English English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Beyond the pale

Q: I’ve seen many examples of “beyond the pail” on the Internet. In fact, I googled the phrase and got many thousands of hits. I’d always thought the phrase was “beyond the pale,” a reference to the Russian Jewish ghetto.

A: You’re right that the correct phrase is “beyond the pale.” You’re also right that “beyond the pail” shows up a lot on the Internet.

However, many of the Google hits are from punsters or people pointing out the error.

The language writer Michael Quinion has a great quip about this on his website World Wide Words. When asked about the meaning of “beyond the pail,” he joked, “Isn’t that where you go when you kick the bucket?”

As for “beyond the pale,” it refers to something that’s improper or exceeds the limits of acceptability.

The other phrase you refer to, about the isolation of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, is the “Pale of Settlement.”

But the two expressions have little to do with one another, beyond their common use of the noun “pale” in the sense of a boundary or a limit.

“Beyond the pale” isn’t a reference to the other phrase, since it’s 170 years older. It was first recorded in 1720, while the first reference to the Pale of Settlement was recorded in 1890, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

We briefly discussed these expressions on our blog five years ago, but they’re worth another look.

When the noun “pale” was first recorded in the 1300s, it referred to a wooden stake meant to be driven into the ground.

At that time, “pale” was a doublet—that is, an etymological twin—of the much earlier word “pole,” according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Both “pale” and “pole” once had the same meaning and came from the same source, the Latin word palus.

As the OED explains, in classical Latin a palus was a stake or a “wooden post used by Roman soldiers to represent an opponent during fighting practice.”

In post-classical Latin, palus also meant a palisade (originally a fence or enclosure made with wooden stakes), or a stripe (as in heraldry).

The noun “pale” was first recorded in writing in the mid-14th century. Its original meaning, the OED says, was a stake or “a pointed piece of wood intended to be driven into the ground, esp. as used with others to form a fence.”

In the late 14th century, “pale” was also used to mean the fence itself.

In the following century, “pale” acquired a couple of new meanings.

It could be “an area enclosed by a fence,” or “any enclosed place,” to quote the OED. It could also mean “a district or territory within determined bounds, or subject to a particular jurisdiction.”

Here’s where our two expressions come in. “Beyond the pale” came first, as we said, dating from the early 18th century.

Originally the phrase was followed by “of” and it meant “outside or beyond the bounds of” something. For example, here are the OED’s three earliest citations:

“Acteon … suffer’d his Eye to rove at Pleasure, and beyond the Pale of Expedience.” (From Alexander Smith’s A Compleat History of Rogues, 1720.)

“Nature is thus wise in our construction, that, when we would be blessed beyond the pale of reason, we are blessed imperfectly.” (From Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of the World, 1773.)

“Without one overt act of hostility … he contrived to impress me momently with the conviction that I was put beyond the pale of his favour.” (From Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, 1847).

But late in the 19th century the prepositional phrase fell away, according to Oxford, and “beyond the pale” was used by itself to mean “outside the limits of acceptable behaviour; unacceptable or improper.”

That’s how it’s been used ever since, as in these two OED citations:

“Unknown, doubtful Americans, neither rich nor highly-placed are beyond the pale.” (From the 1885 novel At Bay, written by “Mrs. Alexander,” the pen name of Annie Hector.)

“If you pinched a penny of his pay you passed beyond the pale, you became an unmentionable.” (From a 1928 issue of Public Opinion.)

Now for our other “pale” expression. As we mentioned above, the use of “pale” to describe a region or territory subject to a certain control or jurisdiction dates from the mid-1400s.

When first used, the reference was to English jurisdiction, and over the centuries “the pale” (sometimes capitalized) has been used to refer to areas of Ireland, Scotland, and France (that is, the territory of Calais) when they were under England’s control.

But this sense of “pale” is perhaps most familiar in the phrase “Pale of Settlement,” which the OED says is modeled after the Russian certa osedlosti (literally, “boundary of settlement”).

Oxford defines the phrase as “a set of specified provinces and districts within which Jews in Russia and Russian-occupied Poland were required to reside between 1791 and 1917.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the use of the phrase in writing comes from Russia and the Jews: A Brief Sketch of Russian History and the Condition of Its Jewish Subjects (1890), written by an author identified as “A. Reader”:

“The Jews … as soon as the contract was completed … had to return within the ‘pale’ of settlement.”

This more contemporary example is from the Slavic and East European Journal (1999): “Deeply depressed by Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, Gershenzon struggled to escape the ‘darkness’ and reach the light.”

As for the relationship between the two expressions, the OED has this to say:

“The theory that the origin of the phrase [‘beyond the pale’] relates to any of several specific regions, such as the area of Ireland formerly called the Pale … or the Pale of Settlement in Russia … is not supported by the early historical evidence and is likely to be a later rationalization.”

By the way, the adjective “pale,” dating from the early 1300s, has nothing to do with the noun. It comes from another source altogether, the classical Latin pallidum (pale or colorless), from which we also get the word “pallid.”

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Look out below!

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 17, 2020.]

Q: Lately I’ve noticed that people are placing the word “below” in front of a noun or at the head of a sentence. Examples: “Click on the below link” instead of “Click on the link below” and “Below are the fixes” instead of “The fixes are below.” Is this at all proper?

A: Most authorities will tell you that “below” is not properly used as an adjective. So your first example (“the below link”) is not a universally accepted use. But the second (“Below are …”) is fine. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Nearly all standard dictionaries say that “below” functions exclusively as either an adverb (“they bought the apartment below”) or a preposition (“they bought the apartment below ours”). What’s the difference? They classify the word as an adverb if it doesn’t have an object, and as a preposition if it does.

In the sentence “Click on the below link,” the word “below” is an adjective modifying the noun “link.” While “above” is commonly used this way, “below” and “beneath” are not.

The usual order is “Click on the link below,” an arrangement in which “below” is traditionally classified as an adverb.

[Note: As we write in a later post, academic linguists have broken with tradition here. They consider “below” a preposition, whether it has an object (as in “click on the link below the picture”) or not (“click on the link below”). It’s a transitive preposition if it has an object, and intransitive if not. Dictionaries have not yet adopted this view.]

However, we can’t say the adjectival use is wrong. At least one publisher of standard dictionaries accepts it without comment.

Merriam-Webster classifies “below” as an adjective when it premodifies a noun and means “written or discussed lower on the same page or on a following page.” The example given is “the below list.” The more extensive Merriam-Webster Unabridged has a nearly identical definition and example. 

The adjectival usage is also found in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. And it’s similarly defined.

The OED’s earliest example is from an 1822 issue of the Philosophical Magazine: “According to the below observations, the thermometer falls one degree for every ascent of 224 feet.” (Oxford adds, however, that this use of “below” is rare in comparison with the similar use of “above.”)

However, aside from M-W, the standard dictionaries we usually consult do not recognize the use of “below” as an adjective. 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, has no such adjectival usage. It says “below” is an adverb when used, among other things, to indicate “farther down” or “in a later part of a given text: figures quoted below.”

The OED would agree with that classification of “below” as an adverb in the sense of “lower on a written sheet or page; hence, later in a book or writing; at the foot of the page.” Two OED citations for this usage are “Read what’s below” (1784) and “The forms subjoined in the note below” (1863).

The OED says that in cases like these (and this would also apply to the American Heritage example, “figures quoted below”), the adverb has no expressed object. In other words, the sentence doesn’t explicitly say below what.

As we mentioned above, when an object is present, “below” is traditionally classified as a preposition: “figures quoted below the dotted line” … “below zero” … “below par” … “below average,” and so on.

When “below” is used as an adverb, the word it modifies (whether adjective or verb) isn’t always implied.

All 10 standard dictionaries, as well as the OED, would classify “below” as an adverb in examples like “offices on the floor below” … “in the valley below” … “a grade below”… “a temperature of 40 below,” and so on.

We realize that in examples like those, “below” does not look like an adverb. In understanding the dictionaries’ rationale, it sometimes helps to imagine an unstated word like “located” or “positioned” in there somewhere: “the offices on the floor [located] below.”

Now let’s turn to your second example, “Below are the fixes.”

Here again, “below” would traditionally be classified as an adverb. The sentence is parallel to “The fixes are below.” (While we think “are below” at the end of the sentence is more graceful than “Below are” up front, the two versions are grammatically equivalent.)

One last point: the word “below” wasn’t either an adverb or a preposition when it first showed up in English in the 14th century. It was a verb meaning to make low or to humble.

William Langland used the verb in 1377 in Piers Plowman, his Middle English allegorical poem, but the OED says this usage is now obsolete or rare.

In case you’re wondering, the adverb first showed up around 1400 and the preposition around 1565, according to OED citations.  

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Supporting language

Q: I’ve been hearing a new usage in Jersey City for things that support us. People are using “chair” for anything they sit on (seat, sofa, bench, stool, pew, etc.) and “floor” for anything they stand on (ground, pavement, street, sidewalk, lawn, etc.). Have you noticed this?

A: We haven’t encountered this general use of “chair” to mean any kind of seat—stool, bench, sofa, car seat, and so on.

The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t (yet) aware of this usage either. The OED’s general definition of “chair” is a seat for one person, a “movable four-legged seat with a rest for the back.”

Perhaps the wider use of “chair” that you’ve noticed is a regional usage peculiar to the Jersey City area. In that case, don’t assume it’s a sign of a change in the language.

Although there are exceptions, regional differences tend to stay regional and don’t necessarily influence English as a whole.

On the other hand, sometimes very old usages survive as regionalisms. This could be the case with “floor” as a general term for the ground, a subject we once discussed on our blog.

Back in 2009, we promised to write more if we found out anything new, but there isn’t a whole lot to add.

American dictionaries still don’t consider “floor” and “ground” interchangeable. Both are words for bottom surfaces, but usually a “floor” is inside and the “ground” is outside (except in phrases like “the ocean floor” and “the forest floor”).

But as we pointed out in our blog posting, “floor” was a word for “ground” centuries ago. And at least one modern British dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, says that even today one definition of “floor” is “the earth; ground.”

However, the OED describes that usage as obsolete, except in dialects.

Here’s one of Oxford’s citations for the now obsolete usage. It comes from Morte Arthure, a Middle English romance written in the 1300s:

“With the drowghte of the daye alle drye ware thee flores!” (We’ve replaced the letter thorn with “th” in this example.)

Here’s another, from John Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil’s Pastorals (we’ve expanded the OED citation to give more of the context):

“Two Satyrs, on the ground, / Stretch’d at his Ease, their Syre Silenus found. … / His rosie Wreath was dropt not long before, / Born by the tide of Wine, and floating on the floor.”

But as we said, the OED describes the use of “floor” for “ground” as dialectal in modern usage. One of Oxford’s citations, from an 1865 issue of the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, reported that in the Cornish dialect “floor” was used to mean “a grass meadow.”

There’s a chance, we suppose, that the interchangeable use of “floor” and “ground” by some Americans could be a dialectal survival from days of old.

But this tendency among other Americans has nothing to do with Middle English.

In a 1959 article in the journal American Speech, George Yost Jr. noted that Syrian and Lebanese immigrants often confuse the words “floor” and “ground” because one Arabic noun (ard) serves for both.

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Sufferin’ succotash!

Q: Your posting about the difference between “quash” and “squash” raises another question: Is there a connection between the “squash” that means to crush and the “squash” that you eat?

A: This question came up recently during one of Pat’s appearances on Iowa Public Radio. The caller wondered what the two words had to do with each other.

The answer is nothing. The two “squashes” aren’t even remotely related.

As we wrote in that earlier post, the verb “squash” (to crush) ultimately comes from exquassare, a popular Latin derivative of quassare, one of the ancestors of “quash.”

When the verb entered English in the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant to “squeeze, press, or crush into a flat mass or pulp; to beat to, or dash in, pieces, etc.”

But the “squash” that’s a gourd—the British would call it a “marrow”—is a short form of asquutasquash, a word in Narragansett, an Algonquian language spoken by native Americans in Rhode Island.

In the word asquutasquash, the OED explains, asq means “raw, uncooked,” and “-ash is a plural ending, as in succotash.”

Roger Williams, who is generally accepted as the founder of Rhode Island colony, was the first person to use this “squash” in writing.

The OED’s earliest citation is from A Key Into the Language of America (1643), Williams’s study of native American languages:

“Askutasquash, their Vine aples, which the English from them call Squashes, about the bignesse of Apples, of severall colours, sweet, light, wholesome, refreshing.”

To some early settlers, the Narragansett word asquutasquash sounded like “squanter-squash,” and that was an early name for the gourd, first recorded in 1634. It’s no longer used; the OED calls it obsolete and rare.

Now how’s this for confusing? The word “quash” was also sometimes used to mean a squash or pumpkin

The OED says that some examples of this usage “may be based on misunderstanding by early naturalists, others may represent misreadings of manuscripts by later editors.” OK, now let’s forget all about it.

One more thing. We probably shouldn’t let that fleeting reference to “succotash” pass without an explanation. After all, we’ve recently celebrated Thanksgiving and food, as well as our country’s Native American heritage, has been on everybody’s mind.

“Succotash” too is derived from a Narragansett word, msiquatash, a plural with “divergent explanations,” the OED says.

We do know what “succotash” meant to colonists in 18th-century New England. The OED defines the English word as “a dish of North American Indian origin, usually consisting of green maize and beans boiled together.”

Oxford’s earliest example of its use in writing comes from a letter written in 1751 by James MacSparran, a Church of England clergyman in early America:

“Mor dined with us upon Suckatash and Ham.” (The superscript “r” probably indicates that first word was an abbreviation.)

This later example is more redolent of the wilderness. It’s from Jonathan Carver’s Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America (1778):

“This [dish] is composed of their unripe corn … and beans in the same state, boiled together with bears flesh. … They call this food Succatosh.”

And here’s a literary example, from James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826): “The wise Huron is welcome … he is come to eat his ‘suc-ca-tush’ with his brothers of the lakes!”

We’ll conclude with an example from Sylvester the Cat: “Sufferin’ succotash!”

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Nose piece

Q: Why isn’t there a word that by itself means blow the nose? This is such a common act that there ought to be one word to take the place of three. You agree? I suggest “honk.”

A: There is such a word, or at least there was (and it wasn’t “honk”). The unlovely word “snot” was once a verb meaning to blow one’s nose. Really!

The verb “snot,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was derived from the noun, which has roots in old Germanic languages.

In the early 1400s, when the noun was first recorded, it meant both “the burnt part of a candle-wick” and “the mucus of the nose.”

What’s the connection here? As John Ayto writes in the Dictionary of Word Origins, there was “possibly a perceived resemblance between an extinguished candlewick and a piece of nasal mucus.” His words, not ours.

The verb “snot,” the OED informs us, was first recorded in English at about the same time as the noun. When it originally appeared, it meant “to snuff (a candle),” Oxford says. So to “snot” a candle meant to put it out.

In the 1500s, according to the OED, the verb was first recorded with the other meaning—“to blow or clear (the nose).” So to “snot” one’s nose was to blow it.

The earliest use in writing for the nasal meaning comes from a 1576 translation of Giovanni della Casa’s Il Galateo, a treatise on manners:

 “They spare not to snot their sniueld noses vppon them.” (The word written as “sniueld” is “sniveled”; to “snivel” originally meant to run at the nose.)

The OED also has two 17th-century citations from old dictionaries.

This one is from an Italian-English dictionary dated 1611: “Smozzicare … to snot ones nose.” And this is from a French-English dictionary dated 1632: “To snot (or blow) his nose, se moucher le nez.”

Sometimes the nose-blowing was involuntary, if this 1653 example, from a translation of Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, is any indication: “Then he … sneezed and snotted himself.”

Since the subject is noses, you might be interested in knowing that many English words that start with “sn-” have something to do with the nose, and in the languages they came from, they probably echoed the sound of air passing noisily through the nostrils.

Words thought to have imitative or onomatopoeic origins include “snot,” “snore,” “snort,” “snout,” “schnoz,” “sneeze,” “snoot,” “snooty” (in the sense of looking down one’s nose), and the 20th-century word “snorkel” for a breathing tube. Also “snuff” and “snuffle,” “sniff” and “sniffle,” and the aforementioned “snivel.”

As we’ve written before on our blog, words like these have origins in prehistoric Germanic roots that are believed to echo nasal sounds and are associated with breathing, blowing, or sneezing.

We can’t end this treatise on nose-blowing without mentioning that old snot joke from childhood. Pat’s version: “I thought it was a booger, but it’s snot.” Stewart’s: “It looks like mucus, but it’s snot.”

And here’s an even sillier version we found online: “Don’t kiss your honey when your nose is runny. You may think it’s funny but it’s snot.”  

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Disorganized crime

Q: I am having a hard time finding the real difference between “disorganized” and “unorganized,” but I know you can make this clear to me.

A: We can see why you’re confused. There’s a lot of overlap between the terms “disorganized” and “unorganized.” They’re often defined in terms of one another.

In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for instance, one definition of “disorganized” is “not organized,” while one definition of “unorganized” is “disorganized.”

But there are differences, too. And as far as the differences go, something that’s disorganized is usually worse off than something that’s simply unorganized.

A committee that’s “unorganized” could be one that hasn’t yet been formed, while a committee that’s “disorganized” is in disarray.

The definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary mention the chaos that can characterize the “disorganized” state.

The OED defines “disorganized” as “deprived or destitute of organization; having lost, or being without, organic connection or systematic arrangement; thrown into confusion, disordered.”

But the OED entry for “unorganized” doesn’t entail confusion and disorder. It defines the term this way: “Not formed into an orderly or regulated whole.”

The dictionary adds that “unorganized” can also refer to workers or to companies that aren’t unionized.

Interestingly, the terms “disorganized” and “unorganized,” as well as the verb “organize,” are ultimately derived from organon, a Greek term for a tool, a musical instrument, and a body part, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The Greek organon has given English the words for a pipe organ as well as a body organ.

When the noun “organ” showed up in early Old English, the OED says, it referred to “any of various ancient musical, esp. wind, instruments.”

By the late 1300s, the term was being used for a pipe organ. And in the early 1400s, it took on the sense of a body organ.

When the verb “organize” entered English in the 1400s, according to the OED, it was a medical and biological term.

As John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains, “This originally denoted literally ‘furnish with organ so as to form into a living being,’ and hence ‘provide with a co-ordinated structure.’ ”

The verb didn’t take on its modern meaning (“to become organized; to assume an organized structure”) until the late 1800s, according to the OED.

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An etymological valentine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could be more intriguing than that?

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On holy days and holidays

Q: Happy holidays! Apropos of the holiday season, when did “holiday” become a word and when did it lose its holiness? I assume it was originally “holy day,” but I’ve never looked into it.

A: The word “holiday” was first recorded in English around the year 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it looked a lot different back then.

In Old English, it was written haligdæg or hali-dægh (literally “holy day’). And later, in Middle English, the first vowel was also an “a”: halidei, halidai , halliday, haliday, etc.

A bit later in the Middle English period (12th to 15th centuries) the “a” became an “o,” and eventually the usual forms of the word became “holy day,” “holy-day,” or “holiday” (a spelling first recorded in 1460).

The different forms of the word—that is, whether it was written as one word or two—had something to do with its different meanings.

Originally, the word meant a consecrated day or a religious festival. But in the 1400s, it acquired another, more secular meaning.

The OED defines this sense of the word as “a day on which ordinary occupations (of an individual or a community) are suspended; a day of exemption or cessation from work; a day of festivity, recreation, or amusement.”

That’s how the single word “holiday” came to include the secular side of life and became identified with vacations. But the two–word versions (“holy day,” “holy-day”) retained the original meaning—a day set aside for religious observance.

Today we still recognize these different senses and spellings.

Now here’s an aside. In the Middle English period, people sometimes observed holy days by eating a large flatfish called butte. Thus this fish became known as “halibut” (“hali” for holy and “but” for flatfish).

And happy holidays to you!

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Is government the issue?

Q: I’m a reporter in the Midwest. The other day I did a story about local people in the military. I wanted to say the term “GI” is short for “government issue,” but the copy editor insisted it’s an abbreviation of “galvanized iron.” In the end, we took it out. Who’s right?

A: Both of you, depending on how the abbreviation is used. Here’s the story.

In the early 20th century, “GI” was a semiofficial US Army abbreviation for “galvanized iron.”

The term, dating back to 1907, was used in military inventories to describe iron cans, buckets, and so on, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

By 1917, however, “GI” began to take on a wider meaning.

In World War I, it was used to refer to all things Army, so military bricks became GI bricks and military Christmases became GI Christmases. Before long, we had GI soap and GI shoes and, eventually, plain old GIs.

A lot of people apparently felt this new usage needed a new family tree. So in the minds of many, “galvanized iron” became “government issue” or “general issue.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “GI” can be an abbreviation for all three, depending on how it’s used:

It stands for “galvanized iron” when used in a phrase like “GI can” (an iron trash can or a World War I German artillery shell). It’s short for “government issue” or “general issue” when referring to American soldiers or things associated with them.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also list all three as as the longer forms of “GI.”

The entry for “GI” in American Heritage sums up the etymology this way: “From abbreviation of galvanized iron (applied to trash cans, etc.), later reinterpreted as government issue.”

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 11, 2018.]

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Can one make a concerted effort?

[Note: This post was updated on June 10, 2020.]

Q: Can a single person make a concerted effort? The dictionaries I’ve checked say a “concerted effort” is something done collectively. But I often hear the phrase being used for an effort by one person.

A: Traditionally, “concerted” has meant done in concert—that is, jointly.

However, the adjective had an earlier meaning of organized, coordinated, or united. And since the 19th century people have used “concerted” without any collective sense to mean purposeful and determined.

The newer usage can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. The entry for “concerted” (updated September 2015) includes this definition: “Of an effort, attempt, etc.: characterized by purpose and determination.”

Standard dictionaries, too, are now recognizing this more recent sense. So a determined effort can be described as “concerted” whether it’s made by one person or many.

Six of the ten standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult accept this use without reservation.

The definitions in American Heritage, for example, include these senses: #1, “planned or accomplished together,” and #2, “deliberate and determined.” Similarly, Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) includes #1, “jointly arranged or carried out,” and #2, “done with great effort or determination.”

While “concerted” is most often used to modify “effort” or “efforts,” it’s seen with other nouns too. A cursory internet search finds it paired with “movement,” “action,” “approach,” “measure,” “struggle,” and “activity,” as well as plural versions.

The earliest recorded sense of “concerted” dates from the mid-17th century and is defined in the OED as “showing coordination, organized, united.”

In the first citation, the well-organized parts of a sentence are said to have “the insinuating harmony of a well-concerted period.” From Thomas Urquhart’s Εκσκυβαλαυρον, 1652. (The Greek title means “gold from garbage,” but the book is often referred to as The Jewel).

Similar examples of this coordinated sense include “concerted Reasoning” (1659) and “concerted Falshoods” (1716).

By the late 1600s, however, people were also using “concerted” in what are now considered the traditional senses. These are defined by the OED as “united in action or purpose; working or acting in concert,” and “jointly arranged or carried out; agreed upon, prearranged; planned, coordinated.”

This is apparently the first OED example in reference to people working together: “that which opposed the sending the concerted Troops into Tuscany and making further attempts, being the disturbance which rose from the Duke of Parma.” The History of the Republick of Venice (1673), Robert Honywood’s translation from the Italian of Battista Nani.

Later OED examples that imply more than one person or force working together include “the concerted powers” (i.e., sovereigns of Europe, 1793); “a concerted scheme” (1785); “a concerted opposition” (1834); “a concerted front” (1948); “concerted attack” (1968); “concerted practices” (1999), and “a concerted group” (2009).

Finally, the more recent sense of “concerted”—determined, purposeful, strenuous—emerged in the 19th century. It can involve one person or more than one. In the dictionary’s first example, many people are involved:

“We have but to make a vigorous and concerted effort throughout the State to effect a complete overthrow of Locofocoism in Alabama.” (The Locofocos were a faction of the Democratic Party of the 1830s and ’40s.) From the Mobile Daily Advertiser, July 23, 1844.

In this OED example, from the late 19th century, a single country is involved:

“He says that Germany should make a concerted effort to have an exhibit that would photograph the magnitude of its manufacturing industries.” From the Anglo-American Times, London, Oct. 9, 1891.

And in this example, the effort is made by a single person:

“When Horace Abbott … was chairman of this committee he made a concerted effort to get some graduate schools to work out a plan for study in absentia.” From the Extension Service Review, Washington, June 1938.

As for its etymology, the OED says the adjective “concerted” was formed within English, derived partly from the verb “concert” (to work jointly; to mutually agree or arrange) and partly from the noun “concert” (agreement or harmony; a working together; a public performance).

The verb “concert” (accented, like the adjective, on the first syllable) was first recorded in 1581 and came into English through several routes. As the dictionary explains, it was borrowed partly from Spanish (concertar), partly from French (concerter), and partly from the ultimate source of them all, Latin (concertare).

The noun “concert” was first recorded in 1578, the OED says, borrowed partly from French (concert, originally an agreement, accord, or pact), and partly from Italian (concerto, a group of musicians performing together).

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English Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A gazeeka box and a green-fedora guy

Q: I’m reading Gypsy Rose Lee’s The G-String Murders. She uses the phrase “a green-fedora guy.” Do you have any idea what that means? And if you want to tackle “gazeeka box,” that would be interesting, too. She peppers this book with quite a bit of showbiz jargon.

A: In The G-String Murders, a 1941 mystery, there are two references to green fedoras.

In describing a guy named Moey, an “ex-racketeer” who runs the concession at the burlesque house where the novel is set, the author writes:

“He wore a white wash coat when he was working, dazzling checks when the show was over. Strictly a green-fedora guy, but he gave us a ten per cent discount on our cokes, so he was popular enough backstage.”

Later in the book, Moey reappears in his street clothes (a suit with “green and yellow threads running through the material”) and begins opening a package: “He pushed his green fedora back on his head and went to work with the scissors.”

None of our slang references (not even the aptly named Green’s Dictionary of Slang) give us a clue to what a “green-fedora guy” might be.

Our guess is that the reference is literal, and Gypsy Rose Lee meant that Moey always wore a green fedora (and perhaps that his taste was a bit over the top).

Green fedoras were more common in those days—now we see them chiefly on St. Patrick’s Day.

A 1934 song called “I’m Wearin’ My Green Fedora,” by Al Sherman, Al Lewis, and Joseph Meyer, was featured in several cartoons of the 1930s.

A line from refrain: “I’M WEARIN’ MY GREEN FEDORA, FEDORA, not Alice, not Annie, Not Daisy but FEDORA.” And the finale: “That’s why I’M WEARIN’ MY GREEN FEDORA, FEDORA, FEDORA, FEDORA is the girl I love!” (Thanks to the Levy Collection at the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, for providing us with the sheet music.)

The song was a takeoff on the comic routines of Joe Penner, a popular stage, radio, and film actor of the ’30s whose trademark was a fedora perched on the back of his head.

And here’s an interesting aside. While the song appears to pun on the phrase “for Dora,” in fact the word “fedora” was originally a woman’s name. The term for the hat was inspired by a French play entitled Fédora, written by Victorien Sardou in 1882. Its heroine is a Russian princess named Fédora (the Russian feminine of Fedor), who wears a soft-brimmed hat with a crease in the crown.

When you finish The G-String Murders, you might want to check out Lady of Burlesque, a 1943 film made from it (Barbara Stanwyck is the Gypsy Rose Lee character).

You also asked about “gazeeka box,” a term that turns up many times in The G-String Murders. The gazeeka box in the novel is a coffin-like prop used in the burlesque house. (Naturally, a body is discovered in it!)

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang describes “gazeeka box” (origin unknown) as a burlesque term for “a stage prop used in comedy acts which takes the form of a large box from which beautiful girls emerge, supposedly endlessly.”

Random House’s first citation for the use of the term is from Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1941 novel. But the term is much older. It’s mentioned, for instance, in Archibald Haddon’s book Green Room Gossip (1922).

In at least one old burlesque sketch we found online, the showgirls who magically emerge from the gazeeka box are called “gazeekas.”

But gazeeka boxes, with their false backs, could also be used to make a showgirl magically disappear.

And they weren’t always coffin-like, as in Gypsy Rose Lee’s novel. They were generally upright, like phone booths.

And with that, we’ll make our exit.

[Note: This post was updated on March 5, 2015.]

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

What’s the skinny?

Q: Are you aware of any references to “the skinny” prior to 1967? I was in the US Air Force then and provided an information sheet to briefers on data like runway length, aircraft, equipment, etc. The four-inch-wide sheet was known as “the skinny sheet,” and one of the briefers referred to its information as “the skinny.”

A: The earliest example we’ve found for “the skinny” used in this sense is from the 1932 Lucky Bag, the yearbook of the US Naval Academy:

“If you don’t get the skinny of things, Eddie can usually set you right” (from the entry for Harold Edward Baker, a cadet from Yakima, WA).

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Rolling World, a 1938 autobiography by the adventurer and writer Richard Matthews Hallet:

“Had she really given me the skinny of an actual legend from the archives of her race, or was she wafting me the native poetry of her soul?”

The OED defines the expression this way: “slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). With the. Detailed and esp. confidential information about a person or topic, ‘the low-down’; (also more generally) news, gossip.”

The dictionary has one other pre-1967 citation for the usage, from The Big War, a 1957 novel by Anton Myrer: “I’ll cut you in on some hot skinnay.”

There’s no reliable explanation for the origin of this sense of “skinny,” as we wrote in a brief blog item on the subject in 2006.

But it’s been speculated that “to get down to the skinny” (that is, to get the essential information about something), was like getting down to the skin of an issue.

For what it’s worth, the Old Icelandic word skinna (a cousin of our “skin”) referred to a piece of parchment or vellum, perhaps influencing a couple of English usages related to information.

The old word may have given us “skin book,” a term that entered English in the 19th century with the meaning of a manuscript made of parchment or vellum.

And though it’s quite a stretch, an imaginative wordie might also see flakes of skinna in the 20th-century slang sense of “skin book” as a pornographic work.

The word “skinny,” by the way, didn’t refer to a scrawny person or animal when it entered English as an adjective around 1400.

The earliest citations in the OED use “skinny” to mean covered with skin, affecting the skin, looking like skin, and perhaps even having beautiful skin.

The colloquial sense of “skinny” as thin or lean didn’t show up until the early 1600s when Shakespeare used it in Macbeth: “Each at once her choppie finger laying Vpon her skinnie Lips.”

[Note: This post was updated on June 9, 2021.]

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Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin Writing

Electoral and mayoral, orally

Q: When did “mayoral” and “electoral” shift their emphases to may-OR-al and e-lec-TOR-al? These pronunciations make me nuts! Can they be correct?

A: We’ll take these words in alphabetical order, and cite the accepted pronunciations given in the two standard dictionaries of American English that we use most.

“Electoral” is given two pronunciations in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.): four syllables, accented on either the second (ih-LEK-ter-ul) or the third (ee-lek-TOR-ul).

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives those two as well as a three-syllable pronunciation accented on the second (ih-LEK-trul).

So you could justify using any of those three pronunciations in American English.

However, the audio pronouncers on the American Heritage and Merriam-Webster websites accent the second of four syllables (ih-LEK-ter-ul), which is the only pronunciation in the British English dictionaries we’ve checked.

Now on to “mayoral,” which can properly be accented on either the first or the second syllable in American English.

Both American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s give three-syllable pronunciations that accent the first (MAY-er-ul) as well as the second (may-OR-ul).

In addition, Merriam-Webster’s gives a two-syllable pronunciation accented on the first (MER-ul), with the first vowel pronounced like the “e” in “bet.”

As you can see, it would be difficult to mispronounce this word in American English! However, MAY-er-ul is the only pronunciation in the British English dictionaries we’ve checked. And it’s the one in M-W’s online audio pronouncer. AH doesn’t have an audio pronouncer for “mayoral.”

And now, a brief aside for the histories of both.

“Electoral,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, came into English in 1675 and originally referred specifically to the German system of government by Electors.

In the following century, the adjective acquired a more general meaning: “relating to or composed of electors.”

“Mayoral” entered English in the late 17th century with the meaning “relating to a mayor or mayoralty,” says the OED.

The first recorded use is from a letter written in 1699 by Jonathan Swift: “I was at his mayoral feast.”

But back to the recommended pronunciations and the two standard dictionaries we cite.

American Heritage is the more conservative of the two and is slower to accept new pronunciations as they come into use. The dictionary’s fourth edition, for example, had only one pronunciation for “electoral” (ih-LEK-ter-ul).

Merriam-Webster’s casts a wider net, and is likely to be the first to recognize newer pronunciations as standard once they’ve established themselves in common usage.

Keep in mind that English pronunciation is fluid and ever shifting. The pronunciations recognized as standard 50 years ago are not necessarily those of today.

In other words, common usage is what determines standards from generation to generation.

You asked when the pronunciations of “electoral” and “mayoral” shifted. We can’t tell you exactly, but the change in American Heritage from the fourth to the fifth editions suggests that the ee-lek-TOR-ul pronunciation is relatively recent.

Here are the pronunciations that are given as standard in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition):


“mayoral”—MAY-er-ul or MER-ul

Compare those to the pronunciations above in the latest M-W Collegiate. Thus does language change.

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 19, 2016.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

In stir on the Jersey Shore

Q: Why have I never found anybody from outside New Jersey who knows what “in stir” means? We of NJ have a soft spot for those in the slammer or merely busted, like Snooki and Ronnie on “Jersey Shore.”

A: As we’re sure you realize, New Jersey doesn’t have a monopoly on “in stir” or “in the stir.”

In fact, it doesn’t even come from New Jersey. The phrase was first recorded in England, and has been used with or without the article “the” since the late 1800s. Here’s the story.

The word “stir” has been used as a noun for a prison since the mid-19th century, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. That much we can be sure about.

The word was sometimes spelled “stur” and originated in the Romany words sturiben (a prison) and staripen (to imprison), Cassell’s says.

A 19th-century source, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, first published in London in 1889, says “stir” comes from staripen, adding that “stardo in gypsy means ‘imprisoned.’ ”

This dictionary, edited by Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland, calls “stir” an abbreviation of a longer slang word for a prison, spelled  “sturbin” in the US and “sturiben” in Britain.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, seems to disagree, saying the origin of the slang term “stir” is unknown. The OED doesn’t say why it rejects the Romany origin.

But the modern verb “stir,” from the Old English verb styrian, has also had negative meanings over the years: to make a disturbance, to cause trouble, to revolt, to provoke, and so on.

Such activities could of course land a person in jail (or “in chokey,” as P. G. Wodehouse liked to say).

But those old meanings are now rare or obscure for the most part, except in the sense of “stir things up,” which isn’t always a bad thing to do.

In the journal Modern Language Notes in 1934, J. Louis Kuethe argued in favor of the Romany etymology.

Staripen, steripen, and stiraben have all been given as spellings of the Romani word for ’prison,’ ” he writes. “When these variations are taken into account, the Gypsy origin of stir is quite acceptable phonetically.”

Since the slang term originated in the mid-19th century, Kuethe says, “it seems much more plausible that the word should have originated from a contemporary  source such as the Romani, rather than from the Old English styr which disappeared centuries ago.”

Wherever it came from, everyone agrees that the word first showed up in print in 1851.

That’s the year of the OED’s first citation, which comes from a collection of articles and interviews by Henry Mayhew entitled London Labour and the London Poor.

The quotation: “I was in Brummagem, and was seven days in the new ‘stir’ (prison).” The term “Brummagem” was a local nickname for the English city of Birmingham.

Soon, however, the phrase “in stir” (without the article) was the usual slang term for “in prison.”

This OED citation is from A Child of the Jago, Arthur Morrison’s 1896 novel about the slums of London: “A man has time to think things out, in stir.”

And as we all know, someone sitting in prison is likely to go “stir crazy,” a term the OED traces back to 1908.

[Updated May 5, 2017.]

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Scot, Scotch, or Scottish?

Q: In your remarks about the verdict “not proven” in Scotland, you refer to “Scottish law.” I hate to contradict you, but the proper expression is “Scots Law.” And as an aside, I wonder if you realize that in Scotland’s courts, the word “proven” has a long-O sound, as in “woven.” My father was a judge in Scotland, and I had to listen to the long O since I was … oh, 36 months old! Even today, after 40 years in Canada, I still can’t get used to the PROO-ven pronunciation.

A: Thanks for your interesting comment. We could plead “not proven,” and argue that we were simply referring in a general way to the laws in Scotland. But why quibble? We’ve updated the blog item to add a reference to Scots Law.

This also gives us a chance to write about the three adjectives “Scot,” “Scotch,” and “Scottish.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the adjective was Scyttisc or Scottisc. In Middle English, about 1100 to 1500, it was written all sorts of ways (Scottysc, Scottisc, Scottissh, etc.), often depending on where you lived.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, it was pronounced like “Scottish” (with various spellings) in the south of England, and “Scottis” in the north as well as in Scotland.

Writers in England began contracting “Scottish” to “Scotch” in the late 16th century, while writers in Scotland began shortening “Scottis” to “Scots” in the early 18th century.

But language is a messy business, and some Scottish writers, notably Robert Burns (1759-96) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), regularly used “Scotch” as an adjective.

By the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was “uncertainty among the educated classes in Scotland concerning the relative ‘correctness’ of the three competing terms”—“Scots,” “Scottish,” and “Scotch.”

And by the mid-19th century, there was “a growing tendency among educated speakers to favour the more formal Scottish or (less frequently) the more traditional Scots over what was perceived as the more vulgar Scotch,” the OED says.

In England, “Scotch” was the “the prevailing form” from the late 17th century until the 19th century, according the OED, though “Scottish” was used in more formal writing.

“By the beginning of the 20th cent.,” Oxford notes, “disapproval of Scotch by educated Scots was so great that its use had become something of a shibboleth (much to the bafflement of speakers outside Scotland for whom this was the usual word).”

And “during the 20th cent. educated usage in England gradually began to adapt in deference to the perceived Scottish preferences.”

Nevertheless, the adjective “Scotch” survives in phrases like “Scotch whisky,” “Scotch pine,” “Scotch broth,” and so on.

So which adjective should a writer use today? A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) suggests that “forms involving Scotch are best avoided in reference to people; designations formed with Scots are most common (Scot, Scotsman, or Scotswoman), but those involving the full form Scottish are sometimes found in more formal contexts.”

The dictionary notes that “Scotch-Irish is the most commonly used term for the descendants of Scots who migrated to North America, but lately Scots-Irish has begun to gain currency among those who know that Scotch is considered offensive in Scotland.”

“There is, however, no sure rule for referring to things,” the AH usage note concludes, “since the history of variation in the use of these words has left many expressions in which the choice is fixed, such as Scotch broth, Scotch whisky, Scottish rite, and Scots Guards.

So if in doubt, look it up in the dictionary!

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 3, 2021.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Bye, baby bunting

Q: I’m curious about the term “baby bunting” in this nursery rhyme: “Bye, baby bunting,  / Father’s gone a-hunting,  / Mother’s gone a-milking, / Sister’s gone a-silking, / Brother’s gone to buy a skin  / To wrap the baby bunting in.” Any idea of the origin?

A: “Bunting” has been a term of endearment since at least as far back as the 1660s. The origins of the word are unknown but it’s had a long association with plumpness, with bottoms, and with “butt” (both the noun and the verb).

In Scottish, according to the OED, the term buntin means short and thick, or plump. A similar term in Welsh, bontin, means the rump.

And in Scottish as well as in dialectal English, both “bunt” and “bun” have been used to refer to the tail of a rabbit or hare.

The verb “bunt” was used in the 1800s to mean the same as “butt” – to strike, knock, or push. (Yes, this is where the baseball term “bunt” comes from, circa 1889.)

And in a 19th-century Sussex dialect, to “bunt” was to rock a cradle with one’s foot (by pushing or “butting” it).

The adjective “bunting” has been used to mean plump, swelling, or filled out since the 1500s.

John Jamieson, in An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808-25), defined buntin as “short and thick; as a buntin brat, a plump child.”

In the phrase “baby bunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the meaning (if there be any at all) may possibly be” as in Jamieson’s definition.

At bottom, if you’ll pardon the expression, the phrase in the nursery rhyme seems to be an affectionate reference to an infant’s plumpness or to its rosy rump.

The earliest version of the nursery rhyme dates from the 1780s, and the longer version you quote has been traced to 1805.

Surprisingly, the OED has no reference to the garment known as a “bunting” – an infant’s cuddly, cocoon-like, hooded outerwear. This sense of the word dates from 1922, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The name of the garment, according to our old Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary  (the unabridged second edition), is a reference to the “baby bunting” in the nursery rhyme.

In case you’re wondering, the noun “bunting” has been used for another kind of cloth – the open-weave kind used to make flags – as well as for a family of birds (possibly because of their plumpness.)

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Black (or African) American?

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “Black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “Black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most Black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a Black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a Black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “colored,” “Negro,” “Black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “colored,” which was accepted by both Whites and Blacks. But “colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “Black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “Black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “Black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, Blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction – race versus ethnic group – is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition was published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Sept. 5, 2021: American Heritage dropped the usage note from later editions. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “Black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines. Furthermore, the capitalization of “Black” has now become widely established.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

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Opposition research

Q: You wrote in 2008 and 2007 about words that have totally opposing – or at least wildly differing – meanings. For example, “sanction “and “cleave.” By what etymological process do these words develop? Perhaps the language deities have a sense of humor.

A: These two-faced words are usually called “contronyms,” though they are sometimes referred to as “auto-antonyms,” “self-antonyms,” or “Janus words” (after the god with two faces).

In addition to “sanction” (to approve or penalize) and “cleave” (to cling or part), some others are “screen” (to view or hide from view), “bolt” (to flee or fix in place), and “weather” (to stand up to stress or be eroded by stress).

Each of these words (and there are many more) developed its opposing meanings for different reasons.

In the case of “cleave,” it comes from two distinct verbs with different roots in Old English. The one (cleofian or clifian) meant “cling” or “stick,” and the other (cleofan) meant “split” or “divide.”

The two eventually merged in spelling and pronunciation, and the differing meanings were preserved.

In the case of “sanction,” the verb originally meant to ratify or confirm by enactment. A little later this came to mean to permit; still later it grew to mean to enforce by imposing penalties.

The verb followed the much earlier noun, which first meant a law or decree and later meant a penalty.

Etymologically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it may be an adaptation of the Latin sanctionem (“action of ordaining as inviolable under a penalty, also a decree or ordinance”).

In the 17th century, the noun “sanction” was “extended to include the provision of rewards for obedience, along with punishments for disobedience, to a law,” the OED says.

So in looser senses it grew to mean encouragement or support on the one hand, and coercive measures on the other.

Such are the ways of language!

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Is she a master or a mistress?

Q: Isn’t “mistress of ceremonies” misleading or just plain wrong? If a woman is hosting an event, isn’t she still a “master of ceremonies”?

A: No, “mistress of ceremonies” is not misleading or wrong. But it’s not strictly necessary, since there’s no rule that says a “master of ceremonies” has to be a guy.

The three dictionaries I consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary—all define “master of ceremonies” as a person who hosts an event. That’s “a person,” not necessarily a man.

The OED says the word “master” was “originally applied almost exclusively to men,” but “its meaning has been extended to include women (either potentially or in fact) in many of the senses illustrated.”

American Heritage, in a usage note with its entry for “master,” cites many compounds that use the word in a gender-neutral way: “masterpiece,” “mastermind,” “master plan,” and so on.

Although the term “mistress of ceremonies” isn’t uncommon (I got about 350,000 hits for it on Google), only one of the three dictionaries mentioned above has an entry for it.

Merriam-Webster’s defines “mistress of ceremonies” as a woman who presides at a public ceremony or entertainment, and it  dates the phrase to 1952.

However, the expression is much older—it was alive and well in the early 1800s. For instance, Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel Rob Roy (1817): “ ‘In that case, sir,’ she rejoined, ‘as my kinsman’s politeness seems to be still slumbering, you will permit me (though I suppose it is highly improper) to stand mistress of ceremonies.’ ”

A search of digital databases turns up slightly later examples from the 1820s. On May 20, 1823, the Rev. Charles S. Stewart, an American missionary to the Sandwich Islands, used the phrase in a diary entry  describing a “great feast” conducted annually to commemorate the death of King Tameamea:

Kamehamaru appeared to remarkable advantage, as mistress of ceremonies; and, personally, saw that no one of the large company was, in any degree, neglected.” (Extracts from Stewart’s private diaries were printed in the May 1825 issue of the Christian Advocate,  a journal of the Presbyterian church.)

And both “mistress of ceremonies” and “mistresses of ceremonies” appear several times in  Henry Dana Ward’s book Free Masonry (1828). Here’s one example, from a  passage describing a ceremony in a Masonic temple: “The mistress of ceremonies allowed to enter only the number necessary to fill the empty places.”

So the expression has a venerable history. Its older brother, “master of ceremonies” (originally “master of the ceremonies”), first showed up in print in the early 17th century, according to the OED.

Initially it referred to “an officer of the British royal household who superintended state ceremonies and was responsible for the enforcement of court etiquette,” Oxford says.

An early citation for the expression used in its modern sense comes from Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (written around 1798-99): “The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 1, 2015.]

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The daughter of time

Q: On a recent Leonard Lopate show, you indicated that the silent “gh” in “daughter” derives from Anglo-Saxon. That got me to wondering: Is this English “gh” related to the German “ch” in tochter? The “ch” is pronounced in German, and makes a rough, throaty sound.

A: Yes, “daughter” came into English from Germanic sources (English being a Germanic language, after all). And, as I must have mentioned on WNYC, the silent “gh” in “daughter” was at one time sounded too.

“Daughter,” which was dohtor in Old English in the eighth century, has Germanic cognates (think of them as cousins) in Old Saxon (dohtar), Old Frisian (dochter), Old and Middle High German (tohter), Old Icelandic (dottir), Gothic (dauhtar), and of course modern German (tochter).

Cognates from outside the Germanic languages are found in Greek (thygater), Sanskrit (duhita), Persian (duxtar), Lithuanian (dukte), and Old Slavic (dusti). All have their origins in an ancient Indo-European root.

“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter”) and DAW-ter, the one we have today.

The word history above comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog entry earlier this year about the “gh” combination and how it has developed since Middle English.

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Turkey Day

Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey?

A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which was thought to have been imported from Turkish territory.

A 1655 book about food and diet, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, says guinea fowl “were first brought from Numidia into Turky, and thence to Europe, whereupon they were called Turkies.” (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa.)

In the 19th century, the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

To “talk turkey,” for instance, initially meant to speak agreeably or use high-flown language. Now, of course, it means to speak frankly or get down to business. And to “walk turkey” meant to strut or swagger.

In the early 20th century, the expression “cold turkey” came to mean plain truth as well as a method of treating drug addicts by sudden withdrawal.

And let’s not forget “Turkey Day,” which showed up in 1870 in the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

So when did the word “turkey” get its bad rep?

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

Here’s a citation from a 1939 letter written by Groucho Marx: “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.”

In the mid-20th century, the word came to mean an inept or worthless person. The earliest OED citation for this usage is from 1951:

“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died.”

As for your question, why a turkey? We don’t know for sure, but here’s one theory.

As any hunter can tell you, the wild turkey is one of the wiliest creatures around, so wily that it’s unlikely to end up at your neighborhood grocery store.

During the 20th century, however, more and more of the turkeys that reached Thanksgiving tables were of the farmed variety – fat, klutzy, and flightless – not those lean, mean, cunning birds of the wild.

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Everyone here is frightfully gay

Q: Why does the New York Times use “gays” to refer to male homosexuals and “lesbians” for females? “Gay” has always covered men and women. When did it become a term for male homosexuals?

A: The Times does indeed often refer to gay men as “gays” and gay women as “lesbians,” as in its reporting on a gay rights rally in Washington last month. The phrase “gays and lesbians” crops up over and over again in the paper.

Why not use the single term “gays” for both men and women?

The simple answer is that many gay women want a term of their own—at least in public discourse. This is what we’ve been able to gather after reading extensively in lesbian discussion groups and other forums on the Web.

The preference for the term “lesbian” appears to reflect a desire among many gay women to have a public label all their own and to emphasize the fact that gay men and gay women are not a homogeneous group.

So much for the public terminology. Privately, however, it’s a different story.

We’ve concluded that the terms “gay woman” and “lesbian” are often used interchangeably, and that a woman’s choice of a personal label for herself is highly individual.

We also get the impression that some women who identify with the masculine or “butch” end of the spectrum prefer to call themselves “gay,” while some at the “femme” end think of themselves as “lesbian.”

But some of the women commenting online see no difference at all between the labels, and still others reject both labels in favor of “queer.”

In short, there are not only public and private aspects to the use of “lesbian,” but there are intensely personal and idiosyncratic aspects as well.

Let’s examine the terms. (First let us note that many gay women as well as gay men discourage the use of “homosexual” because they see it as a medical or psychological term.)

The word “Lesbian” (originally capitalized) has been in the language since 1601, when it had no sexual meaning. It was an adjective pertaining to the Greek island of Lesbos.

A “Lesbian rule,” for example, was a pliable mason’s rule made of a kind of lead, found on the island, that was flexible enough to be shaped to fit a curved edge. (We wrote a blog entry on the subject earlier this year.) And “Lesbian wine” was made from grapes grown on Lesbos.

Lesbos, as you probably know, was also the home of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who addressed some of her love lyrics to girls.

This connection, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, gave the word “lesbianism” the meaning of “female homosexuality,” a sense that originally appeared in print in 1870. The adjective “lesbian” first showed up in the sexual sense in 1890 and as a noun in 1925.

“Gay” has had many meanings since it was introduced into English around 1300. Its etymology is murky, but it was borrowed from Old French (gai) and may come from Frankish or Old High German (gahi).

In English, according to the OED, it first meant noble, beautiful, or excellent. In the later 1300s it came to mean “bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy.”

In the 1400s it was first used in the modern sense of merry or cheerful, though it was also used to mean wanton, lewd, dissolute, or even (in the case of women) living by prostitution. All of these negative meanings are now either rare or obscure.

The adjective “gay” has been used as slang term for homosexual since at least as far back as 1937. As the OED explains, some citations from the 1920s and ’30s could be read that way by innuendo, but such interpretations might just be the result of hindsight.

Here’s one such example, from the writings of Gertrude Stein in 1922: “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then. … They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there … not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”

And here’s another, from a 1939 song lyric by Noel Coward: “Everyone’s here and frightfully gay, / Nobody cares what people say, / Though the Riviera / Seems really much queerer / Than Rome at its height.”

As the OED says, those examples can’t be regarded as definitive, though they are certainly suggestive in hindsight. But we do know that “gay” was used to mean homosexual when Coward wrote that lyric, because the OED’s first definitive example is from an anonymous typescript believed to be from 1937:

“Al had told me that Kenneth was not gay but jam [i.e. heterosexual], and so I acted very manly.” (The quotation is from research documents contained in the Ernest W. Burgess Papers at the University of Chicago Library. Burgess was a professor of sociology at the university.)

Another definitive OED citation comes from Gershon Legman’s “The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary,” which was published in 1941 as an appendix to a two-volume medical study of homosexuality.

Legman’s glossary includes this entry: “Gay, an adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality, sexual attractiveness, promiscuity … or lack of restraint, in a person, place, or party. Often given the French spelling, gai or gaie by (or in burlesque of) cultured homosexuals of both sexes.”

You asked when “gay” became a term for male homosexuals. The answer is that it doesn’t necessarily mean males—or not always.

In their book Language and Sexuality (2003), Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick write: “Many lesbians prefer the gender-specific term ‘lesbian’ to ‘gay,’ which, they argue, obscures the presence of women by subsuming them under a label whose primary reference is to men.”

And indeed the OED says the term is more frequently used to refer to men.

One final note about “gay.” There’s no evidence, according to the OED, that there was an earlier use of gai or gaie in French to mean homosexual. Rather, the French use of the word in this sense is a late-20th-century borrowing from English.

As for “queer,” its origins are uncertain but it may be related to the German quer (oblique or at odds). It’s been in English in the ordinary sense (peculiar or strange) since the 1500s.

The OED’s first citation for the use of “queer” in the sexual sense is from a letter written in 1894 by Oscar Wilde’s archenemy, the Marquess of Queensberry, who used the word as a noun: “I write to tell you that it is a judgement on the whole lot of you. Montgomerys, The Snob Queers like Roseberry & certainly Christian hypocrite Gladstone.”

The adjective “queer,” according to the OED,  was first recorded in a 1914 article in the Los Angeles Times: “He said that the Ninety-six Club was the best; that it was composed of the ‘queer’ people. … He said that the members sometimes spent hundreds of dollars on silk gowns, hosiery, etc. … At these ‘drags’ the ‘queer’ people have a good time.”

As the OED points out, “queer” was a derogatory term until it was reclaimed as a positive or neutral word by gays in the 1980s. It’s since become a respectable term in academia.

“In some academic contexts,” the OED says, “it is the preferred adjective in the study of issues relating to homosexuality (cf. queer theory …); it is also sometimes used of sexual lifestyles that do not conform to conventional heterosexual behaviour, such as bisexuality or transgenderism.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 8, 2019.]

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Among or between?

Q: When describing three people working together, is it a collaboration among, amongst, or between them?

A: There’s no difference between “among” and “amongst,” beyond their spellings. “Among” is preferred in American English and “amongst” is often preferred in British English. We wrote a blog post earlier this year about “among/amongst.”

You also ask about the use of “between” versus “among.” In general, “between” applies to two (“This is between him and me”), and “among” to three or more (“The six members agreed among themselves”).

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage gives this example: “Trade between the United States, Canada and Mexico has grown under Nafta.”

As the style guide explains, “Each country trades with each of the others, rather than with all simultaneously. When more than two things are related in a purely collective and vague way, use among.”

The word “betwixt,” by the way, is an old-fashioned version of “between,” though both words have been around in various forms since Anglo-Saxon times.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “betwixt” as somewhat archaic in literary English and chiefly poetical.

However, the expression “betwixt and between,” meaning neither one thing nor the other, is a relative newcomer.

The earliest citation in the OED is from Frederick Marryat’s maritime novel Newton Forster (1832), which refers to “the lease of a house in a betwixt and between fashionable street.”

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A few kernels of truth

Q: Where does the expression “ear of corn” come from? Why an “ear” rather than a “nose” or a “chin”?

A: The “ear” of corn that we eat in summer and the “ear” that we hear with are unrelated. Yes, these are two separate and distinct words, both of which have been with us since Anglo-Saxon days and have different prehistoric roots.

In Old English, Middle English, and Modern English, the word “ear” has been used to mean a spike or head of grain. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the part of a cereal plant which contains its flowers or seeds.”

Here’s a typical citation from the OED: “The ripen’d Grain, whose bending Ears Invite the Reaper’s Hand” (from a 1740 poem by William Somerville).

This spiky agricultural “ear” is descended from an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as ak (“sharp”). It became the Proto-Germanic akhuz, which eventually gave us the Old English word ear around the year 800.

The word for the organ of hearing is another story. It is descended from an Indo-European root reconstructed as ous or aus (“ear”). This root became the Proto-Germanic auzon, which made its way into Old English (spelled eare) around the year 1000.

As for the non-Germanic languages, Latin inherited this Indo-European root as auris and Greek as ous (both meaning “ear”).

The words for “ear” in the Romance languages, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, came from the Latin diminutive auricula, and include the French oreille, Spanish oreja, Italian orecchio, Portuguese orelha, and Romanian ureche.

But back to agriculture. The phrase “ear of corn” did not always mean what it does to Americans today. Originally, sometime before 700, a “corn” in Old English was a small hard particle or seed, like an appleseed.

By the 800s it meant “the fruit of the cereals,” the OED says, so “corn” was simply grain in general: wheat, rye, barley, oats, and so on (hence the terms “barley-corn” and “pepper-corn”).

Not until the 1600s did “corn” refer to the maize or Indian corn grown in the Americas, and even afterward, the word as used in Britain meant grain in general. For instance, the 19th-century Corn Laws in Britain were about grain crops.

The OED explains that the word “when not otherwise qualified, is often understood to denote that kind of cereal which is the leading crop of the district.”

Thus, the dictionary says, in most of England “corn” means wheat, but in northern Britain and Ireland it means oats, and in the United States it refers to maize.

“Wheat, rye, barley, oats, etc. are in U.S. called collectively grain,” the OED adds. “Corn- in combinations, in American usage, must therefore be understood to mean maize, whereas in English usage it may mean any cereal; e.g. a cornfield in England is a field of any cereal that is grown in the country, in U.S. one of maize.”

(The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes that in parts of Germany korn means rye.)

So to an American, “ear of corn” means corn-on-the-cob, but to a farmer in Yorkshire, it might mean the head of an oat stalk.

You’re probably fed up with corn by now, but in case you’re wondering, the horny growth you get on a sore toe is another “corn” altogether.

Again, two different Indo-European roots are at the bottom of the two “corns” – one meaning grain and one meaning horn.

The word for the sore on your toe entered English in the 15th century from the Old French corn, which was inherited from the Latin cornus (“horn”).

Before the 15th century, Englishmen referred to such a sore as an “agnail,” a now obscure word literally meaning a tight, painful nail.

But the “nail” here meant an iron nail, not a fingernail or toenail, so an “agnail” referred to “a hard round-headed excrescence fixed in the flesh,” as the OED vividly puts it.

Through a long process of “pseudo-etymology,” the OED says, the “nail” in “agnail” became associated with toenails and fingernails, and the term “hangnail” eventually came about.

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In search of the wild kudo

[NOTE: This post was updated on Aug. 25, 2020.]

Q: What is the source of the word “kudos”? Is there such a thing as a “kudo” in the wild?

A: The word “kudo” arose as a mistake, and the majority opinion is that it’s still a mistake.

The correct word, “kudos,” is a singular noun and takes a singular verb, say most usage guides, including the new fourth edition of Pat’s book Woe Is I. “Show me one kudo and I’ll eat it,” she says.

That’s the short answer, the one to follow when your English should be at its best. But English is a living language, and the singular “kudo” and the plural “kudos” are out there kicking up their heels, never mind the word mavens.

Where did “kudo” come from? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a back formation resulting from the erroneous belief that “kudos” is plural. (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

Pronunciation may have played a part here. Originally “kudos”—like its singular Greek cousins “chaos,” “pathos,” and “bathos”—was pronounced as if the second syllable were “-oss” (rhymes with “loss”). A later pronunciation, “-oze” (rhymes with “doze”), probably influenced the perception that the word was a plural.

Now for some etymology. “Kudos” comes from the ancient Greek word κῦδος (kydos), a singular noun meaning praise or renown. And it was a relative latecomer to English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the Greek term “was dragged into English as British university slang in the 19th century.” The first published reference for “kudos” in the OED dates from 1831, when it meant glory or fame.

Although “kudos” was officially singular, it was often used in a general way without a direct or indirect article, which may have blurred its sense of singularity.

In a typical early citation in the OED, for instance, Charles Darwin writes in an 1859 letter that the geologist Charles Lyell read about half the manuscript of On the Origin of Species “and gives me very great kudos.”

In its earliest uses, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “kudos” referred to the prestige or glory of having done something noteworthy. But by the 1920s, it had developed a second sense, praise for an accomplishment.

And it was during the ’20s, the usage guide says, that “the ‘praise’ sense of kudos came to be understood as a plural count noun, much like awards or honors. Time magazine, according to M-W, may have helped popularize the usage.

Here’s a 1927 example from Time that suggests plurality: “They were the recipients of honorary degrees—kudos conferred because of their wealth, position, or service to humanity.”

And the usage guide also cites a 1941 citation from the magazine that’s clearly plural: “There is no other weekly newspaper which in one short year has achieved so many kudos.”

Once “kudos” was seen in Time and other publications as a plural, M-W’s usage guide says, “it was inevitable that somebody would prune the s from the end and create a singular.”

The OED’s earliest sighting of “kudo” shorn of its “s” dates from a book of slang: “Kudo, good standing with the management” (Jack Smiley’s Hash House Lingo, 1941).

Oxford also cites a 1950 letter from Fred Allen to Groucho Marx, in which Allen hyperbolically describes approval for a TV show expressed by customers at the Stage Delicatessen in New York: “A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.”

Merriam-Webster’s includes quite a few examples of the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos.” Here are a couple from mainstream publications:

Saturday Review (1971): “All these kudos spread around the country.”

Women’s Wear Daily (1978): “She added a kudo for HUD’s Patricia Harris.”

OK, the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are the result of mistakes. But a lot of legitimate words began life in error. Are “kudo” and “kudos” becoming legit as they spread like kudzu?

Merriam-Webster’s thinks so—sort of. The usage guides says the two usages “are by now well established,” though “they have not yet penetrated the highest range of scholarly writing or literature.”

Other usage commentators aren’t so open minded. In its entry for “kudos,” Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that “in standard usage it has no plural nor is it used with the indefinite article a.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s, says “the final -s is sometimes misinterpreted as marking a plural.” But “kudo as a singular,” he writes, is not “desirable or elegant.”

“No other word of Greek origin,” Butterfield adds, “has suffered such an undignified fate.”

Lexicographers are also skeptical for the most part. Of the ten standard dictionaries we usually consul, only three (two of them published by the same company) accept the singular “kudo.”

Reflecting the majority opinion is Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries online), which says this in its entry for “kudos”:

“Despite appearances, it is not a plural form. This means that there is no singular form kudo and that the use of kudos as a plural … is incorrect.” Lexico provides an incorrect example (“he received many kudos”) and a corrected one (“he received much kudos”).

The three that accept the singular word “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabrided, and (which is based on the former Random House Unabridged)., for instance, accepts word in two senses: (1) meaning “honor; glory; acclaim,” as in “No greater kudo could have been bestowed”; and (2) meaning “a statement of praise or approval; accolade; compliment,” as in “one kudo after another.”

For now, we still don’t recommend the usage.

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Relatively speaking

(An updated and expanded post about “cousin,” “niece,” and “nephew” appeared on Nov. 9, 2018.)

Q: When I became an uncle for the third time, I had a nephew in addition to two nieces. It was then that I realized I had no way of saying “I have three …” There is also no word for both aunts and uncles. Any reason for this? Does it reflect a special relationship or a neglected one? Do other languages also have this gap?

A: H-m-m. We wish we had an answer.

We can’t say why, but English seems to be missing the words that would denote certain forms of kinship: one word that would mean both niece and nephew, and another that would mean both aunt and uncle.

If any other language has a singular word that refers to both a niece and a nephew, we’re unfamiliar with it. However, other languages do use the masculine plural for a group of both nieces and nephews.

In Spanish, for example, the singulars are sobrino (nephew) and sobrina (niece), but sobrinos can be used for a group of nieces and nephews.

Today, English speakers use “nephews” and “nieces” to mean the sons and daughters of our siblings. But in olden times, these words were also used to designate grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were supposed to be chaste).

Both “nephew” and “niece” originated in Middle English in the early 1300s, derived from the Latin words nepos (grandson, descendant, or prodigal) and neptis (granddaughter or female descendant).

These words and their counterparts in many other languages are traceable ultimately to an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as nepto, meaning grandson or nephew (the feminine form was nepti). This root is also the ancestor of our word “nepotism.”

Three now obscure English nouns, “neve,” “nepos,” and “nepote,” were also once used to mean nephew or grandson. Maybe we could revive one of them to mean both nephew and niece. Well, it’s only a suggestion.

As for “aunt,” meaning the sister of a parent or the wife of an uncle, the word entered English in the 1200s by way of the Old French ante, which came from the Latin amita (father’s sister).

“Uncle,” meaning the brother of a parent or the husband of an aunt, came into English at around the same time from the Old French uncle and oncle, and ultimately from the Latin avunculus (mother’s brother).

By the way, people often ask why we have an adjective meaning uncle-like (“avuncular”) but none for aunt-like. We posted an item about this auntless issue on the blog a while back. And we posted an entry last month about the history and pronunciation of “aunt.”

(Updated, Sept. 29, 2017.)

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Is there a cat in the corner?

Q: What is the origin of the expression “catty-corner” and does it have anything to do with cats?

A: The phrase, originally seen as “catty-cornered” or “cater-cornered” in 19th-century America, has no relationship at all to cats.

Although the “catty” version appeared first in print, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the “cater” version is closer to the phrase’s etymological roots.

The OED traces both of them back to a 16th-century verb, “cater,” meaning “to place or set rhomboidally; to cut, move, go, etc., diagonally.” So to move in a “cater-cornered” way is to go diagonally from corner to corner.

The English verb came from the French quatre (four). Since the early 1500s, the word “cater” has also meant the number four in games of dice or cards, though this usage is not common today.

The dictionary’s first citation for the verb “cater” is from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Conrad Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry: “The trees are set checkerwise, and so catred, as looke which way ye wyl, they lye leuel [level].”

And this OED citation,  written four centuries later, describes the motion of a wagon at a level railroad crossing: “ ‘Cater’ across the rails ever so cleverly, you cannot escape jolt and jar” (from an 1873 travel memoir, Silverland, by the British writer George Alfred Lawrence).

As for “catty-cornered,” the phrase has been spelled a number of ways over the years: “catacornered,” “katterkorner’d,” “cat-a-cornered,” etc. Since the early 20th century, it has often been seen without the “-ed” ending.

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) has two examples in one sentence: “Lee Chongs’s grocery was on its catty-corner right and Dora’s Bear Flag Restaurant was on its catty-corner left.”

The feline-sounding version of the expression probably began with a mispronunciation of the relatively rare word “cater.” Through a process that language types call folk etymology, a cat ended up in the corner.

Both “cater-corner” and “catty-corner” are still used today and can be found in contemporary dictionaries. But a latecomer, “kitty-corner,” which first showed up at the end of the 19th century, is the most popular one these days, according to Google.

And in some versions, the “corner” element disappears, as in the mid-19th-century “catawampous” or “catawampus.” The OED calls  this “a humorous formation” that meant not only ferocious (perhaps derived from “catamount,” the mountain lion) but also askew or awry.

Slang dictionaries also have the spelling “catter-wompus” (1851) for the askew or diagonal sense of the word, followed by “cattywampus” in the first decade of the 1900s.

And naturally there’s a “kitty” version too. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples of “kittywampus” dating from the 1940s.

[Note: This post was updated on March 22, 2020.]

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Sympathy strike

Q: An FAQ on says “sympathy” is compassion for another person while “empathy” is imagining oneself in another person’s position. That’s backward from how I understand the two words. Who’s right?

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re with here. The new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage nicely differentiates the two terms, so we’ll pass along the definitions:

Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it. Sympathy is compassion for or commiseration with another.”

“Sympathy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered English from Late Latin (sympathia), but comes ultimately from the classical Greek συμπάθεια (sympatheia), or “fellow feeling.” The roots literally mean “together” + “feeling.”

The word was first recorded in English in the mid-16th century, and its earliest meanings had to do with affinity, conformity, harmony, and the like. It came to mean feelings of compassion or commiseration in 1600, the OED citations suggest.

The noun has cousins in French (sympathie), Italian (simpatia), Spanish (simpatia), and Portuguese (sympathia).

“Empathy” is the English version of a German word, einfühlung (“in” + “feeling”), which the Germans adapted in 1903 from the Hellenistic Greek word for “passion” or “physical affection,” ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), also literally “in” + “feeling.” (In modern Greek, the word has the opposite meaning—hatred, malice, and so on.)

The OED defines “empathy,” which entered English in 1909, as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.”

In the 1940s the word acquired a meaning in the field of psychology, the OED says: “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives these examples of the two words at work: (1) “I have a lot of sympathy for her; she had to bring up the children on her own.” (2) “She had great empathy with people.”

Again, sorry to disappoint you. We sympathize with you over the disappointment, and we empathize with what you’re feeling.

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Vice isn’t nice!

Q: At my place of employment, management has circulated a memo requiring employees to use the word “vice” instead of “versus.” So a company document might read: “Consider performing maintenance vice replacing the faulty part.” I would appreciate any insight you can provide.

A: Your bosses are recommending a term that’s not common, except perhaps in the military. This is the use of the preposition “vice,” a Latin borrowing, to mean “instead of” or “in place of.” 

(Think of the related term “vice versa,” which is also from Latin and means “conversely,” or “in reversed order.”)

This “vice” can be pronounced as one syllable (rhyming with “nice”) or as two (VYE-see), according to standard dictionaries.

A Google search finds that your bosses aren’t alone in using “vice” instead of “versus,” though this is certainly not common in ordinary English. These days, the “instead of” sense of the word is more common in prefixes and adjectival nouns in titles.

For example, we use it (pronounced as a single syllable) in terms like “vice president” and “vice consul,” where it means someone who represents or serves in place of a superior. A  “viceroy,” to use another example, rules a province or country as the representative of his sovereign.

The preposition “vice” as used by your bosses first showed up in written English in a military usage in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the OED citation: “6th reg. of foot: Capt. Mathew Derenzy to be Major, vice John Forrest; by purchase.” (From a 1770 issue of the Scots Magazine.)

[Note: The military use is still alive. Two readers of the blog report that “vice” is used for “in place of” in armed-forces documents.]

Later OED citations include uses in sports, diplomacy, and music. Here’s one from a book Pat is currently reading:

“He was gardener and out-door man, vice Upton, resigned.” (From William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, 1849.) 

As a noun, of course, “vice” can mean a lot of nasty things: depravity, corruption, evil, and so on. The OED says the noun, first recorded in English in 1297, is from a different Latin source: vitium (“fault, defect, failing, etc.”).  

But getting back to your company’s memo, we see nothing wrong with “versus,” a preposition meaning “against” that’s been in steady since the 15th century. Like the prepositional “vice” and its derivatives, “versus” is from Latin, in which it means “against.”

As you’re probably aware, “versus” may have inspired a popular colloquial usage: the word “verse” as a verb meaning to compete against. We recently wrote on the blog about  this use of “verse.”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2016.]

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Herbal remedies

Q: I can’t help responding to your blog posting regarding “a herb” vs. “an herb.” Any word that starts with a vowel has “an” in front of it. “Herb” does not start with a vowel, no matter how the word is pronounced. No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense. A vowel is a vowel and that’s that. A herb is a herb too! Thanks much for listening (I hope!).

A: Sorry to disappoint you. When using an indefinite article (that is, “a” or “an”) before a word, the determinant is the SOUND the word begins with, not the letter of the alphabet.

Check any reference source you want and you’ll learn this. The word’s spelling is irrelevant.

If the word begins with a vowel SOUND, the article is “an” (as in “an apple,” “an hour,” “an honor,” “an herb,” “an umbrella”).

If the word begins with a consonant SOUND, the article is “a” (as in “a hotel,” “a house,” “a utopia,” “a unit,” “a university,” “a use,” “a European,” “a one-time offer,” “a once-over”).

In American English, the “h” in “herb” is not sounded; it is silent, so it’s preceded by “an.” In British English, the “h” in “herb” is sounded, so it’s preceded by “a.”

You say, “No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense.” Of course they do! All words beginning with a silent “h” are preceded by “an.” Are you telling me you actually say “a honorary degree from an university”?

What I’m telling you is common knowledge. Check any dictionary or usage guide.

I’ll quote The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.): “The form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound, regardless of its spelling (a frog, a university). The form an is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an orange, an hour).”

And this is from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Robert H. Burchfield (who uses “AmE” for American English, “BrE” for British English): “AmE herb, being pronounced with silent h, is always preceded by an, but the same word in BrE, being pronounced with an aspirated h, by a.”

I can cite many, many more authorities if you’re still unconvinced.

American Heritage has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. I quoted it in that earlier post, but it bears repeating:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

In case you’re wondering, the “h”-less American “herb” is the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the word was usually spelled “erbe.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the h was mute until the 19th cent., and is still so treated by many.”

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On heroes, edible and otherwise

Q: Am I wrong to be irritated at the overuse of the term “hero”? I think of a hero as someone who does something heroic – say, running into a burning building to rescue a child. Instead, I’ve seen newspapers call Super Bowl champions “heroes.” If we cheapen the term, what do we use for true heroism?

A: We think you’re right. In fact, here’s what Pat says on the subject in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

hero. There was a time when this word was reserved for people who were … well … heroic. People who performed great acts of physical, moral, or spiritual courage, often risking their lives or livelihoods. But lately, hero has lost its luster. It’s applied indiscriminately to professional athletes, lottery winners, and kids who clean up at spelling bees. There’s no other word quite like hero, so let’s not bestow it too freely. It would be a pity to lose it. Sergeant York was a hero.

[Note: This passage was updated to reflect the entry in the 4th edition of Woe Is I, published in 2019.]

So here we’re on your side, though we suspect it’s the losing side.

We might add, however, that the word “hero” has long been used to describe heroic acts that aren’t quite as dramatic as running into a burning building to rescue a child. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, or standing up for what you believe in, can also be heroic.

In Homer’s day, the Greek word heros referred to a man “of superhuman strength, courage, ability favoured by the gods,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word had that sense when it entered English in the 14th century, but by the 16th century it came to mean an illustrious warrior, one who does brave or noble martial deeds.

In the mid-17th century, however, the term was already being used more loosely to describe not only a brave warrior but a man who exhibits firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul “in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise,” according to the OED.

A 1661 citation, for example, refers to Galileo and other astronomers as “illustrious Heroes.”

More recently, of course, the usage has become even looser. A 1955 citation refers to “an Italian hero sandwich,” which the OED describes as “U.S. slang, a very large sandwich.” Some might consider eating one a heroic act.

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For better or verse

Q: I work with a lot of boys and find it interesting to hear so many of them say things like “I will verse you in a game of Pokémon.” I find it annoying to hear “verse” used to mean compete, but I have come to realize that I am witnessing the evolution of the word “versus.”

A: It’s interesting that you bring up the use of “verse” as a verb. We’ve gotten many emails from parents over the years asking where this came from.

One North Jersey father, for instance, has written that his kids use constructions like “We are versing the Yankees today.” And no, they weren’t reading poetry to the Yankees!

The usage is an apparent adaptation of “versus,” as you suggest, and to “verse” here means to play or challenge or go up against.

As it turns out, this isn’t such a new phenomenon. In fact, the kids who first used “verse” for compete are now grown up. The linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer has traced the usage back to the 1980s.

Here’s a citation from the Feb. 20, 1984, issue of the New York Times: “To verse: High school slang meaning to compete against another school’s team, as in ‘We’re going to be versing the Brown Bombers next week.’ From the preposition ‘versus.’ ”

You can see how this might have happened. Imagine a sportscaster saying, “Tonight at 8, Boston versus Cincinnati.” To many ears, the preposition “versus” sounds like a verb, “verses,” as in “Boston verses (that is, plays) Cincinnati.”

Now imagine a child passing on the news: “Hey, Dad! Tonight Boston verses Cincinnati.” Thus a new verb is born.

There’s already a recognized verb “verse” that means to study or acquaint oneself with some subject, as in “I’m well versed in such-and-such,” or “He’s versing himself in geometry.”

The verb “versify” means to write verse. And The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.), by Paul Dickson, notes a historical use of the noun “verse” as a synonym for “inning.”

The use of the verb “verse” to mean compete has made it into only one of the standard dictionaries we usually check, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see it in others.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes the usage as slang, and says it means “to play against (an opponent) in a competition.”

American Heritage adds that it’s probably a “back-formation from VERSUS taken as verses in such phrases as Boston versus New York.”

[Note: This entry was updated on July 14, 2016.]

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Herbal treatment

Q: I’m a South African and I wonder why Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB. Isn’t this a French affectation?

A: Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB because that’s the way the word was spoken when the Colonists left England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Britons began pronouncing the “h” in “herb” in the early 19th century. Before then, both Brits and Americans pronounced it ERB.

In fact, the word was usually spelled “erbe” for the first few hundred years after it was borrowed from the Old French erbe in the 1200s.

The “h” was added to the spelling later as a nod to the Latin original (herba, or grass), but the letter was silent in English.

Today, Americans pronounce “herb” the way Shakespeare did, with a silent “h,” while the Bard wouldn’t recognize the word in the mouths of the English.

If you’d like to read more about British-vs.-American English, check out my latest book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.

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Is it the floor or the ground?

Q: I was waiting on hold to speak with you on WNYC, but I never made it on the air. I wanted to comment on the use of “floor” vs. “ground.” My husband, in particular, has a pet peeve about the use of “floor” outside where it should be “ground.”

A: Others have asked the same question recently, so this must be a trend!

Normally, the floor is what you walk on inside a building, and the ground is what you walk on outside. I too find it jarring to hear the words “floor” and “ground” used interchangeably.

But many people do this. Not only do they refer to the floor as the ground, but they call the ground the floor. At least so far, standard dictionaries maintain the distinction between the two words.

“Floor” was an archaic word for “ground” centuries ago. And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “floor” has been used in the game of cricket to refer to the ground (but this must be an uncommon usage, since it doesn’t currently appear in any standard British dictionaries).

At any rate, those examples would hardly explain such a usage in American English.

We occasionally refer to the “floor” of the ocean or of the forest, and so on, but in ordinary usage, a “floor” is part of a building or other structure.

In Spanish, suelo means both ground and floor, but I can’t see any connection with the increasing use of the two words as interchangeable terms in English.

The phrase “ground floor,” of course, refers to the floor of a building closest to the ground. And the expression “getting in on the ground floor” means joining a venture at an early, advantageous time.

If I find out anything more, I’ll put it on the blog, so stay tuned!

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Why we suck

Q: I often notice the word “suck” used when I think it’s inappropriate. The comedian Denis Leary, for example, has a book called Why We Suck. And a kid may tell a teacher, “I think Catcher in the Rye sucks.” This makes me cringe. My understanding is that “suck” here refers to oral sex. Am I being priggish?

A: The verb “suck” is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, and it’s perfectly acceptable in most of its senses.

“Suck” has been in the language since around the year 825, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original meaning: “To draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum.”

All the other meanings (to suck something or someone dry of money, for example) stem from this one. [Note: A later post on the uses of “suck” appeared on the blog in 2017.]

The OED also lists the oral-sex definition, labeling it “coarse slang,” and dates that usage from 1928. However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two citations from the 17th century, including this one:

“O that I were a flea upon thy lip, / There would I sucke for euer, and not skip … / Or if thou thinkst I there too high am plast, / Ile be content to sucke below thy waste” (from The Schoole of Complement, a 1631 play by the English dramatist James Shirley).

Separately the OED lists “contemptible or disgusting” as slang meanings of the word (as in “he sucks” or “it sucks”), and dates that usage from 1971.

Is this negative sense of the word derived from the oral-sex usage? The OED doesn’t indicate that one sense comes from the other. But we assume that the two senses are related.

Are you being priggish? Perhaps. Most dictionaries label the negative usage as slang or informal, though Merriam-Webster says it’s sometimes vulgar.

[Note: This post was updated on April 25, 2020.]

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