English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Pardon my French

[An updated post about “Pardon my French” ran on Jan. 31, 2014.]

Q: In an old “Seinfeld” episode, George admits his willingness to say anything to impress a woman, including that he’d coined the phrase “pardon my French.” Well, who did come up with this great expression?

A: Mary McCarthy is the first writer known to have used the exact phrase “pardon my French,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel, she puts the words in the mouth of one of her characters: “ ‘Damn fool,’ he said, vehemently, ‘pardon my French.’ ”

But the term “French” has been used euphemistically for bad language since the early 1900s and probably even earlier. In Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909), J. Redding Ware says the expression “loosing French” meant violent language, though he doesn’t give a date for its first use.

James Joyce, in Ulysses (1922), uses “bad French” to mean bad language. More to the point, in All Trees Were Green (1933), Michael Harrison writes: “A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.”

The adjective “French,” of course, has been used in a negative way in English for hundreds of years.

A 1503 citation in the OED, for instance, refers to venereal disease as the “Frenche pox.” The French, naturally, referred to it as the English disease. Touché!

And “French” has been used since the mid-18th century to describe racy novels and pictures. As an example, here’s an excerpt from Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister (1842):

Or, my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.

Belial, as you probably know, is the personification of evil in the Old Testament and a fallen angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

To incent and incense

Q: I recently saw an interview with Carly Fiorina, who kept using the words “incent” and “incenting.” My dictionary has never heard of these forms of “incentive.” Is my dictionary out of date? Or is Ms. Fiorina inventing words?

A: We’ve found “incent” in four standard dictionaries, though two of them (Collins and Oxford Dictionaries online) describe it as an American usage, and Collins adds that it’s “not standard.”

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list it without comment (that is, as standard English).

“Incent” is what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from “incentive.” As you might suspect, it means to provide an incentive or to incentivize.

Although “incent” hasn’t been accepted wholeheartedly by all standard dictionaries, it’s been around for more than a century and a half.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the word appears in an 1840 issue of the Rover, a New York literary weekly:

“Incented by the stupid ambition of an ignorant mother, she thought that the purse of the one was far superior to the heart of the other.”

The next OED citation, dated 1898, is from a British source, Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates: “The noble Lord went so far … as to charge … Mr. Tilak with incenting to murder.”

Back-formations are pretty common in English. Examples of verbs that began as back-formations from nouns are “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “baby-sit” (from “babysitter”), and “curate” (from “curator”).

Among back-formations that are frowned upon by some commentators are “incent,” “administrate” (from “administration”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), “liaise” (from “liaison”), and “orientate” (a mid-19th century back-formation from “orientation,” which itself is derived from a verb, “orient”).

Not every word you find in dictionaries is pleasing to every ear. We, for example, find “administrate” unnecessary since the older “administer” is a perfectly good word.

Though “administrate” doesn’t have any more syllables than “administer,” it’s longer and newer, which may be its attraction for people who enjoy using bureaucratic language.

An example of a back-formation that’s out there but not (yet) in standard dictionaries is “adolesce” (from “adolescence”), as in “He hasn’t finished adolescing yet.”

[Note: This post was updated on July 6, 2016, at the suggestion of a reader.]

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Finishing touch

Q: I’m hoping you might comment on what I see as the widespread abuse of a verb tense in instructions: “When you are finished Step One, etc.” Shouldn’t it be “When you HAVE finished Step One, etc.”? I’d like to see this abuse finished – that is, lights out! But maybe I’m missing something here because I’m seeing it all the time.

A: No, I think you’re right on the money. It would naturally be incorrect to say “When you are finished step one….” (And no, I don’t believe in unnecessarily capitalizing “step one,” as many instructional manuals do.)

Here are a few of the correct ways one might write this thought: (1) When you are finished with step one…. (2) When you have finished step one…. (3) When you have completed step one…. (4) When you have done step one….

The verb “finish,” by the way, dates back to around 1350, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. I couldn’t find a single example of the construction you cited in the OED’s 40 published references for “are finished.”

Here’s a citation for “finish” at work in the 1697 Dryden translation of Virgil’s Georgics: “He call’d, sigh’d, sung: his griefs with day begun, / Nor were they finish’d with the setting sun.”

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What’s buttery about butterflies?

Q: I’ve read that the large-winged insect we see every summer was originally called a “flutterby,” but a tongue-tied VIP in England could only say “butterfly” and that name caught on. This makes sense to me since butterflies do more fluttering than buttering. Do you agree?

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but “butterfly” is as old as English words come. In written use it goes back to about the year 700, when Anglo-Saxons were speaking Old English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Epinal Glossary, a list of terms in Latin and Old English: “Papilo, buturfliogae” (butur- was the compound form of buter or buture, Old English for “butter,” while fleoge and flyge were terms for a winged insect).

The OED says the reason for the name is unclear, but it “may arise from the pale yellow appearance of the wings of certain European butterflies (perhaps specifically the brimstone butterfly), or from a supposed tendency to feed on or hover over butter or buttermilk, or from a folk belief that butterflies (or even witches in the form of butterflies) steal butter.”

The dictionary notes similar words in other Germanic languages. A popular name for the insect in 16th-century Dutch, for example, was botervlieg, while popular names in Middle High German were bitterflivge and brutflevg. The insect is normally called vlinder in Dutch and schmetterling in German.

The OED also cites several Dutch and German regional terms that reflect the folk belief in butterfly thievery and witchery: botterheks (“butter witch”) in Dutch as well as butterhexe (“butter witch”) and “milchdieb (“milk thief”) in German.

The dictionary notes the use in Dutch of “boterschijte, lit. ‘butter shit,’ which has led to the (improbable) suggestion that the insect was so called on account of the (supposed) appearance of its excrement.”

In fact, butterflies don’t produce excrement, according to A World for Butterflies. However, the website and book by Phil Schappert note that caterpillars do poop and at least one of them has yellow excrement.

The word “butterfly,” according to the OED, has been in use steadily in various spellings since it first appeared in Old English. It can be found in the works of major English writers through the ages: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and so on.

The earliest Oxford citation with the modern spelling is from the early 17th century: “As Butterflies quicken with heat, which were benummed with cold” (from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Naturall Historie, 1626).

As for “flutterby,” there’s a lot of etymological nonsense about it on the Internet, but we can’t find a single published reference for the word in the OED.

The closest thing is this citation from 2000 in the dictionary’s entry for “pillock,” an obscure North English term for penis: “Why did the butterfly flutter by? Because she saw the caterpillar wave his pillock at her.”

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

A dilemma inside an enigma

Q: I have a question that has plagued me since childhood: Has the spelling of “dilemma” changed in the past 35 or so years? I could have sworn that it was “dilemna” when I learned to spell in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I remember this because I used to pronounce it phonetically – i.e., “di-lem-na” – as a joke.

A: Welcome to the Twilight Zone!

The word “dilemma,” which has been in English since the 1500s, has always been spelled with a double m. And yet legions of English-speakers from around the world not only spell it “dilemna,” but also (and here’s where Rod Serling steps out from behind a tree) INSIST that their teachers drummed this into them and ridiculed any “mistaken” efforts to spell it with two m’s.

No matter what you were taught, the correct spelling is “dilemma.” The word is derived from the Greek di (twice) and lemma (assumption). What it means, as you probably know, is a choice between two or more alternatives, all unfavorable. (Despite the “di” prefix, the word is now widely accepted as applying to more than two choices.) The alternatives are sometimes called the “horns” of the dilemma.

I’ve checked the Oxford English Dictionary for any variant spellings of the word, but the only “dilemna” I found was in a book on logic written by Thomas Wilson in 1551, and that was probably a typo, since printing was rather primitive in those days and spellings were sometimes arbitrary. I’ve also checked every other dictionary I have, including some bizarre 19th-century ones. No dice. Or, rather, no “dilemna.”

But in googling for “dilemna,” I got hundreds of hits, including the CNN headline “Seoul’s Missile Dilemna,” and in searching the New York Times archive, I found 11 appearances of “dilemna” since 1981.

Mostly, though, I find cries in the wilderness from people (both American and British) whose teachers apparently insisted on the spelling “dilemna” so vigorously that it became engraved on their brains! Who were these teachers and where did they get this harebrained idea? Did they (on both sides of the Atlantic) descend from a single Proto-Teacher born on another planet?

The odd “mn” spelling does have parallels in English: “condemn,” “solemn,” “alumna,” “limn,” “autumn,” “indemnity,” and others. Oddly, I came across many language sites noting that the French for “dilemma” is dilemme, yet the word is widely misspelled in France as dilemne. As one site pointed out, “En effet, la forme ‘dilemne’ n’existe pas.” This gets curiouser and curiouser.

Some things, and this apparently is one of them, are beyond me. I can’t account for the bizarre phenomenon of so very many people being taught – and taught INSISTENTLY – that “dilemna” is correct. If I ever become enlightened on this mysterious subject, I’ll report back!

With apologies to Winston Churchill, this is a dilemma, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

A goldenrod rule?

Q: A group of rather literary friends recently corrected me for using the word “goldenrods.” They said the plural of the wildflower is the same as the singular. Does “goldenrod” become plural by adding an “s,” like “flower,” or does it stay the same, like “deer”?

A: The dictionaries I’ve consulted don’t indicate that the singular and plural of this word are the same (as they do for invariable nouns like “deer,” “moose,” “sheep,” “swine,” and so on).

So I would conclude that “goldenrod” forms its plural the normal way, with the addition of an “s,” as in “The bouquet included three irises, two lilies, and four goldenrods.”

As an amateur gardener, however, I do know that people with green thumbs often use the singular in referring to plants: “We planted five dozen iris and two dozen crocus last fall” or “I like the way you’ve grouped your three daphne” (instead of “irises,” crocuses,” and “daphnes”).

And plants are often spoken of in the singular, as in “Slender fragrant goldenrod flowers in the summer” (instead of “goldenrods flower”) or “That field of lance-leaved goldenrod is striking.”

Despite these common conventions, “goldenrod” isn’t treated as an invariable noun by dictionaries, which means that technically it has a separate plural.

By the way, the term “goldenrod,” which refers to a plant of the genus Solidago, first appeared in English in a 1568 book by the British botanist William Turner.

All this reminds me of the headline on a “Cuttings” column in the New York Times some years ago: “Just Call Them Glads and Move On From There.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A pantleg to stand on

Q: Is the phrase “crease in the pant’s leg” correct or should it be “crease in the pants’ leg”? Thanks a bunch.

A: No apostrophe is needed. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the word “pant” can be an adjective meaning “of or relating to pants,” and it uses the example “pant leg.” So I would suggest “crease in the pant leg.”

Or “pantleg,” if you prefer. While the term often appears as two words, as in M-W, and has also appeared in the past with a hyphen, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the noun as one solid word.

The OED says “pantleg” originated in the US and is still “chiefly” North American. The dictionary gives examples dating from 1859.

As for “pants,” etymologists trace it back to San Pantaleone, the patron saint of Venice.  Because of his identification with the city, Venetians came to be known as pantaloni and a stock character in commedia dell’arte was Pantalone, a rich old miser.

This character typically wore “spectacles, slippers, and tight trousers that were a combination of breeches and stockings,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In the 17th century, the OED says, the French linked the character with a style of trousers that came to be known as “pantaloons” in English.

The word “pantaloons” was eventually shorted to “pants” in the US. Oxford’s earliest example for the new usage is from an 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger:  “In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

In the OED’s  citations for the short form used as an attributive noun (that is, as an adjective), it’s singular, as in “pantcoat,” “pantdress,” “pantskirt,” “pantsuit,” and “pant-look”), dating from the 1960s and later. (Hmm, I wonder if the appearance of all those “pant” words had something to do with the rise of feminism.)

Like most changes in our changeable language, the evolution of “pantaloons” to “pants” did not occur without opposition. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for one, described the upstart as “a word not made for gentlemen, but for ‘gents.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Is it “-able” or “-ible”?

[Note: A later and more complete post on this subject was published on Jan. 6, 2016.]

Q: Is there a rule for remembering the correct spellings of words ending in “-able” or “-ible”? You know, words like “portable,” “possible,” “manageable,” “delectable,” “suitable.” Hmm… Now I’m having trouble coming up with another “-ible.” Perhaps treating “able” as the norm and remembering the “-ible” exceptions will do it?

A: There’s no rule, exactly, for telling the “-ables” from the “-ibles.” Often a word derived from a Germanic source (Old Dutch, Old Icelandic, Old Norse, and so on) will end in “-able,” like “forgivable,” which comes from Old English.

If a word is derived directly from Latin, however, it might be spelled one way or the other. It generally will end in “-able” if the  original Latin verb ended in “-are.” And it will probably end in “-ible” if  the  original Latin verb ended in “-ere” or “-ire.” 

That accounts for English words like “legible,” from the Latin legere (“read”), “collectible,” from colligere (“gather”), and “potable,” from potare (“drink”).

There are exceptions, though. And not many of us know automatically whether a word is derived from Latin or Old English. Only one thing is certain: there are far more “-ables” than “-ibles.” The best rule to follow is this: When in doubt, look it up.

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Are we losing “-ed” adjectives?

Q: Have you noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective? I see lots of signs that say “ice tea” and people talk about “mix tapes.”

A: No, we haven’t noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective, though some words that began life with the suffix are often seen without it.

For example, the use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, while “damn” used in this sense didn’t appear until the late 18th century and is now much more popular.

The loss of the “-ed” ending here is is no surprise. The fact is that “-ed” can be awkward to pronounce before a consonant. This can sometimes lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

As for the chilled tea served over ice, both “iced tea” and “ice tea” showed up in the 19th century (the version with “d” in 1839 and one without it in 1842, according to citations in theOxford English Dictionary). You can find both versions in standard dictionaries now, though the suffixed one is far more popular.

A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, shows that “iced tea” is five times as popular as “ice tea.” And the longer version is even more popular in a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books up until 2008. 

In short, the “-ed” adjective is alive and well in writing, though it’s often dropped in speech. We’re used to hearing things like “corn beef,” “mash potatoes,” “grill cheese,” “chop liver,” and “whip cream,” but people generally preserve the “-ed” endings in writing these noun phrases.

As for the compilation of music from multiple sources, it’s usually “mixtape” now, though it was “mix tape” when it showed up in writing in the 1980s and has sometimes been “mix-tape,” according to our searches of newspaper databases. It has seldom been written as “mixed tape.” The word “mix” in the compound “mixtape” is an attributive noun—one used adjectivally.

[Note: This post was updated on July 12, 2019.]

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A wonky question

[An updated post about “wonk,” “wonky,” and “wonkish” appeared on the blog on July 2, 2014.]

Q: I’m reading an Angela Thirkell novel, High Rising, and one of the characters (young Tony Morland) repeatedly uses the term “wonky” to mean nutty or neurotic. Can you tell me more about the origin of this word?

A: Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “wonky” is chiefly British and means shaky, unsteady, or awry.

But many Americans these days use both “wonk” and “wonky” to mean overly studious or obsessed with details – that is, wonkish or nerdy. [See update below.]

The first reference for “wonky” in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1919 citation in which Lord Northcliffe, a newspaper magnate, writes of being “weak, and wonky, as the telephone girls say, after a bad morning with the subscribers.”

When Angela Thirkell wrote High Rising in the early 1930s, “wonky” was well established as an adjective to describe an unstable or unsound person or thing. Kipling, in his last collection of stories, Limits and Renewals (1932), refers to a wonky headlight. And Edgar Wallace, in his novel The Strange Countess (1925), refers to financial accounts “that went a little wonky.”

But where does “wonky” come from? American Heritage suggests that it may be derived from the Old English word wancol, meaning unsteady or insecure.

As for the noun “wonk,” it first appeared in print in 1929, according to the OED, and has had various meanings over the years, including a useless naval hand, a white person, and an effeminate man.

Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, has traced the use of “wonk” for a studious or hard-working person to a 1954 article in Time magazine. He says the usage may have originated at Harvard, where students were called wonks, preppies, or jocks, according to a 1962 article in Sports Illustrated.

The use of “wonk” or “wonkish” to refer to someone obsessed with minute points of policy is relatively recent. The first published reference in the OED is from a 1992 Washington Post article that refers to “a lot of wonkish material” (targeted tax cuts, community policing, education reform).

One apparently dubious suggestion is that “wonk” is “know” spelled backwards. Another is that “wonk” is related to the slang term “wanker,” meaning masturbator. A third is that it’s derived from Willy Wonka, Roald Dahl’s eccentric chocolate maker.

But all this is speculative. Most etymologists say the origin of “wonk” is unknown.

[Update, June 12, 2014: Newer definitions appear in later editions of the dictionaries we cited above. The OED includes this meaning of “wonkish,” which it says originated in American politics: “excessively concerned with minute points of (governmental) policy.” American Heritage (5th ed.) defines “wonk” as  “1. A student who studies excessively; a grind. 2. One who studies an issue or topic thoroughly or excessively: ‘leading a talkathon of policy wonks in a methodical effort to build consensus for his programs.  And the newest version of Merriam-Webster’s 11th says “wonk” means “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field; broadly ‘nerd,’ ” and gives the examples “a policy wonk” and “a computer wonk.”]


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Nerds of America

[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 24, 2020.]

Q: I was listening to a discussion on WNYC about the word “nerd” and began thinking of when I first heard the term. I’m a baby boomer and don’t remember encountering it in grammar school, high school, or college. I believe I first heard the word on the TV show Happy Days. Did I miss something or did “nerd” originate on the sitcom?

A: You must have had your mind on other things. Happy Days was on the air from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, but the word “nerd” (sometimes spelled “nurd” in its early days) originated in the United States in the early ’50s.

That’s about the only thing certain about “nerd.” Its origin has been much disputed and we may never know the real story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “nerd” as a “mildly derogatory” slang term for “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person” or one “who is boringly conventional or studious.” The word nowadays also has a more specific meaning, the dictionary adds: “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”

The first published citation for “nerd” in the OED is from an article in Newsweek (Oct. 8, 1951): “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”

[Update: The Newsweek quotation suggests that the word was already attracting notice, at least in Detroit. In fact, the author and Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro spotted this slightly earlier example in the Detroit Free Press: “If the person in question (formerly known as a square) is really impossible, he’s probably a ‘nerd’ ” (Oct. 7, 1951).]

The OED mentions one plausible origin and several others that are more doubtful.

The plausible one suggests that “nerd” was inspired by a fictional character of the same name in a Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. The Nerd in the children’s book, according to the OED, was “depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.” That sounds pretty nerdlike.

Less likely, the OED says, are suggestions that “nerd” is an alteration of “turd” or that it is back-slang for “drunk” (which contains the letters n-u-r-d) or that it is derived from the name of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Mortimer Snerd.

Here are some “nerd”-related word formations, from Green’s Dictionary of Slang and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang: the adjectives “nerdy” (1960s) and “nerdly” (1990s) are self-explanatory; the verb “to nerd” (1980s) means to study, but “to nerd around” (1970s) is to goof off; a “nerd magnet” (1980s) is a woman who attracts nerds; a “nerd pack” (1980s) is a pocket protector for holding pens.

We don’t recall hearing “nerd” during our school careers, either (Stewart, class of ’63; Pat, ’71). But we remember the type—the guys who spent all their spare time in the library or lab, didn’t party or do drugs, studied like fiends, got great grades, and went on to become zillionaires in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. We think they got the last laugh.

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Continuing education

Q: I am curious about the words “continual” and “continuous.” Is there a difference between them and when should each one be used?

A: Many usage guides make this distinction: “continual” means going on regularly or frequently but with breaks in between; “continuous” means going on steadily and without interruption. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, offers a trick for telling them apart—imagine that the “ous” ending is short for “one uninterrupted sequence.”

These days, however, so many people use the two words interchangeably that the distinction may someday be lost. In fact, a case can be made that the difference between “continual” and “continuous” has never been quite as clear-cut as the sticklers insist.

The word “continual,” for instance, has been used to mean both continuing without interruption and repeated with brief interruptions since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The 17th-century newcomer “continuous,” the OED says, means uninterrupted or unbroken.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “continuous” as uninterrupted, but they say “continual” can mean either uninterrupted or recurring regularly.

Because people use both to imply without interruption, it’s better to use “repeated” or “intermittent”  instead of “continual” to describe something that starts and stops.

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Do you pronounce ‘t’ in ‘often’?

Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” How “correct” is the second pronunciation? That depends on the dictionary you consult.

Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats the version with the audible “t” as a variant that occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some. [Update, May 25, 2018: The online edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has dropped that label and now has the word “nonstandard” before the second pronunciation.]

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today.

Even a word like “oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.

[Note: This post was updated on May 25, 2018.]

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Is “trepidatious” a word?

Q: I hear people use “trepidatious” to mean fearful or anxious, but I can’t find it in my dictionary and my spell-checker tells me it’s wrong. Is “trepidatious” a word?

A: Yes, it’s a word, though it’s more common in the US than in the UK. Six of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult recognize the adjective.

All five American dictionaries include it as standard English. However, it’s found in only one of the five British dictionaries, Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), which describes the usage as informal. All 10 dictionaries include the noun “trepidation.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the adjective as “apprehensive, nervous; filled with trepidation.” The dictionary says it originated with the addition of the suffix “-ious” to either trepidāt-, the past participial stem of the classical Latin verb trepidāre (to be alarmed), or to the root of the English word “trepidation.”

Although the usage is more popular in the US than the UK, the first OED citation is from an early 20th-century British novel about colonial India:

“Hilda looked up from the papers she had been busy with as he entered—in fact, made a guilty and trepidatious attempt at sweeping them out of sight” (The Sirdar’s Oath: A Tale of the Northwest Frontier, 1904, by Bertram Mitford, a member of the aristocratic and literary Mitford family).

The earliest American citation in the OED is from the May 18, 1940, issue of the Circleville Herald, an Ohio newspaper: “A trepidatious Europe today remained tense, worried, fearful, for the outcome of what military men predict will be the greatest battle in the history of the world.”

The much older noun “trepidation” ultimately comes from the Latin trepidāre. When it first appeared in the early 17th century, the OED says, “trepidation” referred to agitation in the scientific sense:

“Massiue bodies … haue certaine trepidations and wauerings before they fixe and settle” (from Of the Proficience and Aduancement of Learning, Diuine and Humane, 1605, by Francis Bacon).

Two decades later, the noun took on its modern sense of “tremulous agitation; confused hurry or alarm; confusion; flurry; perturbation,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest citation is from another work by Bacon: “There vseth to be more trepidation in Court, vpon the first Breaking out of Troubles, then were fit” (The Essayes or Counsels, Ciuill and Morall, 1625).

Some sticklers have objected to the use of the relatively new adjective “trepidatious,” but we see nothing wrong with it. The linguist Arnold Zwicky, who uses the term himself, wrote a strong defense of the adjective in a Nov. 17, 2004, post on the Language Log.

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 19, 2020, to reflect newer dictionary information. Posts on “trepidatious,” “trepidant,” and “trepidated” also appeared in 2015 and 2017. ]

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A tough row to hoe

Q: I’m always hearing people say “a tough ROAD to hoe.” Hoeing a road is probably illegal, and using that expression should be illegal too. What are your thoughts?

A: We don’t know if hoeing a road is illegal, but an asphalt road must be a mighty tough road to hoe. The correct expression is, of course, “a tough row to hoe,” and it refers to hoeing rows on a farm. To have a “tough” or “hard” or “long” or “difficult” row to hoe means to have a daunting task to perform.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the correct expression is of American origin and dates back to the early 19th century. The first OED citation is from the March 24, 1810, issue of the New-York Spectator:

“True, we have a hard row to hoe—’tis plaguy unlucky the feds have taken him up.”

And here’s an example from An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, an 1835 book by the frontiersman Davy Crockett: “I know it was a hard row to hoe.”

Interestingly, the “road” version of the expression showed up soon after Crockett’s book. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Dec. 3, 1842, issue of the Daily Atlas (Boston).

A farmer, describing his long journey to take wheat to market, writes: “ ‘Truly you have a hard road to hoe,’ you will say; ‘why don’t you sell your wheat nearer home?’ ”

We sympathize with you, but we think substituting “road” for “row” in the expression is a misdemeanor and doesn’t deserve hard time. Definitely no more than an hour on a road crew!

A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 19, 2017.]

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Is pronunciation your forte?

Q: How is the word “forte” pronounced in this sentence: “Pronunciation is not my forte”? I usually hear people say “FOR-tay,” as in the Italian word for loud. Shouldn’t it be “fort,” as in the French word for strength? Has FOR-tay become acceptable through wide usage?

A: You’re right about the noun “forte,” meaning a strong point. It comes from French and by tradition should be pronounced like “Fort” Knox. The other pronunciation, FOR-tay, is a musical term, meaning loud, and comes from Italian. (In Italian it’s also an adjective meaning strong.)

Be that as it may, the two-syllable version is so entrenched, doubtless because of the Italian influence, that dictionaries now accept it. In fact, the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) overwhelmingly prefers the FOR-tay pronunciation, though FORT is also standard English.

Be advised that some sticklers will turn up their noses when “forte” is pronounced with two syllables, but many more people will respond with a “Huh?” when it’s pronounced with one.

So which pronunciation should you pick? A usage note in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) offers this advice: “You can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose.”

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Do we say “an herb” or “a herb”?

Q: Tarragon, dill, rosemary, and thyme are herbs. The “h” is silent in describing them generically. Ergo, does one say tarragon is an herb or tarragon is a herb? My Microsoft Office spell-checker is flagging the latter.

A: In the United States, the “h” in “herb” is silent. In Britain, it’s sounded. We say “an ’erb” while the British say “a herb.”

No matter which side of the Atlantic we hail from, we generally use the article “an” before a vowel sound (like a silent “h”) and “a” before a consonant sound (like a pronounced, or aspirated, “h”).

If you’re an American, give your spell-checker a pat on the back. If you’re a Brit, give it a good, swift kick. Spell-checkers can be useful (say, to point out typos or repeated words), but if you automatically make all the changes they suggest, your writing will be riddled with errors (often hilariously so).

PS: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. Here it is, broken into paragraphs to make it more readable:

“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.”

By the way, the “h”-less American pronunciation of “herb” is the original pronunciation of the word in Middle English, when it 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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Tom, Dick, and Harry

Q: I heard you suggest on WNYC that no one knows the origin of the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” I do! It’s from a Thomas Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd.

A: Thanks for your comments, but I’m afraid the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry” predates Thomas Hardy. His novel Far From the Madding Crowd was published in 1874, but the earliest published reference to the generic male trio occurred more than 200 years earlier.

Pairs of common male names, particularly Jack and Tom, Dick and Tom, or Tom and Tib, were often used generically in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II has a reference to “Tom, Dicke, and Francis.”

The earliest citation for “Tom, Dick, and Harry” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1734: “Farewell, Tom, Dick, and Harry, Farewell, Moll, Nell, and Sue.” (It appears to be from a song lyric.) The OED and A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge have half a dozen other references that predate the Hardy novel.

But a reader of the blog has found an even earlier citation for “Tom, Dick, and Harry” than the one in the OED. The English theologian John Owen used the expression in 1657, according to God’s Statesman, a 1971 biography of Owen by Peter Toon. [Note: This update was added in 2009.]

Owen told a governing body at Oxford University that “our critical situation and our common interests were discussed out of journals and newspapers by every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

Interestingly, the reference in Far From the Madding Crowd is to “Dick, Tom and Harry,” not to “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” But we won’t hold that against Hardy!

[Note: On Feb. 27, 2016, a reader named John (who has both a father and an uncle named John) wrote to say that when he was born, Uncle John told his mother: “Don’t name him John. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named John.”]

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Impacted wisdom

Q: I tried to call you on the radio about the misuse of the word “impact,” but I couldn’t get through. More and more, I hear “impact” used as a verb meaning to affect. This sounds just awful to me. It isn’t correct, is it?

A: The word “impact” has been used since the beginning of the 17th century as a verb meaning to pack together or wedge in or press down. (That’s where our old friend the impacted wisdom tooth comes from!) Since the early 20th century, “impact” has also meant to collide forcefully with something.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that it began meaning to affect. Many authorities frown on this usage. I find it to be particularly obnoxious in the past tense: “My bunion negatively impacted my performance in the marathon.” What’s wrong with “hurt”?

I believe “impact” should be used only as a noun, and “impacted” only in reference to dental work. Most usage experts agree.

That said, I have to admit that many dictionaries now accept “impact” as a verb meaning to have an effect on or to affect. Perhaps this explains why so many people who don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect” resort to “impact.”

I may cringe, but “impact” is slowly making its way into the language as a verb meaning to have an affect or impact on. That doesn’t mean WE have to use it that way. I hope I don’t sound too cranky!

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Do you champ or chomp at the bit?

Q: It seems as if “champ at the bit” has suddenly morphed into “chomp at the bit.” Why this shift? Has the new form become standard?

A: The traditional expression is “champ at the bit,” which means to show impatience. But a growing number of people are choosing “chomp at the bit.” I just did a Google search for both phrases. The results: 942 hits for “champ” and 14,900 for “chomp.” Like it or not, the “chomps” are making a chump of me. (I will resist making puns about Noam Chomsky!)

I still recommend using “champ at the bit,” especially when one’s language should be at its best, but I suspect that “chomp at the bit” will eventually become standard American English. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists only “champ at the bit.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now includes both expressions without qualification.

The word “champ” has meant bite, as in a horse’s biting impatiently at a bit, since at least 1577, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “chomp” has been a variant of “champ” since at least 1645, though the early references deal with chomping on food rather than at metal bits.

I can’t tell you why people began substituting “chomp” for “champ” in the first place. A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is noon 12 a.m. or 12 p.m.?

Q: The parking signs in my town refer to noon as 12 p.m. Since “p.m.” stands for “post meridiem” (“after noon” in Latin), can 12 p.m. be used for noon itself?

A: The simple answer is yes, but we’d advise against it. By convention, the term “12 p.m.” is used for noon in countries like the US with a 12-hour clock.

For those who argue that noon and midnight are neither a.m. nor p.m., we can only cite the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (online 5th ed.), which has the following usage note with its entry for “PM”:

“By convention, 12 AM denotes midnight and 12 PM denotes noon. Because of the potential for confusion, it is advisable to use 12 noon and 12 midnight where clarity is required.”

(The print version of the dictionary’s 5th edition, which isn’t as up-to-date as the online version, has “by definition” instead of “by convention.”)

We agree that “12 a.m.” and “12 p.m.” are confusing and should be avoided, but one could also argue that “12 noon” and “12 midnight” are redundant. Why not simply say “noon” and “midnight”?

You may be interested in knowing that “meridiem” actually means midday in Latin, and that the terms “noon” and “midday” have not always been synonymous in English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the word “noon,” dating back to the year 900, originally meant “The ninth hour of the day, reckoned from sunrise according to the Roman method, or about three o’clock in the afternoon.” By the 14th century, according to the OED, the word “noon” had come to mean 12 o’clock.

Although dictionaries usually define “midday” as the middle of the day or noon, it’s often used more loosely than the word “noon.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, we prefer to lowercase and punctuate the terms “a.m.” and “p.m.,” as recommended in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.).

Well, that’s enough noon-sense for now.

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 16, 2015.]

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Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how did an “X” come to replace “Christ”?

A: Anybody who thinks “Xmas” is a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas should think again. The term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years and “X” stood in for “Christ” for many hundreds of years before that.

The first recorded use of the letter “X” for “Christ” was back in 1021, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But don’t blame secularists. Blame the monks in Great Britain who used “X” for Christ while transcribing manuscripts in Old English.

It turns out that the Greek word for Christ begins with the letter “chi,” or “X.” It’s spelled in Greek letters this way: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. In early times the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” together (“XP”) and in more recent centuries just “chi” (“X”) were used in writing as an abbreviation for “Christ.” Sometimes a cross was placed before the “X” and sometimes it wasn’t.

Thus for nearly ten centuries, books and diaries and manuscripts and letters routinely used “X” or “XP” for “Christ” in words like “christen,” “christened,” “Christian,” “Christianity,” and of course “Christmas.” The OED’s first recorded use of “X” in Christmas dates back to 1551.

One other point. Although the St. Andrew’s Cross is shaped like an “X,” there’s no basis for the belief that the “X” used in place of “Christ” is supposed to represent the cross on Calvary.

English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

The evolution of “peruse”

Q: I have always used the word “peruse” to indicate a skimming through. But I was recently told that the word actually refers to a thorough reading, which, according to the dictionary and to my surprise, is correct. Was I ever right? (I have heard others use “peruse” to indicate a skimming through.) What is the word’s history?

A:  You’re quite correct in your use of “peruse.” It’s true that the most commonly accepted meaning today is to read thoroughly. But in the last decade or so [see our note at the end], the sense in which you use the wordto skim through, glance at, or briefly consulthas seen a revival and has made great gains. It’s considered acceptable in many standard dictionaries and hovers on the edge of respectability in others.

First, some history. “Peruse” comes from an old word in Middle English, “perusen,” which meant to use up.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest reference dates to the late 15th century, when the word meant to go through or examine a number of things one by one, or to use up or wear out something. It has meant to read thoroughly or examine in detail since the early 16th century.

But that’s not all it has meant. As the OED adds, the verb has also been used to mean “to look over briefly or superficially; to browse,” as well as simply “to read.”

Oxford notes that despite the claims of some modern dictionaries and usage guides, “peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading.”

“The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development,” the dictionary adds.

The OED’s citations include this quotation by Samuel Johnson, from The Idler (1759): “Whatever is common is despised. Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused.”

According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), the word “has a long literary history with many fine shades of meaning.”

These are among the current definitions given in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged:

(1) “to examine or consider or survey (something) with some attention and typically for the purpose of discovering or noting one or more specific points :  to look at or look through fairly attentively”;

(2) “to look over or through (something) often in a casual or cursory manner”;

(3) to “read.”

Merriam-Webster’s has a worthwhile usage note on “peruse,” which we’ll quote:

“It was a more ordinary word in the past than it is now, although it still has considerable use. About 1906 a writer on usage decided that peruse could mean only ‘to read with care and attention,’ for what reason we do not know. In time this opinion was echoed by a number of commentators, right down to the present. Peruse has indeed been used in the ‘careful and attentive’ sense, but writers almost always signal that meaning with a modifier.”

The dictionary cites such usages as “with heed peruse,” “attentively peruse,” and “peruse thoroughly.”

At least one dictionary hasn’t yet caught up with the explanation in the OED.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the word as meaning “to read or examine, typically with great care.” The use of the word to mean “to glance over” or “skim” is labeled a “usage problem.”

American Heritage elaborates in a usage note:

Peruse has long meant ‘to read thoroughly,’ as in He perused the contract until he was satisfied that it met all of his requirements, which was acceptable to 75 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2011 survey. But the word is often used more loosely, to mean simply ‘to read,’ as in The librarians checked to see which titles had been perused in the last month and which ones had been left untouched. Seventy percent of the Panel rejected this example in 1999, but only 39 percent rejected it in 2011. Further extension of the word to mean ‘to glance over, skim’ has traditionally been considered an error, but our ballot results suggest that it is becoming somewhat more acceptable. When asked about the sentence I only had a moment to peruse the manual quickly, 66 percent of the Panel found it unacceptable in 1988, 58 percent in 1999, and 48 percent in 2011. Use of the word outside of reading contexts, as in We perused the shops in the downtown area, is often considered a mistake.”

But even that last usage is now accepted by Merriam-Webster, as noted above. The dictionary’s examples include “peruse the museum” and “shoppers perusing saris.”

In recent years, more dictionaries have endorsed your use of “peruse.”

For example, the definition in the Cambridge Dictionaries online has “to read or look at something in a relaxed way” as well as “to read carefully in a detailed way.” And the Collins English Dictionary online (both British and American editions) has “to browse or read through in a leisurely way” alongside to read or examine with care; study.” 

At least one dictionary lists yours as the only definition. The Macmillan Dictionary, in its American and British online editions, defines “peruse” as meaning “to read something.”

[Note: This posting was updated on Dec. 25, 2014.]

English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Is he an “atheist” or an “agnostic”?

Q: I am having an ongoing argument with my girlfriend about whether I am an atheist or an agnostic. If asked if I believe in god, I would say “NO.” So, I think this classifies me as an atheist. On the other hand if I was then asked if I was positive that there is no god, I would say that I am not positive; I just don’t think that one exists. She say that for this reason I am an agnostic. I think that our problem lies in the word “belief.” Do you have to be positive of something you believe in? Is it possible to say you believe in something but still admit some doubt?

A: This is a complicated question because it involves fine shades of difference in religious skepticism. Here’s what I think (and I allow that some would disagree). An atheist denies altogether that there is a God or gods. He believes that God is impossible. An agnostic doesn’t deny the existence of God; he thinks the existence or nonexistence can’t be proved or disproved—in other words, certainty is impossible.

So an agnostic, while allowing that we can never know for sure, may or may not choose to believe in the probability of God’s existence. This means there are two kinds of agnostics. Both deny that we can be certain; one believes God probably exists and the other believes that he probably doesn’t.

Bryan A. Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, differentiates between “disbelief” and “unbelief.” He says one who disbelieves has considered the plausibility of God’s existence and rejected it. This person he defines as an atheist. The unbeliever has doubts about whether or not there is a God. This person he defines as an agnostic.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes that an agnostic does not deny; he merely holds that the answer isn’t knowable. (The word “agnostic” was apparently coined by Thomas Huxley in the 19th century. He believed that only material phenomena could be known with certainty.)

In short, the answer to your question is yes—it’s possible to say you believe in something but still admit doubt. That’s one kind of agnostic. Belief is not the same as certainty. So I guess I agree with your girlfriend that you’re an agnostic.

English English language Etymology Punctuation Usage Word origin

On ’til and till and until

Q: My pet peeve is the use of the word till to mean until. Isn’t ’til the correct contraction of until? I see it all the time (and I mean all the time) spelled till, which makes me think of working the soil. Am I wrong? I can’t rest ’til I know.

A: I’m sorry, but you are wrong. Both till and until are legitimate words.

Historically, in fact, till came first. Later, the prefix un (meaning “up to”) was added and the final l dropped, giving us until.

In modern usage, they’re interchangeable, though until is more common at the beginning of a sentence.

So it’s not correct that till is a shortening of until. Rather, until is a lengthening of till.

Where did ’til come from? It all began in the 18th century when writers muddied the waters by creating ’till and ’til under the mistaken assumption they were contractions of until. Not so.

The word ’til (with or without an apostrophe in front to indicate an omission) is etymologically incorrect, and frowned on by many usage writers.

However, some standard dictionaries now accept ’til  as a variant spelling of till. As The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), explains:

“Although ’till is now nonstandard, ’til is sometimes used in this way and is considered acceptable, though it is etymologically incorrect.”

[This post was updated on Oct. 17, 2015.]

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Can you cut the mustard?

[Note: This post was updated on May 26, 2021.]

Q: Where did the phrase “can’t cut the mustard” come from? It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me.

A: The phrase “cut the mustard” originated in late 19th-century America. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “slang (originally U.S.),” and says the noun “mustard” here means “something which adds piquancy or zest; that which sets the standard or is the best of anything.”

The OED says the the phrase and its variants mean “to come up to expectations, to meet requirements, to succeed.” The variant phrases “to be the mustard” or “to be to the mustard” are also defined as “to be exactly what is required; to be very good or special.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use of “cut the mustard” is from a Texas newspaper, in an article about legislative debate:

“They applied several coats of carmine hue and cut the mustard over all their predecessors” (Galveston Daily News, April 9, 1891).

The same newspaper used the phrase again the following year: “Time will reveal that he cannot ‘cut the mustard’ ” (Sept. 12, 1892).

The OED cites these early uses of other “mustard” phrases, also from North America.

“For fear they were not the proper mustard, he had that dog man sue him in court for the balance, so as to make him prove the pedigree” (The Log of a Cowboy, 1903, by Andy Adams).

“Petroskinski is a discovery of mine, and he’s all to the mustard” (You Can Search Me, 1905, written by George Vere Hobart under the pseudonym Hugh McHugh).

The OED suggests that “to be mustard,” when used to describe a person, might be compared to the expression “hot stuff.” An example: “That fellow is mustard” (from Edgar Wallace’s 1925 novel A King by Night).

However, somewhat similar “mustard” expressions were used much earlier in British English. According to the OED, “strong as mustard” (1659) and “hot as mustard” (1679) meant “very powerful or passionate,” while “keen as mustard” (1672) meant “very enthusiastic.”

Why the “cut” in “cut the mustard”? Nobody seems to know for sure. But we can offer a suggestion.

In the late 19th century, just before “cut the mustard” was first recorded, the verb “cut” was used to mean “excel” or “outdo,” according to OED citations.

The earliest OED example is from the April 13, 1884, issue of The Referee, a British sporting newspaper: “George’s performance … is hardly likely to be disturbed for a long time to come, unless he cuts it himself.”

So perhaps to “cut the mustard” is to surpass mustard—that is,  to be even more mustardy than mustard itself.

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