Would the singular possessive of maître d’  be maître d’s or maître d’’s? And if there are several maître d’s, would the plural possessive be maître d’s’ or maybe maîtres d’s?

A: We’ll begin with the usual singular and plural forms of the contracted noun and its fuller version (in contemporary English the circumflexes are optional and italics aren’t used).

  • Singular: “maitre d’ ” … “maitre d’hotel”
  • Plural: “maitre d’s” … “maitres d’hotel”

Those are the recommended singulars and plurals given in all 10 of the standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult.

In the plural of the contracted form, “s” is simply added to the end of the singular. In the plural of the longer form, the noun “maitre,” not the adjectival “d’hotel,” gets the plural inflection (“s”), which is the usual rule for forming the plurals of English compounds. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 7.7) illustrates with the examples “fathers-in-law,” “chefs d’oeuvre,” “coups d’etat,” and “masters of arts.”

Dictionaries do not provide the possessive forms of nouns. Here are the possessive forms we recommend for the singular nouns, and the reasons why:

  • Singular possessive: “maitre d’s” … “maitre d’hotel’s”

In the shorter noun, there’s no double apostrophe (’’); a single apostrophe serves both to contract the term and to form its possessive. This is consistent with the usual rule for not using two identical punctuation marks together; one can do double duty if needed, as when an abbreviation like “etc.” falls at the end of a sentence.

In the longer noun, the final element gets the possessive inflection (apostrophe + “s”), which is the usual rule for forming the possessives of English compounds. The Chicago Manual (section 7.24), gives the example “my daughter-in-law’s address.”

Finally, these are the possessive forms we recommend for the plurals, and our reasons why:

  • Plural possessive: “maitre d’s” …  “maitres d’hotel’s”

In the shorter noun, we see no reason to add another apostrophe to the plural (“maitre d’s”) and create a monster (“maitre d’s’ ”). We adhere to that well-known edict of copy editors everywhere: Don’t follow a rule if it leads you off a cliff. We advise letting the first apostrophe + “s” do double duty, as both the plural and the possessive inflection. Another choice is to use “of” with the plural, making it attributive rather than possessive—as in “He designs the uniforms of maitre d’s” (rather than “He designs maitre d’s uniforms”). Here’s the Chicago Manual again: “If ambiguity threatens, use of to avoid the possessive” (7.20).

In the longer noun, the final element of the compound gets the possessive inflection, which is the usual rule for forming the possessives of English compounds whether they’re singular or plural. Again we’ll cite the Chicago Manual (section 7.24): “In compound nouns and compound phrases, the final element takes the possessive form, even in the plural.” Its examples include “parents-in-law’s message” (section 5.20) and “my sons-in-laws’ addresses” (7.24).

One more point about punctuation before we move on. When the singular “maitre d’ ” comes at the end of a sentence or clause, the period or other mark goes outside the apostrophe: “The restaurant has a new maître d’.” The apostrophe is considered part of the word, and no other mark should come between them (Chicago Manual, 6.118).

Why all this effort to answer a few simple punctuation questions? Well, “maitre d’ ” is an abnormality in English, a noun ending in an apostrophe. Naturally, that apostrophe makes the plural and the possessive abnormal too. Now let’s move on to some etymology.

The word “maitre d’ ” was formed in the US in the early 20th century as a contracted version of “maitre d’hotel,” which had come into English in the 16th century. We’ll begin with the original.

In French, maître d’hôtel dates back to the 13th century and literally means “master of the house.” It originally was used for the major-domo, overseer, or head steward at a mansion or townhouse, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (This was a time when the noun hôtel meant a large private home or a nobleman’s residence.)

When this term was borrowed into English in the 16th century, it meant what it did in French, the OED says: “a major-domo, a steward, a butler.” Here’s the OED’s earliest citation for its use in written English:

“Tannagel, the maistre d’hostell with vij [seven] persons.” From a letter written in 1540 and cited in Original Letters, Illustrative of English History: 3rd Series (1846), edited by Sir Henry Ellis, then head librarian at the British Museum.

This sense of “maitre d’hotel,” as a butler or chief servant in an affluent home, persisted even into the 20th century. Here’s an OED citation from Rebecca West’s novel The Thinking Reed (1936): “She [a woman of great wealth] had sent both the chef and the maître d’hôtel off on a holiday.”

The more familiar, commercial senses of “maitre d’hotel”—defined in the OED as “a hotel manager” but now usually “the manager of a hotel dining room” or a headwaiter—emerged in both French and in English. The dictionary’s earliest English example is from the 19th century:

“A venerable maître d’hôtel in black cutting up neatly the dishes on a trencher at the side-table, and several waiters attending.” From William Makepeace Thackeray’s article “Memorials of Gormandising,” published in the June 1841 issue of Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country. (We’ve expanded the passage, in which Thackeray describes a sumptuous dinner for 10, priced at 15 pence a head.)

The contracted “maitre d’,” which is used only for a headwaiter or the head of a dining room, was formed in the US in the early 20th century but soon spread to Britain. The apostrophe is a sign of contraction showing that part of the original was omitted.

(As the OED notes, a contraction also appeared in French in 1975, maître d’hô. There, the first apostrophe shows the contraction of de, and no second apostrophe is added to show the omission of tel.)

The earliest examples of “maitre d’ ” that we’ve found in our searches of old newspaper databases are from the 1930s.

Here’s the oldest: “The sophomores, in signing the Winton for the Case Mid-year Hop, had to do some tall talking because the maitre d’ there remembered the famous all-Case bun-throwing banquet last spring and wanted a breakage deposit.” From the Campus Gossip column in a student newspaper, Case Tech, Cleveland, Jan. 22, 1930.

And here’s a second example from the ’30s, found in an ad announcing a California restaurant opening: “The Maitre d’ Greets You.” From the Coronado Citizen, Nov. 3, 1938.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the 1940s, in an article about a Hollywood restaurant: “Marcel, a plump and smiling Frenchman, is Earl-Carol’s maitre d’. … Marcel guesses he is the only combination psychoanalyst and maitre d’ in the business” (Oakland Tribune, Feb. 24, 1942).

And this British citation from the OED shows the plural form that’s still recommended today: “Maître d’s give her their best tables” (Sunday Express Magazine, Jan. 18, 1987).

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When ‘repulsive’ wasn’t disgusting

Q: It seems to me that words weaken over time, though I’ve found an example where the trajectory is opposite. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen uses “repulsive” to mean off-putting while it’s now a real nose-wrinkler: “She had not spirits to notice her in more than a few repulsive looks.” Is this an isolated case? And would a linguist use such terms as “weaken” and “strengthen” here?

A: Interestingly, “repulsive” had a positive medical sense when it first showed up in the early 15th century. It was originally a noun and an adjective for a medicine believed to repel noxious humors infecting a body organ. That sense of the word exists now only in historical references.

The term was borrowed into Middle English from two adjectives meaning able to repel: repulsif (Middle French) and repulsivus (medieval Latin). But the ultimate source is the classical Latin verb repellere (to repel or drive back).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original sense of “repulsive” as “repercussive,” a now-historical noun or adjective for a medical treatment “that drives a morbid humour, fluid, etc., back to its source or away or inwards from a swollen or diseased part; that suppresses an infection, swelling, eruption, etc.”

The earliest examples for “repulsive” in the OED are from Grande Chirurgie (circa 1425), a translation of a 14th-century Latin treatise on surgery by the French physician Guy de Chauliac.

In one citation, a “repulsyue” ingredient is included in a medicine said to resist humors infecting a kidney. In another, the recommended treatment is for medicines that draw fluids toward a body part, “and nouȝt repulsyues [nought repulsives].” The repulsives, as we’ve said, were thought to draw fluids away.

In the 16th century, the adjective “repulsive” came to describe the repelling or resisting of something or someone. The first Oxford example describes a bay tree’s supposed ability to repel lightning:

“The Baye tree is sildome harmed with the lightning … for so much as it hath thys repulsiue vertue of the lightning through the inner cause” (from A Contemplation of Mysteries, circa 1574, by Thomas Hill).

And here’s an example, which we’ve expanded, of someone who uses “denial, coldness of manner, etc.” to repel or resist someone else:

“Be not discouraged that my daughter heere, / Like a well fortified and loftie tower, / Is so repulsiue and vnapt to yeelde” (from The Blinde Begger of Alexandria, a 1598 comedy by the Elizabethan dramatist and poet George Chapman).

As you’ve noticed, Jane Austen uses that sense of “repulsive” in her novels. In Emma, for example, Frank Churchill uses it in the repelling sense after Emma speaks of Jane Fairfax’s reserve:

“It is a most repulsive quality, indeed,” said he. “Oftentimes very convenient, no doubt, but never pleasing. There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person.” Frank, as the reader later learns, is secretly engaged to Miss Fairfax.

The usual modern sense of the adjective “repulsive,” which the OED defines as “arousing intense distaste; disgusting, loathsome,” appeared in the early 1790s—two decades before Austen began publishing her novels.

The first OED example for the loathsome sense of “repulsive” is from The Siege of Belgrade (1791), an anonymous historical novel:

“As for Prince Czerskalkoi, though she found him repulsive to her nature, she yet could not wish him so great an evil, as that of being united to a wife who could not love him.” We’ve expanded the citation. The book is signed “The Translator,” and described as “An Historical Novel Translated From a German Manuscript.”

The older repelling or resisting sense of “repulsive” still shows up once in a while. The OED’s latest example is from 2008, but we’ll cite this one from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925): “There was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women.”

As for your question about terminology, yes, a linguist might refer to the loss or reduction of meaning in a word or phrase as “semantic weakening.” Other terms for such a semantic change include “semantic bleaching,” “semantic loss,” and “semantic reduction.”

And words do often strengthen over time. For example, the negative sense increased as the Old English læwede (lay, not in holy orders) became the Middle English læwed (unlearned), and the Modern English “lewd.”

However, linguists don’t see semantic change as simply the strengthening or weakening of a term’s meaning. Here are a few other ways in which the meaning of a word may change:

Narrowing—as with Old English mæte (anything edible), which eventually became the Modern English “meat.”

Widening—from the Old English haligdæg (a consecrated holy day) to the Modern English “holiday.”

Positive to negative—from the early Middle English aȝhefull (inspiring awe) to the Modern English “awful.”

Negative to positive—from the Old English prættig (crafty, sly) to the Modern English “pretty.”

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Ding-dong, ‘the which’ is dead

Q: I’m puzzled by “the which” in this comment about love in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann: “It was, he said, the most unstable, the most unreliable of man’s instincts, the most prone of its very essence to error and fatal perversion. In the which there was nothing that should cause surprise.”

A: What’s puzzling to us is that an archaic English expression would be used in Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter’s 1927 translation of the novel, which was originally published in German in 1924.

John E. Woods, whose 1995 translation is in our library, used one sentence instead two: “Of all our natural instincts, he said, it was the most unstable and exposed, fundamentally prone to confusion and perversion—and no one should be surprised at that.”

In older English, “the which” was sometimes used in place of “which” alone, a usage dating from the early 1300s. Essentially, for a few hundred years “the which” competed with “which” as a relative pronoun and a relative adjective.

Relatives relate to and add information about a preceding sentence or clause. Some modern examples: “His firing was announced Thursday, which we all expected” (relative pronoun) … “His firing was announced Thursday, by which time he’d already left” (relative adjective). In centuries past, a writer might have used “the” before “which.”

Your second sentence, “In the which there was nothing that should cause surprise,” amounts to a relative clause. Here the relative pronoun “the which” refers to the preceding sentence—that love is unreliable, prone to error, and so on. A contemporary author might write “In which there was nothing surprising,” or simply “Which was no surprise.”

Linguists say “the which” was common in the early Modern English period (late 1400s to late 1600s) but had fallen out of use by the late 1700s. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it’s archaic.

The OED’s earliest uses of “the which” in writing, as both a relative pronoun and a relative adjective, are from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem believed written sometime before 1325. At the time, “the which” was written a variety of ways: “Þe quilk,” þe whilk,” “Þe whiche,” etc.

Here’s the first citation for the relative pronoun: “How god bigan þe law hym gyfe Þe quilk the Iuus in suld life” (“How God began to give him [Moses] the law the which the Jews should live by”).

And here’s the first citation for the relative adjective: “þe first law was cald ‘of kinde,’ þat es to say, kindly to do all þat him was bidden to. Þe toþer has ‘possitiue’ to name, þe whilk lawe was for-bed Adam, Forto ete þat fruit” (“The first law was called ‘of nature,’ that is to say, naturally to do all that he was bidden to. The other was named ‘positive,’ the which law forbade Adam to eat of that fruit”).

Uses of “the which” were uncommon after the late 18th century, as we said above, but they occasionally appeared afterward, mostly in poetic or historical writing. Here are a couple of late OED citations:

Relative adjective: “Begun April 4th, 1820—completed July 16th, 1820—finished copying August 16th-17th, 1820; the which copying makes ten times the toil of composing.” From a notation Byron made, probably later that year, on the manuscript of his play Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (published in 1821). We’ve expanded the citation.

Relative pronoun: “He holp [helped] the King to break down our castles, for the which I hate him.” From Tennyson’s Becket, a historical drama written in the 1870s and published in 1884. It’s set in the 12th century and deliberately uses archaic language.

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Standing room at the Globe

Q: Did floor-standers attending Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe refer to themselves as “plebes”? Is that a word Shakespeare wrote down anywhere?

A: We’ve seen no evidence that standees at the Globe were referred to as “plebes,” either by themselves or others. And as far as we know, Shakespeare never used the word “plebes” in his plays or sonnets.

Standees at Elizabethan theaters were known as “groundlings,” a word that we’ll discuss later in this post.

Shakespeare did use the shorter term “plebs” once in Titus Andronicus, a play set in the latter days of the Roman Empire. In Act IV, scene III of the tragedy, written in the late 1580s or early 1590s, Clown uses the term in speaking to Titus:

“I am going with my pigeons to the tribunal plebs.” The reference is to the tribunus plebis (Tribune of the Plebs, or People), a Roman body open to plebeians, or common people, as opposed to patricians.

In addition to “plebs,” the more familiar term “plebeians” appears in Titus Andronicus and three other Shakespeare plays: King Henry V (circa 1599), Coriolanus (c. 1605), and Antony and Cleopatra. (c. 1607). But all those appearances specifically refer to common people in Roman times, not those in Elizabethan England.

However, the word “plebs” (it rhymes with “webs”) took on a wider sense around this time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “The ordinary people, the populace; (derogatory) the mob.” And it’s possible that standees at the Globe may have been referred to that way, though we haven’t seen any written evidence to support this.

The OED’s earliest example for this more general sense is from a poem about the death of a Lord Chancellor: “Plebs. / The common people they did throng in flocks, / Dewing their bosomes with their yernfull teares, / Their sighs were such as would haue rent the rocks.” From “A Maidens Dreame. Vpon the Death of the Right Honorable Sir Christopher Hatton Knight” (1591), by Robert Greene.

As for the Globe, standees in the “pit” or “yard” of the theater, the area surrounding the stage, were referred to as “groundlings,” since they stood on the ground instead of sitting in the galleries.

Shakespeare uses the term in the 1604 second quarto of Hamlet. In his advice to the Players, Hamlet says, “O it offends mee to the soule, to heare a robustious perwig-pated fellowe tere a passion to totters, to very rags, to spleet the eares of the groundlings.”

Thomas Platter, a Swiss physician who visited London in 1599, saw plays at several theaters. In his diary, Platter says that “daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.”

“The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view,” Platter goes on. “There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. Thus anyone who remains on the level standing pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door.”

In Thomas Platter’s Travels in England 1599, Clare Williams’s 1937 translation of the diary’s German text, Platter writes that during his London visit he attended a performance of a play about Julius Caesar at an unnamed theater:

“On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.”

Some scholars say Platter probably saw Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar at the Globe, while others say he may have seen another play about Caesar at the Rose. Both theaters had thatched roofs and were across the Thames from the City of London.

Getting back to etymology, the first of these words for a commoner to show up in English was the noun “plebeian,” which was originally used in translating the classical Latin plebeius, a member of the plebs or common people in ancient Rome. The first OED citation is from a translation of the Latin in Livy’s History of Rome:

“Na plebeane will tak þe dochter [daughter] of ane patriciane but [without] hir consent.” From Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books From the Founding of the City), Book IV, Chapter 2, a 1533 translation by John Bellenden, edited by William Alexander Craigie in 1903.

In a couple of decades, according to OED citations, “plebeian” took on a more general sense: “A person not of noble or privileged rank; one of the ordinary people, a commoner. Now usually derogatory: a person of low social status, a common or vulgar person.” We’ve expanded the earliest OED citation:

“it is grit abusione to them to gloir in there nobil blude, for i trou that gif ane cirurgyen vald drau part of there blude in ane bassyn it vald hef  na bettir cullour nor the blude of ane plebien or of ane mecanik craftis man” (“it is a great abuse for them to glory in their noble blood, for I believe that if any surgeon will draw part of their blood in a basin, it will have no better color than the blood of any plebeian or any manual worker”). From The Complaynt of Scotland, an anonymous political tract written around 1550 and edited by Alasdair McIntosh Stewart in 1979.

As for “plebe,” it meant one of the ordinary people of ancient Rome when it first appeared in English in the 16th century. So “plebes” and “plebs” had the same classical meaning at first.

The earliest OED citation for “plebe” refers to the patricians’ policy of excluding plebeians from power in Rome: “The patricij many yeares excluding the plebes from bearing rule, vntill at last all magistrates were made common betweene them” (De Republica Anglorum: The Maner of Gouernement or Policie of the Realme of England, 1583, by Thomas Smith).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the modern sense of “plebe” as a new cadet at a military academy showed up in the US in the early 19th century: “My drill master, a young stripling, told me I was not so ‘gross’ as most other pleibs, the name of all new cadets” (from the Military and Naval Magazine of the United States, October 1833).

The first Oxford example using the normal spelling is from the June 1834 issue of the same magazine: “I was reckoned, already, as one of a class of cadets. To be sure, it was the ‘plebe class’; but what of this?”

Finally, Shakespeare would have referred to the Globe as a “theater,” not a “theatre.” Here’s the Duke of York in Richard II: “As in a Theater the eies of men, / After a well-graced Actor leaues the stage, / Are ydly bent on him that enters next” (Act V, Scene 2, First Quarto, 1597).

The spelling “theater” was dropped in Britain between 1720 and 1750, the OED says. Today “theatre” is the only spelling recognized in Britain. In the US, “theater” is the traditional spelling but “theatre” is now equally acceptable, as we say in a 2012 post.

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Thank you, Mr. Collins

Q: In reading Pomfret Towers, inspired by Pat’s Christmas essay on Angela Thirkell, I encountered this passage: “She wrote a handsome Collins to Lady Pomfret in which she expressed the hope that everyone was well.” Huh? The only “Collins” I know of is the one that’s imbibed.

A: The “Collins” in that sentence is a thank-you note, an older British usage inspired by Jane Austen’s obsequious clergyman William Collins. It was a familiar term when Thirkell wrote the novel Pomfret Towers (1938), but it fell out of use in the latter half of the 20th century.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “A letter of thanks for entertainment or hospitality, sent by a departed guest; a ‘bread-and-butter’ letter.” In an etymology note, the OED says the usage comes from “the name of a character, William Collins, in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.”

In the 1813 novel, Mr. Collins, an insufferable snob who panders to his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, expects to inherit the estate of his cousins the Bennets. While visiting them, he condescendingly proposes marriage to Elizabeth (as a favor to the family!) and is refused, only to propose successfully to Charlotte Lucas two days later. As he’s leaving, he pompously conveys his gratitude to his hosts and says he’ll soon be sending formal thanks in a letter.

In Chapter 23 Austen writes, “The promised letter of thanks from Mr. Collins arrived on Tuesday, addressed to their father, and written with all the solemnity of gratitude which a twelvemonth’s abode in the family might have prompted.”

Austen herself didn’t call such a letter a “Collins.” The term wasn’t recorded, as far as we know, until the early 1900s.

The OED’s earliest example is from the Aug. 27, 1904, issue of Chambers’s Journal. We’ll expand the quotation here to provide some background. In a column entitled “Talks With Girls: Letter-Writing and Some Letter-Writers,” Katherine Burrill gives the following advice, using characters from Pride and Prejudice as models:

“When writing to the ‘best Dear’ do not let your pens run away with you; do not, like Mr Bingley, allow your ideas to ‘flow so rapidly’ that you have ‘not time to express them;’ the lamentable result being that the ‘letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.’ On the other hand, avoid Mr D’Arcy’s words of four syllables; no wonder his letters were long! The Rev. William Collins’ letters have become proverbial. When we do not call a letter of thanks for a visit ‘a board and lodging,’ we call it a ‘Collins.’ His letters are monuments of politeness and civility. Give poor dull Collins his due; if obsequious, he was nevertheless civil.”

The OED’s next example is from Lucy H. M. Soulsby’s Brondesbury Papers (1905): “Write your ‘Collins’ after every visit (if only for a night) next morning at latest.” (Miss Soulsby was headmistress at Brondesbury Manor House, a school for girls. We can assume that she considered “Collins” the proper term for well-brought-up young ladies to use.)

We found a couple of examples that illustrate the use of “Collins” as well as other terms for a thank-you note:

“A ‘bread-and-butter’ letter—the English call it a Collins, after the respectable gentleman so named in one of Jane Austen’s novels. There was no reason for her hesitation in opening it. A bread-and-butter—some say board-and-lodging—letter.” From In Cure of Her Soul, a 1906 novel by Frederic Jesup Stimson, an American writer and legal scholar.

And in Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April, Mr. Wilkins thanks his hostess in person, then reminds Mrs. Fisher, another guest, “that she and his wife must now jointly write Lady Caroline the customary letter of thanks for hospitality. ‘A Collins,’ said Mr. Wilkins, who knew what was necessary in literature. ‘I prefer the name Collins for such a letter to either that of Board and Lodging or Bread and Butter. Let us call it a Collins.’ ”

As we said above, the usage wasn’t very long-lived. The OED’s most recent citation is from 1940. The latest we’ve seen is from 1984, when the word was part of a clue in an Australian crossword puzzle.

As for those other terms, they both date from the late 19th century. Though the “board-and-lodging” version has fallen by the wayside, “bread-and-butter” is still used today.

Thee OED has no entry for the first version, but it defines a “bread-and-butter letter” as an “originally U.S.” phrase meaning “a letter sent to thank a person for his or her hospitality.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the December 1891 issue of The Chautauquan: “There is seldom more for a visitor to do than to arrange the flowers for the hostess, to send her a ‘bread and butter’ letter when one has left her house, and a present on Christmas.”

We’ve also found examples in newspapers of the 1890s for “bread-and-butter note.” In the following decade, the message was sometimes called simply “a bread and butter.”

As for the “board-and-lodging” version, we’ve found uses from around the same time. Here’s an example, in a dialog between cousins:

“ ‘I suppose you saw Mr. Hodder safely off these hills?’ ‘Yes; has he not written what my mother profanely calls his board-and-lodging letter yet?’ ” From A Family Likeness (1892), a novel by Bithia Mary Croker.

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When doom is impending

Q: I read your write-up on the negative sense of “precipitous” with interest, since I’ve been wondering if “impending” has a similar negative meaning. My feeling is that “impending,” unlike “precipitous,” is not necessarily negative.

A: “Impending” isn’t quite as negative as “precipitous,” but it’s often used negatively, as in “impending doom.” Two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult say “impending” is usually negative, and the other eight usually illustrate the use of the adjective with negative examples.

Both Longman and Macmillan say “impending” describes “an event or situation, especially an unpleasant one,” that will happen soon. A third dictionary, Lexico, says it describes a forthcoming “event regarded as threatening or significant.”

Merriam-Webster, whose entry is typical of others, defines it neutrally as “occurring or likely to occur soon,” but of these five examples, three are negative: “impending trials” … “impending motherhood” … “impending earthquakes and volcanic eruptions” …  “impending disaster” … “impending sales.”

The negative sense of “impending,” like that of “precipitous,” comes from its etymological roots. The adjective is derived from the verb “impend,” which English borrowed from impendere, classical Latin for (among other things) to hang over or threaten.

Although the English verb is sometimes used literally to mean “hang over,” it was first used figuratively to mean “hang threateningly or hover (over) as about to fall,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ll expand here, uses the present participle form of the verb:

“You are found foul and guilty by a jury / Made of your fathers’ curses, which have brought / Vengeance impending on you.” From The Old Law, or A New Way to Please, a play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, with a possible contribution by Philip Massinger. It was first published in 1656, but is believed to have been written several decades earlier.

Later in the 17th century, the verb took on a wider sense that the OED defines as “to be about to happen; to be imminent or near at hand.” However, the happenings in most of the dictionary’s examples are negative, including the first, which uses the present participle:

“Giving them notice of any accident or distemper impending” (from A New Voyage Into the Northern Countries, a 1674 translation of a French travel book by Pierre Martin de La Martinière).

And here’s an expanded OED citation from The Rape of the Lock (1714), a mock-heroic poem by Alexander Pope: “I saw, alas! some dread Event impend, / Ere to the main this morning sun descend.”

The dictionary’s only positive example for the verb, which we’ve also expanded, is from The Pleasures of Imagination (1744), a three-book poem by the English writer and physician Mark Akenside: “Now the same glad task / Impends; now urging our ambitious toil.”

The adjective “impending” (technically, a participial adjective) showed up in the late 17th century. The earliest OED example, expanded here, is from a report by the Lord Privy Seal to King Charles II on the state of his government and kingdom:

“as the only Remedy for growing Evils, and to prevent Impending Mischiefs, another Parliament was called and sat for the same Year.” From The Account of Arthur, Earl of Anglesey, Lord Privy Seal, to Your Most Excellent Majesty, of the True State of Your Majesty’s Government and Kingdoms. The report, written in 1682, was published in 1694.

The adjective has usually appeared in negative phrases since then, especially up until the 20th century. We found this positive example in The Pastor’s Wife, a 1914 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim: “Robert went away after an early breakfast to his fields to see the improvement forty-eight hours’ soaking must have made, and obviously did not mind her impending departure in the least.”

Bryan A. Garner, writing in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), notes that “it is not uncommon for writers to use impending for pending, perhaps because they think the extra syllable adds gravitas. Whatever the reason, the slipshod extension threatens to deprive us of a useful word, as impending loses its connotations of danger or evil.”

Although it’s legitimate to use “impending” in positive or neutral phrases (as in “impending marriage” or “impending holiday” or “impending bonus”), searches of newspaper and book databases indicate that the negative sense of “impending” is still the dominant one.

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‘Ketchup’ or ‘catsup’?

Q: I recently saw Mr. Burns’s “ketchup”/“catsup” dilemma on The Simpsons. Which is the preferred spelling?

A: Both spellings, “ketchup” and “catsup,” have been around for hundreds of years, but “ketchup” is king. It’s been vastly more popular than “catsup” since the mid-20th century.

Neither spelling can be considered more “correct,” however, since both originated as attempts to transliterate a Chinese word into the English alphabet.

The “k” spelling was first on the scene, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was first recorded in the 1680s and was originally written as “ketchup,” just as it is today. Various “c” versions began appearing in the late 1690s, and the spelling “catsup” came along in the mid-1700s.

For many years, the “k” and “c” spellings were about equally common, with first one then the other more popular. But in contemporary usage, “ketchup” has clearly outdistanced “catsup.”

As the OED explains: “Perhaps as a result of influence from major commercial brands of sauce, ketchup seems to have become the dominant term from around the middle of the 20th cent., although catsup is still well attested in North America.”

That’s confirmed by a comparison of the terms on Google’s Ngram viewer. As of 2019, “ketchup” was more than 10 times as popular as “catsup.”

All 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult, both British and American, give “ketchup” as the principal spelling and “catsup” as a variant. Usage labels in many of the dictionaries indicate that the lesser-used “catsup” is now found only in North America.

As for the pronunciation, “ketchup” is KECH-up or KACH-up, while “catsup” is KAT-sup, KACH-up, or KECH-up.

What’s interesting about the history of “ketchup” (we’ll use that spelling) is that it wasn’t always tomato-y, and many of its older incarnations wouldn’t be too appetizing on fries. Here’s some etymology.

The noun “ketchup” comes from Hokkien, a family of dialects of Min Chinese, which is spoken in southeastern China. The Chinese ancestors of “ketchup” are rendered in the OED as kê-chiap (in the Zhangzhou dialect), kôe-tsap (Quanzhou dialect), and kôe-chiap (Amoy dialect). These compounds, the dictionary says, are derived from kôe (kind of fish) and chiap (juice, sauce), and the original Chinese term meant “brine of pickled fish or shellfish.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that although the source is Chinese, “ketchup” may have come into English through Malay, a language with many Hokkien loan words. (In fact, many Malaysians speak Hokkien.) The OED also says it may have come into English “perhaps partly via Malay kecap, kicap” (soy sauce).

As Oxford explains, in the 17th century this sauce was “encountered by British travellers, traders, and colonists in southeast Asia and introduced to Britain by them.” In English, the dictionary says, “ketchup” originally meant “a type of piquant sauce produced in southeast Asia, probably made from fermented soybeans or fish.”

Once the recipe arrived in England it naturally began to change, and so did the meaning of “ketchup.” In the 18th century it came to mean a variation of the original Asian sauce.

The dictionary says it was “typically made from the juice or pulp of a fruit, vegetable, or other foodstuff, combined with vinegar or wine and spices, and used as an ingredient or condiment (frequently with modifying word indicating the main ingredient).”

For instance, Oxford has mentions of “walnut ketchup” (first recorded in 1769), “oyster ketchup” (1787), “mushroom ketchup” (1788), “tomato ketchup” (1801), and even the American concoctions “plum catsup” and “cucumber catsup” (both 1861).

Today, as we all know, “ketchup” generally means “tomato ketchup.” As the OED says, from the late 19th century onward “tomato ketchup became the most popular form,” and now “ketchup” is usually “a thick red sauce made chiefly from tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar, and used as a condiment or relish.”

[Update, Jan. 23, 2021: An American reader who just returned from a year in the UK writes to say that the British don’t automatically associate ketchup with tomatoes. “Every time I asked in a store for ketchup I was asked by the clerk whether I wanted tomato ketchup or another type.”]

Here are the OED’s earliest sightings of the word as spelled with a “k” (the first one also has the earliest use we’ve found for “soy” meaning soy sauce):

“Your Soys, your Ketchups and Caveares, your Cantharides, and your Whites of Eggs, are not to be compared to our rude Indian.” From The Natural History of Coffee, Thee, Chocolate, Tobacco (1682), by John Chamberlayne. “Cantharides” refers to a dried beetle, also known as Spanish Fly, that was used in various remedies and as an aphrodisiac.

“Take some Mutton or Beef gravy, and shred into it a Shalot or two, and a little Pepper, half a spoonful of Ketchup, or if you have no Ketchup, then put in one Anchovy.” From The Young Cooks Monitor (1683), by an author identified only as “M.H.” That use of an anchovy as a substitute tells us what ketchup tasted like in the 17th century! M.H. mentions “ketchup” five times in recipes for stewing pigeons and roasting hare, chicken, and lamb.

Though most of the OED’s “k” versions of the word are spelled “ketchup,” the dictionary also has infrequent citations for other spellings, including “Katchop” (1728), “Kitchup” (1731), and “katchup” (1914).

Here are Oxford’s earliest uses of the word spelled with a “c”:

“By Artificial Sauces we imitate the natural foetid and sub-acid Slime of the Stomach, as in Catchup mango Plumbs, Mushrooms, and some Indian Liquors or Sauces of Garlic.” From The Preternatural State of Animal Humours Described by Their Sensible Qualities (1696), by John Floyer.

“Catchup, a high East-India Sauce.” A definition from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), by “B. E.”

“And, for our home-bred British Chear, Botargo, Catsup, and Caveer.” From the comic poem “A Panegyrick on the Dean,” written by Jonathan Swift in 1730 and published in 1735. Here “chear” (for cheer) means food and drink, “botargo” is the dried roe of tuna or mullet, and “caveer” is caviar.

In closing, we’ll share an early 18th-century recipe we came across in writing this post. It comes from A Generous Discovery of Many Curious and Useful Medicines and Preparations (1725), by “Mrs. Hey.”

To make a KETCHUP for Sauce.

Take one Hundred Walnuts just before they begin to be fit for pickling, bruise them well, and put them into a Pot, with a Quart of the best White Wine Vinegar, and a good handful of Salt, let them stand about twenty four Hours, and then press out the Liquor, and Bottle it for use.

LET it stand 3 or 4 Months before it be used, and when you use it shake the Bottle, and one Spoonful or two will not only thicken, but add a most grateful Flavour to the Sauce; and is not at all inferior to the Foreign Ketchup of seven Shillings a Pint, made of we know not what.

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Prior analytics

Q: Has the use of “prior” as an adverb gained acceptance? I am seeing it more and more, as in this example from a book on chess: “Why did I play in the Los Angeles Open a month later? I’d said I would, a year prior.”

A: That use of “prior” by itself as an adverb is not recognized in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

The dictionaries consider “prior” an adverbial usage only as part of the preposition “prior to,” as in “He made the will prior to his marriage.” In that sentence, “prior to” introduces a prepositional phrase (“prior to his marriage”) that modifies the verb “made.”

As we wrote on our blog in 2007, “prior to” is a preposition that can function as either an adjective or an adverb. We used these examples: “Construction prior to [adjective] 1900 is reviewed prior to [adverb] demolition.” In either case, “previous to” or “before” could be substituted for “prior to.”

So the adverbial use you mention, “I’d said I would, a year prior,” would be more acceptable in this form: “I’d said I would, a year prior to that.”

We’ll have more about “prior to” a bit later. As for “prior,” it’s sometimes used as a noun—meaning a religious official or as short for “prior conviction” or “prior arrest.” But in the sense you’re asking about, it’s defined in standard dictionaries as an adjective (not an adverb).

A usage note in American Heritage has this to say about the use of “prior” as an adjective:

“Though prior usually modifies a noun that comes after it, as in prior approval, it sometimes modifies a noun for a unit of time which precedes it, as in five years prior. These constructions are marginally acceptable when the combination serves as the object of a preposition, as in A gallon of gasoline was $4.29, up 10 cents from the week prior. In our 2014 survey, 51 percent of the Panelists accepted the sentence, with many commenting that they would prefer from the prior week or from the week before.”

The usage note goes on to add this about “prior” as an adverb: “The construction is even less acceptable when it acts as an adverbial modifier: only 29 percent of the Panel approved My cellphone was stolen. I had just bought it two days prior.

Getting back to “prior to,” American Heritage and Merriam-Webster define the phrase as a preposition synonymous with “before.” M-W says this in a note:  “Sometimes termed pompous or affected, prior to is a synonym of before that most often appears in rather formal contexts, such as the annual reports of corporations.” (Longman’s labels the “prior to” usage “formal.”)

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language includes “prior” in a class of words that are prepositions when their complements are preceded by “to,” as in “prior to this.” Other such prepositions, according to the Cambridge Grammar, include “according,” “subsequent,” “pursuant,” “preparatory,” “next,” “previous,” “owing,” “contrary,” and several more. “For the most part,” the book says, “the to phrase complement is obligatory when these items are prepositions.”

As for its etymology, “prior” was adopted in the early 17th century from the classical Latin prior. To the Romans, the OED says, prior meant “in front, previous, former, earlier, elder, superior, more important.”

In English, Oxford says, “prior” was first used as an adjective, meaning “that precedes in time or order; earlier, former, anterior, antecedent.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from 1607: “Learned Magitian, skild in hidden Artes, / As well in prior as posterior parts” (The Diuils [Devil’s] Charter, a play by Barnabe Barnes).

In examples like that, the adjective “prior” is attributive—that is, it appears before the noun. But it can also be predicative (appearing after the noun) and in those cases it’s chiefly used “with to,” Oxford says.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest such use: “I & my predicessouris [predecessors] be indouttitlie [undoubtedly] prior to thame in richt & place of dignitie” (The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, 1641).

The adverbial use of “prior to” appeared later in the same century and means “previously to, before, in advance of,” Oxford says. This is the dictionary’s earliest example:

“It was clear, that there was a former Trade, and correspondence betwixt them, prior to the Sons Infeftment.” (From Observations, 1675, Sir George Mackenzie’s commentaries on various Scottish parliamentary acts. “Infeftment” is a term in Scots law, similar to “enfeoffment” in English law, having to do with the investing of a feudal estate or fee.)

In our opinion, both “prior” alone and “prior to” have a lofty, formal sound, and for ordinary use there are better terms, both adjectives and adverbs: “previous,” “previously,” “before,” “earlier,” “in advance,” “preceding,” and so on. Usually, nothing is lost in translation.

However, Merriam-Webster compares the adjectives “prior” and “previous” and detects a slight difference: “previous and prior imply existing or occurring earlier, but prior often adds an implication of greater importance,” and it contrasts the uses with these examples: “a child from a previous marriage” versus “a prior obligation.”

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To “the,” or not to “the”

Q: I was reading The Magician’s Nephew, a 1955 Narnia novel by C. S. Lewis, and I saw this sentence: “ ‘That was the secret of secrets,’ said the Queen Jadis.” Why does the writer put a “the” before “Queen Jadis”?

A: The definite article “the” was once common before a high title preceding a personal name, as in “the Queen Jadis,” but the usage isn’t seen much now.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the 12th to the 20th century of “the” used before “higher titles of rank identified by a following personal name.” The dictionary’s examples include “the Emperor Napoleon,” “the Grand Duke Michael,” and “the Empress Josephine.”

Today, the dictionary says, “except in formal use, the is not now usual with higher titles when followed by the personal name, as King George, Prince Edward, Duke Humphrey, Earl Grey, Earl Simon, etc.”

However, the old convention survives with other kinds of titles, like those identified by a following place name or title of office (OED examples include “the Duchess of Windsor,” “the Lord Privy Seal,”  “the Queen of the Netherlands”), and courtesy titles (“the Right Honourable,” “the Honourable,” “the Reverend”).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the definite article used in front of a high title (with “the” written as þe in early Middle English), is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written sometime before 1200:

“Þe abbed an horse leop; & æfter Uortiger rad & sone gon of-ærne þe eorl Uortigerne” (“The abbot leaped upon his horse and rode after Vortigern, and soon began to overtake the earl Vortiger”). Vortigern was a fifth-century king of the Britons, according to some medieval accounts.

We’ve found quite a few examples of the usage in Shakespeare, such as this remark by Polonius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “You go to seek the Lord Hamlet; there he is” (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2, circa 1600).

In the OED’s latest example, the usage is clearly formal: “Her Majesty’s Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms under the command of the Lord Denham” (from the Nov. 5, 1981, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several posts about the definite article, including one in 2008 about its idiomatic use, one in 2009 about its pronunciation (THEE vs. THUH), and one in 2018 about its use with a foreign article.

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When ‘damn’ became a swear word

Q: What is the origin of the expression “don’t give a damn”? Was it ever expletive free?

A: Let’s begin with “damn.” When the word showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, “damn” was a verb meaning to condemn. It wasn’t until the 16th century that “damn” was used profanely.

English borrowed the term from Old French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin damnāre or dampnāre, meaning to damage or condemn. (In fact, “condemn” ultimately comes from the same Latin source as “damn.”)

In Middle English, according to Oxford English Dictionary citations, “damn” had three related meanings: (1) to doom to eternal punishment; (2) to pronounce a sentence; (3) to denounce or deplore.

Here’s an OED example for sense #1 from a homily dated at around 1325: “Sain Jon hafd gret pite / That slic a child suld dampned be” (“John the Baptist had great pity / That such a child should be damned”). Collected in English Metrical Homilies (1862), edited by John Small.

We’ve expanded this OED’s citation for sense #2: “For, sir, hit is no maystrie for a lord / To dampne a man with-oute answere of word” (“For, sire, it is no triumph for a lord / To condemn a man without answering a word”). The Legend of Good Women, circa 1385, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

And here’s an example for #3: “For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, / Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales, circa 1386, by Chaucer).

The OED says the verb “damn” began to be “used profanely” in the late 16th century “in imprecations and exclamations, expressing emphatic objurgation or reprehension of a person or thing, or sometimes merely an outburst of irritation or impatience.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an anonymous religious tract attacking critics of the Anglican hierarchy: “Hang a spawne? drowne it; alls one, damne it!” From Pappe With Hatchet (1589), believed written by John Lyly or Thomas Nashe.

In the early 17th century, according to OED citations, “damn” showed up as a noun used “as a profane imprecation”—that is, a curse.

The earliest example is from Monsieur Thomas, a comedy by the English playwright John Fletcher, believed written between 1610 and 1616: “Rack a maids tender eares, with dam’s and divels?”

And here’s an early 18th-century example in the OED: “What! he no hear you swear, curse, speak the great Damn.” From The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe.

But by the mid-18th century—and here’s where your question comes in—the profane sense of “damn” began weakening as it was “used vaguely (in unconventional speech) in phrases not worth a damn, not to care a damn, not to give a damn,” the OED says.

The earliest such phrase, according to the dictionary, is of the “not to care a damn” variety. Here’s the first known use:

“Not that I care three dams what figure I may cut.” From Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762), a novel in the form of letters purportedly written by a Chinese traveler and offering an outsider’s views of Britain.

In searches of old newspaper databases, the earliest example we’ve found for “not give a damn” is from a late 18th-century American newspaper:

“Burk … exclaimed, that he believed it was true, and if so that he would not give a damn for the Federal villains in this country.” From the Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, July 6, 1798.

As for “not worth a damn,” the earliest use we know of is cited in Green’s Dictionary of Slang: “To play second fiddle to Brougham … would not be worth a dam.” From a letter written by the English politician Thomas Creevey on Oct. 18, 1812.

Interestingly, the noun “curse” was once used in similar constructions. Here are the earliest known appearances—at least in Modern English—of the corresponding “curse” expressions, all cited in the OED:

“I do not conceive that any thing can happen … which you would give a curse to know” (in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 20, 1763).

“For, as to wives, a Grand Signor Need never care one curse about them!” (Thomas Moore’s Intercepted Letters, 1813).

“The Chapter on Naval Inventions is not worth a curse” (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1826).

Oxford says the use of “curse” in such expressions “possibly comes down from the Middle English not worth a kerse, kers, cres” (those are medieval spellings of “curse”). The Middle English usage dates from the late 1300s, according to Oxford citations.

But if there is a link between “not worth a curse” and the medieval “not worth a kerse,” it’s not traceable. As the dictionary adds, “historical connection between the two is not evidenced, there being an interval of more than 300 years between the examples of the Middle English and the modern phrase.”

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The “bert” in Albert, Herbert, Robert, etc.

Q: As a Robert, I’m curious about the “bert” in names like mine—say, Albert, Herbert, Hubert, Gilbert, Norbert, and, for that matter, Bertram.

A: The common theme in names like these, an element inherited from old Germanic languages, is “bright” or “shining.”

Going back even further, to the days before written language, the “bert” element in such names has been traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bherəg.

As an adjective bherəg meant “bright” or “white” and as a verb it meant “shine,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Ultimately, the “bert” in these names has the same source as the English words “bright” (beorht in Old English) and “birch” (birce in Old English, so named because it was a white tree).

The Old English beorht, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has cousins not only in Old High German (beraht) but also in Old Saxon and Middle High German (berht), Old Icelandic (bjartr), Old Swedish (barter), Old Danish (bert, bier), and Gothic (bairhts).

All are from “the same Indo-European base as Welsh berth (‘fair, beautiful, bright’),” the OED says.

The Old English beorht and Old High German beraht were used in personal masculine and feminine names, according to American Heritage, where they were often reduced to berht or bert.

Here are some these names and their meanings:

Robert, from Hrodebert (“bright fame”); Albert, from Adalbert (“bright noble”); Bertha, from Beratha (“the bright one”); Gilbert, from Giselberht (“bright hostage” or “bright pledge”); and Herbert, from Heriberht (“bright army”).

Also Cuthbert, which was formed in Old English as Cuthbeorht  (“brightly known”); Hubert (“bright mind”); Norbert (“bright north”); Bertram and Bertrand (“bright shield”); and Bertold (“bright ruler”).

Finally, here’s a little more about your own name, Robert.

Although it’s “ultimately of Germanic origin,” the OED says, it “was common in medieval France and subsequently in Britain.” The name wasn’t unknown in England before the Norman Conquest, but it became more popular afterward.

In 10th-century Britain, Oxford says, the name appeared occasionally in Latin and English documents, but it was used more frequently from the 11th century onward and was “at first apparently borne by people of continental, especially Norman, descent.”

In Old English, according to the dictionary, spellings included Rodbert, Rodbeard, Hrodberd, Rotbeard, Rotbert, Robert, and Roberd. Among the spellings in Middle English were Robart, Robert, Robertt, Roberte, Roberd, and Robard.

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From A to &, et cetera

Q: What is the story of “&” and why is it replacing “and”?

A: The “&” character, or ampersand, is seen a lot these days in texting, email, and online writing, but the use of a special character for “and” isn’t a new phenomenon. English writers have been doing this since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage borrowed from the ancient Romans.

In his book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (2013), Keith Houston writes that the Romans had two special characters for representing et, the Latin word for “and.” They used either ⁊, a symbol in a shorthand system known as notae Tironianae, or the ancestor of the ampersand, a symbol combining the e and t of et.

The Tironian system is said to have been developed by Tiro, a slave and secretary of the Roman statesman and scholar Cicero in the first century BC. After being freed, Tiro adopted Cicero’s praenomen and nomen, and called himself Marcus Tullius Tiro.

Houston says the earliest known recorded version of the ampersand was an et ligature, or compound character, scrawled on a wall in Pompeii by an unknown graffiti artist and preserved under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

He cites the research of Jan Tschichold, author of Formenwandlungen der &-Zeichen (1953), which was translated from German to English in 1957 as The Ampersand: Its Origin and Development. An illustration that Houston based on Tschichold’s work shows the evolution of the ampersand over the years.

(Image #1 is from Pompeii, while the modern-looking #13 is from the Merovingian Latin of the eighth century.)

In Shady Characters, Houston describes how the ampersand competed with the Tironian ⁊ in the Middle Ages. “From its ignoble beginnings a century after Tiro’s scholarly et, the ampersand assumed its now-familiar shape with remarkable speed even as its rival remained immutable,” he writes.

“Whatever its origins, the scrappy ampersand would go on to usurp the Tironian et in a quite definitive manner,” he says, adding, “Tiro’s et showed the way but the ampersand was the real destination.”

Today, Houston writes, the Tironian character “survives in the wild only in Irish Gaelic, where it serves as an ‘and’ sign on old mailboxes and modern road signs,” while the ampersand “ultimately earned a permanent place in type cases and on keyboards.” (We added the links.)

Although the ampersand was common in medieval Latin manuscripts, including works written in Latin by Anglo-Saxon scholars, it took quite a while for the character to replace the Tironian et in English. In most of the Old English and Middle English manuscripts we’ve examined, the Tironian symbol is the usual short form for the various early versions of “and” (end, ond, ænd, ande, and so on).

A good example is the original manuscript of Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725. The anonymous author uses ond for “and” only a few times, but the Tironian symbol appears scores of times. However, modern transcriptions of the Old English in Beowulf often replace the “⁊” with ond or “&.” When the Tironian character does appear, it’s often written as the numeral “7.”

Here are the last few lines of the poem with the Tironian characters (or notes) intact: “cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyning, / manna mildust ⁊ monðwærust / eodum liðost, ⁊ lofgeornost” (“Of all the world’s kings, they said, / he was the kindest and the gentlest of men, / the most gracious to his people and the most worthy of fame”).

Although you can find dozens of ampersands in transcriptions of Old English and Middle English manuscripts, an analysis of the original documents shows that most of the “&” characters were originally Tironian notes.

Dictionaries routinely transcribe the Tironian note as an ampersand in their citations from Old and Middle English. As the Oxford English Dictionary, the most influential and comprehensive etymological dictionary, says in an explanatory note, “In this dictionary the Old and Middle English Tironian note is usually printed as &.”

However, the ampersand does show up at times in early English. For example, it’s included in an Anglo-Saxon alphabet dating from the late 10th or early 11th century. A scribe added the alphabet to an early 9th-century copy of a Latin letter by the scholar, cleric, and poet Alcuin of York (British Library, Harley 208, fol. 87v).

The alphabet is in the upper margin of the image. It includes the 23 letters of the classical Latin alphabet (with a backward “b”) followed by the ampersand, the Tironian et, and four Anglo-Saxon runes: the wynn (ᚹ), the thorn (þ), the aesc (ᚫ), and an odd-looking eth (ð) that resembles a “y.” At the end of the alphabet, the scribe added the first words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (pater noster). The British Library’s digital viewer lets readers examine the image in more detail.

At the end of Harley 208, which includes copies of 91 letters by Alcuin and one by Charlemagne, the scribe wrote a line in Old English, “hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (“Listen, for I have heard many old sagas”), which is reminiscent of line 869 in Beowulf: “eal fela eald gesegena” (“all the many old sagas”). Is the scribe suggesting that the letters are ancient tales?

A similar alphabet appears in Byrhtferð’s Enchiridion, or handbook (1011), a wide-ranging compilation of information on such subjects as astronomy, mathematics, logic, grammar, and rhetoric. However, the alphabet in the Enchiridion (Ashmole Ms. 328, Bodleian Library, Oxford), differs somewhat from the one above—the æsc rune is replaced by an ae ligature at the end.

We’ve seen several other Old English alphabets arranged in similar order. In most of them, an ampersand follows the letter “z.”  Fred C. Robinson, a Yale philologist and Old English scholar, has said the “earliest of the abecedaria is probably” the one in Harley 208 (“Syntactical Glosses in Latin Manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon Provenance,” published in Speculum, A Journal of Medieval Studies, July 1973). An “abecedarium” (plural “abecedaria”) is an alphabet written in order.

We haven’t seen any examples of the ampersand used in Old English other than in alphabets. The earliest examples we’ve found for the ampersand in actual text are in Middle English. Here’s an example from The Knight’s Tale of the Hengwrt Chaucer, circa 1400, one of the earliest manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales:

The middle line in the image reads: “hir mercy & hir grace” (“her mercy & her grace”). Here’s an expanded version of the passage: “and but i have hir mercy & hir grace, / that i may seen hire atte leeste weye / i nam but deed; ther nis namoore to seye” (“And unless I have her mercy & her grace, / So I can at least see her some way, / I am as good as dead; there is no more to say”).

Middle English writers also used the ampersand in the term “&c,” short for “et cetera.” In a 1418 will, for example, “&c” was used to avoid repeating a name: “quirtayns [curtains] of worsted … in warde of Anneys Elyngton, and … a gowne of grene frese, in ward, &c” (from The Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, edited by Frederick James Furnivall, 1882).

Although literary writers didn’t ordinarily use a symbol for “and” in early Modern English, the ampersand showed up every once in a while. For example, the character slipped into this passage from The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Edmund Spenser’s first major poem: “The blossome, which my braunch of youth did beare, / With breathed sighes is blowne away, & blasted.”

And in the 1603 First Quarto of Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet telling Horatio, “O the King doth wake to night, & takes his rouse [a full cup of wine, beer, etc.].” But “and” replaces the ampersand, and the “O” disappears, in the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1623).

As for today, we see nothing wrong with using an ampersand in casual writing (we often use “Pat & Stewart” to sign our emails), but we’d recommend “and” for formal writing and noteworthy informal writing.

Nevertheless, formal use of the ampersand is common today in company names, such as AT&T, Marks & Spencer, and Ben & Jerry’s. And some authors, notably H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), have used them regularly in formal writing.

Finally, we should mention that the term “ampersand” is relatively new. Although the “&” character dates back to classical times, the noun “ampersand” didn’t show up in writing until the 18th century.

The earliest OED example for “ampersand” with its modern spelling is from a travel book written in the late 18th century. Here’s an expanded version:

“At length, having tried all the historians from great A, to ampersand, he perceives there is no escaping from the puzzle, but by selecting his own facts, forming his own conclusions, and putting a little trust in his own reason and judgment” (from Gleanings Through Wales, Holland and Westphalia, 1795, by S. J. Pratt).

The expression “from A to ampersand” (meaning from the beginning to the end, or in every particular) is an old way of saying “from A to Z.” It was especially popular in the 19th century.

As we’ve noted, the ampersand followed the letter “z” in some old abecedaria, a practice going back to Anglo-Saxon days. And when children were taught that alphabet in the late Middle Ages, they would recite the letters from “A” to “&.”

In Promptorium Parvolorum (“Storehouse for Children”), a Middle English-to-Latin dictionary written around 1440, English letters that are words by themselves, including the ampersand, are treated specially in reciting the alphabet, according to The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories (1991), edited by Frederick C. Mish.

As Mish explains, when a single letter formed a word or syllable—like “I” (the personal pronoun) or the first “i” in “iris”—it was recited as “I per se, I.”  In other words, “I by itself, I.”

“The per se spellings were used especially for the letters that were themselves words,” Mish writes. “Because the alphabet was augmented by the sign &, which followed z, there were four of these: A per se, A; I per se, I; O per se, O, and & per se, and.”

Since he “&” character was spoken as “and,” children reciting the alphabet would refer to it as “and per se, and.” That expression, Mish says, became “in slightly altered and contracted form, the standard name for the character &.” In other words, “ampersand” originated as a corruption of “and per se, and.”

The two earliest citations for “ampersand” in the OED spell it “ampuse and” (1777) and “appersiand” (1785). Various other spellings continued to appear in the 1800s—“ampus-and” (1859), “Amperzand” (1869)—before the modern version became established.

We’ll end with “The Ampersand Sonnet,” the calligrapher A. J. Fairbank’s take on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66. In this version of the sonnet, each “and” in Shakespeare’s original is replaced by a different style of ampersand:

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Dapping in Vietnam

Q: I’m writing a piece about the origins of the fist bump in sports. The conventional wisdom is that it evolved from the dap, the elaborate greeting used by black soldiers during the Vietnam War. While doing research, I found an old story by Stewart Kellerman that may be the first written use of the term. Do you know of an earlier one?

A: As far as we can tell, the use of “dap” for the black power greeting in Vietnam did indeed show up in print for the first time in Stewart’s article, written when he was a war correspondent for United Press International. It appeared in the April 25, 1971, issue of the Pittsburgh Press and other newspapers.

In the article, “Soul Session in Vietnam,” which we’ve reproduced on our blog, Stewart writes of being invited to spend an evening with a group of militant black soldiers in an all-black hooch, or barracks. A cardboard sign taped to a wall read: “Off limits / No rabbits allowed / This area for blacks and blacks only.”

During a rap session, the GIs told Stewart that “dap” came from dep, Vietnamese for beautiful. As far as we know, that’s the earliest written indication of the term’s etymology, though a few other suggestions have appeared since then. Here’s an excerpt from the article in which both “dap” and “dapping” are used:

The blacks arrived in groups of two or three during the night. When each got there he went around the hooch doing the dap (from “dep,” the Vietnamese word for beautiful) with all the others. The intricate dap is made up of dozens of steps ranging from tapping fists to slapping chests.

Blacks say the dap is mainly used to say hello, show friendship and express brotherhood. However, some of the most commonly used gestures (the dap varies from region to region) are symbols for cutting the throats of MPs and shooting  them in the head.

Spec. 4 Gary Terrell, 23, of Birmingham, Ala., said his superiors have tried to get him to cut his hair, take off his power band and stop dapping with the brothers.

“I tell them no,” he said. “You ain’t gonna take my soul away from me, you dig. So what happens? I got every rotten job the rabbits can think of.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage as “U.S slang (originally and chiefly in African-American usage),” and defines it as a “special handshake, typically involving slapping palms, bumping fists, or snapping fingers; chiefly as a mass noun in some dap or to give (a person) dap. Also give (a person) daps.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says “dap” is of uncertain origin, but may have come from the noun “tap” or “perhaps (as suggested in Green’s Dictionary of Slang)” from the verb “dab” (to pat or tap).

The earliest Oxford citation for the term is from the publication of Stewart’s article in the May 15, 1971, issue of the Afro-American (Baltimore), a few weeks after it originally appeared: “Blacks say the dap is mainly used to say hello, show friendship and express brotherhood.”

Green’s Dictionary defines “dap” as an African-American noun or verb for “a ritualistic handshake, differing from area to area, involving much slapping of palms, snapping of fingers, etc.”

The first Green’s example is from an entry in Black Jargon in White America (1972), by David Claerbaut: “dap n. a rather sophisticated or complicated hand greeting used by many black people.”

The American Heritage Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines the term as “any of various elaborate handshakes used esp. by young black men to express solidarity or enthusiasm.” It cites the same dictionary of black jargon mentioned in Green’s.

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Why ‘hoodwink’ means to deceive

Q: I was reading a Trollope novel (Lady Anna, 1871) and found this passage: “The Earl, however, was but a young man, likely to be taken by mere beauty; and it might be that the girl had been clever enough to hoodwink him.” Can “hoodwink” be that old? And how did it come to mean deceive?

A: The verb “hoodwink” is a lot older than that. It first appeared in the 16th century but has roots in the Old English words for “hood” and “wink,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Anglo-Saxon days, a hood (or hod) referred to a head covering, while wincian meant to close one’s eyes.

The OED’s earliest written example for “hood” is from the Epinal Glossary, which dates from some time before 700. An entry in the glossary gives the Latin and Old English words for a head covering: “Capitium, hood.”

The first Oxford citation for wincian, which we’ve expanded here, is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory:

“Ac se þe agimeleasaþ ðæt he ðence, ærðæmðe he do, se stæpð forð mid ðam fotum & wincaþ mid ðæm eagum” (“But he who fails to think before acting, steps forth with his feet and winketh with [closes] his eyes”).

When the verb “hoodwink” showed up in 16th-century writing, it was used literally and meant to “cover the eyes with a hood or other covering so as to prevent vision; to blindfold,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is from an anonymous treatise on Roman Catholic masses celebrated privately: “Will you enforce women to hoodwink themselves in the church?” (from An Apologie of Priuate Masse, 1562).

In the early 17th century, “hoodwink” took on its modern figurative sense, which Oxford defines as to “blindfold mentally; to prevent (any one) from seeing the truth or fact; to ‘throw dust in the eyes’ of, deceive, humbug.”

The earliest example refers to people who deceive themselves: “Let not the faithlesse therefore hood-winck them-selues in the knowledge of nature” (from John Healey’s 1610 translation of Augustine’s The City of God, a fifth-century work entitled De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos in Latin).

Finally, here’s an OED example, which we’ve expanded, from An Essay on Waters (1756), by Charles Lucas, an Irish apothecary, physician, and politician:

“The public, though a many-headed monster, is as easily hood-winked, as if it had but one head or one eye. The multitude is as often, as sensibly, affected by artful falsehoods, as by plane truths, and frequently more so.”

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One of the only

Q: Are you as upset as I am over the growing use of the meaningless phrase “one of the only”? I keep seeing it used by journalists and other professional writers! Do you know how it started? I’m guessing it was coined by an advertising copywriter trying to impart exclusivity to his client’s pedestrian product.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but we see nothing wrong with “one of the only” followed by a plural noun. It’s not unusual and it’s not new either, since it’s more than 400 years old.

Perhaps you object because you think “the only” implies just one, but that’s not the case. In some constructions, “only” is used legitimately in a plural sense to mean very few.

For instance, if “only three people” know a secret, they’re “the only three people” who know it. And if Jack is among them, then he’s “one of the only three people” who know it. Nothing wrong there, either grammatically or logically.

Merriam-Webster Online, in its entry for “one of the only,” says it’s an idiom meaning “one of very few” or “one in a small class or category.”

The dictionary gives two examples: “That was one of the only times I ever saw my father cry” and “This is one of the only places in the world where the plant is found.”

M-W is the only standard dictionary with a separate entry for the phrase “one of the only.” But others include the plural sense of “only” in their definitions of the adjective (we’ve underlined the plural senses):

Cambridge: “We use only as an adjective to mean that there is just one or very few of something” … Dictionary.com: “being the single one or the relatively few of the kind” … Lexico: “Alone of its or their kind” … Webster’s New World: “alone of its or their kind; by itself or by themselves” … Macmillan: “used for showing that there are no other things or people of the same kind as the one or ones that you are mentioning” … Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “being one or more of which there exist no others of the same class or kind.”

As we mentioned, “one of the only” isn’t a recent construction. The earliest example we’ve found is from a book on exploration published in 1599:

“From thence passing many dayes trauell, I came vnto a prouince [province] called Casan, which is for good commodities, one of the onely prouinces vnder the Sunne.” From The Principal Nauigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. (The passage translates the Latin account of a Franciscan friar’s travels to the East. The friar, Odoric of Pordenone, dictated the memoir on his deathbed in 1330.)

And this example was recorded a few years later: “he was one of the only men that sought the ouerthrow of their Dominion.” From The Historie of Iustine (1606), George Wilkins’s translation of the Latin original by the Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus.

In old book and newspaper databases, we’ve found many other examples from every century since then. Here’s a smattering of examples, and as you’ll notice, “one of the only” is often followed by a number plus a plural noun:

“one of the onely three supposed to haue preached” (1633); “one of the only three honest, valuable men in England” (1770); “a piece of Roman architecture; one of the only pure pieces perhaps in England” (1772); “one of the only two genera which constitute this order” (1819); “one of the only four surviving patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence” (1820); “one of the only two candidates that have ever been seriously thought of” (1824); “one of the only two ships” (1825); “one of the only two persons on board” (1827); “one of the only three brethren who could preach to the natives” (1832).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no separate entry for “one of the only.” But the phrase appears in a few of the dictionary’s citations for other words and phrases.

This one is found in an OED entry for the noun “Clarisse,” the name of an order of nuns: “One of the only two nunneries of the Clarisses in Scotland existed at Aberdour” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1879).

And the dictionary’s entry for “static” has this: “J. H. de Magellan, writing in 1779, said that he had seen a static barometer started by Sisson (one of the only two such instruments in Europe at the time).” From English Barometers 1680-1860 (2nd ed., 1977), by Nicholas Goodison.

In short, “one of the only” has been an established usage for centuries, in literary and scientific writing as well as everyday English.

No one, as far as we can tell, objects to the phrase without “the,” as in “one of only three dissenting voices” or “one of only four survivors.” But judging from comments on the Internet, many people are bothered by the phrase with the article, whether or not a number follows, as in “one of the only three dissenting voices” or “one of the only survivors.”

However, we see nothing wrong, grammatically or logically, with those constructions. If a litter of puppies includes two girls and eight boys, there’s nothing illogical in the sentence “We reserved one of the only two females.” In other words, “Of the only two females, we reserved one.”

Of course, without “the,” that sentence would still make sense (“We reserved one of only two females”). But “the” doesn’t make it wrong or illogical. In fact, we think “the only two” is more emphatic than “only two.” The presence of the article emphasizes the smallness (or fewness) of the number of girls in the litter.

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When an earring is an ear hanger

Q: While binging on The Bridge, I was surprised at how I could sometimes almost understand the dialogue in the Nordic TV series. So I signed up for a Swedish word-of-the-day, which leads to my question. Is there a term for words like “earring” and örhänge (ear hanger) that describe the same thing in different ways?

A: Two terms that have similar meanings in the same language, whether conceptually similar or not, are considered synonyms. Two terms that are semantically similar in different languages, whether similar in concept or not, are interlingual or bilingual synonyms.

So “earring” in English and örhänge in Swedish are interlingual synonyms. Interestingly, the term in two other Nordic languages, Norwegian and Danish, is ørering, which is conceptually similar to the English word. However, the term in another Nordic language, Icelandic, is conceptually different from all the others: eyrnalokkur (ear lure).

As it turns out, there were at least three different terms for an earring in Old English, and each was conceptually different: earpreon (ear pin), earspinl (ear spindle), and earhring (ear ring).

One could perhaps argue that the modern terms “earring,” örhänge, and ørering are conceptually “hyponyms” of the “hypernym” eyrnalokkur. A “hyponym” is a word whose meaning is included in the meaning of a more general word, a “hypernym” or “superordinate.” So “earring,” örhänge, or ørering might be seen as a specific typs of ear lure (or allurement) within the general term eyrnalokkur.

Of course many synonyms might better be described as near synonyms, since they’re “polysemous” (have multiple meanings) and not all the meanings coincide. For instance, “slip” and “trip” can be synonyms for an error, but they have other senses that aren’t alike.

In looking into your question, we came across a study by two researchers about the difficulty in programming computers to translate polysemous words: “Near-Synonymy and Lexical Choice,” by Philip Edmonds and Graeme Hirst (Computational Linguistics, June 2002). As they write, “Choosing the right word can be difficult for people, let alone present-day computer systems.”

We’ve written before about two linguistic relatives of hyponymy and hypernymy. In a 2009 post, we discuss “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” figures of speech in which one thing is used to represent another. In both of these rhetorical figures, the original term and the substitute are closely identified or associated with each other.

With, “synecdoche,” a part is used to represent the whole or vice versa. Examples commonly cited are the use of “hand” to mean a sailor and “the cavalry” to mean a single trooper. With “metonymy,” the substituted word is not a part (or an extension) of the original but something associated with it. Classic examples are “the crown” to represent the monarchy and “the sword” to represent military power.

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A lapidary opinion

Q: A column in the Washington Post refers to “the lapidary phrases of a Supreme Court opinion.” Is this an oddball use of the word?

A: The adjective “lapidary” can refer either to engraving on stone, especially stone monuments, or to writing that’s suitable for engraving on stone. However, that second sense is often used to describe writing that’s concise, precise, and elegant.

In the Washington Post column you cite, the editorial writer Charles Lane says, “If there is to be a right to die in the United States, democratic processes in the states and, possibly, Congress will establish its contours, not the lapidary phrases of a Supreme Court opinion.” In other words, the legalization of euthanasia won’t come from a well-written Supreme Court opinion.

In defining the adjective “lapidary,” nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include such terms as “accurate,” “clever,” “concise,” “exact,” “elegant,” “precise,” “refined,” “short,” “simple,” and “well-written.” One dictionary, Macmillan, doesn’t have an entry for “lapidary” in either its US or UK editions.

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), defines this sense of “lapidary” as “elegant and concise, and therefore suitable for engraving on stone.” That is, appropriate for monumental writing, whether on granite or in print.

So the looser use of “lapidary” to describe writing that’s concise, precise, elegant, and so on is legitimate, but you’re probably not the only reader of the Post to be confused by it. For an Op-Ed piece, we’d use one or two of those dictionary terms above, depending on what we meant.

As for the word’s etymology, English borrowed “lapidary” from the classical Latin adjective lapidarius (of or relating to stone). In Latin, lapis and lapidis are the nominative singular and plural forms of the noun for stone.

When “lapidary” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it was a noun that had two meanings: (1) someone who cuts, polishes, or engraves precious stones, and (2) a treatise on precious stones. Sense #1 is standard today, but #2 is obsolete or historical, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an expanded version of the earliest OED citation for the first sense: “with precious iemmes figured in binding of gold, and with werk of the lapidarie grauen” (“with precious gems set in gold binding, and engraved with the lapidary’s work”). From Ecclesiastes 45:13 in the Wycliffe Bible of 1382.

And this is the first Oxford citation for the second sense: “The fynest stones faire / That men reden [read of] in the lapidaire.” From Hous of Fame, a Middle English poem by Geoffrey Chaucer, circa 1384.

The dictionary defines the adjective “lapidary,” which showed up in the early 18th century, as “engraved on stone, esp. monumental stones,” or “characteristic of or suitable for monumental inscriptions.”

The dictionary’s earliest example uses the term to describe writing that’s fit to be engraved. The citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a note in the biography of the Rev. John Barwick, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London:

“See a farther Account of him in Dr. Gower’s two Sermons preach’d on Occasion of his Death, and in Dr. Jenkins’s Lapidary Verses prefix’d to those Sermons.” From Life of Dr. Barwick (1724), a biography written in Latin by Peter Barwick, the dean’s brother, and translated into English by Hilkiah Bedford.

The next Oxford example refers to an actual inscription engraved in stone that was found among the ruins of a Roman amphitheater: “These Words, A SOLO FECIT, expressed, in the Lapidary Stile, that it was built from its very Foundation.” From A Compleat History of the Ancient Amphitheatres (1730), Alexander Gordon’s translation of a work by the Italian art critic Francesco Scipione Maffei.

The OED’s most recent example is from the Feb. 18, 1899, issue of the Academy, a London magazine: “A stanza [which] has a lapidary dignity, as of some thing carved in stone.”

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A degenerate gambler?

Q: It seems that “degenerate” is now the only term that the media applies to a long-time gambler. In the past, the more common, almost stock, term was “inveterate,” or sometimes “unregenerate.”  Of course, many dedicated gamblers can be degenerates, but the prior terms seem more apropos.

A: Any of those adjectives—“degenerate,” “inveterate,” or “unregenerate”—could legitimately be used to describe a gambler. But we agree with you that someone who gambles habitually and perhaps addictively is best described as “inveterate” or “unregenerate.”

“Inveterate” means long-established or habitual, and “unregenerate” means unable or unwilling to change. When used to modify “gambler,” both suggest that the gambling is long-established, hard to stop, and so on. Those adjectives are largely meaningless if used alone: “He’s inveterate” … “He’s unregenerate.” An inveterate or unregenerate what?

Unlike those words, “degenerate,” which means debased or corrupt, is a character trait in itself. It can be used alone: “He’s degenerate.” When used to modify “gambler,” it describes an incidental characteristic of a gambler. In other words, “He’s a degenerate gambler” would mean “He’s not only a gambler, but also degenerate.”

A comparison of the three phrases in Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “inveterate gambler” is by far the most common. It gets about three times as many hits as the runner-up, “degenerate gambler.” Trailing distantly in last place is “unregenerate gambler,” which barely registers. (Probably because it’s not a very common word.)

Here are examples of each from newspapers:

“He had been invited to join the poker table of that inveterate gambler—and big-time cheat—King Farouk” (Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2015).

“Las Vegas shooter was a degenerate gambler” (New York Post headline, Oct. 2, 2017).

“Anyone who saw [Jackie] Robinson play has to laugh when Pete Rose, the unregenerate gambler, is held up as the paragon of hustle” (Washington Post, April 8, 2004).

All the adjectives are derived from Latin and came into English in the early 1500s.

We’ll start with “inveterate,” from the Latin adjective inveteratus (grown old, of long standing, chronic), derived from the verb veterare (to make old). Here the in- prefix is an intensifier.

The English term was first recorded in writing in 1528, when it meant “full of obstinate prejudice or hatred; embittered, malignant; virulent,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. That’s no longer a standard usage.

Later in the 1500s, “inveterate” acquired a new sense: “firmly established by long continuance; long-established; deep-rooted; obstinate,” uses the dictionary says now apply mostly to “things evil.” And a couple of centuries later it was also being used more mildly, to mean “settled or confirmed in habit, condition, or practice; habitual, hardened, obstinate.” Those are the common meanings today.

A few examples of both senses: “huyrmongyn [whoremongering] inveterat” (1563); “inueterate malice” (1597); “inveterate, sinfull Habits” (1692); “an inveterate prejudice” (1735); “inveterate sportsman” (1832); “an inveterate smoker” (1859).

By the way, the word “veteran” is related, since it’s derived from the Latin vetus (old, long-established, belonging to the past). As the OED says, the classical Latin veteranus was a noun for an experienced or mature person and an adjective meaning mature or experienced, with the adjective used “especially of troops.”

Consequently, “veteran” (both noun and adjective) had military meanings upon entering English in the 1500s. The noun (1509) originally meant “a person with long experience in military service or warfare,” the OED says, and the adjective (1548) meant “having long experience in military service or warfare.” The other meanings, involving maturity or long experience in general, came later.

Moving on to the other two adjectives, “degenerate” and “unregenerate,” they have in their genes the Latin gener-, from genus (race or kind).

To be “degenerate” in the early 1500s was to depart from some virtue or quality that one would be expected to have. The OED’s definition: “having lost the qualities proper to the race or kind; having declined from a higher to a lower type; hence, declined in character or qualities; debased, degraded.”

The adjective was first recorded in the phrase “degenerat & growen out of kynde” (1513).

A more current use of the word is illustrated in this later OED example, a reference to Roman Catholic bishops: “The degenerate representatives of a once noble institution” (The History of England From the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, 1856, by James Anthony Froude).

And an example in Merriam-Webster Online—“a degenerate schemer”—illustrates what M-W calls an especially common definition: “having sunk to a lower and usually corrupt and vicious state.”

As for “unregenerate,” it didn’t come straight from the Romans but was formed within English. It was modeled on the earlier adjective “regenerate” (reborn, reformed), which the OED says did come from Latin and was first recorded around 1435.

When “unregenerate” was first noted in writing in 1561, it meant “not regenerate or reformed, spiritually or (now usually) morally or intellectually,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s most recent citation: “A currency whose strength would be undiluted by unregenerate profligates and spendthrifts in Ireland and in Club Med” (Daily Telegraph, Nov. 17, 2010).

Both adjectives, “degenerate” and “unregenerate,” developed noun forms later in the same century—“degenerate” (a person who fits the description) in 1555, and “unregenerate” (ditto) in 1578. The first also became a verb in that century. To “degenerate” (1545) means, in a general sense, “to decline in character or qualities, become of a lower type,” Oxford says.

The Latin gener- and degener- have given English a tremendous number of words, all ultimately traceable to a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as genə– (to give birth or beget), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Derivatives of this root generally have to do with “aspects of procreation” as well as with “familial and tribal groups,” American Heritage says. Here are some of the better-known English offspring of this ancient root, many of which reflect phonic alterations over the centuries:

benign, cognate, congenial, congenital, engender, engine, gendarme, gender, gene, genealogy, general, generate, generation, generic, generous, genesis, genial, genital, genitive, genius, genre, genocide, genotype, gent, genteel, gentile, gentle, gentry, genuine, genus, germ, German, germane, germinate, gingerly, gonad, kin, kind, kindred, king, heterogeneous, impregnate, indigenous, ingenious, ingenuous, innate, jaunty, kindergarten, malign, miscegenation, nada, naive, nascent, natal, nation, native, nature, née, neonate, Noël, pregnant, progeny, puny, renaissance, wunderkind.

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How ‘debauchee’ got an ‘-ee’ ending

Q: I’m curious about the English suffix “-ee.” It looks as though it’s borrowed from French, but it’s much more flexible in English. When did English speakers start using this repurposed French form?

A: Yes, the “-ee” suffix in English is derived from French—or, more precisely, from Anglo-Norman, a mixture of medieval French dialects used in English law, commerce, education, and so on from roughly the 13th to the 15th century.

The suffix appeared at first in technical terms of law, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and “was originally an adaptation of the of certain Anglo-Norman past participles, which were used as nouns.”

The ending of these passive nouns became -ee as they were paired with the agent nouns, ending in -or, that acted upon them. So a complementary pair like apelor and apelé—for one who accuses and one who’s accused—became apelor (or apelour) and apelee in Anglo-Saxon legal language.

As the OED explains, “The existence in legal Anglo-Norman of pairs of correlative words seems to have led in the first place to the invention of words [ending] in -ee parallel to those agent-nouns in -or which had been adapted in legal use from Anglo-Norman.”

Later, the dictionary adds, “the terminations -or and -ee were freely added to English verb-stems to form nouns, those in -or denoting the agent, and those in -ee the passive party, in such transactions as are the object of legislative provision.”

“The derivatives in -ee, however, unlike the Anglo-Norman participial nouns after which they were modelled, have not usually a grammatically passive sense, but denote the ‘indirect object’ of the verbs from which they are derived,” the OED says. “Thus vendee is the person to whom a sale is made, indorsee the person in whose favour a draft, etc. is indorsed, lessee the person to whom property is let.”

Oxford notes a “still greater departure from the original function of the suffix” in a word like “payee,” which “denotes the person who is entitled to be paid, whether he be actually paid or not.”

“In a few cases,” the OED adds, “the suffix has been appended, not to a verb-stem in English or Anglo-Norman, but to a Latin participial stem etymologically related to an English noun, as in legatee, a person to whom a legacy has been bequeathed.”

The suffix “also appears in the English spelling of certain nouns adopted from modern French participial nouns in , as debauchee, refugee,” the dictionary says. And in some words, such as “bargee” and “devotee,” the suffix “is employed apparently arbitrarily.”

The linguist Otto Jespersen notes in Growth and Structure of the English Language (1912) that the use of the -ee suffix in Anglo-Norman law gradually extended to nouns formed from past participles that didn’t end in .

As an example, he cites “vendee,” derived from vendre (to sell), whose past participle is vendu, thus “vendee is the man to whom something is sold (l’homme à qui on a vendu quelque chose).” The parenthetical French is Jespersen’s.

“Now,” Jespersen writes, “these formations are no longer restricted to juridical language, and in general literature there is some disposition to turn this ending to account as a convenient manner of forming passive nouns.”

To indicate how far the usage has widened from legal language, he cites several literary examples, including such rarities as “staree” (one who’s stared at, Maria Edgeworth, 1801), “cursee” (one who’s cursed, Thomas Carlyle, 1829), and “gazee” (one who’s gazed at, Thomas De Quincey, 1853). The OED refers to these terms as humorous “nonce-words” (those used for the nonce—that is, for the moment).

As Jespersen points out, English is a very flexible language: “Such a word as trusteeship is eminently characteristic of the composite character of the language: Scandinavian trust + a French ending used in a manner unparalleled in French + an old English ending.”

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A precipitous drop for the better?

Q: I keep seeing “precipitous decline” used for a drop that’s beneficial. For example, “a precipitous decline in the deficit” during the Obama administration (Daily Kos), or “a precipitous decline in Covid-19 cases” in New York (USA Today). Isn’t a drop that’s “precipitous” supposed to be alarming or dangerous?

A: In our opinion, “precipitous” describes a decrease that’s both steep and negative. Like you, we’ve occasionally seen news stories that use “precipitous” in a positive way, but we think a better word for a beneficial decrease would be “dramatic” or “sharp” or “steep.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, is on our side. “The core, literal meaning of precipitous is ‘sheer like a precipice; dangerously high or steep,’ ” Fowler’s says. “Derived from this is a metaphor to describe a change for the worse in a situation or condition, i.e., meaning ‘dramatic.’ ”

Notions of disaster are built into the word. Etymologically, as we’ll explain, someone or something whose fall is “precipitous” has been thrown off a cliff.

Of course, a word’s etymological meanings don’t always survive into modern times or influence how it’s used now. But we think that even today, a “precipitous” fall implies a change for the worse, not for the better.

The word came into English in the early 1600s when it was borrowed from French (precipiteux), the Oxford English Dictionary says. The French adjective had two general senses—(1) rash, impetuous, abrupt, and (2) steep or vertical.

It was derived from the Latin adjective praeceps, meaning not only steep but also headlong. (The literal sense of the Latin word is “head first”; it’s formed from the prefix prae- for “before” and caput for “head.”)

The OED’s earliest written example of “precipitous” is from 1646, but we’ve found more than a dozen earlier ones, all used in the sense of impetuous, rash, ill-advised, overly hasty, and so on. A few of the early sightings, including the first one, imply danger as well as haste.

Here’s the oldest use we’ve found so far: “Mankind runneth head longe to sinne when it is forbidden him; For euen as a torrent or land-floud [flood] running a violent and precipitous course, and meeting with any stop by the way becomes the more furious, and with redoubled force makes selfe way, and beareth downe al before it.” From The First Part of a Treatise Concerning Policy, and Religion (1606), by Thomas Fitzherbert.

Here are a few more of the early uses we’ve found: “rash & precipitous censure” (1609); “an act of extreme impiety or precipitous arrogancie” (1612); “so precipitous & inconsiderate” (1620); “Folly, lightnesse, unadvisednesse, and a precipitous nature” (1622); “the precipitous nature of the Prince, and the ill offices he had done already” (1632); “not precipitous a whit to attempt any thing unadvisedly” (1632); “the assaultes of a most precipitous Death” (1632); “a precipitous torrent, which when it rages, over-flows the plaines” (1640); “their precipitous hastinesse” (1644).

A slightly earlier form of the word was “precipitious” (sometimes spelled “praecipitious”), which was borrowed from the classical Latin adjective praecipitium (precipice-like). Originally, in the early 1600s, “precipitious” had dual meanings, according to the OED: (1) “acting or done in excessive haste; rash, unthinking”; (2) “involving risk of sudden fall or ruin; dangerous, precarious.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from 1612, but we found an earlier one in a book about the sin of pride. The author warns against boasting of great bodily strength, because strength is slow in ascending to its height, “but the descent is precipitious” (The Arraignment of Pride, 1600, by William Gearing).

And in this 1613 example, “precipitious” seems to mean disastrous: “glory and honour to the victor, euer deare and honest to the winner, precipitious and shamefull to the looser” (Sir Antony Sherley His Relation of His Trauels Into Persia, 1613).

We’ve also found an early use of “precipitously,” the adverb derived from “precipitous.” This appeared in a 1619 translation, from Italian, of the life of the Florentine Carmelite nun Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi: “For sometimes the Diuell [Devil] strocke her ouer the head, sometymes he cast her downe precipitously.”

In fact, “precipice” itself once had twin meanings. In its earliest uses, the OED says, it meant (1) “a headlong fall or descent,” used mostly in a  figurative way for “a fall into a disastrous situation or condition” (1606), and (2) “a high and vertical or very steep rock face; a crag, a cliff” (1607).

However, we’ve found an earlier use from 1603, in which the word (spelled “praecipice”) is used figuratively to mean the brink of disaster: “the deere Lord and treasure of my thought … / To such a headlong praecipice is brought.” (From The Tragedie of Darivs [Darius], a drama in verse by the Scottish poet William Alexander, first Earl of Stirling.)

It’s no surprise that “precipice” meant disaster early on, since it had that meaning in the languages it came from.

It was borrowed into English partly from Middle French and partly from Latin. In Middle French in the 1500s, précipice meant danger or disaster as well as a steep place. And in classical Latin, the noun praecipitium meant both a “steep place” and a “fall or jump from a great height,” the OED says, while in post-classical Latin it also meant ruin or disaster.

A couple of other English words starting with “precip-” had ominous beginnings, “precipitation” and “precipitate.” Both come from the Latin verb praecipitare, meaning to cast down or throw headlong.

In the 1400s, “precipitation” was a form of murder or capital punishment; it meant throwing someone (or being thrown) from a great height. In the 1500s, it took on other meanings, like abruptness and rashness; the weather senses—rain, snow, and so on—came along in the late 1600s.

And in the 1500s, to “precipitate” someone meant to throw him over a cliff, while the participial adjective “precipitate” meant “hurled downwards, as over a precipice,” the OED says. (In the same century, the verb and adjective “precipitate” also had meanings related to haste, speed, and rashness, similar to the senses they still have today.)

So as you can see, English words descended from Latin and beginning with “precip-” have long had a dual sense, implying both a sheer vertical drop and a hasty, headlong fall. And “precipitous” has retained those dual connotations, which is why you found it jarring when used to describe a sharp change for the better.

But what do current dictionaries say? Is a “precipitous” decline necessarily a bad one?

In their entries for “precipitous,” all of the 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult include definitions like overly hasty, abrupt, or done without thought. And all but one of the dictionaries indicate either directly or indirectly that a “precipitous” change is also dangerous or bad.

Three British dictionaries are the most specific about the negativity of “precipitous.” In their definitions, Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include “dangerously high or steep,” and Lexico adds: “(of a change to a worse situation or condition) sudden and dramatic.” Collins says it can mean “very steep and often dangerous” as well as “sudden and unpleasant.”

Six of the remaining seven dictionaries say something “precipitous” resembles a “precipice,” which in addition to its literal meaning of a steep rock face or high cliff is described as a dangerous situation in the following definitions:

“a greatly hazardous situation, verging on disaster” (Webster’s New World); “the brink of a dangerous or disastrous situation” (American Heritage); “a dangerous situation that could lead to harm or failure” (Cambridge); “a situation of great peril” (Dictionary.com); “the brink of disaster” (Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged). Collins, mentioned earlier, has a similar reference to “precipice.”

By the way, we sometimes see “precipitous” used to describe a steep rise (as opposed to a drop). Is this legit? Well, it’s a little odd but we haven’t found any evidence that it’s not acceptable in standard English.

Most dictionaries don’t address that question in their definitions, though their examples almost always describe falls, declines, drops, decreases, slides, and collapses. (Two examples to the contrary illustrate increases that are changes for the worse: “the precipitous cost increases at state universities,” in Longman, and “a precipitous increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce,” in Lexico.)

The definitions in only a couple of dictionaries specifically say that rises as well as falls can be “precipitous.”

Here’s Merriam-Webster, which seems to accept “precipitous” rises in only a literal (that is, geological) sense: “very steep, perpendicular, or overhanging in rise or fall” … “having a very steep ascent” (our underlining). All the examples given apply to a place or a geological feature. So clearly, you could justify saying that a street or slope or rock face had a “precipitous” ascent (or rose “precipitously”) to a great height.

Cambridge goes further and accepts figurative rises in its definition: “If a reduction or increase is precipitous, it is fast or great.” But no examples of precipitous increases are given.

A final word. For over 400 years, the adjectives “precipitous” and “precipitate” have been used to mean overly hasty or ill-considered. No one objected to this use of “precipitous” until the 1920s, so if you’ve heard such objections, ignore them. All ten standard dictionaries say “precipitous” and “precipitate” can be used synonymously.

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Margaret Thatcher’s bottom

Q: In an expression like “He has bottom,” what does “bottom” mean and where does it come from?

A: Your question about “bottom” reminds us of a 2012 post we wrote on “side.” Both are terms, mainly in British usage, for personal qualities or character traits, one positive and the other negative.  Someone with “side” is arrogant or stuck-up, while someone with “bottom” has courage and strength of character.

This use of “bottom” was first recorded in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as  “physical resources, stamina, staying power; substance, strength of character, dependability.” The OED says the usage is “now colloquial and somewhat archaic.”

It’s also labeled “archaic” in the British dictionary Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries online), which describes this sense of “bottom” as a “mass noun” meaning “stamina or strength of character.” The example given: “whatever his faults, he possesses that old-fashioned quality—bottom.”

The term is found in only a couple of standard American dictionaries. Webster’s New World defines it as “endurance, stamina,” and Merriam-Webster Unabridged says it means “vigorous physical qualities combined with stamina,” “capacity to endure strain,” or “spirit.” The Unabridged adds that the term is “used especially of horses and dogs,” as in “a breed of dogs outstanding for bottom.”

Our guess is that in the US the word is more common in regional than in general usage. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples dating from 1843 to 1968 in the West, the Great Plains, and the South, with the term applied to people as well as horses and dogs.

In Britain, where this sense of “bottom” originated, the usage first appeared in print as a sporting term in boxing, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Capt. John Godfrey’s A Treatise Upon the Useful Science of Defence (1747), a book on swordplay that also includes observations on boxing and on famous boxers of the day. We’ll expand the OED citation to give more of the context:

“I have mentioned Strength and Art as the two Ingredients of a Boxer. But there is another, which is vastly necessary; that is, what we call a Bottom. We need not explain what it is as being a Term well understood. There are two things required to make this Bottom, that is, Wind and Spirit, or Heart, or wherever you can fix the Residence of Courage.”

The author mentions “bottom” in many such passages, as in these remarks about a fighter known as George (“The Barber”) Taylor: “if he had a true English Bottom (the best fitting Epithet for a Man of Spirit), he would carry all before him,” and “if he were unquestionable in his Bottom, he would be a Match for any Man.”

Godfrey also uses the word as an adjective, as when he describes two famous fighters as “the best Bottom Men of the modern Boxers.”

It’s interesting that Godfrey says the term was already “well understood” when he wrote his book. So it was certainly around earlier in speech, perhaps in relation to sports involving horses or dogs. Subsequent published examples in the OED refer mostly to horses and dogs, but also to people. Here are a few examples, extending into our own time:

“Although the savages held out and, as the phrase is, had better bottoms, yet, for a spurt, the Englishmen were more nimble and speedy” (a reference to the endurance of Native Americans, from Oliver Goldsmith’s An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774).

“They … have their manes and tails cropped … under the supposition that it adds to their strength and bottom” (from a description of Barbary horses in the Penny Cyclopaedia, 1835).

“William Whitelaw … and Geoffrey Howe … had simply not had the bottom to take on Edward Heath. She [Margaret Thatcher] had had that bottom” (the Independent, Nov. 30, 1989).

“Both sides envisioned in their horses the qualities that had made their regions distinct—the brilliance of untamed southern speed, the resolve of northern ‘bottom,’ or stamina”  (John Eisenberg’s The Great Match Race: When North Met South in America’s First Sports Spectacle, 2006).

The term isn’t common today, in either British or American English. We suspect that Eisenberg used it in The Great Match Race (and in quotation marks) because he was writing about a contest that took place in 1823, when the usage was familiar. And we suspect that a reference to Margaret Thatcher’s “bottom” would evoke quite a different image today.

As you might think, “bottom” is among the oldest words in the language. Like its distant relative “deep,” it’s existed in writing since early Old English and was inherited from Germanic sources but goes back to prehistoric Proto-Indo-European.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the ancient ancestors of “bottom” and “deep” were bhudh– and dheub-, “which already in Indo-European were doublets by inversion, referring to ‘bottom,’ ‘foundation,’ ‘depths.’ ” (Doublets are etymological twins, in this case with the consonant sounds inverted.)

“Bottom” in its original sense—the lowest part of something—first appeared in writing in a Latin-English manuscript known as the Third Cleopatra Glossary, which scholars say originated in the 700s. It was then spelled botm, which remained the usual spelling throughout the Old English period, the OED says.

Over the centuries it has had a great many meanings, which generally fall into three broard categories:

(1) The lowest part of something, whether a physical thing, a place, or a list or ranking or some kind. These uses of the word gave us the figurative phrase “rock bottom” (1866), as well as the buttocks sense of “bottom” (circa 1550). The OED says that last one is now considered “a euphemistic alternative to words such as arse, bum, butt, and numerous synonyms.”

(2) The deepest or most inner part of something, literally or figuratively. The expression “the bottom of one’s heart” (early 1400s) comes from these senses of the word, as do usages like “the bottom of the garden” (1715), referring to the furthest point.

(3) An underlying support, foundation, or base, physical or metaphorical. The use of “bottom” that we’re discussing here, meaning stamina, pluck, endurance, and so on (1747), falls within this category.

Another meaning of “bottom” that we should mention also falls into the third category. It’s a sense defined in the OED as “the fundamental character, essence, or reality.”

This meaning of the word has given us such expressions as “to get to the bottom of” (to investigate fully or find the truth of, 1683); “at bottom” (basically, late 1600s); and “to be at the bottom of” (to be the hidden source or instigator, usually referring to something you’d rather not be blamed for, 1550).

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On ‘willy-nilly’

Q: Your “willy-nilly” entry (from 2006) dates it at 1608. Mightn’t it come from Hamlet, which was written a few years earlier? From Act V, Scene 1: “If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he nill he, he goes.” Just my 2 cents.

A: Thanks for drawing our attention to that 2006 post about “willy-nilly,” one of the oldest posts on our blog, and one in need of an update. So here goes.

As it turns out, early versions of “willy-nilly” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, seven centuries before the usage appeared in Shakespeare. In Old English, forms of the verbs wyllan (to want something) and nyllan (to not want it) were combined in various expressions meaning “whether (one) will or not; willingly or unwillingly; voluntarily or compulsorily,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although “willy-nilly” usually means haphazardly or carelessly today, that early sense (willingly or unwillingly, whether you like it or not) is included in all 10 of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

For example, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) defines “willy-nilly” as (1) “in a disorganized or unplanned manner; sloppily” and (2) “whether one wishes to or not; willingly or unwillingly.”

The earliest Old English ancestor of “willy-nilly” in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is sam we willan sam we nyllan (whether we wish to or wish not to). Here’s the citation from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“we sceolon beon nede geþafan, sam we willan sam we nyllan, þæt he sie se hehsta hrof eallra goda” (“We must grant, whether we wish to or not, that He is the crowning pinnacle of all things good”).

A shorter version, “wille we, nelle we” (willingly or unwillingly, one way or another) showed up a century later:

“forðan þe we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, wille we, nelle we” (“Therefore we are sinners and shall be humble, willingly or unwillingly”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.

A reverse version of the expression, “nil we, wil we,” showed up a few hundred years later in Middle English:

“ded has vs wit-sett vr strete; nil we, wil we, we sal mete” (“Death surrounds us in all places; one way or another, we shall meet”). From Cursor Mundi, an anonymous poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300.

Shakespeare, who apparently liked the expression, used it at least twice—first in The Taming of the Shrew, believed written in the early 1590s,  and then in Hamlet, said to be written in the late 1590s or early 1600s.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio tells Katherine that he’ll marry her, whether she wants to or not: “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.”

In the passage from Hamlet that you mentioned, a gravedigger comments on whether Ophelia deserves a Christian burial after a suspicious drowning. The expression “will he nill he” isn’t in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest published version of the play, but it’s in the Second Quarto (1604-5) and the First Folio (1623.)

Here’s an expanded version from the Second Quarto of the gravedigger’s remarks: “if the man goe to this water & drowne himselfe, it is will he, nill he, he goes, marke you that, but if the water come to him, & drowne him, he drownes not himselfe.”

The earliest example in the OED for “willy-nilly” spelled the usual modern way (but minus the hyphen) is from Salmagundi, a 19th-century satirical periodical created and written by Washington Irving and others. Here’s an expanded version of the April 25, 1807, citation:

“Woe be to the patient that came under the benevolent hand of my aunt Charity; he was sure, willy nilly, to be drenched with a deluge of decoctions: and full many a time has my cousin Christopher borne a twinge of pain in silence, through fear of being condemned to suffer the martyrdom of her materia medica.”

We suspect that the “willy-nilly” spelling may have caught on because of its similarity to two other reduplicative usages, “wishy-washy” (1693) and “shilly-shally” (1700). As we’ve noted several times on the blog, reduplication is the complete or partial repetition of linguistic elements.

Interestingly, the OED’s entry for “willy-nilly,” which hasn’t been fully updated since 1926, cites an early 17th-century satirical play as the first written example of the expression: “Thou shalt trust mee spite of thy teeth, furnish me with some money, wille nille” (from A Trick to Catch the Old-One, 1608, by Thomas Middleton).

The Old English and Middle English passages that we’ve cited as early versions of “willy-nilly” are from the dictionary’s entries for the verb “will” and the archaic verb “nill.” We assume that the OED will eventually note the earlier usages in an updated “willy-nilly” entry.

As of now, the dictionary doesn’t have any examples of “willy-nilly” in the usual modern sense of haphazardly or carelessly. As far as we can tell, the expression took on that meaning in the mid-19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the English poet Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

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On Main St. and in the High St

Q: Any wisdom on why Americans say “on Main Street” and the British say “in the High Street” for, well, the main street in a town?

A: “High Street,” a chiefly British term for the main shopping road in a town or city, is much older than “Main Street,” its American counterpart.

(If you’re wondering why “Main St.” has a period in the title of this post and “High St” doesn’t, the first illustrates American usage and the second British usage.)

When the British term “high street” showed up in Anglo-Saxon days, it wasn’t the name of a specific street, but merely referred to “a main road, either in a town or city or constituting a principal connecting route,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The term “high” here meant chief, principal, or main.

The first OED example is from an Old English land charter that describes boundary markers in the village of Whittington in Worcestershire: “andlang sices þæt to þære hæhstræte, andlang stræte þæt in langan broc” (“along the stream to the high street, along the street with the long brook”). Published in Worcestershire Anglo-Saxon Charter-Bounds (1990), edited by Della Hooke.

Since “high street” was originally a descriptive term, it was often accompanied by a definite article and lowercased, as in “the high street.” In later use, the OED says, the term was capitalized as the name of “the main street of a town or city,” chiefly “the main shopping street.” And “in some (esp. British) towns, names of this type still retain the definite article.”

The term came to mean a specific road in Middle English. Oxford says it “is apparently earliest attested unambiguously with reference to a particular street in an English town (Oxford)” in this citation: “Þoruȝ al þe heiȝe strete” (“through all the high street”). From The Life of St. Edmund Rich (circa 1300), in The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann.

And here’s a late 14th-century citation from Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem by William Langland: “Riȝt as syȝte serueth a man to se þe heighe strete” (“right as sight serveth a man to see the high street”).

We’ve expanded this 20th-century example in the OED: “ ‘Maureen is sometimes quite coarse,’ said Marjorie to Jack over carré of lamb from the butcher in the High Street who delivered, and put frills on the cutlets.” From “Rode by All With Price,” a short story by Jane Gardam in London Tales (1983), a collection edited by Julian Evans.

As for “main street,” the earliest Oxford citation for the term is from an Italian-English dictionary published in London: “Rióne, a maine streete, a high way.” A Worlde of Words, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598), by John Florio.

Although the term first showed up in London, Oxford defines “main street” now as “the principal street of a town, esp. in North America. Frequently without article, and as a proper name”—thus capitalized.

The first American citation is from a 1687 entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, a judge in Massachusetts: “At night a great Uproar and Lewd rout in the Main Street.” Sewall is better known as one of the nine judges at the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—the only one to apologize publicly for his role.

Americans continued using the definite article with “Main Street” in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to OED citations, but began dropping the article in the 19th century. Here’s a 20th-century example, which we’ve expanded, from The Bear, a short story in William Faulkner’s collection Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories (1942):

“Twenty years ago his father had ridden into Memphis as a member of Colonel Sartoris’ horse in Forrest’s command, up Main street and (the tale told) into the lobby of the Gayoso Hotel where the Yankee officers sat in the leather chairs spitting into the tall bright cuspidors and then out again, scot-free.”

As for “in the High Street” versus “on Main Street,” the preposition “in” is standard with such constructions in Britain, while “on” is standard in North America, according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). The OED notes that “on” is also used with streets in British regional and Irish English.

In fact, “on” was sometimes used in the sense of “in” in Anglo-Saxon days, “almost to the elimination of the preposition in from West Saxon and the dialects influenced by it,” Oxford notes. And “in early southern Middle English,” according to the dictionary, “on still included the sphere of both ‘on’ and ‘in.’ ”

Since “on” has been encroaching on the territory of “in” since Old English and Middle English, it’s not at all surprising that in Modern English a British tea shop is “in the High Street” while an American coffee shop is “on Main Street.”  

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Hard of sleeping?

Q: After reading your article about “hard” and “hardly,” my thoughts wandered to “hard of hearing.” Where did this originate? Would the opposite be “soft of hearing”? Why don’t we talk about “hard of seeing,” “hard of tasting,” etc.? I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking about this. Am I hard of sleeping?

A: The phrase “hard of” has been used in this way since the early 14th century. And yes, it’s been used for other things that some people find hard to do—like seeing, believing, and understanding. Here’s the story.

Since Old English, “hard” has been both an adjective (firm, solid, unyielding, difficult to do) and a noun (for a difficult experience or difficult times), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “hard,” in the sense of a hardship or difficult times, was often linked with “nesh” (something soft). So the expression “in nesh and hard” meant in all circumstances—that is, in easy times and hard.

The OED’s first citation for the noun is from a riddle in a 10th-century poem: “Him on hand gæð heardes and hnesces” (“Into its hand goes hard and soft”). From Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn in The Red Book of Darley, MS 422, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

(In the riddle, Saturn asks “what is the wonder” that feeds on “all that dwell on the ground, fly in the air, swim in the sea”? Solomon answers, “Old age is powerful over all things on earth.” It “destroys the tree,” “defeats the wolf,” “outwits the rocks,” “bites iron with rust,” and “does the same to us.”)

In the early 14th century, writers began using the noun in various phrases with the sense of a difficulty, hardship, misfortune, and so on, the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330 or earlier: “Y com fram Lombardy, Of hard y-schaped for þe maistrie” (“I come from Lombardy, from hardship of the highest degree”).

Of course, the noun today is used much less than the adjective, which is where your question comes in.

In its earliest uses, the adjective meant firm and unyielding, as in heard ssweord (hard sword), a phrase recorded in Beowulf, possibly written as early as the 700s.

Here’s a similar use, from a collection of Old English medical remedies copied into a 10th-century manuscript known as Bald’s Leechbook:

“Wiþ heardum swile þæs magan” (“For a hard swelling of the stomach”). The title of the manuscript comes from its Latin colophon, or publication details: “Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit” (“Bald owns this book, which he ordered Cild to compile”).

At the same time, the adjective was being used to mean difficult or hard to accomplish, as in this OED citation: “Þa þuhte me swiðe heard & uneaðe” (“That seems to me very hard & not easy”). From Bishop Wærferth’s translation, done in the late 800s or early 900s, of Gregory’s Dialogues, which were written in Latin the sixth century.

And in Middle English, the combination “hard + of” took on the sense you’re asking about. Oxford says the adjective was coupled with “of” (also sometimes “to” or “in”) to describe a person “not easily able to do something or capable of doing something”—a usage that survives today (excepting humorous examples) only in the phrase “hard of hearing.”

The dictionary’s earliest known example for “hard of” is in the anonymous Middle English poem Cursor Mundi, written sometime before 1325: “Men sua herd of vnder-stand” (“Men are hard of understanding”).

The phrase “hard of hearing” appeared in writing more than two centuries later: “The testatrixe was hard of hearinge.” From a deposition in a 1564-65 case about a will, cited in Child-Marriages, Divorces, and Ratifications, etc. in the Diocese of Chester, 1897, edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.

Finally, here are a few unusual “hard of” usages from the OED:

“To those that are dull and hard of vnderstanding, or long time besieged with euill customes, the rust of their mindes must be rubbed off” (from The Workes of Lucius Annæus Seneca, 1614, translated from the Latin by Robert Lodge).

“They are hard of digestion, causing nauseating eructations” (Dictionnaire Oeconomique; or, The Family Dictionary, 1725, by Richard Bradley). The subject is radishes.

“In Portugal men are melancholy, sanguine, and robust, but slow and hard of intellect” (Werner’s Magazine, January 1896).

“Riots, too, are a form of language in which the voiceless get the attention of those who are ‘hard of listening’ ” (The Drama of Social Life, 1990, by T. R. Young).

May you be soft of sleeping the next time 3 a.m. comes along.

[Update, Oct. 24, 2020. A reader sent this excerpt from “The Smelly Car” episode of Seinfeld, first aired April 15, 1993: “Jerry: ‘Boy, do you smell something?’ Elaine: ‘Do I smell something? What am I, hard of smelling?’ ”]

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What’s up with ‘below’?

Q: Merriam-Webster describes “below” as an adverb in these two examples: “gazed at the water below” and “voices from the apartment below.” My understanding is that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. But “below” here is modifying two nouns, “water” and “apartment.” So what am I missing?

A: You raise a very good question. As it happens, linguists have asked themselves the same thing, and in the last few decades they’ve abandoned the traditional thinking about the status of “below” and similar words that express spatial relationships.

Traditionally, “below” has been classified as either a preposition or an adverb. It’s a preposition if an object follows, as in “the water below the bridge” and “the apartment below ours.” It’s an adverb if it doesn’t have an object, as in “the water below” and “the apartment below.” As far as we can tell, that’s been the thinking among grammarians since the late 18th century.

But as we’ll explain later, linguists now regard “below” solely as a preposition, a view reflected in recent comprehensive grammar books but not yet recognized in popular grammars and standard dictionaries.

Of course, for all practical purposes the word hasn’t changed, either in its meaning or in the way it’s used. In the scholarly comprehensive  grammars, the word has merely shifted in some cases from one lexical category (adverb) to another (preposition).

Standard dictionaries haven’t yet caught up to this new way of thinking about “below.” The 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult say it can be either an adverb or a preposition in constructions like those above.

Cambridge, for example, calls it a preposition in “below the picture” but an adverb in “the apartment below.” The dictionary adds: “When the adverb below is used to modify a noun, it follows the noun.” (We know what you’re thinking: An adverb modifying a noun? Stay tuned.)

Despite the differing labels, the adverb and the preposition have virtually the same meaning. By and large, the standard dictionaries that define them say the adverb means “in or to a lower position” or “beneath,” while the preposition means “lower than” or “beneath.”

And in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, the broad definitions for the adverb and the preposition are identical: “Expressing position in or movement to a lower place.”

As we mentioned above, this view of “below” and words like it has a long history. Some similar words of this kind, prepositions that have traditionally been called adverbs when used without an object, include these:

“aboard,” “about,” “above,” “across,” “after,” “against,” “ahead,” “along,” “around,” “before,” “behind,” “below,” “beneath,” “besides,” “between,” “beyond,” “by,” “down,” “for,” “in,” “inside,” “near,” “off,” “on,” “opposite,” “out,” “outside,” “over,” “past,” “round,” “since,” “through,” “throughout,” “to,” “under,” “underneath,” “up,” “within,” “without.”

For example, Lindley Murray’s English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (1795), says that in some instances a preposition “becomes an adverb merely by its application.” The word “since,” he says, is a preposition in “I have not seen him since that time” and an adverb in “Our friendship commenced long since.”

Murray also says, “The prepositions after, before, above, beneath, and several others, sometimes appear to be adverbs, and may be so considered,” giving as an example “He died not long before.” But when a complement follows, he writes, the word is a preposition, as in “He died not long before that time.”

A generation later, the philosopher John Fearn echoed Murray, referring to “the known Principle” that prepositions at the end of a sentence “become Adverbs by Position.”

Fearn also distinguishes between prepositions that require an object (like “with” and “from”) and those that don’t (like “through”). Those in the second group, he says, are “prepositional adverbs” when they’re used without an object (as in “He went through”).

(From Fearn’s Anti-Tooke: Or an Analysis of the Principles and Structure of Language, Vol. II, 1827, an extended argument against the language theories of John Horne Tooke.)

As we said above, the traditional view persists in standard dictionaries but is no longer found in up-to-date comprehensive grammar. Thinking began to change in the late 1960s, when some academic linguists began questioning the “adverb” label and widening the definition of “preposition.”

In the early ’90s, the linguist Ronald W. Langacker gave four examples of “below” as a preposition—“the valley below; the valley below the cliff; A bird flew below; A bird flew below the cliff.” (From “Prepositions as Grammatical(izing) Elements,” published in the journal Leuvense Bijdragen, 1992.)

Note that in those examples “below” is classified as a preposition (1) whether it’s used alone or with a complement, and (2) whether it follows a noun or a verb—thus resembling an adjective in one case (“valley below”) and an adverb in the other (“flew below”).

Most linguists today would agree with that interpretation: “below” and words like it are prepositions. Used with a complement, they’re said to be “transitive prepositions”; used without one, they’re “intransitive prepositions.”

The newer interpretation has only gradually made its way into major books on English grammar.

For example, the old view persisted at least through the publication in 1985 of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al. It uses the terms “postmodifying adverb” and “prepositional adverb” for “below” and similar words in constructions like these.

A “postmodifying adverb,” according to the Comprehensive Grammar, is identical to a preposition except that it has no complement and modifies a preceding noun. Examples given include “the sentence below” … “the way ahead” … “the people behind.”

A “prepositional adverb,” the book says, is identical to a preposition but has no complement and modifies a verb. Examples include “She stayed in” … “A car drove past.

The word is a preposition, according to Quirk, only if a complement is present (and regardless of what it seems to modify). Examples include “below the picture” … “She stayed in the house” … “A car drove past the door.

The Comprehensive Grammar doesn’t use the words “transitive” and “intransitive” for prepositions, but it comes close: “The relation between prepositional adverbs and prepositional phrases may be compared to that between intransitive and transitive uses of certain verbs.”

The next exhaustive grammar book to come along, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), does use those terms. In this book, words that Quirk had previously classified as either postmodifying adverbs or prepositional adverbs are newly categorized as prepositions. The Cambridge Grammar uses “transitive” for prepositions that have a complement, “intransitive” for those that don’t—and it’s the first important English grammar to do so.

The book calls “in” and “since” intransitive prepositions here: “He brought the chair in” … “I haven’t seen her since.” And it calls them transitive prepositions here: “He put it in the box” … “I haven’t seen her since the war.”

The authors of the Cambridge Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, don’t discuss “below” at length, but they do say that it “belongs only to the preposition category.” It’s also included among a list of prepositions that are used with or without a complement, and these examples show it without one: “the discussion below” … “the room below.

Huddleston and Pullum essentially redraw the boundary between prepositions and adverbs, defining prepositions more broadly than “traditional grammars of English.” In this, they say, they’re “following much work in modern linguistics.” And they give two chief reasons why they  reject the traditional view and reclassify words like “below” as prepositions.

(1) The traditional view “does not allow for a preposition without a complement.” The Cambridge Grammar argues that the presence or absence of a complement has no bearing on the classification. So “the traditional definition of prepositions,” one that says they require a complement, is “unwarranted.”

The book makes an important point about these newly recognized prepositions. Their ability to stand alone, without a complement, “is not a property found just occasionally with one or two prepositions, or only with marginal items,” the book says. “It is a property found systematically throughout a wide range of the most central and typical prepositions in the language.”

(2) The “adverb” label is inappropriate for words like “below” because they don’t behave like adverbs. In “The basket is outside,” for instance, the word “outside” is traditionally defined as an adverb. But as the authors point out, typical adverbs, such as those ending in “-ly,” aren’t normally used to modify forms of the verb “be.”

That role is normally played by adjectives, or by prepositions of the kind we’re discussing—“inside,” “outside,” “above,” “below,” and so on. And such words, the authors write, “no more modify the verb than does young in They are young.”

[Here you might ask, Then why aren’t these words adjectives? “Below” certainly looks like an adjective in uses like “the water below.” The Cambridge Grammar discusses this at length and gives reasons including these: Prepositions can have objects but adjectives can’t. Prepositions are fixed, while adjectives can be inflected for degree (as in “heavy,” “heavier,” “heaviest”) or modified by “very” and “too.” As we wrote on the blog in 2012, the adjectival use of “below” premodifying a noun, as in “Click on the below link,” is not generally accepted.]

In summary, Huddleston and Pullum suggest that if an “-ly” adverb cannot be substituted for the word, then it’s not an adverb. And if a complement could be added (as in “The basket is outside the door”), then it’s not an adverb.

The next influential scholarly grammar to be published, the Oxford Modern English Grammar (2011), written by Bas Aarts, reinforces and builds on this distinction between transitive and intransitive prepositions. And it includes “below” in a list of prepositions that can be used either way—with or without a complement.

Aarts also discusses prepositions that follow a verb and can either stand alone or have a complement: “We might go out” or “We might go out for a meal “I shall probably look in” … or “I shall probably look in at the College.”

In short, modern developments in linguistics have given “below” a new label—it’s a preposition, and only a preposition. The traditional view lives on in dictionaries, and no doubt it will persist for quite some time. But in our opinion, the new label makes more sense.

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When ‘even’ looks odd

Q: I was reading this verse in the King James Version of the Bible: “Thou also, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and pourtray upon it the city, even Jerusalem.” Ezekiel 4:1. What does “even” mean here? Is it an adverb?

A: In that biblical passage, “even” is an adverb meaning “namely,” “truly,” “that is to say,” or “in other words.” Here’s the verse with modern English in brackets:

“Thou also, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and pourtray upon it the city, even [namely] Jerusalem.”

The usage is now archaic, but as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “even” was once “prefixed to a subject, object, or predicate, or to the expression of a qualifying circumstance, to emphasize its identity, or to reinforce the assertion being made about it.”

Although the phrase “the city, even Jerusalem” is used in the King James Version and “a city, even Jerusalem” in the English Standard Version, some other translations of the Bible don’t use “even” but make clear in other ways that the city mentioned is Jerusalem.

Here, for example, is the passage in the New International Version: “Now, son of man, take a block of clay, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it.” And here is the passage in the New American Standard Bible: “Now you son of man, get yourself a brick, place it before you, and inscribe a city on it, Jerusalem.”

This prefixed use of “even” first showed up in Old English, with “even” spelled efne. The earliest OED citation is from an account of the life of St. Guthlac of Crowland, an Anglo-Saxon warrior who became a Christian monk and later a hermit on an island in the fens, or marshland, of Crowland in eastern England:

“He fyrngewyrht fyllan sceolde þurh deaðes cyme, domes hleotan, efne þæs ilcan þe ussa yldran fyrn frecne onfengon” (“He must accept his fate to gain glory through the coming of death, even [that is to say] the same fate our parents of old accepted”). From Guthlac B, an Old English manuscript based on Vita Sancti Guthlaci (Life of Guthlac), an 8th-century Latin work by Felix of Crowland, an East Anglian monk.

Although the OED considers this use of “even” archaic, it still shows up occasionally in modern fiction that strives for a feel of ancient times. The most recent Oxford citation, for example, is from The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), by J. R. R. Tolkien: “Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even [truly] thou shalt find it.”

If you’d like to read more, we wrote a post a few years ago about some modern uses of the word “even.”

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

Come hell or high water

Q: I was wondering if you know the origin of the expression “come hell or high water.” I just used it to say I intend to vote in November come hell or high water. I must have learned it from my mother, who used many colorful sayings that I don’t hear anymore

A: Before getting to that expression, let’s look at the word “hell,” which has been used in a hell of a lot of ways since it first appeared in Old English writing, first as the dwelling place of all the dead, then as a place where the wicked were punished after death.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Vespasian Psalter, a ninth-century manuscript in Latin and Old English that uses the term to mean “the abode of departed spirits” and “a place of existence after death.”

In the citation, the Latin passage “veniat mors super illos et descendant in infernum viventes” is translated in Old English as “cyme deað ofer hie & astigen hie in helle lifgende” (“let death come upon them and descend into the living hell”).

The first OED citation for “hell” used in the sense of “the dwelling place of devils and condemned spirits” and “the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death” appeared in the 10th-century Blickling Homilies:

“Se gifra helle bið a open deoflum & þæm mannum þe nu be his larum lifiaþ” (“The greedy hell is open to the devil and the men who now live by his teaching”).

Notions of hell have inspired many expressions over the years, including “until hell freezes over” (meaning never, 1832); “to hell and back again” (a very long way, 1844); “raise hell” (cause great trouble, 1845); “to hell and gone” (to ruin or destruction, 1863); and “not a hope in hell” (impossible, 1923).

The expression you’re asking about—“come hell or high water,” meaning despite all obstacles—first appeared a century and a half ago in a somewhat different form. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a congressional report on a disputed 1870 House race in Arkansas.

In testimony on May 25, 1871, a witness notes that Gov. Powell Clayton intended to run for the US Senate, and quotes him indirectly as saying, “they might fight him as much as they were a mind to, but he was going there in spite of hell and high water.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the exact phrase you use is from Land Below the Wind, a 1939 memoir by Agnes Newton Keith about her life in North Borneo (now Sabah). Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“Too puny a voice mine to say, like Queen Victoria, ‘Let empires be built!’—and, come hell or high water, they build ’em. Likewise too untutored a mind mine to attempt the argument, ‘Let empires be destroyed!’—and, come hell or high water, they blast ’em.”

Although your version of the expression is the usual one, the OED notes that the conjunction linking “hell” and “high water” is sometimes “and,” “also,” or “nor.”

Getting back to the early beginnings of “hell,” John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says that etymologically it means “a hidden place.” Its ultimate source is a prehistoric Proto-Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as kel- (cover, hide).

Ayto says the “cover” sense of the ancient root gave English the word “hall” while the “hide” sense gave it “hell,” so “hall and hell were originally ‘concealed or covered places,’ although in very different ways: the hall with a roof, hell with at least six feet of earth.”

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