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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The case of the sluggish slugger

Q: How did “slug” come to mean either a good or a bad thing? As in, “The slugger hit a home run and ran sluggishly around the bases.” Perhaps the same derivation morphed into different connotations?

A: English has several distinct—that is, etymologically unrelated—senses of “slug.” One is the source of “slugger” and the other of “sluggishly.”

When “slug” first appeared in early Middle English (as “sluggi” or “sloggi”), it was an adjective meaning indolent or sluggish.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Ancrene Riwle (also known as Ancrene Wisse), an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:

“hwa mei beon for schame slummi sluggi & slaw, þe bihalt hu bisi ure lauerd wes on eorðe” (“Who can, for shame, be sleepy, sluggish, and slow, who sees how very busy our Lord was on earth?”). The text cited by the OED uses “sluggi” where some other Ancrene Riwle manuscripts use “sloggi.”

The term “slug” later appeared in the verb “forslug” (to neglect by sluggishness). This Oxford example was written around 1315:

“Wanne man leteth  adrylle / That he god ȝelde schel, / And for-sluggyth by wylle / That scholde men to stel” (“When a man lazily and willfully neglects his duties toward God and man”). From The Poems of William of Shoreham, vicar of Chart Sutton in Kent. (The University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary uses the thorn þ for the th digraph in its citation for the passage.)

The word “slug” appeared as both a noun and a verb around the same time in the early 15th century, according to the OED. The verb meant “to be lazy, slow, or inert; to lie idly or lazily,” the dictionary says, while the noun meant “a slow, lazy fellow; a sluggard” as well as the personification of slothfulness.

Oxford’s earliest citation for the verb, from the Life of St. Mary of Oignies, circa 1425, says Mary, a member of the Beguines, a lay religious order, “slugged neuer wiþ slouþe; she defayled in trauayle neuere or seldom” (“was never lazy with sloth; she grew weak from toil never or seldom”).

The dictionary’s first example for the noun is from The Castle of Perseverance, an anonymous morality play written around 1425:

“A, good men! be-war now all of Slugge & Slawthe, þe fowle þefe!” (“Ah, good men! Beware now all of Sluggishness and Sloth, the foul thief!”)

This slow, lazy sense of “slug” is the source of “sluggard” (1398), “sluggish” (c. 1450), “sluggishly” (c. 1450), and the slimy, slow-moving garden “slug” (1725). The dates are for the OED’s earliest citations.

An entirely different sense of “slug” appeared in the early 17th century, when the word came to mean “a piece of lead or other metal for firing from a gun,” the OED says. We haven’t seen any convincing theories for the source of this sense.

The dictionary’s first citation is a 1622 entry in mixed Latin and English from the court records of Durham, England: “Unum tormentum anglice a gun oneratum cum quadam plumbea machina vocata a Slugg” (“One English cannon loaded with lead ammunition called a Slugg”). From Quarter Sessions Rolls, Durham.

This sense of “slug” led to its use as a term for a strong drink (1756), a metal bar to mark a division in printing (1871), a counterfeit coin (1887), and an identifying title of a draft news story (1925), according to evidence in the OED.

We’ve wondered if the ammo sense of “slug” may also have inspired its use as a verb meaning to hit hard and a noun meaning a hard hit, but the OED doesn’t make that connection. It notes only that a somewhat earlier noun and verb spelled “slog” had the same hitting senses, but was “of obscure origin.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the hitting “slug” and “slog” share a distinct etymology and “probably go back ultimately to the prehistoric Germanic base *slakh-, *slag-, *slog-, ‘hit’ (source of English slaughter, slay, etc.).”

The OED defines the noun “slug” here as “a heavy or hard blow; a beating.” The first Oxford citation is from a poem in the Geordie dialect of northeast England about the life of a coal miner in Newcastle:

“We’ll spend wor hin’most plack, / Te gi’e them iv’ry yen a slug” (“We’ll spend our last penny to give every one of them a slug”). From The Pitman’s Pay, or, A Night’s Discharge to Care (1830), by Thomas Wilson.

The earliest OED example for the verb used similarly is from a northern English dialectal dictionary: “SLUG. To beat. ‘Been an’ slugg’d muh wi’ a stick as thick as his neive [fist]!’’ From The Dialect of Leeds and Its Neighbourhood (1862), by C. Clough Robinson.

Getting back to your question, this hitting sense of the verb “slug” is the source of “slugger” used for a hard-hitting prize fighter or baseball player. The boxing sense was the first to show up.

The OED has an 1877 citation from The Underworld of Chicago (1941), by Herbert Asbury, that refers to two African-American boxers as “sluggers.” However, we couldn’t find the cited passage in searching three editions of the book for an expanded version.

The earliest boxing example we’ve seen is from an account of a match in Cincinnati “between Thomas Day of Scranton and Dan Callahan, ‘The Galway Slugger,’ of Louisville. The referee decided in favor of the Slugger, the score standing 7 to 4 in his favor.” From the New York Clipper, a sporting and theatrical weekly, May 22, 1880.

The term was often attached to the most famous fighter of his day, John L. Sullivan, as in this headline from a West Virginia newspaper about a match with Paddy Ryan: “SULLIVAN,  THE SLUGGER: The Fighter and His Trainer in New Orleans—Confident of Victory” (Wheeling Register, Dec. 21, 1881).

The use of “slugger” in baseball appeared a few months later: “There are plenty of ‘sluggers’ and three-bagger batsmen, who do big things against poor pitching, but very few scientific hitters, who know how to place a ball, make a telling sacrifice-hit, or to earn a base well” (New York Clipper, May 6, 1882).

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Clause encounters

Q: In retirement, I’m pursuing my interest in grammar. Right now, I’m studying noun clauses, but I can’t figure out the function of these wh-ever question clauses: “Whoever you ask, you get the same answer” … “Whatever you do, don’t lose this key” … “Whoever calls, he must be admitted” … “He’s an honest man, whoever his friends might be.” I’d appreciate any guidance you might give me.

A: These are not, as you suggest, “wh-ever question clauses.” They’re adverbial clauses—more specifically, subordinate clauses that modify a main clause.

This type of clause can begin with a pronoun (like “whoever,” “whatever,” “whichever”) or an adverb (“wherever,” “whenever”). But no matter whether it begins with a pronoun or an adverb, the clause functions as an adverb that modifies a verb or adjective.

When “whoever” is used to introduce a modifying subordinate clause, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it means “if any one at all; whether one person or another; no matter who.” And in similar use, “whatever” means “no matter what” or “notwithstanding anything that.”

So in your four examples, the modifying clauses are the equivalent of “no matter whom you ask,” “no matter what you do,” “no matter who calls,” and “no matter who his friends are.”

The same is true of the other “wh-” words: “whichever,” “wherever,” “whenever.” When they introduce a subordinate clause that modifies a main clause, they’re the equivalent of “no matter which,” “no matter where,” “no matter when.” And their function is adverbial.

Of the four clauses in your examples, three modify verbs: “get,” “lose,” and “admit.” They indicate the manner in which, or the condition under which, some action should or should not be performed. The fourth modifies an adjective (“honest”). It indicates how honest a person is.

Another indication that these are adverbial clauses is that you could substitute a simple adverb (like “regardless,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” “notwithstanding,” etc.) in grammatically similar sentences.

The “wh-ever” words can introduce a modifying clause that’s the grammatical equivalent of these:

(1) A conditional clause (typically beginning with “if” or “unless”): “If you ask anyone, you’ll get the same answer”

(2) A concessive clause (beginning with “though,” “although,” “even though,” “even if,” etc.): “Even though you ask everyone, you’ll get the same answer.”

(3) A disjunctive clause (often constructed with “whether … or”): “Whether you ask politely or not, you’ll get the same answer.”)

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A singular journey

Q: I grew up with the understanding that “singular” as a descriptor of human behavior was closest in meaning to “strange” or “weird.”  But nearly all such usage of “singular” I’ve encountered in contemporary writing seems closest in meaning to “unique.”  Whichizzit, pray tell?

A: As a grammatical term, “singular” is a noun and adjective used in reference to a single entity, as opposed to “plural.” But in ordinary usage, “singular” is an adjective meaning remarkable, uncommon, out of the ordinary, or—as you’ve found—unique. And this wider usage appeared in English before the grammatical sense.

Both uses of “singular”—the grammatical meaning and the sense of remarkable or unique—ultimately come from the Latin singularis (alone of its kind). And both English senses were common in Latin. Here’s the story.

When the adjective “singular” first appeared in early 14th-century English writing, it had a range of meanings characterized by singleness, unity, separateness, individuality, or being out of the ordinary, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Many of these early meanings are now rare or obsolete, like alone, apart, solitary, separate, individual, sole, exclusive, and private.

But the general meanings of “singular” that are still around today also developed in the first half of the 14th century, such as remarkable, extraordinary, unique, unusual, uncommon, rare, and special. The University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary cites several such uses.

For instance, in the Psalter of Richard Rolle of Hampole, written sometime before 1340, the devil is described as “the wild best [beast] that is of syngulere cruelte [cruelty],” and a godly woman is said to be “in synguler ioy [joy]” of Christ.

The dictionary also cites some later 14th-century examples of “singular” in these senses. We like this one, which uses the phrase “singularly singular” in describing the phenomenon of the rainbow:

“Þe reyne bowe … is in many manere wise dyuers [diverse], and singulerliche singuler.”  From On the Properties of Things, John Trevisa’s translation, sometime before 1398, of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin work by Bartholomaeus Anglicus.

(The adverb “singularly,” by the way, also dates from before 1340 in the writings of Richard Rolle of Hampole. But early on it meant solely.  John Trevisa was apparently the first to use it in the sense of unusually or especially.)

In the late 1300s, “singular” began appearing in its grammatical sense, defined this way in the OED: “Denoting or expressing one person or thing. … Opposed to plural.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Polychronicon, a Latin chronicle written by Ranulf Higden earlier in the 14th century:

“Kynges þat regnede þere after hym … were i-cleped Antiochi, and everiche in þe singuler nombre was i-cleped Anthiochus” (“Kings that reigned there after him … were called Antiochi, and each in the singular number was called Antiochus”). We’ve expanded the quotation for context.

In Old English, spoken from roughly 450 to 1150, the adjective anfeald (literally “onefold”) meant “simple,” “plain,” and “uncomplicated,” as well as “singular” in the grammatical sense.

(Oxford notes that the “Latin singularis appears in the grammatical sense from the time of Varro onwards.” Marcus Terentius Varro, author of De Lingua Latina [On the Latin Language], lived from 116 to 26 BC.)

The adjective “singular” also has technical meanings in logic (dating from the 17th century) and in mathematics (19th century).

As for the noun “singular,” it’s mostly used today in its grammatical sense, defined in the OED as “the singular number; a word in its singular form.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is again from John Trevisa’s translation of De Proprietatibus Rerum in the late 1390s. This passage is about the forms of the Latin word porrum (leek), a noun that’s irregular in gender:

Porrum is hoc Porrum [leek, neuter] in þe singuler & hii porri [leeks, masculine] in þe plurel.”

In medieval times, as you can see, Trevisa was a singularly prolific translator.

[Note: This post was updated on June 19, 2022.]

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Why is a coward called a ‘chicken’?

Q: Why do we call a cowardly person a “chicken”? And when did the usage first turn up? Also, what about “chicken-hearted” and “chicken-livered”?

A: The cowardly sense of the noun “chicken” ultimately comes from the use of “hen” for a fainthearted person, contrasted with “cock” (rooster) for a dominant person.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for “hen” in its timorous sense is from the York Mystery Plays, a series of 48 religious works that the OED dates at sometime before 1450.

We’ve expanded the citation, which uses the compound noun “hen-heart” for a coward: “Be pe deuyllis nese, ze ar doggydly diseasid / A! henne-harte! ill happe mot ȝou hente” (“By the devil’s nose, you’re accursed and diseased, / Ah, hen-heart, evil fate has taken hold of you”).

The adjective “hen-hearted” appeared in the early 16th century. The first OED citation is from a political poem that describes English courtiers during the reign of Henry VIII as timid cuckolds:

“They kepe them in theyr holdes. Lyke henherted cokoldes” (Why Come Ye Nat to Courte, a poem by John Skelton that Oxford dates at sometime before 1529).

In the early 17th century, the noun “hen” appeared by itself in the sense of “a cowardly, timid, or spineless person; (also) anyone who adopts a subservient role, often explicitly contrasted with cock,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation for both “hen” and “cock” in those contrasting senses is from More Knaues [Knaves] Yet? The Knaues of Spades and Diamonds, a satirical tract by Samuel Rowlands, printed around 1613:

“It saues thy head from many a bloudy knocke, / To play the Hen and let thy wife turne Cocke.”

This sharp contrast between rooster and hen may have helped popularize the figurative use of “chicken” when it showed up in its cowardly sense. Like “hen,” the fearful “chicken” originally appeared in a compound with “heart.” This is the first Oxford citation:

“Such Chicken-heartes (and yet great quarrellers).” From Blurt, Master-Constable (1602), an Elizabethan comedy that the dictionary attributes to Thomas Dekker, though some scholars consider Thomas Middleton the author.

“Chicken” in its fearful sense soon appeared by itself in this OED example from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, produced in 1611:

“Forthwith they flye Chickens, the way which they stopt [swooped] Eagles.” The passage describes fleeing soldiers as chickens who once swooped like eagles.

The adjective “chicken-hearted” showed up nearly two decades later in an English translation of a satirical poem that the Latin author Juvenal wrote in the second century AD:

“As red hayre [hair] on a man is a signe of trechery, what tis in a woman, let the sweet musique of rime inspire vs [us]; a soft hayre chicken-hearted; a harsh hayre churlish natur’d; a flaxen hayre foolish brain’d” (from a funeral oration in A Iustification [Justification] of a Strange Action of Nero, a 1629 translation by George Chapman).

The adjective “chicken-livered,” meaning cowardly or timid, appeared in the early 19th century in this OED citation:

“I am resolved, and they will find me no chicken livered fellow” (from the March 31, 1804, issue of The Corrector, a semi-weekly newspaper in New York City).

The dictionary notes that two similar adjectives with the same meaning, “pigeon-livered” and “pigeon-hearted,” showed up in the early 17th century:

  • “But I am pidgion liuerd, and lack gall / To make oppression bitter” (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written sometime around 1600).
  • “I never saw such Pigeon-hearted people” (The Pilgrim, a comedy by John Fletcher, written sometime before his death in 1625).

The phrasal verb “chicken out” appeared in the 20th century. The first OED example is from a Utah newspaper:

“The Irish outfit was highly ballyhooed at the beginning of the football season, with the result that logical competition ‘chickened out’ ” (Salt Lake Telegram, Feb. 19, 1931).

You didn’t ask about the word “chicken” itself, but the noun meant a young chicken when it showed up in Old English as cicenciken, and so on.

The earliest OED example is from the West Saxon Gospels: “Swa seo henn hyre cicenu” (“As a hen gathers her chickens”) Matthew 23:37.

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Not ‘al-’ there

Q: Is the “al-” at the beginning of “although” related to the “al-” of “albeit”?  And what about the archaic “un-” of “unto” and the gradually fading “un-” of “until”?

A: The “al-” at the beginning of the conjunctions “although” and “albeit” is a shortening of “all” that’s seen in some words that were originally compounds.

“Although” originated in Middle English as a compound of the adverb “all” plus the conjunction “though,” while “albeit” appeared around the same time as a compound of the conjunction “all,” the verb “be,” and the pronoun “it.”

(“All” is now an adjective, a pronoun, a noun, and an adverb, but it was once a conjunction too.)

Interestingly, a precursor of “although” appeared in Old English as two words (eal and þeah) with the order reversed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s an example from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725:

“Ic hine sweorde swebban nelle, aldre beneotan þeah ic eal mæge” (“With my sword I won’t slay him, deprive him of life, although I could”). The phrase “þeah ic eal mæge” is literally “though I all could.” Beowulf is speaking here about the monster Grendel.

As for the Middle English compound, the earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a homily written in the first half of the 14th century that warns against the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. This passage refers to worldly pleasure:

“sone is sotel as ich ou sai / þis sake alþah [although] hit seme suete / þat i telle a poure play / þat furst is feir & seþþe vnsete / þis wilde wille went awai” (“Soon it’s clear, I say to you, / this sin, although it seems sweet, / I judge a poor pleasure / That first is fair and afterward foul”). From the Harley Lyrics. The homily is known by its first line, “Middelerd for mon wes mad” (Middle Earth was made for men), or more commonly as “The Three Faces of Men.”

The earliest Oxford example for “albeit,” a vintage way of saying “although,” is from an entry, dated sometime before 1325, in The Statutes of the Realm, a collection of Acts of Parliament in England:

“Also þerase man rauisez womman … mit strenkþe, albehit þat heo assente afterward, he sal habbe þilke iugement þat his iseid bifore” (“Also in that case where man ravishes woman … with violence, albeit that she assents afterward, he shall have such judgment as was said of him before”). From A Middle English Statute-Book (2011), edited by Claire Fennell.

If you’d like to read more about “albeit,” we wrote a post about it in 2017.

The shortening of “all” to “al-” appears at the beginning of other words that originated as compounds, including “almighty,” “almost,” “also,” “altogether,” and “always.” And “al-” is seen at the beginning of some English words of Arabic origin, including “alchemy,” “alcohol,” “alcove,” “algebra,” and “almanac.” (In Arabic, al- is a definite article.)

As for “unto,” we’d describe it as old-fashioned or literary rather than archaic. The term still shows up in contemporary writing, as in this recent example:

“The Skiing Aigners Are a Nation Unto Themselves” (the headline on a New York Times article about the Beijing Paralympics, March 13, 2022).

In the earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, “unto” is hyphenated: “Cum nu swiþe un-to him / Þat king is of þis kuneriche / Þu fule man. þu wicke swike” (“Come now unto him, / the king of this country, / thou foul man, thou wicked traitor”). From The Lay of Havelok the Dane, an anonymous tale of chivalry written in the late 13th century.

The dictionary says “unto” was modeled after “until,” with “to” replacing “til.” (The preposition “until” had appeared more than a century earlier.)

And that brings us to your comment about “the gradually fading ‘un’ of ‘until.’ ” As it turns out, “til” appeared by itself hundreds of years before “un-” joined it to form the compound “until.”

In northern Old English, til was a preposition, used as we would now use “to.” The OED’s earliest til citation  is from an Anglo-Saxon inscription on the Ruthwell Cross. The stone cross is in the Scottish village of Ruthwell, which used to be in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

Here’s the inscription written in Old English runes: ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨ ᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ. And here it is, transliterated into Old English script: “krist wæs on rodi hweþræ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bih[eald]” (“Christ was on the cross. Yet the eager came there from afar to the noble one that all beheld”).

When the preposition “until” appeared in Middle English, it meant “to” or “unto,” roughly the same sense as the Old English til. The term is derived from the Old Norse und (under) and the Northumbrian til (to). This is Oxford’s earliest citation:

“Forr whatt teȝȝ fellenn sone dun off heoffne. & inn till helle” (“For what they soon fell down off heaven and unto hell”). From the Ormulum (circa 1175), a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk who identifies himself as Orm in one place and Ormin in another. The word “until” is written as “inn till,” “unntill” and “inntill” in various parts of the Ormulum.

Around the same time, the words “til” and “till” showed up as conjunctions meaning up to a certain time, action, event, and so on. (The OED includes Old English and early Middle English examples of “til” among its citations for “till” as a preposition and a conjunction.)

The first OED citation for “til” used in the conjunctive sense is from an 1154 Middle English document in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“dide ælle in prisun til hi iafen up here castles” (“he put them all in prison until they gave up their castles”). The passage refers to King Stephen’s arrest of several bishops, one of them the Lord Chancellor, in 1137.

The dictionary’s first citation for “till” used this way appeared a few decades later: “Fra þatt he wass full litell. Till þatt he waxenn wass” (“From when he was very little till he was grown”). From the Ormulum (c. 1175).

In the early 13th century, “until” took on a similar sense as a conjunction. The first OED example is from the Middle English Harrowing of Hell, an anonymous manuscript that the dictionary dates at sometime before 1250:

“lucifer, here y þe binde, / schaltow neuer heþen winde / vntil it com domesday” (“Lucifer, here I bind thee. Never shall thou wend to heaven until Doomsday comes” (published in the Middle English Harrowing of Hell, and Gospel of Nicodemus, 1907, edited by William Henry Hulme).

In the 14th century all three terms—“until,” “till,” and “til”—appeared as prepositions with the same sense (up to a certain time), according to citations in the OED.

The first “until” example is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325: “Fra adam tim until noe” (“From Adam’s time until Noah’s”).

The earliest “till” citation is from a chronicle written around 1330 by the English monk Robert Mannyng: “Fro Eneas till Brutus tyme.” And the first “til” example is from The Last Age of the Church (1380), by John Wycliffe: “Fro Crist til now.”

The terms are prepositions when followed by a noun or noun phrase (“I’ll be busy from noon till three o’clock”), and conjunctions when followed by a clause. (“Can you stay until the office closes”).

The use of “til” as a preposition or a conjunction died out in Middle English, but “till” and “until” have continued to be used that way, and both are now considered standard English.

However, two questionable variants of “till” appeared in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the apostrophized “ ’till” and “ ’til.” The apostrophe was apparently added in the mistaken belief that “ ’till” and “ ’til” were contractions of “until.” But as we’ve shown, “until” is an expansion of “til.”

The earliest “ ’till” example that we’ve found is from the announcement of a court-decreed sale of 110 acres of land, four slaves, household furniture, and livestock to satisfy a debt of  “seventy two pounds, fourteen shillings and [e]leve[n] pence, with interest from the 8th day of May, 1788, ’till paid, together with the costs and expenses of the said decree.” (The Virginia Argus, Richmond, Feb. 14, 1797.)

And this “ ’til” example appeared a dozen years later in an Indiana newspaper: “The Thebans were indebted for their victories over the ’til then unconquered Spartans, as much to some new manoeuvres which had been introduced into their tactics and which they had practiced with unwearied assiduity” (from The Western Sun, Vincennes, Aug. 11, 1810).

As for today, all ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include “until” and “till” as standard English terms meaning up to a certain time, event, etc., though some note that “until” is more common at the beginning of a sentence. None include “ ’till,” though a few recognize “ ’til” as an informal variant

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On Passover and Easter

Q: Why do the words for Passover and Easter sound similar in different languages? They can’t have the same origin, can they?

A: Words for Passover and Easter are similar in many languages, especially European languages, because the lookalikes are derived from the Hebrew word for the Jewish holiday, פסח (Pesach).

So “Passover” is Pâque in French, Passah in German, Pasqua in Italian, Påske in Norwegian, Pascha in Polish, Pascua in Spanish, etc.

Similarly, “Easter” is Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, Påske in Norwegian, Pascua in Spanish, and so on.

Two notable exceptions are in English and German, where “Easter” and Ostern are believed to be derived from prehistoric words for “east” and “dawn,” and may have been influenced by an ancient Germanic goddess of the spring.

Among other European exceptions are those in some Slavic languages that refer to Easter with various terms meaning “Great Night” or “Great Day.”

The Hebrew word פסח was first recorded in the biblical account of the freeing of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

In the Book of Exodus, it’s a verb usually translated as to pass over and a noun for the ritual sacrifice of a lamb on the first Passover, the meal eaten from it, and God’s passing over the homes of the Israelites.

In Exodus 12:23, the clause “ופסח יהוה” means “and the Lord will pass over”—that is, skip or omit—the homes of the Israelites during the last of the Ten Plagues (the killing of Egypt’s firstborn).

In other verses of Exodus 12, the noun פסח refers to the the sacrifice, the meal, and God’s passing over:

“פסח הוא ליהוה” (“a passover [sacrifice] to the Lord,” Ex. 12:11) … “ושחטו הפסח” (“and slaughter the Passover [sacrifice],” Ex. 12:21) … “זבח־פסח הוא ליהוה” (“a sacrifice to the Lord’s passover [passing over],” Ex. 12:27) … “זאת חקת הפסח” (“this is the rule of the Passover [meal],” Ex. 12:43).

The “pass over” sense of the verb פסח was first recorded in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the third-century BC. Although that’s the usual way the verb is translated in English versions of Exodus, the Hebrew term has been translated several other ways over the years, such as take pity or protect.

The term first appeared in English in William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: “And ye shall eate it in haste, for it is the Lordes passeouer” (Exodus 12:11).

The English term showed up a few years later in the same passage from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the New and Old Testaments: “and ye shal eate it with haist: for it is ye LORDES Passeouer.”

Most European languages refer to Easter with variations on pascha, post-classical Latin for “Passover.” (The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place during the seven days of Passover, according to the Christian Gospels.) The Latin pascha is a transliteration of πάσχα in Hellenistic Greek, which is in turn a rendering of פסחא, the Aramaic version of the Hebrew פסח.

In Old English, pasca (“pasch” in Modern English) could refer to either Easter or Passover, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. Both usages appear in Byrhtferð’s Enchiridion (1011), a wide-ranging compilation of information on astronomy, mathematics, logic, grammar, rhetoric, and more:

  • “Pasca ys Ebreisc nama, and he getacnað oferfæreld” (“Pasca is the Hebrew name, and it signifies Passover”).
  • “He abæd æt þam mihtigan Drihtne … þæt he him mildelice gecydde hwær hyt rihtlicost wære þæt man þa Easterlican tide mid Godes rihte, þæne Pascan, healdan sceolde” (“He prayed to the mighty Lord … that He kindly make known to him where under God’s law one should rightly observe the Pasch, the Easter season”).

However, an early version of “Easter” had appeared centuries before in Old English. The oldest recorded example in the OED is from an early eighth-century Latin manuscript in which the Northumbrian monk Bede discusses the origin of Old English names for the months.

In De Temporum Ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”), 725, Bede says the Old English Eostur-monath (“Easter-month”) is derived from Eostre, a goddess of the dawn celebrated by pagan Anglo-Saxons in Northumbria around the time of the vernal equinox or beginning of spring:

“Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.” (“Easter-month, which is now taken to mean the Paschal month, was once named for a goddess called Eostre, who was celebrated with a festival that month and whose ancient name is now used for a joyful new rite.”)

In its entry for “Easter,” the OED includes an extensive discussion of Bede’s etymology, but it notes that his “explanation is not confirmed by any other source, and the goddess has been suspected by some scholars to be an invention of Bede’s.” However, the dictionary adds that “it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one.”

The dictionary says the Old English term for the Christian holiday is probably derived from the same prehistoric Germanic source as “east,” which can be traced to an ancient Indo-European base with the probable meaning “to become light (in the morning).”

The first OED citation for an Old English version of “Easter” that refers to the holiday itself, not the month, is from a Latin-Old English glossary of the 10th century: “Phase, eastran” (Phase is a Latin term for “Easter”). From The Latin-Old English Glossary in MS Cotton Cleopatra AIII (1951), by William Garlington Stryker.

The dictionary’s next example is from De Temporibus Anni (“On the Seasons of the Year”), a 10th-century handbook by Ælfric of Eynsham: “On sumon geare bið se mona twelf siðon geniwod, fram ðære halgan eastertide oð eft eastron” (“In some years, the moon becomes new twelve times, from the holy Eastertide to Easter again”).

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When Mom dies, is it your loss or hers?

Q: When I wrote my mother’s obit several years ago, the expression “we mourn her loss” stopped me, since the loss was ours, not hers. The usage doesn’t make logical sense, but I’m assuming it’s idiomatic and correct. Can you advise?

A: In a usage such as “we mourn her loss,” the pronoun “her” is a genitive adjective, not a possessive.

As we’ve written several times on our blog, the term “genitive” is much broader and includes many categories in addition to possession. So while a genitive construction may look possessive, it doesn’t necessarily imply ownership.

A genitive adjective—whether a pronoun or noun with an apostrophe—can indicate a wide range of relationships, including possession (“the boy’s jacket”); source or origin (“the family’s history”); date (“Wednesday’s mashed potatoes”); type or description (“a women’s college”); part (“the car’s engine”); measure (“a night’s sleep”); duration (“three years’ experience,” “a day’s drive”); or other close association (“a summer’s day,” “a doctor’s appointment,” “his death”).

In the case of “we mourn his loss,” the phrase “his loss,” like “his death,” expresses something associated with him.

Often genitive relationships can be expressed with “of” instead of an apostrophe or a pronoun that looks possessive. For instance, “the history of the family,” “the engine of the car,” “a night of sleep,” “three years of experience,” “a day of summer,” “the loss of him.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains in its entry on “his” used in genitive constructions: “In some cases the objective genitive is expressed periphrastically by of him (e.g. ‘his defence, I mean your defence of him, was well conducted’).”

In its entry for the noun “loss,” the OED includes a sense that’s been around since the early 15th century: “The being deprived by death, separation, or estrangement, of (a friend, relative, servant, or the like).” The OED adds that in context, “loss” often means “the death (of a person regretted).”

So this sense of “loss” is used in two ways. The “loss” can be associated with either the survivors (“Frank’s widow still mourns her loss”) or the dead (“Frank’s widow still mourns his loss”). Both of those are genitive constructions, but here we’ll concern ourselves with the second kind, in which “his loss” means “the loss of him” (that is, “his death”).

Most of the OED’s examples for this use of “loss” are genitive constructions with “of.” This is the earliest: “For los of frendes or of any þynge [thing].” From Instructions to Parish Priests, by John Myrc (also known as John of Lilleshall), probably written before 1420.

And here’s a mid-17th-century “loss of” example: “Ther be many sad hearts for the losse of my Lord Robert Digby.” From James Howell’s Epistolæ Ho-elianæ, Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren (1645). Epistolæ Ho-elianæ is also a genitive construction and means “Letters of Howell” in Latin.

This OED example shows “loss” modified by the pronoun “whose”: “[Died] John Case Browne, esq. whose loss will be severely felt … by the whole neighbourhood.” From a death notice in the Monthly Magazine, London, June 1798.

Elsewhere in the dictionary there are other examples, from the 18th century onward, of “loss” modified by pronouns that look like possessives (“her loss,” “his loss,” “their loss”). But in these cases, the pronouns refer to the dead, and the constructions are genitive rather than strictly possessive:

“But Posterity will do Her Justice, and perhaps the present Age may live to regret Her Loss.” A reference to the late Queen Anne in “English Advice, to the Freeholders of England” (1714), a political tract by Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester.

“His Adventures gave Life and Subsistency to the Colony, and his Loss was their Ruin and Destruction.” A reference to the death of Capt. John Smith, from The History of the First Discovery and Settlement of Virginia (1747), by William Stith.

“Though motherless, though worse than fatherless, bereft from infancy of the two first and greatest blessings of life, never has she had cause to deplore their loss.” A reference to the orphaned heroine’s parents in Fanny Burney’s novel Evelina (1778).

We’ll end with an example from Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington” (1852): “Let the bell be toll’d … / And the volleying cannon thunder his loss.”

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Bomb cyclone: A blast from the past

Q: Is “bomb cyclone” a new term? I don’t remember seeing it in the past. Who decides when a new weather term will be used?

A: No, “bomb cyclone” isn’t new. Since 1980, scientists have used “bomb” as a meteorological term for a large, rapidly growing cyclone storm system. The related terms “bomb cyclone” and “weather bomb” emerged in the mid-1980s, but only recently made their way into popular journalism.

Two MIT scientists, Frederick Sanders and John R. Gyakum, gave these intense and rapidly growing cyclone storms the name “bomb.”

In their paper “Synoptic-Dynamic Climatology of the ‘Bomb,’ ” Sanders and Gyakum define a “bomb” as a cyclone storm in which the barometric pressure at the center falls by at least 1 millibar per hour for 24 hours—a very steep and sudden drop.

The authors also described the “bomb” as a “predominantly maritime, cold-season event,” and said the “more explosive bombs” develop over the Atlantic (Monthly Weather Review, October 1980).

A phrase meaning the same thing, “weather bomb,” appeared in 1986, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines it as as a rapidly developing severe storm “in which barometric pressure at the centre of the storm drops by at least 24 millibars over a 24-hour period at or north of 60˚ latitude.”

Here’s the OED’s earliest example: “In this positive feedback process, the storm rapidly intensifies into a weather bomb” (Science News, May 17, 1986).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “bomb cyclone” is from a 1987 scientific paper that uses the phrase “bomb cyclone case study” in reference to a 1984 paper by Gyakum. (“Rapid Surface Anticyclogenesis: Synoptic Climatology and Attendant Large-Scale Circulation Changes,” by Stephen J. Colluci and J. Clay Davenport, Monthly Weather Review, April 1987).

It should be noted here that the terms “bomb” and “Nor’easter” are not interchangeable. Not all Nor’easters become “bombs,” and not all “bombs” are Nor’easters, though the two weather patterns sometimes converge. A “bomb” is not a hurricane either, though in their 1980 paper Sanders and Gyakum said that “bombs” often have “hurricane-like features in the wind and cloud fields.”

In an interview Gyakum, who is now a professor of atmospheric science at McGill University, explained why “bomb” was used in the 1980 paper:

“I was a graduate student at the time [at MIT], and my adviser, who was the lead author, Frederick Sanders, actually coined the term. He had quite a bit of experience making forecasts for cyclones in the North Atlantic that were developing very rapidly. Oftentimes, we’d even say explosively. Given their explosive development, it was an easy path to take to just call these systems ‘bombs.’  … The name isn’t an exaggeration—these storms develop explosively and quickly” (The Washington Post, Jan. 24, 2018).

But even before large intense cyclone systems were called “bombs,” scientists had been using terms likening them to explosions.

For example, “cyclogenesis” (dating from the early 1920s) means the formation of a cyclone storm around a low-pressure area. And “explosive cyclogenesis” (early ’50s) refers to the kind in which pressure drops so steeply and rapidly—24 millibars in 24 hours, by definition—that the storm becomes what’s now called a “bomb.”

Even the term “bombogenesis,” another name for “explosive cyclogenesis,” was known to science in the late ’80s but didn’t show up in popular journalism until around 2015.

Here are Oxford’s earliest examples of the three terms—“cyclogenesis,” “explosive cyclogenesis,” and “bombogenesis”:

“Let us emphasize that any discussion of the so-called wave-theory of cyclogenesis will remain futile as long as the mathematical treatment of the subject is as incomplete as at present” (from the Swedish journal Geografiska Annaler [Geographical Annals], 1925).

“Wintertime conditions when the primary planetary wave activity is often initiated by explosive cyclogenesis in the troughs” (Meteorological Monographs, 1953).

“Climatology shows that a high frequency of ‘bombogenesis’ occurs over the ocean.” (From “Anatomy of a ‘Bomb’: Diagnostic Investigation of Explosive Cyclogenesis Over the Mid-West United States,” a master’s thesis by Michael E. Adams, North Carolina State University, 1989.)

Finally, “cyclone” came into English in the mid-19th century from the Greek words κύκλος (kyklos, circle) or κυκλῶν (kykloun, moving in a circle, whirling around), the OED says. It’s been used in three ways in English, the dictionary explains:

As first used, in 1848, “cyclone” was “a general term for all storms or atmospheric disturbances in which the wind has a circular or whirling course.”

Beginning in 1856 “cyclone” was also used in a more specific sense, for “a hurricane or tornado of limited diameter and destructive violence.”

The term as used in science today was first recorded in 1875, the OED says. The National Weather service, in its glossary, defines “cyclone” this way: “A large-scale circulation of winds around a central region of low atmospheric pressure, counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.”

We wrote a 2018 post about the etymology of “bomb,” so we won’t repeat ourselves. We’ll just add its meteorological definition, courtesy of the National Weather Service: “Popular expression of a rapid intensification of a cyclone (low pressure) with surface pressure expected to fall by at least 24 millibars in 24 hour.”

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How a clotheshorse became chic

Q: I’m curious about why somebody who lives to dress fashionably is referred to as a “clotheshorse.” What’s horsey about fashion?

A: The fashionable meaning of “clotheshorse” is derived from the term’s original sense of a frame for hanging wet or musty clothes inside a house.

When the usage first appeared in the early 19th century, it referred to “an upright wooden frame standing upon legs, with horizontal bars on which clothes are hung out to dry or air,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Miseries of Human Life (1807), a book by the English clergyman James Beresford about the indignities of everyday life: “You look like a clothes-horse, with a great-coat stretched out upon it, just ready for the rattan.”

The next OED example is from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836). We’ve expanded the citation to give readers more of the Dickensian flavor: 

“We keep no horse, but a clothes-horse; enjoy no saddle so much as a saddle of mutton; and, following our own inclinations, have never followed the hounds.  Leaving these fleeter means of getting over the ground, or of depositing oneself upon it, to those who like them, by hackney-coach stands we take our stand.”

In the mid-19th century, Oxford says, “clotheshorse” took on the figurative sense of “a person whose main function is or appears to be to wear or show off clothes.” It cites a political pamphlet that explains why “plain Tom and Jack” may be better qualified than “Lord Tommy and the Honourable John” for parliamentary duties:

“Tom and Jack have been at least workers all their days, not idlers, game-preservers and mere human clothes-horses.” We’ve expanded the citation, which is from Thomas Carlyle’s Latter-day Pamphlets (1850).

The next OED example is from Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In the citation, which we’ve also expanded, the narrator criticizes England’s choice of people to memorialize:

“With the spirit of prophecy upon me, I could look into the future and see her erect statues and monuments to her unspeakable Georges and other royal and noble clothes-horses, and leave unhonored the creators of this world—after God—Gutenburg, Watt, Arkwright, Whitney, Morse, Stephenson, Bell.”

As for “clothes” and “horse,” the nouns had the meanings you’d expect when they showed up in Old English writing. As the OED says, claoas meant “covering for the person; wearing apparel; dress, raiment, vesture.” And hors meant “a solid-hoofed perissodactyl quadruped (Equus caballus), having a flowing mane and tail, whose voice is a neigh.”

So how did “clotheshorse” come to mean a frame for hanging clothing, first a wooden one and later a fashionable human one?

Over the years, Oxford says, the noun “horse” was used figuratively for “things resembling the quadruped in shape, use, or some characteristic real or fancied,” such as in the sense of a sawhorse (1718), vaulting horse (1785), and iron horse or steam locomotive (1874).

As we’ve said, the term “clotheshorse” first appeared in the early 19th century in the sense of a wooden frame for drying clothing. However, “horse” by itself was used a century earlier with the same meaning.

The OED cites an entry for “horse” in an early 18th-century dictionary that includes this sense: “Also a wooden Frame to dry wash’d Linnen upon” (The New World of Words, 6th ed., 1706, compiled by Edward Phillips and edited by John Kersey).

We’ll end with an example we found in a London newspaper, using “clotheshorse” to describe a member of the British royal family who isn’t particularly known for her sense of fashion:

“Princess Anne, 71, is the only daughter of the Queen, 95, and is regularly described as the hardest-working member of the Royal Family. She has become known as a workhorse as opposed to a clotheshorse like other female royals” (Daily Express, March 7, 2021).

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Three degrees of separation

Q: How does one refer to the first degree of an English adjective or adverb? If the second degree is comparative and the third is superlative, may the first degree be called descriptive?

A: The degrees of English adjectives and adverbs are (1) positive, (2) comparative, and (3) superlative. Here, “positive” doesn’t have its ordinary meaning (the opposite of negative). In the grammatical sense, “positive” means basic or primary.

This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines “positive” as a term in grammar: “Designating the primary degree of an adjective or adverb, which expresses simple quality without qualification; not comparative or superlative.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “positive” as a grammatical term is from a 15th-century treatise by an English schoolmaster:

“Þe [The] positif degre … be-tokenyth qualite or quantite with outyn makyng more or lesse & settyth þe grownd of alle oþere [other] degreis of Comparison.” (From a 1434 work cited in “John Drury and His English Writings,” by Sanford Brown Meech, published in the January 1934 issue of Speculum, a medieval studies journal.)

As you know, many adjectives and adverbs change degree by inflection—that is, with a change in form. In this case, suffixes are added: “-er” for the comparative and “-est” for the superlative.

For instance, “little” as an adjective of size has the usual degree forms: “little/littler/littlest.” Similarly, the adverb “hard” has the degree forms “hard/harder/hardest.”  Here they are in sentences:

“He’s little (positive adjective), but he works hard” (positive adverb) … “He’s littler, but he works harder” (comparatives) … “He’s the littlest, but he works the hardest” (superlatives).

However, not all adjectives and adverbs work this way. Many aren’t inflected, as we wrote on the blog in 2018. To change degree, adverbs (like “more” or “less”) are added to them.

An adjective like “popular,” for example, would become “more/less popular” (comparatives), “most/least popular” (superlatives). An adverb like “easily” would become “more/less easily” (comparatives), “most/least easily” (superlatives).

There are also irregular adjectives and adverbs, where the positive, or primary, degree changes completely in the comparative and superlative. The most familiar of the irregular adjectives are “good” and “bad.” The gradations in degree are “good/better/best” and “bad/worse/worst.”

And some common irregular adverbs are “much,” which has the degree forms “much/more/most,” and “little,” which as an adverb has the degree forms “little/less/least.” Here they are in sentences:

“They were much offended” (positive) … “They were more offended” (comparative) … “They were most offended” (superlative). Here the adverbs modify an adjective, “offended.”

“He cared little about money” (positive) …  “He cared less about money” (comparative) … “He cared least about money” (superlative). Here the adverbs modify a verb, “cared.”

And speaking of “much” and “little,” they can be not only adverbs but adjectives of quantity. In that case, the adjectives can have the same degree forms as the adverbs: “much/more/most” and “little/less/least.”

Examples: “He has much/little money” (positive) … “He has more/less money” (comparative) … “He has the least/most money” (superlative).

Similarly, the adverb “well,” like the adjective “good,” has “better” and “best” as its comparative and superlative: “Your solution works well, his works better, but mine works best.”

By the way, you’ll notice that superlatives are often preceded by “the,” as in “He’s better, but you’re the best.” In its entries for many superlative adjectives and adverbs, the OED says they’re “frequently” or “chiefly” or “usually” accompanied by “the.”

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Orthographic origins

Q: What is the connection between “orthography” and “orthographic projection”? The definitions of the two terms seem unrelated.

A: We’ll have to look at their ancient Greek roots to see how “orthography” (the study of correct spelling) is related to “orthographic projection” (depicting three-dimensional objects in two dimensions, as on maps and in architectural drawings).

In ancient times, the combining forms ὀρθο- (ortho-) and -γραϕία (-graphia) had several different meanings that are now seen in the English words derived from them, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Greek, ὀρθο- could mean straight, correct, or upright (that is, perpendicular). In “orthography,” the combining form “ortho-” means correct, while in “orthographic projection,” it means upright.

Similarly, -γραϕία could mean writing, drawing, or recording. In “orthography,” the combining form “-graphy” refers to writing, while in “orthographic projection,” its cousin “-graphic” refers to drawing. The Greek term comes from the verb γρᾰ́φω (graphō, write) and originally meant to scratch, as on a clay tablet.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “orthography” as “correct or proper spelling; spelling according to accepted usage or convention.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Middle English rendering of a Latin treatise on Roman warfare:

“Thi writer eek [also], pray him to taken hede / Of thi cadence and kepe Ortographie, / That neither he take of ner multiplye” (from Knyghthode and Bataile, 1458-60, by John Neele, a verse paraphrase of De Re Militari, circa 390, by Flavius Vegetius Renatus). In the citation, from the last stanza, future scribes are asked to preserve the rhythm and spelling in copying the work.

Although the adjective “orthographic” has been used since the early 1800s in reference to “orthography,” it originally appeared in the sense you’re asking about, “of a projection used in maps, elevations, etc.,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example is from a review of a 17th-century book that discusses the optical projections from an astrolabe, a device once used to make measurements in astronomy:

“The Orthographick Projection, by Perpendiculars falling from the respective Points of the Circles of the Spheare, on the Projecting Plain: Such a Projection, if the Plain be the Meridian, Ptolemy called the Analemma” (from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, 1668-69).

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‘Sewer,’ Uncle Matthew’s pet slur

Q: In Nancy Mitord’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, Uncle Matthew repeatedly uses the term “sewer” for anyone he doesn’t like. Is this a unique idiomatic quirk of his or do people in real life actually use “sewer” this way?

A “sewer” is literally a channel for carrying off wastewater and refuse, but the term has also been used nonliterally in reference to places and people. The earliest nonliteral example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses the term for Britain:

“This Island hath from time to time been no other then as a sewer to empty the superfluity of the German Nations.” From An Historicall Discourse of the Uniformity of the Government of England (1647), by Nathaniel Bacon, an American colonist who led an unsuccessful uprising in Virginia.

The next OED citation is from “London,” a 1738 poem by Samuel Johnson that describes the city as a home of hypocrisy and corruption: “London! the needy villain’s general home, / The common sewer of Paris, and of Rome.”

The dictionary’s only example that refers to people is from Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (1945): “Who is that sewer with Linda?” The sewer is Tony Kroesig, a young banker who marries Linda, one of Matthew Radlett’s daughters.

We’ve seen a few nonliteral examples since then in novels by other writers. Most use “sewer” figuratively for someone who’s a conduit for something objectionable.

This is from Dean Koontz’s False Memory (1999): “He’s a sewer” (a reference to “a drug-sucking jerk”). And this is from Path of Blood (2006), by Diana Pharaoh Francis: “True enough, but he’s a sewer for gossip and sordid rumor.”

By the way, we wrote a post in 2016 on the reluctance of some sewing enthusiasts to call one who sews a “sewer” (pronounced SOH-er) because the term is spelled the same as the waste “sewer” (pronounced SOO-er). Instead, they prefer “sewist.” That post also explores the etymologies of both words spelled “sewer.”

And in 2021 we discussed the history of “seamstress” as well as gender-free nouns for someone who sews, including “sewer,” “sewist,” “seamster,” “tailor,” and “needleworker.”

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On Ralphs and Rafes

Q: I’ve read that the British don’t pronounce the “l” of Ralph because it was originally silent in Old English. Is that true?

A: No, the “l” was pronounced in the Old English predecessors of the name Ralph, and it’s usually pronounced now in both Britain and the US. However, some Ralphs in the UK, like the actor Ralph Fiennes and the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, have pronounced their name as if it were spelled “Rafe.”

Words were pronounced as they were spelled in Old English, which was spoken from roughly 450 to 1100. There were no silent letters. So the “l” was vocalized in Radulf, Radolf, Raulf and Raulfus—the Old English predecessors of Ralph.

The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016), by Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, and Peter McClure, says Radulf and Radolf first appeared in the Domesday Book (1086), a survey of taxpayers in England and Wales that was ordered by William I, known as William the Conqueror.

The authors add that the other two names, Raulf and Raulfus clericus (Latin for Raulf the clerk), showed up soon afterward in the 1095 feudal records of the abbey of Bury Saint Edmunds. The four Old English names are all derived from the Old Norse Raðulfr (“counsel wolf” or “wise wolf”).

The dictionary, now considered the definitive authority on British and Irish family names, is a four-volume, 2,992-page work that was 20 years in the making.

Some other family-name references cite Raedwulf (“red wolf” in Old English) as the original Anglo-Saxon ancestor of Ralph. However, the Oxford authors don’t include it and apparently don’t consider Raedwulf, the name of an obscure king of Northumbria, an early form of Ralph.

The ancestors of the name Ralph in Middle English, which was spoken from roughly 1100 to 1500, include Radulfus (1140), Raulf (1296), Rolf (1308), Ralf (1327), and Rolffe (1410), according to the Oxford authors.

The earliest “l”-less version, Radufus, appeared around 1200 in a Danelaw document from Lincolnshire. Danelaw, or Danish law, held sway in parts of northern and eastern England that had been occupied by the Danes and other Norse invaders.

Additional early “l”-less versions cited in the Oxford reference were Raffe and Rauf, which were recorded in 1273 in the Hundred Rolls, a census in England and part of what is now Wales.

The “Rafe” pronunciation of Rauf and Raulf emerged as the articulation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval in late Middle English and early Modern English (from roughly 1350 to 1550). Linguists refer to this as the Great Vowel Shift.

As the Oxford authors explain, “In late Middle English the diphthong -au- was sometimes simplified to long -a-, later pronounced ‘ay’ as in modern English day, which accounts for Rafe. This pronunciation of the personal name Ralph is still occasionally found in modern times.”

The “Ralph” spelling of Raulf and Rauf became common in the 16th century, according to the family-name dictionary. Printing, which had been introduced into England the century before, helped standardize that spelling, but some Ralphs have continued to pronounce their name without the “l,” as “Rafe.”

One of those Rafes, the British philosopher Ralph Wedgwood, says, “My name has always been pronounced in this way by my family and close friends. (I was named after my great-grandfather Ralph L. Wedgwood (1874–1956), who always pronounced it in this way as well.)”

In a page entitled Ralph on his website, Wedgwood says he doesn’t object when strangers pronounce his first name the usual way, but he doesn’t feel this pronunciation “is really my name at all.”

“I love my name,” he writes. “To me, it somehow seems to sum up the quirky historical contingency and poetry of language, all in one sonorous monosyllable.” (His full name is Sir Ralph Nicholas Wedgwood, 4th Baronet, though he doesn’t mention the title on his website.)

We’ll end with a passage from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H. M. S. Pinafore, in which Little Buttercup rhymes the first name of Ralph Rackstraw with “waif”:

In time each little waif
Forsook his foster-mother,
The well-born babe was Ralph––
Your captain was the other!

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Why ‘any other’ doesn’t mean ‘any’

Q: I become a little apoplectic (alright, my husband would say very apoplectic) whenever I hear or read “any other” illogically cropped to “any,” as in this passage from Timothy Snyder’s newsletter: “Russia has done more for the cause of nuclear proliferation than any country in the world.” Am I being needlessly pedantic?

A: No, we don’t think you’re being pedantic. That sentence from the Yale historian’s newsletter is dissonant to us too, though it doesn’t give us apoplexy.

The comparison is off-kilter because it contrasts an individual entity (“Russia”) with a group it belongs to (“any country in the world”). The two have to be exclusive for the comparison to make sense: “Russia” vs. “any other country in the world.”

Faulty comparisons like that one aren’t rare. And they don’t cause misunderstandings as long as we know—as we do with that example—what the writer intends. He doesn’t mean to imply that Russia isn’t a country.

However, not all comparisons using “any” instead of “any other” are as easy for a reader to interpret. Some can be ambiguous and leave us wondering. We’ll make up an example:

“She is better qualified than any European candidate.” If we don’t know anything about the person, we might assume she’s not European. But if she is European, this is a misleading comparison that should read, “She is better qualified than any other European candidate.”

What purpose does “other” serve here? It separates the individual from the group, allowing for a legitimate comparison.

Not many usage guides comment on this. An exception is Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). The editor, Jeremy Butterfield, says that comparisons using “any” can be marred by “a fine net of illogicality.”

He uses this example, then corrects it: “a better book than any written by this author (read any others).”

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Why ‘well-heeled’ means well-to-do

Q: I’ve read online that the well-off meaning of “well-heeled” comes from cock-fighting. Could this be true?

A: Yes, the use of “well-heeled” to mean well-to-do is indeed derived from the verb “heel” and adjective “heeled” used in reference to a gamecock fitted with sharp artificial spurs.

These terms can be traced to hela, the Anglo-Saxon noun for “heel,” the body part. The Oxford English Dictionary’s oldest example of the noun is from a Latin-Old English prayer:

“[Tegetalos cum tibis et calcibus / helan sconcum helum” (“[Protect] my ankles with shins and heels”). From Glosses to Lorica of Laidcenn. A “lorica,” from the Latin term for body armor, is a prayer to protect each part of the body from evil.

The verb “heel” (meaning to replace the heel of a shoe, stocking, etc.) appeared in the late 16th century:

“Vnwilling to vndertake the cutting out of a Garment, before I can heele a Hose.” From A Health to the Gentlemanly Profession of Seruingmen (1598), by “I. M.,” believed to be the English writer Gervase Markham.

In the early 18th century, the verb “heel” took on the sense of “to provide (a fighting cock) with spurs; to arm (a fighting cock),” according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest example is from a book about cock fighting:

“I would let no man Heel a Cock, unless he has first seen him Sparr, and know his way of Striking” (The Royal Pastime of Cock-Fighting, 1709, by Robert Howlett).

The book has several other examples of “heel” used as a verb as well as a few examples of “heeled” and “heel’d” as adjectives. However, the adjectives apparently refer to gamecocks with naturally sharp or dull spurs, not artificial ones.

In discussing the choice of a fighting cock, for instance, the author recommends “a Cock that is hard, Sharp-Heel’d, and handsome shaped.”

We’ve seen several examples from the 1600s for “heeld” or “heel’d” used similarly. But in the following passage, it’s possible that “heelde” may mean artificially spurred:

“The best cock-maisters are of opinion, that a sharpe heeld cocke, though hee be a little false, is much better then the truest cocke which hath a dull heele, and hitteth seldome.” From “Of the Fighting Cocke,” Chapter 19 in Country Contentments, or The Husbandmans Recreations, by Gervase Markham. (The book first appeared in 1611, but our citation is from the fourth edition, 1631.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the artificial sense of “heeled” this way: “of a fighting cock: provided with artificial spurs.” The dictionary’s earliest recorded example is from the 19th century:

“In this inhuman contest, a number of cocks heeled with artificial spurs, are turned down together.” From Clavis Calendaria; or, a Compendious Analysis of the Calendar (1839), by John Brady, an author and Royal Navy victualing clerk.

A couple of decades later, the OED says, “heeled” was used in writing to describe someone “armed with a revolver or other weapon.” The dictionary’s first example, which we’ve expanded, cites Mark Twain’s Letters From Hawaii (1866):

“In Virginia City, in former times, the insulted party, if he were a true man, would lay his hand gently on his six-shooter and say, ‘Are you heeled?’ ”

And a few years later, Oxford says, “heeled” came to mean “provided or equipped with resources, esp. money; well off, wealthy.” The dictionary’s earliest example has “well-heeled,” though “heeled” is in quotes, suggesting the usage is relatively new:

“Mr. L. L. Northrup is … so well ‘heeled’ that he gives his attention entirely to the banking business” (The Neosho Valley Register, Iola, KS, Sept. 21, 1871).

The latest OED citation is from A House Is Not a Home, the 1953 memoir of the madam Polly Adler (ghost-written by Virginia Faulkner): “I made up my mind to go back in the whorehouse business and this time not to quit until I was really heeled.”

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Wet behind the ears

Q: Am I right in assuming that the expression “wet behind the ears” refers to a newborn baby still wet with amniotic fluid?

A: Yes, the expression is believed to be an allusion to a wet newborn, but it first appeared in English in a negative version, “not yet dry behind the ears.”

The ultimate source of the usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the German “(noch) nass hinter den Ohren,” which showed up in the 1640s, and means “(still) wet behind the ears.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes the usage as “apparently with allusion to the idea that the area behind the ears is the last part of a newborn’s body to become dry after birth.”

A German version using “dry” showed up in the early 1700s as “(noch nicht) trocken hinter den Ohren,” meaning “(not yet) dry behind the ears,” and that’s the version that appeared in English in the early 1800s. The earliest English example in the OED is a translation of the negative German version:

“The French call such inexperienced uneducated boys, green creoles, (des créoles verts), as in German we usually say of such a person, ‘he is not yet dry behind the ears.’ ” (From the Aug. 21, 1802, issue of The Port Folio, a Philadelphia political and literary newspaper.)

The “wet” version of the expression appeared in English in the mid-19th century. The earliest Oxford example is from The Boston Daily Atlas, March 25, 1851:

“Such a louse student, who is still wet behind his ears, thinks because he is received in the castle, he is some great person!”

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Is ‘curt’ terser than ‘terse’?

Q: What are the connotations of “terse” vs. “curt”? Why does the latter seem somehow terser?

A: When used to describe language, “terse” and “curt” can both mean brief, concise, and pithy, but “curt” often has the negative senses of brief to a fault or rudely brief, especially when characterizing speech.

The differing senses of the two adjectives may reflect their Latin origins. “Terse” comes from tersus, Latin for clean, neat or correct, while “curt” comes from curtus, Latin for broken off, mutilated, or shortened.

“Terse” referred literally to something clean, neat, and correct when it first appeared in English at the beginning of the 17th century. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, describes a street in Rome:

“I protest to thee, I am enamord of this streete now, more then of halfe the streetes of Rome, againe; tis so polite, and terse: Ther’s the front of a Building now. I study Architecture too: if euer I should build, I’de haue a house iust of that Prospectiue.” (From Poetaster; or, The Arraignment, 1602, a satirical comedy by Ben Jonson.)

The OED says that old sense of “terse” is now obsolete, and the current meaning is “freed from verbal redundancy; neatly concise; compact and pithy in style or language.” We’ve expanded the dictionary’s first citation for this sense:

“In eight terse lines has Phædrus told / (So frugal were the Bards of old) / A Tale of Goats; and clos’d with grace / Plan, Moral, all, in that short space.” (From The Goat’s Beard: A Fable, 1777, by the English poet and playwright William Whitehead.)

The adjective “curt,” which appeared in the early 17th century, describes a word, sentence, and so on that’s terse or terse to a fault, according to the OED. The dictionary’s first example refers to the simply terse name of a hostler, someone who cares for horses at an inn:

“Peck! his name is curt, / A monosyllabe, but commands the horse well.” (From Ben Jonson’s 1631 comedy The New Inne: or, The Light Heart.)

The next Oxford citation, which refers to Hebrew passages in the Old Testament, uses “curt” to mean terse to a fault:

“The obscure and curt Ebraisms that follow.” (From Tetrachordon, a 1645 treatise by Milton. Its title comes from τετράχορδον, ancient Greek for “four stringed.” Milton, whose wife left him, cites four biblical passages to justify divorce.)

In the early 19th century, “curt” took on the additional sense of “so brief as to be wanting in courtesy or suavity,” according to the OED. The earliest example cited is from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel The Young Duke (1831):

“ ‘Ah! I know what you are going to say,’ observed the gentleman in a curt, gruffish voice. ‘It is all nonsense.’ ”

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Is ‘lovely’ a girly word?

Q: Sixty-six years ago, my high-school Latin teacher interrupted a lesson to digress about the word “lovely.” He said it’s used only by women in describing another woman. My late wife used it a few times, always to express admiration for a woman. Was my Latin teacher right?

A: Is “lovely” a girly word, one largely avoided by guys? Over the last century many people have said as much, including respected linguists. The two of us have a feeling that this may be true, but intuition isn’t evidence.

The “lovely” we’re talking doesn’t merely mean beautiful. The adjective is also used figuratively to express approval or admiration, as in “a lovely idea,” or “a lovely thing to say,” or “he’s ugly as sin but he’s a lovely old man.” And it’s used sarcastically too, as in “lovely weather we’re having” when there’s a hurricane on the way.

Differences between men’s and women’s speech have long fascinated researchers in the field. But until recently there hasn’t been much hard data analyzing the actual speech of men and women and measuring the frequency with which they use particular adjectives. What evidence there is about “lovely” isn’t definitive.

In the early 1920s, the philologist J. M. Steadman began asking students at Emory University to collect lists of words they avoided using for one reason or another. They were given ten weeks to collect their lists, which Steadman compiled over the years and later analyzed in a series of articles.

Among the taboo words was “lovely,” which appeared on a list of 194 words that the college students—both men and women—considered affected. But more significantly, “lovely” scored high on a list of 44 words regarded by both sexes as effeminate, alongside “charming,” “adorable,” “cute,” “sweet,” “darling,” and “divine.”

As Steadman comments, “The most curious thing about the attitude towards effeminate words is that this classification (which was not suggested to the students) was made independently by both the men and the women, while no student classified any taboo words as masculine.” (From the journal American Speech: “A Study of Verbal Taboos,” April 1935, and “Affected and Effeminate Words,” February 1938.)

The view of “lovely” as an effeminate word gained ground in the 1970s, when the linguist Robin Lakoff included it in a set of adjectives that, when used figuratively to show approval or admiration, seemed “to be largely confined to women’s speech.” (Others in the “women only” column were “adorable,” “charming,” “sweet,” and “divine.”)

Lakoff says the similar figurative use of “great,” “terrific,” “cool,” and “neat” was “neutral as to sex”—that is, found equally in the speech of men and women. (From “Language and Woman’s Place,” a paper published in the journal Language and Society, April 1973; her book of the same title followed in 1975.)

She adds that some categories of men—academics, ministers, “hippies,” and upper-class Englishmen—can get away with using “the words listed in the ‘women’s’ column,” but only among themselves. Her evidence, she notes, was based largely on her own observations.

Lakoff’s findings prompted a flurry of similar work through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, with some linguists supporting her conclusions and some disputing them.

However, none of the scholarly research done in the 20th century was based on measurable data taken from recorded speech and showing how real men and women actually talk. That kind of evidence has become available only in the last 15 years or so, thanks to digitized collections of transcribed speech.

Yet even these new research tools haven’t settled the question. Some scholars analyze such data and conclude that men and women use adjectives differently; others disagree or say the results are ambiguous or the methodology is faulty.

For instance, two linguists in the “ambiguous” camp published a paper in 2018 challenging the notion of “lovely” as a woman’s word. They found that men used it slightly more than women in the large database they analyzed, which was compiled from speech recorded at the University of Michigan. But though they found a quantitative difference, they didn’t see it as important.

The two linguists, Shala Barczewska and Agata Andreasen, said that the difference in the use of “lovely” was minor, and that neither sex used it much. Their conclusion: “Although the difference is not statistically significant, and limited to one particular genre, it does suggest that Lakoff’s intuitions may have been off and more work should be done into the notion of ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ adjectives.”

(From “Good or Marvelous? Pretty, Cute or Lovely? Male and Female Adjective Use in MICASE,” published in December 2018 in Suvremena Lingvistika, a Croatian journal devoted to language and gender. Barczewska and Andreasen analyzed the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, a database of 1.85 million words recorded in 1997-2002 in college classrooms, lectures, seminars, office hours, meetings, student presentations, and so on.)

In Lakoff’s defense, she did say back in 1973 that male academics were more likely to use “lovely”-type words than men in other occupations. And Barczewska and Andreasen themselves acknowledge that the database they used was limited to “the context of university life.”

A larger database than the Michigan collection, and one not confined to a college setting, is the speech section of the British National Corpus. It’s huge—about 10 million words transcribed from thousands of interviews and conversations in the 1990s in a wide variety of contexts, both public and private.

As the linguist Paul Baker has written, in the spoken BNC database the frequency of “lovely” per million words “is 433.97 for females and 134.35 for males, so we could conclude that females say lovely about three times as much as males—quite a large difference.” (From his book Using Corpora to Analyze Gender, 2014.)

But those numbers are misleading. For the most part, Baker notes, the men in the BNC were recorded at the workplace and the women at home. That would influence the atmosphere, the subjects discussed, and the vocabulary used. As Baker says, “When males and females are compared in similar settings, the amount of difference reduces.”

Closer scrutiny of the BNC data reveals a less stereotypical picture. “The majority of males and females in the corpus did not say lovely,” Baker writes, and “the word is not distributed equally across the speakers.” He notes that one woman, who contributed 1,974 words of speech, used “lovely” 27 times. “In fact, over half of the female utterances of lovely were made by just 36 speakers (or 2.6% of the female speakers in the BNC).”

In short, he says, “This is a relatively rare word for both males and females, with a few atypical females using it a lot.” He concludes that “a focus on just the differences does not reveal the full picture—we also need to take into account the fact that any group of speakers that are compared (including men vs men or women vs women) will produce differences.”

So as of now, scholars are divided as to whether (and how, and why) gender affects language. Work in the field continues, but keep in mind that people’s speech changes with the times—probably faster than speech databases can keep up. The English spoken 25 or 30 years ago, when some of that speech was recorded, isn’t the English spoken today.

Our guess is that as time goes by, differences in the way people use words like “lovely”—if gender differences indeed exist—will get narrower and narrower.

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The poop about a mass noun

Q: I came across your “waste paper” posting online, but it didn’t answer a question that’s been puzzling me. Which is correct, “bodily waste” or “bodily wastes”? I’m referring to the undigested food eliminated by human beings.

A: When “waste” refers to an unusable or unwanted byproduct, such as “bodily waste” or “industrial waste,” it’s usually a mass or uncountable noun, one that doesn’t typically have a plural form (like “air,” “knowledge,” “water,” etc.). However, the plural is sometimes used to make clear that different kinds of waste are intended.

We’ve seen written examples of both “bodily waste” and “bodily wastes,” but the “waste” version is much more common in comparisons done with Googles’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks digitized books, and the News on the Web corpus, a database from online newspapers and magazines.

“Waste” is also a mass noun when it refers to the unnecessary use of resources, as in a “waste” of time, money, electricity, and so on. And “wastes” is a mass noun in plural form when it refers to a large, barren area, such as the “the icy wastes of Antarctica” or “the arid wastes of the Sahara.”

Interestingly, the noun “waste” had that barren sense when it first appeared 800 years ago. As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the “etymological notions underlying waste are ‘emptiness’ and ‘desolation.’ ” Ayto says the source of the English word is the classical Latin vastus (empty),  which has also given English “vast” and “devastate.”

When the noun entered Middle English around 1200, it meant an “uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) and uncultivated country; a wild and desolate region, a desert, wilderness,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation is from the Trinity Homilies at the University of Cambridge:

“Ac seðen hie henen wenden, atlai þai lond unwend and bicam waste, and was roted oueral and swo bicam wildernesse” (“But it’s true that after they [the old tillers] left, the land lay idle and untilled and became a waste, and took root all over and so became a wilderness”). The citation is from a homily on the Assumption of Mary that compares the sinful world to a field not tilled.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, notes that an even older, now obsolete adjective had a similar meaning in Old English: “Of a place: uninhabited and uncultivated; wild, desolate, waste.” The Anglo-Saxon term (woeste, woste, wæste, etc.) comes from prehistoric Germanic, but it’s ultimately derived from the same Indo-European root as vastus, the Latin source of “waste.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the Anglo-Saxon adjective is from Psalm 69:25 in the Vespasian Psalter, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript written in Latin as well as Old English:

Fiat habitatio eorum deserta, et in tabernaculis eorum non sit qui inhabitet. Sie eardung heara woestu & in geteldum heara ne sie se ineardie” (“Let their dwelling place be desolate [deserta in Latin and woestu in Old English], and let no one dwell in their tents”).

Getting back to the noun “waste,” its sense of a “useless expenditure or consumption, squandering (of money, goods, time, effort, etc.)” appeared in late 13th-century Middle English. The dictionary’s first citation is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester (1297), an account of early Britain: “Wiþ so gret prute & wast & so richeliche” (“With such great pride and waste and so richly”).

The sense of “waste” as trash, including an unusable or unwanted byproduct, was recorded in the early 15th century. The earliest OED example is from Libeaus Desconus (1430), a Middle English version of a romance about Gingalain, son of King Arthur’s knight Gawain:

“For gore, and fen, and full wast, That was out ykast” (“For all the filth and dung and waste that was cast out”). The Middle English wast here means trash, while both gore and fen could mean either filth or dung.

Interestingly, the OED entry for the noun “waste,” which hasn’t been fully updated since 1923, doesn’t include an example in which the unwanted byproduct sense refers to the undigested food eliminated by the human body.

As far as we can tell from a search of digitized newspapers and books, the excretion sense of “waste” first appeared in the 19th century. Here’s an example that we found in a medical textbook:

“There is a direct sympathy between the stomach and the rest of the body, by means of which the stimulus of hunger becomes unusually urgent where the bodily waste has been great, although a comparatively short time has elapsed since the preceding meal” (from The Physiology of Digestion, 1836, by the Scottish physician Andrew Combe).

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Who invented the question mark?

Q: It’s Lent Madness time again, which reminds me of a saint contest a few years ago that pitted two deacons against each other: Alcuin of York vs. Ephrem of Edessa. I voted for Alcuin because he was identified as the inventor of the question mark (among more spiritual accomplishments). Are you familiar with him?

A: Alcuin, Charlemagne’s éminence grise, was quite a guy—scholar, poet, teacher, and cleric—but he didn’t invent what we now know as the question mark. More to the point, we’ve seen no evidence that he created its medieval ancestor, the punctus interrogativus, which didn’t look or act much like the modern question mark.

The punctus interrogativus, a squiggle rising diagonally from left to right above a point, appeared in the late eighth century in Carolingian miniscule, the Latin script used when Charlemagne (747-814) ruled much of Europe. Alcuin (735-804) oversaw Charlemagne’s palace school and scriptorium at Aachen in Francia from 782 to 793.

The evidence we’ve found indicates that Godescalc, a poet, scribe, and illuminator, was the first person to use the punctus interrogativus at the scriptorium, or copying room, in Aachen. Godescalc used it in producing an illuminated manuscript commissioned by Charlemagne in 781, the year before Alcuin arrived in Aachen.

The usage appeared in the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary (781-83), the first known manuscript produced at the scriptorium at Aachen. The manuscript is named after Godescalc because he refers to himself as the author in a poem at the end.

We found several examples of the punctus interrogativus in the first dozen or so pages of the manuscript at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Ms. NAL 1203), suggesting that Godescalc began using them in 781—before Alcuin’s arrival. In this example from folio 6v, the punctus interrogativus can be seen on the third line.

Sedsic eum volo manere donec venia[m] quid ad te?

(But so I want him to stay until I come, what is it to you?
Gospel of John, 21:22.)

(We’ll have more to say later about Godescalc’s symbolic use of gold letters on purple parchment.)

We’ve seen reports of possible earlier sightings of the punctus interrogativus in manuscripts from the scriptorium at Corbie Abbey to the southwest of Aachen, but we haven’t found any Corbie examples produced before the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary.

As the paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes explains in Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (1993), the punctus interrogativus “seems to have spread rapidly from the court of Charlemagne to other centres,” reaching Corbie “at the end of the eighth or beginning of the ninth century.”

The punctus interrogativus was originally used in liturgical writing to tell reciters and singers when to raise their voices inquiringly and pause at the end of a question, according to paleographers, specialists in ancient writing.

Parkes says the punctus interrogativus was one of several symbols developed in the second half of the eighth century to fill the “need for adequate punctuation in liturgical texts.” Such texts were designed to be spoken or sung. A lectionary, like Godescalc’s, is a collection of liturgical readings.

The new system of symbols, called positurae, used a punctus versus to signal a pause at the end of a sententia, a punctus elevatus to signal an interior pause in a sententia, and a punctus interrogativus to signal a rising vocal inflection and pause at the end of an interrogatio.

(The punctus versus looked somewhat like a modern semicolon, while the punctus elevatus looked a bit like an upside-down semicolon.)

“In western manuscripts the positurae fulfilled the need for more accurate indication of the nature of the pauses required to elucidate the sense of the text when it was intoned or sung in the liturgy,” Parkes says in Pause and Effect.

The paleographer Albert Derolez has noted that the punctus interrogativus originated “in a neume or sign of musical notation, which indicated that the voice had to rise at the end of the sentence” (The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books, 2003).

And the musical historian Leo Treitler points out in With Voice and Pen (2007) that the upward stroke of the punctus interrogativus corresponds “to the inflection of the voice in questions.”

Although Alcuin wrote about the need for proper punctuation in copying ancient manuscripts, we haven’t found any writing of his that either mentions or uses the punctus interrogativus. He doesn’t use it, for example, in the interrogative passages we’ve read from Quaestiones in Genesim, a series of questions and answers about Genesis.

Alcuin favored a two-fold system of punctuation with distinctiones to mark pauses at the end of sententiis and subdistinctiones to mark interior pauses. In a letter written to Charlemagne in 799, Alcuin complained that scribes hadn’t been using them:

“punctorum vero distinctiones vel subdistinctiones licet ornatum faciant pulcherrimum in sententiis, tamen usus illorum propter rusticitatem paene recessit a scriptoribus” (“points for distinctions and subdistinctions make the most beautiful sentences, but their use has almost disappeared because of the rusticity of scribes”).

In fact, those “rustic” scribes began adding punctuation marks on their own initiative to Alcuin’s two-part system. Godescalc, as we’ve said, was apparently the first person at the Aachen scriptorium to use the punctus interrogativus.

In a poem at the end of the Godescalc Gospel Lectionary, he says Charlemagne commissioned the manuscript in the fall of 781.

Septenis cum aperit felix bis fascibus annum
Hoc opus eximium franchorum scribere Carlus
Rex plus egregia hildgarda cum conjuge iussit.

(As he happily opened the 14th year of his reign [Oct. 9, 781], King Charles of the Franks, with his wife Hildegard, commissioned the writing of this exceptional work.)

And in this excerpt from the poem, Godescalc mentions himself as the creator of the illuminated manuscript and suggests that he began working on it six months before Charlemagne commissioned it. Godescalc’s name appears at the end of the second line.

Ultimus hoc famulus studuit complere godescalc
Tempore vernali transcensis alpibus ipse.
Urbem romuleam voluit quo visere consul.

(The humblest servant Godescalc was diligently at work on this opus in the springtime, when the Consul himself [Charlemagne], having crossed the Alps, wished to visit the city of Romulus. [Charlemagne visited Rome in April 781.])

In 2011, a Cambridge manuscript specialist, James F. Coakley, reported finding ancient marks of interrogation in fifth-century biblical manuscripts written in Syriac, a Middle Eastern language. But paleographers believe that the punctus interrogativus, not the Syriac symbol, is the ancestor of our question mark.

The modern question mark, a grammatical device indicating the end of an interrogative sentence, evolved over hundreds of years from the Carolingian punctuation mark, which originated, as we’ve said, as a rhetorical device in liturgical writing to signal a rising vocal inflection and pause.

The earliest example we’ve seen for a punctuation mark that looks and acts like the modern question mark is from a book printed in Latin in the late 15th century by Aldus Manutius, an Italian scholar, educator, and publisher.

This image is from Pietro Bembo’s De Ætna, a Latin account of his ascent of Mount Etna with his father, Bernardo. The work, written as a dialogue between Bembus Pater (B. P.) and Bembus Filius (B. F.), was published around 1495 by Manutius’s Aldine Press. The question mark ends the last sentence.

[B. F.] Ego uero existimabam pater errauisse me sic etiam nimis diu. B. P. Non est ita: sed, ne nunc tandem erremus; perge de ignibus, ut proposuisti: uerum autem, quid tu haeres?

([B. F.] I thought my father was wrong for too long. B. P. It is not so: but let us not stray from the point; go on [continue telling me] about fire, as you intended, but what is keeping you?)

Getting back to  Godescalc, we’ll end with the opening lines of his poem, which describe the symbolism of the colors he uses in producing the manuscript.

Aurea purpureis pinguntur grammata scedis
Regna poli roseo pate sanguine facta tonantis.
Fulgida stelligeri promunt et gaudia caeli
Eloquiumque dei digno fulgore choruscans.
Splendida perpetuae promittit praemia vitae.

(Gold letters painted on purple pages reveal in rose-red blood the celestial kingdom and the joys of heaven. And the eloquence of God, shining brightly, promises the splendid reward of eternal life.)

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We are met on a great battle-field

[Note: In observance of Presidents’ Day, we’re republishing a post that originally ran on Dec. 9, 2015.]

Q: Watching a recent rebroadcast of “The Civil War” on PBS, I was struck by this sentence in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “We are met on a great battle-field of that war.” Is “we are met” just a poetic usage? Or is something else going on?

A: “We are met” is a present-perfect construction, parallel to “we have met.” The usage dates back to the Middle Ages, but by Lincoln’s time it was considered archaic and poetic.

You can still hear it today, though the usage sounds unusual to modern ears because it combines “met” (the past participle of “meet”) with a form of “be” as the auxiliary verb instead of the usual “have.”

So, for instance, a speaker uses “we are met to honor him” in place of “we have met to honor him”—or, to use the simple present tense, “we meet to honor him.”

The poetic “we are met” gives the message a solemnity and gravity it wouldn’t otherwise convey.

Here “met” is used in the sense of “assembled” or “gathered” or “brought together.” And the auxiliary “be” is possible only when this sense of “met” is used intransitively—that is, without a direct object.

In its entry for “meet,” the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “in intransitive use the perfect tenses were freq. formed with the auxiliary be in Middle English and early modern English; subsequently this became archaic and poetic.”

The OED has citations from the 14th century onward, including this Middle English example from Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The Complaint of Mars” (circa 1385): “The grete joye that was betwix hem two, / When they be mette.”

This one is from Thomas Starkey’s A Dialogue Between Pole and Lupset, written sometime before 1538: “Seying that we be now here mete … accordyng to our promys.”

And here’s a poetic 19th-century use from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Virginians (1859): “The two gentlemen, with a few more friends, were met round General Lambert’s supper-table.”

Today, we’re more likely to encounter this usage on solemn occasions, as when people gather for religious worship or funeral eulogies.

Lincoln isn’t the only American politician to use “we are met” in elevated oratory. In 1965, in a speech before Congress in support of equal voting rights, President Lyndon B. Johnson said:

“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.”

A somewhat similar use of “met” with the “be” auxiliary is also antiquated today. This is the expression “to be well met,” first recorded in the 15th century and meaning to be welcome or well received.

This is the source of the old expression “hail fellow well met,” which evolved in the late 16th century from the slightly earlier phrase “hail, fellow!”

“Hail, fellow!” was a friendly greeting of the 1500s that was also used adjectivally, the OED says, to mean “on such terms, or using such freedom with another, as to accost him with ‘hail, fellow!’ ”

We’ll quote 19th-century examples of the shorter as well as the longer adjectival phrases, courtesy of the OED:

“He crossed the room to her … with something of a hail-fellow bearing.” (From Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, 1886.)

“He was popular … though not in any hail-fellow-well-met kind of way.” (From H. Rider Haggard’s novel Colonel Quaritch, V.C., 1888.)

We’ll close with a more contemporary example we found in a letter to the editor of the Bergen (N.J.) Record in 2012:

“The most exciting thing about the Republican National Convention was the hurricane. … Where is the enthusiasm, the fire they need to capture the voters? Where is the ‘Hail fellow, well met’? This convention was a snore fest.”

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Tracking the ‘daily double’

Q: I’m guessing you’re familiar with the “Daily Double” feature on the game show Jeopardy! It’s catchy and alliterative, but I find the usage jarring, since it scarcely resembles the “daily double” I know from my misspent days at the horse races.

A: The “Daily Double” is popular with viewers of Jeopardy! and, as you say, the name is catchy and alliterative. Our guess is that the show’s producers aren’t bothered one whit that their use of the expression bears little resemblance to the original horse-racing term.

In the game, contestants who hit a “Daily Double” can bet part or all of their accumulated winnings and—they hope—collect double their wager. But at the track, a  “daily double” is a single bet that picks the winners of two separate races.

So the Jeopardy! use of “daily double” isn’t historically authentic. But seriously, if McDonald’s can name a two-patty cheeseburger the “Daily Double” (basically a “McDouble” with different toppings), then why can’t Jeopardy! make use of the term too? At least the game show usage involves betting, so it preserves some of the original wagering sense.

The noun “daily double” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, as “a single bet placed on the winners of two (often consecutive) races in a single day’s racing; (also) the two races designated as eligible for such a bet.” It’s a “chiefly Horse Racing” usage, the OED says.

The dictionary’s examples of “daily double” begin in the 1930s, but we’ve found earlier uses of the phrase. Searches of old newspaper databases show that it first appeared as a turf expression in late 19th-century Britain, where it cropped up in newspaper ads placed by tipsters, bookmakers, and “commission agents” (those who place bets on behalf of clients).

The earliest example we’ve found is from an ad in The Sporting Life (London, March 13, 1899). A turf insider offered to telegraph tips to clients for a fee, including “two-horse wires (a daily double, magnificent value).”

Unfortunately, the precise meaning of “daily double” isn’t spelled out in early uses. No doubt it was commonly known among bettors before it showed up in print.

The term continued to appear in turn-of-the-century British newspapers, in articles by sports writers as well as in ads placed by bookies and tipsters:

“Chief interest centres in the Liverpool Cup today, for which I think FOUNDLING will go close. For my daily double I shall couple the following” (The Daily Mirror, London, July 22, 1904) … “Suggested daily doubles” (The Sporting Chronicle, Lancashire, Oct. 22, 1904) … “All sportsmen should remit a sovereign for week’s Daily Double” (Dublin Daily Express, April 1, 1905).

And this ad, placed by a well-known commission agent, was trumpeted in Ireland and England: “ARTHUR COCKBURN IN MARVELLOUS FORM [headline] His daily Three-horse Wires are simply Invincible. Every Wire indicates his Daily Double and also Special One-horse Selection” (in both The Belfast Telegraph and The Leeds Mercury, Aug. 30, 1909).

The meaning of daily double” is clear in this later example, where a prognosticator boasted after the fact that “I selected four winners in Dutch Toy, Plum, and Vertigo, whilst daily double was Plum and Vertigo” (The Daily Herald, London, Sept. 13, 1920). So three of his tips were for individual winners and the fourth was for a “daily double,” a single bet picking two winners.

And here’s another example, from a bookmaker’s ad promising unlimited payouts: “No doubt, in common with most backers, you fancy your daily double. Have you ever seen your selections winning at multiplied odds totalling hundreds to one and been paid at the rate of some ridiculous limit?” (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, London, Feb. 9, 1924).

The OED’s earliest examples for “daily double” begin in 1930, when England officially approved the use of the bet on the government-regulated apparatus known as the totalizator. (Invented in the 19th century, the totalizator was a mechanical device for recording bets and total amounts wagered. The noun came into English in 1879, adopted from the term for the same device in French, totalisateur, 1870.)

The first OED citation for “daily double” is a heading in The Times (London, Sept. 25, 1930): “Totalisator Daily Double.”

A news item later that week in an Australian newspaper explained how the “daily double” worked: “DAILY DOUBLE ON TOTE: The English [Racetrack] Betting Board of Control has instituted a daily double on the tote. The first day it was tried no backer was lucky enough to pick the winner of the two selected races. … According to rule, the pool was equally divided between those who named the winner of either race. Fifty backers participated in the pool, sixteen naming Last of the Estelles, winner of the first race, with a loser, and thirty-four Story Teller, who won the second race, with a loser” (The Queensland Times, Nov. 1, 1930).

According to newspaper accounts of the time, the first official “tote daily doubles” in England were run at Leicester and Brighton on Sept. 22, 1930, and at additional tracks on subsequent days and weeks.

The term “daily double” crossed the Atlantic—officially, at least—the following year. The OED’s earliest North American example is from a Canadian newspaper: “The ‘daily double’ system of betting was inaugurated for the first time on this continent at Victoria Park this afternoon” (The Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg, May 21, 1931).

The earliest example we’ve seen in a US newspaper is from later that year. After describing the long-shot winners of the third and fifth races at Agua Caliente, Mexico, the article goes on: “Had someone thought to play the combination as a ‘daily double,’ he would have won $4678.80, the highest price ever paid on a $2 ticket” (Imperial Valley Press, El Centro, Calif., Aug. 19, 1931).

Soon afterward, according to Oxford citations, “double” was used in the US as short for “daily double.” Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “Only two men … held tickets on the double, which is governed somewhat along the lines of a parley bet” (New York Times, Sept. 15, 1931).

And as this later OED example shows, the usage also appears in British English: “David Nicholson and Peter Scudamore … brought off a 285-1 double on a day of shocks and spills at Windsor” (The Sporting Life, March 8, 1983).

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‘On the TV’ vs. ‘on TV’

Q: “We watched the game on the TV” sounds non-standard, while “We listened to the game on the radio” sounds perfectly fine. Why does “the” seem wrong when applied to TV, but OK when applied to radio?

A: The use of the definite article in fixed expressions like those is arbitrary and idiomatic. For example, you can listen “to the radio” or “on the radio,” but you communicate “by radio” and work “in radio.”

As Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum explain in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “A number of fixed expressions require the definite article. In such cases, it is largely arbitrary that the definite article is required rather than a bare noun (and often both are possible).”

Huddleston and Pullum note the use of “the definite article in expressions concerned with devices and institutions for the transfer of information, even though it is the activity or action that is relevant rather than the device used on a particular occasion.”

They cite “listened to the radio” and “spoke to her on the telephone,” where the definite article is necessary, but note that “the article is optional” in “watch something on (the) television” and not used in “watch (some) television.”

Searches with the News on the Web corpus, which tracks newspapers and magazines on the Internet, indicate that “on television” (91,933 hits) is much more popular than “on the television” (9,635). Nevertheless, dictionaries consider both versions standard English.

The wording of  Merriam-Webster’s entry for the usage, “on (the) television,” indicates that the article is optional.

M-W defines the expression as “broadcast by television” or “being shown by television or in a television program.”

The dictionary includes these examples: “What is on the television tonight?” and “There’s nothing (I want to watch) on television right now.”

The authors of A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk et al., say the definite article is used in expressions like “the newsthe radiothe televisionthe paper(s)the press, etc., referring to aspects of mass communication.” But they add that “with television or TV, there is also the possibility that the article will be omitted.”

Quirk includes these among his examples: “Did you hear the ten o’clock news?” …  “What’s on the radio this evening?” … “What’s on (the) TV this evening?”

As we said at the beginning, the use of “the” in such expressions is idiomatic and arbitrary. Like you, we find “on TV” more natural than “on the TV,” but both versions are standard.

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Did great-granddad coin ‘bloviate’?

Q: My great-grandfather, Paul Jones, created the word “bloviate.” He was a magazine publisher in Topeka, KS.

A: Your ancestor had a long and impressive life, but it wasn’t long enough for him to have created the word “bloviate,” which appeared in print 18 years before he was born.

The earliest example we’ve seen appeared in an Ohio newspaper in the late 1830s and referred to the oratory of William Allen, a US congressman, senator, and governor from the state:

“We commend the fol’owing to the rapt perusal of all who ever had the high honor and exquisite pleasure of hearing Mr. Wm. Allen bloviate in the Court-House of this county, or on the stump in any of our highly favored precincts” (from The Scioto Gazette, March 8, 1838).

The passage was brought to our attention by Ken Liss, who comments about etymology, among other things, on his website and Twitter.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “bloviate,” which we’ve expanded, is from the Oct. 14, 1845, issue of The Huron Reflector in Norwalk, OH:

“Peter P. Low, Esq., will with open throat reiterate the slang of the resolution passed by the County Convention, and bloviate about the farmers being taxed upon the full value of their farms, while bankers are released from taxation.”

Your great-grandfather, the lawyer, publisher, and civil-rights activist Paul Jones, was born in a log cabin in 1856 “of slave parentage,” according to his obituary in The Call, an African-American weekly newspaper in Kansas City, MO. The obituary says he died on March 7, 1952, in Topeka at the age of 96.

A Dec. 19, 1902, article in The Plaindealer, an African-American weekly in Topeka, says Jones was born in Culpepper, VA, and moved with his family to Chicago at the age of nine.

He attended Northwestern University and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1880, according to the Plaindealer. He then practiced law in Chicago, Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS.

A 1948 article in The Journal of Negro History says Jones was active in Kansas politics and worked to help African-Americans who migrated from the south.

On retiring, the article says, “he began the editing of the Paul Jones Monthly, a magazine which he continued to publish until ill health forced his retirement in 1942.”

“Today, at 93, although he is now partly blind, deaf, and cannot smell, his mind is as active and alert as when a much younger man,” the article continues. “As he sits on his porch in Topeka and regales his listeners with interesting stories of his past, it is apparent that he has led a very active life.”

(From “Benjamin, or ‘Pap,’ Singleton and His Followers,” by Roy Garvin, The Journal of Negro History, January 1948.) Singleton (1809-1900) escaped slavery in Tennessee, became a civil-rights activist, and established African-American settlements in Kansas.

In a 2006 post, which we recently updated, we note that the OED defines “bloviate” as “to talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric; to speechify or ‘sound off.’ ”

In an etymology note, the dictionary says “bloviate” probably was a combination of the verb “blow” with the “-viate” ending of words like “deviate” and “abbreviate.”

The word was a favorite of President Warren G. Harding, who was a native of Ohio and something of a bloviator. The journalist and cultural critic H. L. Mencken couldn’t stand Harding’s writing and described it this way:

It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. (From a 1921 article in The Baltimore Evening Sun entitled “Gamalielese.” Gamaliel was Harding’s middle name.)

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 15, 2022.]

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What’s normal about a ‘normal school’?

Q: Have you any idea what’s “normal” in terms like “normal school” and “normal college” and “normal department”?

A: Many of today’s American universities got their start in the 19th century as “normal schools” or “normal colleges”—that is, teacher training schools intended to standardize requirements and raise the quality of teachers in public education.

Earlier in the century, a similar usage developed in British higher education, where an institution specifically for training teachers was a “normal school” and a large university’s department of education was its “normal department.”

Later on, the adjective was dropped as the “normals” grew more comprehensive and did more than train teachers.

For instance, the Normal School of Design, founded in 1837 to set standards for art and design education, was renamed the Royal College of Art in 1896.

And in the US, the California State Normal School, founded in 1880 to train teachers, eventually became UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles.

How did the word “normal” relate to the training of teachers in those days? The use can be traced to the classical Latin norma (a model, standard, or pattern). We’ll show later how this notion made its way into French educational terminology and then into English.

The educational sense of “normal” is defined this way in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of, relating to, or intended for the training of teachers, esp. in Continental Europe and North America.”

This sense of the adjective “normal,” the OED says, is found “chiefly” in the phrase “normal school” and is “now historical”—that is, used in references to the past.

The dictionary adds this note: “In North America, normal schools were for training primary school teachers. In Continental Europe, different normal schools also trained teachers at secondary and tertiary levels.”

(A clarification: Many “normal colleges” in the US had both short- and long-term programs. They offered not only teaching certificates, qualifying people to teach in elementary schools, but bachelor’s degrees enabling them to teach high school as well.)

The educational use of “normal,” as well as the phrase “normal school,” was adopted from late 18th-century French, where an école normale (first recorded in 1793) was a school for the training of teachers. Here the adjective normale meant “which serves as a model,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest English example—for this use of “normal” and for “normal school”—is from an anonymous English author who had lived in France in the 1790s: “At the opening of the Normal schools” (A Residence in France, 1797, by an “English Lady”).

Oxford notes that France’s first école normale “was set up by decree in 1794, and later became dedicated to training teachers for secondary education and thus (from 1845) called the Ecole Normale Supérieure.”

The dictionary’s next English citation is from a letter written on Aug. 29, 1826, by a Scottish clergyman visiting Copenhagen: “Colonel Abrahamson … has been with us all this afternoon, and has shewn us the Normal School” (The Life and Letters of Christopher Anderson, written by Hugh Anderson in 1853).

The earliest use we’ve found for the term in the US is from 1839, the year that the first such school opened in America. This is from a proclamation issued on April, 12, 1839, by the Massachusetts Board of Education:

“The Board of Education hereby give notice, that one Normal School, for the qualification of Female Teachers, is to be established at Lexington, in the county of Middlesex; and another, for the qualification of both Males and Females, is to be established at Barre, in the county of Worcester.” (From The Common School Journal, Boston, April 15, 1839. The journal was edited by Horace  Mann, who signed the proclamation as a member of the state board and who was later a US congressman.)

The Lexington Normal School opened first, on July 3, 1839 (it’s now Framingham State University). Among the school’s first graduating class was Mann’s niece Rebecca Mann Pennell Dean, who went on to teach at Antioch College in 1853, making her the nation’s first female college professor.

As a later citation from the OED shows, American educators commonly used variations like “normal college” and “normal university.” This is from legislation recorded in the Illinois House Journal (1857):

“Senate bill for ‘An act for the establishment and maintenance of a normal university’ was taken up. … There shall be established in said university … a normal college for the education of teachers of common schools.”

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When ‘nubile’ became sexy

Q: Could you comment on the near-complete transition in meaning for “nubile,” from marriageable to young and hot?

A: Yes, the adjective “nubile” meant marriageable when it showed up in English in the 17th century, but the transition to sexy may not be as near-complete as you think.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “nubile” ultimately comes from the classical Latin nubilis (suitable for marriage), a derivative of the verb nubere (to marry).

The dictionary says the English adjective, as well as its Latin ancestor, originally referred to a girl or young woman “of an age or condition suitable for marriage.” The lexicographer John Ayto notes in his Dictionary of Word Origins that nubere has also given English “connubial” and “nuptial,” a word we wrote about recently.

The OED’s earliest “nubile” citation, which we’ve expanded, refers to a marriage between a 9-year-old niece of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, and the 15-year-old son of James Hamilton, 2nd Marquess of Hamilton:

“And seing that Buckinghams neece was not yet nubile in yeares, and that before the mariage should be confirmed a way might be found out to annull it, vnto which he [Hamilton] was forced by deceitfull importunity, therfore he yeelded vnto the kings desire of the match.” From The Forerunner of Revenge (1626), a pamphlet by George Eglisham that says King James I, prodded by Buckingham, pressured a reluctant Hamilton into agreeing to the marriage.

Like you, we don’t see much of the marriageable sense of “nubile” these days, but five of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult still include that meaning.

Here, for instance, is the entry for “nubile” in Merriam-Webster: “1. of marriageable condition or age (nubile young women); 2. sexually attractive—used of a young woman (a nubile starlet).”

The sensual meaning of “nubile” appeared in the mid-20th century. The OED defines it this way: “Chiefly of a girl or young woman, or a personal attribute: sexually attractive.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Dangling Man, a 1944 novel by Saul Bellow: “She no longer fought against me but, with her long hair reaching nearly to the floor and her round, nubile thighs bare, lay in my lap.”

We’ll end with an OED example that uses “nubile” to describe Marilyn Monroe: “A woman so sensitive and alive, so nubile as flesh and evanescent as a wisp of vapour” (from Marilyn: A Biography, 1973, by Norman Mailer).

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A sod story

Q: I’m puzzled by the word “sod” in Genesis 25:29 of the King James Version of the Bible: “And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint.” I looked up several definitions of “sod,” but I can’t figure out what it means in this verse.

A: The word “sod” in that passage means “boiled” or “cooked,” and that’s the way it’s translated in most modern versions of the New Testament.

Here’s the passage in  the New International Version: “Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished.” And here it is in the American Standard Version: “And Jacob boiled pottage. And Esau came in from the field, and he was faint.” This is from the New King James Version: “Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary.”

As it happens, “sod” is an obsolete past tense of the verb “seethe,” which originally meant to boil a liquid or to cook food by boiling or stewing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example for “seethe” in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is from Old English Leechdoms (circa 1000), a collection of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies:

“Gif mon syþ garleac on henne broþe” (“If a man seethes [boils] garlic in chicken broth”). The þ at the end of syþ, Old English for “seethes,” is a thorn, a letter pronounced like “th.”

The past tense of “seethe” was seaþ in Old English and originally seþseeth, etc., in Middle English, according to the dictionary. But the Middle English past tense was later “superseded by the form sod taken from the past participle” (soden or sodden).

The OED adds that the sod past tense for “seethe” is now obsolete, and sodden has “ceased to be associated with this verb.” By the 1600s “seethed” had replaced “sod” as the past tense, and by the 1700s it had replaced “sodden” as the past participle of the verb “seethe.”

The various contemporary uses of “sod” as a noun (a piece of turf, a contemptuous person, an annoying experience, etc.) aren’t etymologically related to the archaic Middle English past tense of the verb.

But “sodden” lives on as an adjective with the boiled-down sense of “having the appearance of, or resembling, that which has been soaked or steeped in water; rendered dull, stupid, or expressionless, esp. owing to drunkenness or indulgence in intoxicants; pale and flaccid,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “sodden” used in this sense, which we’ve expanded, is from The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels (1601), a satirical play by Ben Jonson: “By Gods will, I scorne him, as I do the sodden Nimph that was heere euen now; his mistris Arete: And I loue my selfe for nothing else.”

The boiling sense of “seethe” is now archaic, but the verb is often used figuratively today for someone or something boiling with agitation, anger, excitement, rage, turmoil, and so on.

The OED defines this figurative sense as to “be in a state of inward agitation, turmoil, or ‘ferment.’ Said of a person in trouble, fever, etc.; of plans, elements of discontent or change; also of a region filled with excitement, disaffection, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida (1602). Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, is talking here to a servant: “I come to speak with Paris from the Prince Troylus. I will make a complimentall assault vpon him, for my businesse seethe ’s.”

We’ll end with an example from Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem in blank verse: “She lay and seethed in fever many weeks, / But youth was strong and overcame the test; / Revolted soul and flesh were reconciled / And fetched back to the necessary day / And daylight duties.”

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Nuptial commotions!

Q: I recently corrected yet another person who pronounced “nuptial” as if it were spelled “nuptual,” and continue to lament the fact that I have almost never heard it pronounced correctly. Do any of the standard dictionaries you consult have it as an alternative, or (God forbid!) as the first choice?

A: It’s dangerous to correct someone, especially on pronunciation. Language changes and dictionaries change along with it. That said, you’re in the majority on “nuptial.”

Only one of the ten standard dictionaries we use accepts a three-syllable pronunciation, as if the word were spelled “nuptual.” The other nine accept only two-syllable versions.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.) is the outlier here. In listing acceptable pronunciations of “nuptial,” it first gives the two-syllable versions: NUP-shəl and NUP-chəl. (The ə symbol, called a schwa, represents an “uh” sound, like the “a” in “ago” or “about.”) Those pronunciations, as the dictionary explains in its front matter, may be regarded as “widely used in American speech.”

But following those, it lists these three-syllable variants introduced by “also”: NUP-shə-wəl and NUP-chə-wəl. In Webster’s New World, a variant pronunciation that’s qualified with an italicized “also” or “occas.” does not occur as regularly in American English but shouldn’t be considered nonstandard.

The only other dictionaries that comment at all on the three-syllable pronunciations—Merriam-Webster online and the larger, subscription-only Merriam-Webster Unabridged—do label them nonstandard. The remaining American and British dictionaries that we regard as authoritative list only two-syllable versions.

All ten dictionaries accept NUP-shəl (with “sh” in the last syllable) as the principal pronunciation, many giving it as the only one. Most add NUP-chəl (with “ch”) as well, though in actual speech it can be hard to tell the difference.

So that’s the picture as far as standard dictionaries. As for the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, it gives only the preferred two-syllable pronunciation (with “sh”), though it suggests there’s a hint of a “t” in there: NUPT-shəl.

As you know, “nuptial” is an adjective having to do with matrimony and the marriage ceremony, as well as a noun for a wedding. The noun appears sometimes in the singular but it’s mostly used in the plural, “nuptials.”

The word was borrowed, the OED says, either from French (nuptial) or from Latin, in which nuptialis means “of or relating to marriage or a wedding” and nuptiae means “wedding.” The nupt- element, the dictionary adds, is the past participial stem of the Latin nubere (to marry).

The adjective form entered English first, in the late 15th century, and the noun followed in the mid-16th.

This is the OED’s earliest example of the noun in English writing: “The goddesse Iuno, quene and patronesse of the commocyons [commotions] nupcyalle” (The Boke yf Eneydos [Aeneids], William Caxton’s 1490 translation from a French version of Virgil’s Latin). We like the phrase “nuptial commotions”!

And this is Oxford’s earliest citation for the noun: “Within a while after (he being vanquished with loue) maried her secretly at her house, and solempnized the nuptialles by a Prieste vnknowen” (The Palace of Pleasure Beautified, Adorned and Well Furnished, a book of stories collected and retold by William Painter, 1566).

Finally, since we’re occasionally asked which standard dictionaries we use, here they are in alphabetical order. They’re free online except where noted.

  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
  2. Cambridge English Dictionary
  3. Collins English Dictionary
  4. Dictionary.com, based on The Random House Unabridged Dictionary
  5. Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online
  6. Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
  7. Macmillan Dictionary
  8. Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary
  9. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, subscription only
  10. Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), print only

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Comparatively speaking

Q: Here in Colorado all the TV stations are following a devastating wildfire in the town of Superior. But like Ogden Nash’s language-obsessed Professor Twist, I’m wondering why we have the comparatives “superior” and “inferior,” but not an in-between one like “medior.”

A: True, there’s no comparative adjective “medior” along the lines of “superior” and “inferior.” The closest adjective we can think of would be “mediocre” (middling, average), but it’s not a comparative like the “-ior” adjectives—and no, we don’t recommend “mediocrer.” (We’ll have something to say later about Professor Twist.)

There are English words formed with “medio-,” a combining element derived from the classical Latin medius (middle), but they’re not comparatives. And they’re used only in botany, zoology, and medicine (as in “mediodorsal,” “mediocarpal,” etc.).

If a comparative “medior” did exist, it would be a blend of “medio-” and the suffix “-ior.” But evidently English, sensible language that it is, doesn’t need a word that would mean “more average.”

When we examine comparative adjectives like “superior,” we’re looking at a very simple kind of word. Sometimes there’s no real stem, just a prefix (“super-”) and a suffix (“-ior”).

Words like this have been simple from the beginning. The English suffix “-ior” represents the “Latin -ior of comparatives,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So, for example, the classical Latin adjective superior, from which the English word was borrowed, was the comparative form of superus (upper), derived from super (above).

Similar formations are “inferior,” “interior,” “exterior,” “senior,” “junior,” and “ulterior.” That last one, unlike the others, doesn’t have an opposite.

We’ve already given the Latin etymology of “superior,” which was first recorded in English some time before 1393. Here are the sources of the others, along with the earliest dates given in the OED:

  • “inferior” (probably 1387): from the Latin adjective inferior (lower), the comparative form of inferus (low).
  • “interior” (1490): from the Latin adjective interior (inner), comparative of the preposition and adverb inter (among, between, etc.).
  • “exterior” (before 1538): from the Latin adjective exterior (outer), comparative of exter and exterus (outside, outward), derived from ex (out of).  A related English prefix, “extra-”  (situated outside of), is from the Latin preposition and adverb extra (beyond, outside of).
  • “junior” (1606): from the Latin junior (younger), the comparative form of juvenis (young).
  • “senior” (probably 1397): from the Latin senior (older), the comparative form of senex (old).
  • “ulterior” (1646): from the Latin ulterior (more distant), comparative of an unrecorded Latin adjective reconstructed as ulter (distant), a relative of ultra (beyond), which is the source of our English prefix “ultra-.”

The “-ior” suffix in English, the OED says, was formerly spelled “-iour,” equivalent to the French -ieur, seen in supérieur, inférieur, intérieur, extérieur, and ultérieur.

As for the pronunciation of “-ior” comparatives, Oxford says the “primary stress is usually attracted to the syllable immediately preceding this suffix and vowels may be reduced accordingly.”

For instance, the word “super” is stressed on the first syllable, but in the comparative “superior,” the stress is on the second. In addition, the sound of the vowel “e” in “super” changes in “superior.”

Getting back to your question, one can indeed obsess too much about language, like Professor Twist in Ogden Nash’s poem “The Purist.”

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

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Waste paper

Q: I once read that Cotton Mather wrote something like this: “As a cure for human ills, human excreta is a remedy that is hardly to be paralleled.” I took the “hardly to be paralleled” part to heart and sometimes use it with my wife. We find it droll. I have not been able to find this quotation now, though I do not think I hallucinated it. Can you help?

A: You didn’t hallucinate that passage from the Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728), who wrote extensively about medical subjects. You’ve had a hard time finding it because the original differs a bit from your memory of it.

The quote comes from The Angel of Bethesda, a medical treatise that was substantially finished in 1724 but not published in Mather’s lifetime. In a section on the use of human excrement in treating disease, he first discusses feces (one use is for treating eye problems!), then turns his attention to urine:

“And yett there is another Excrement of Humane Bodies that is hardly to be parallel’d! Medicinal Springs have been of great Esteem in the World, and much Resorted to. People expect Much from Going to the Waters. But, my Friend, thou hast one within thee, that Exceeds them all. The Uses and Vertues of Humane URINE, St. Barnaby’s Day were scarce Long Enough to enumerate them. The People, who take a Daily Draught of it, (Either their own or some young healthy persons,) have Hundreds of Thousands of them, found a Presærvative of Health (even to Old Age) hardly to be æqualled.”

The treatise was published for the first time in 1972, edited by the historian Gordon W. Jones, though excerpts had appeared in print earlier.

For a time as a young man, Mather studied medicine because a stammer seemed likely to prevent him from becoming a minster, according to the historian Vern Bullough, who reviewed The Angel of Bethesda in the fall 1973 issue of the journal Early American Literature.

In general Mather believed that sin was the cause of sickness, and sickness was the punishment of God. Although many of his ideas sound strange today, the recommended treatments reflected the medical thinking in early 18th-century Colonial America.

However, he was criticized by many doctors for his support of smallpox inoculation. He helped introduce variolation, a precursor of smallpox vaccination, to New England in 1721 and ’22.

He also differed with many doctors in his belief that germs spread disease, though he considered germs to be minuscule insects, tinier than the tiniest grains of sand, that propagated sickness with their eggs.

Thanks for a question that’s hardly to be paralleled. And in case you’re interested, Mather’s ophthalmological remedy involved drying poop, grinding it into powder, and then blowing it into the eye.

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A fortuitous  etymology?

Q: The editor of The Bridge World is more of a stickler than I, but the magazine recently used “fortuitous” in the sense of  “fortunate,” a usage that I consider unfortunate: “Levine’s initial pass had the fortuitous effect of putting him on lead against three notrump.” Do you condone this?

A: The adjective “fortuitous” meant “accidental,” not “fortunate,” when it entered English more than 350 years ago, but it has evolved over the last century to describe a fortunate accident as well as a mere accident.

As Pat explains in Woe Is I (4th ed., 2019), her grammar and usage book, “those notions of good fortune and chance have blended so much that dictionaries also accept a hybrid definition—something fortuitous is  a lucky accident.”

All ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult—five American and five British—accept that new sense of the word. In fact, three of the dictionaries list it as the only sense. And that’s the meaning of “fortuitous” in that passage from The Bridge World.

We’d add that this serendipitous sense is now so common that we generally avoid using “fortuitous.” If we use it for something that’s just accidental, we’re likely to be misunderstood. And if we use it for a happy accident, we’ll stir up the sticklers. It’s now in what a reader of the blog has described as a never-never land.

As for the etymology, English adopted “fortuitous” in the 17th century from the Latin fortuitus (accidental, casual). The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1897, has only one definition: “That happens or is produced by fortune or chance; accidental, casual.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is found in a treatise opposing atheism: “This Argument against the fortuitous concourse of Atoms.”  From An Antidote Against Atheism, or an Appeal to the Natural Faculties of the Minde of Man, Whether There Be Not a God (1653), by the English philosopher Henry More.

The hybrid sense of “fortuitous” to describe a happy accident began appearing in the early 20th century, according to a usage note in Merriam-Webster online. The dictionary says, “the fact that ‘fortuitous’ sounds like a blend of ‘fortunate’ and ‘felicitous’ (meaning ‘happily suited to an occasion’) may have been what ultimately led to a second meaning.”

“That use has been disparaged by critics, but it is now well established,” M-W adds. “Perhaps the seeds of the newer sense were planted by earlier writers applying overtones of good fortune to something that is a chance occurrence. In fact, today we quite often apply ‘fortuitous’ to something that is a chance occurrence but has a favorable result.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the hybrid sense showed up in a usage manual at the turn of the 20th century. In a list of questionable citations “from New York newspapers for the most part,” the book includes this passage: “The change of system is considered fortuitous [fortunate] at this time.” From Word and Phrase: True and False Use in English (1901), by Joseph Fitzgerald.

But as you know, this sense of “fortuitous” has been used by many respected writers since the mid-20th century. Here are a few from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

“We have a great and fortuitous advantage, for if there is nothing the Kremlin wants more than to rule the world, there is nothing the United States wants less than to rule the world” (Call to Greatness, 1954, by Adlai Stevenson).

“The circumstance was a fortuitous one for Abraham Lockwood” (The Lockwood Concern, 1965, by John O’Hara).

“She panted into the underground, snatched a ticket from the machine, belted down the stairs, and there was a fortuitous train” (The Good Terrorist, 1985, by Doris Lessing).

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Cut to the chase

Q: What’s the origin of “cut to the chase”? Keystone Cops? Hounds on a fox scent? Or other?

A: The expression “cut to the chase,” which was first recorded in the early 20th century, is derived from the use of the verb “cut” in filmmaking to mean move rapidly from one scene to another.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense of “cut” as “to make a quick transition from one shot to the next.” The earliest example that we’ve seen for the usage is from an early 20th-century book on motion-picture technique:

“Perhaps we can cut to Sam wondering what effect the marriage will have on his chances” (from Technique of the Photoplay, 2d ed., 1913, by Epes Winthrop Sargent). Oxford cites as its first example a different passage from the 1916 third edition of the book.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the expression “cut to the chase” was originally a film usage meaning “to cut to a chase scene; (hence) to cut to an interesting or fast-paced part of a film.”

The usage appeared in writing for the first time in J. P. McEvoy’s Hollywood Girl (1929), a novel about a Broadway showgirl who finds success in the Hollywood talkies. These three passages in the novel are from script directions in a fictional screenplay (the OED cites an abbreviated version of the third passage):

(1) “Chaney in plaster cast, chewing orchids. Cut to chase”; (2) “with a custard pie klunk that’s a laugh isn’t that a wow now we cut to the chase”; (3) “Quick flashes, breasts, hips, legs. Jannings escapes―I’ll figure it out later … Cut to chase.” (The ellipsis is in the novel.)

As far as we can tell, the expression didn’t appear in print again until 15 years later. In this example from a Canadian newspaper, it’s one of several slogans that Helen Deutch, an MGM screenwriter, has on a wall of her Hollywood office:

“Miss Deutsch has another motto, which had to do with the writing of cinematic drama. It also is on the wall where she can’t miss seeing it, and it says: ‘When in doubt, cut to the chase’ ” (Winnipeg Free Press, March 10, 1944).

In a few years, the usage took on its usual current sense, which the OED defines as “to get to the point, to get on with it; to concentrate on the essential elements of an issue, etc.” The earliest example we’ve found is from a Massachusetts newspaper:

“Let’s cut to the chase. There will be no tax relief this year. No $300 to $400 tax credit for middle-class families. No $5,000 credit for first-time home buyers” (The Berkshire Evening Eagle, Feb. 24, 1947).

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from Cross My Heart (1955), an autobiography by the American writer and humorist Frank Scully: “I am the sort who wants to ‘cut to the chase.’ As far as I’m concerned, we can read the instructions later.”

Interestingly, Scully used the expression in the filmmaking sense in an earlier book: “That I suspect does not conflict with the Hollywood saying, ‘Let’s drop the romancing and cut to the chase’ ” (from Behind the Flying Saucers, 1950).

[Note: A reader of the blog offered this comment later the same day. “As someone who used to inhabit cutting rooms, I think there’s another little element to this one. Why ‘cut’? That’s because in the earlier days of filmmaking, in order to edit a film you literally ‘cut’ the piece you wanted out of the main roll with scissors, and then glued those selected scenes together.

“Later, ‘splicers’ turned up―clever little guillotine devices that made far more accurate and consistent cuts to be made, and joins to be made with clear specialist tape to create the ’cutting copy,’ the first edited version of the film.]

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Greenwashing and pinkwashing

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 8, 2022.]

Q: I’m curious about the use of “washing” in terms like “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.” Has “washing” here lost its original meaning, like the “gate” of “Pizzagate,” “Russiagate,” and “Irangate”?

A: No, the use of “washing” as a terminal element here reflects its original source in Anglo-Saxon times: wæscan, Old English for to wash away dirt with water. The “gate” of “Pizzagate” comes from the Watergate scandal, not its original sense of an opening in a wall.

A: The word “wash” or “washing” began showing up in the 1980s in various compound terms for the use of superficial, insincere, or misleading information about the environment, feminism, race, and so on, intended to improve the image of a business, organization, country, etc.

The two most common of the terms are “greenwashing” and “pinkwashing.” Others include “rainbow washing,” “purplewashing,” “sportswashing,” “redwashing,” “humanewashing,” “straightwashing,” and “hetwashing.”

(These recent formations are brand-new in comparison with the centuries-old “whitewashing.” And later we’ll discuss “brainwashing,” a term inspired by mid-20th-century totalitarianism and traceable to Chinese in the era of Mao Zedong.)

Nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for “greenwashing” or “greenwash” used in this sense.

American Heritage defines “greenwashing” as “the dissemination of misleading information that conceals abuse of the environment in order to present a positive public image.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.”

Two of the standard dictionaries also have entries for “pinkwashing.” It’s defined in Collins as “a superficial or insincere display of concern for the homosexual community” and in Macmillan as “the use of support for LGBT rights and issues by a state or business to boost its own image.”

The collaborative online dictionary Wiktionary adds that a “breast cancer-related sense refers to the pink ribbon, an international symbol of breast cancer awareness.” Though the standard dictionaries don’t include that sense, our database searches suggest that it may be the more common use of the term.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has entries for the nouns “greenwash” and “greenwashing” as well as the verb “greenwash.”

The dictionary says the noun “greenwash,” derived from the adjective “green” and the noun “wash,” is modeled after the noun “whitewash,” which dates from the 16th century. The verb “greenwash” is derived from that noun, and the noun “greenwashing” is derived from the verb.

The OED’s definition of “greenwashing” is similar to the ones above from American Heritage and Merriam-Webster. It defines the noun “greenwash” as “misleading publicity or propaganda disseminated by an organization, etc., so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., regarded as being unfounded or intentionally misleading.”

And the verb, Oxford says, has these two senses: “(a) to mislead (the public) or counter (public or media concerns) by falsely representing a person, company, product, etc., as being environmentally responsible; (b) to misrepresent (a company, its operations, etc.) as environmentally responsible.”

In the earliest recorded example we’ve seen, the noun “greenwash” refers to a plan for an open-space buffer between the cities of Louisville and Lafayette in Colorado:

“It’s a great game, this open space whitewash which should be renamed the ‘political greenwash’ or, better yet, ‘open space hogwash’ because that’s all it is—a salve for all the guilty consciences who now have awakened to see the two cities grown together” (an Aug. 10, 1983, editorial in The Louisville Times).

(We’ve seen earlier examples of “greenwash” or “greenwashing” used in the sense of money laundering or applying a thin wash of color.)

The OED’s first citation for the noun “greenwash” appeared four years later: “They create a lot of environmental ‘greenwash,’ and thank god for it, because they create some very good nature reserves. But they’re also commissioning uneconomic nuclear power stations.” (From the September 1987 issue of Sanity, journal of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, London.)

Oxford’s earliest example of the verb “greenwash” is from another London periodical: “Continuing to ‘greenwash the public’ would be foolish” (Daily Telegraph, Oct. 14, 1989).

And its earliest citation for “greenwashing” appeared in a California newspaper: “The activists will keep a booth outside the fair and continue to fight what the group calls ‘greenwashing’ by large corporations who tell the public they are working for the environment while continuing to pollute” (The Orange County Register, April 5, 1990).

(The environmental activist Jay Westerveld has been credited by some sources with coining the term “greenwashing” in a 1986 essay about the hotel industry’s practice of promoting the reuse of towels to save the environment. However, we haven’t been able to find the essay in a search of book, newspaper, and scholarly databases.)

As for “pinkwashing,” the earliest example we’ve found uses the term in its breast-cancer sense: “Jeanne Rizzo, executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco, which is co-sponsoring the hearing, says companies have co-opted breast cancer awareness and are engaged in a ‘pinkwashing’ of the problem.” (From a report of the California legislature on a joint Senate-Assembly hearing on breast cancer and the environment held on Oct. 23, 2002.) Earlier examples use “pinkwashing” in its literal, coloring sense.

The use of “pinkwashing” for the promotion of gender or sexual-identity issues showed up a decade later. The first example we’ve seen uses the term to describe an Israeli campaign comparing its treatment of gays and lesbians with their treatment in the Arab world: “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing’ ” (the headline on an opinion article by Sarah Schulman in The New York Times, Nov. 22, 2011).

“Greenwashing” is a much more common term than “pinkwashing,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books. The other terms mentioned earlier didn’t register:

“rainbow washing” (promoting gender issues), “purplewashing” (feminism), “sportswashing” (sports), “redwashing” (rightist promotion of leftist issues), “humanewashing” (claims of humane treatment on meat and dairy labeling), “straightwashing” and “hetwashing” (making gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters in fiction act like heterosexuals).

Now on to the more sinister “brainwashing,” which makes those other compounds seem like mere marketing strategies.

This is defined in the OED as “the systematic and often forcible elimination from a person’s mind of all established ideas, esp. political ones, so that another set of ideas may take their place.” It also means “this process regarded as the kind of coercive conversion practised by certain totalitarian states on political dissidents.”

But in a “weakened sense,” the dictionary adds, it can also mean  “the action of pressurizing or persuading a person into a belief considered undesirable.”

The noun came into English in the early 1950s, the OED says,  and was “probably” modeled after the Chinese term xǐ nǎo, from “ to wash, cleanse + nǎo brain.”

The term has become associated with Edward Hunter, an American journalist who reported from Asia and who’s been identified as a clandestine American intelligence agent. His book Brain-washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds was completed in 1950 and published on Jan. 1, 1951.

On Sept. 24, 1950, The Miami News published an article by Hunter entitled “ ‘Brain-Washing’ Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party.”

However, the term appeared in print earlier in 1950. The OED has this as the term’s earliest published use: “China under Red flag…. ‘Brain-washing’—a new version of the mental purge” (a heading in The Times of India, Mumbai, Jan. 23, 1950). We haven’t been able to determine whether Hunter wrote this article or not.

The OED also has entries for the noun “brainwash” (1950), the verb “brainwash” (1951), the adjective “brainwashed” (1951), and the noun “brainwasher” (1952), all in reference to China.

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

Swear like a sailor

[Note: We inadvertently sent this post to some readers last Friday. We’re publishing it today so that all our readers can see it.]

Q: Why do we say someone who cusses a lot “swears (or curses) like a sailor (or trooper, soldier, marine)”? Do people in the military cuss more than others? Is it simply a question of quantity or is something else at work?

A: Yes, many of the “swear like a …” and “curse like a …” usages refer to a sailor, trooper, soldier, or marine, but not all of them. We’ve seen versions of the expression applied to a docker, drunken monk, fishwife, mule-skinner, pirate, porter, preacher’s son, stevedore, termagant, and more.

The two most common versions are “swear like a sailor” and “swear like a trooper,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares the use of words and phrases in digitized books. (The “soldier” usage barely registers and the “marine” one doesn’t register at all in the books searched, though they appear in old newspaper databases.)

Why are the “trooper” and “sailor” variants so common? Probably because troopers and sailors had reputations for boorish language and behavior when the two phrases showed up (the “trooper” one in the 18th century and the “sailor” in the 19th).

As Christine Ammer explains in The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, “The troopers in this term were the cavalry, who were singled out for their foul language from the early 1700s on.”

The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by Elizabeth Knowles, says, “A trooper was originally (mid 17th century) a private soldier in a cavalry unit, and from the mid 18th century was proverbial for coarse behaviour and bad language.”

In fact, many soldiers still speak an expletive-ridden language that the author Tom Wolfe referred to as “Army Creole.” In The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the test pilots and astronauts of the space program, he cites this conversation as an example of Army Creole:

“I tol’im iffie tried to fuck me over, I was gonna kick’is fuckin’ ass, iddnat right?”

“Fuckin’ A.”

“Soey kep’on fuckin’ me over and I kicked ’is fuckin’ ass in fo’im, iddnat right?”

“Fuckin’ A.”

“An’ so now they tellin’ me they gon’ th’ow my fuckin’ ass inna fuckin’ stoc-kade! You know what? They some kinda fuckin’ me over!”

“Fuckin’ A well tol’, Bubba.”

Sailors on civilian or military vessels have had a similar reputation, according to the historian Paul A. Gilje.

In his 2016 book Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750 to 1850, he cites 18th-century reports of the “wicked conversation,” “carnal songs,” “ill language,” and “profane language” of sailors, especially their rampant use of the expression “damn son of a bitch.”

“Others might curse and swear, but the liberty of the waterfront enjoyed by sailors and their own maritime culture gave the phrase ‘to swear like a sailor’ a resonance that rebounded throughout society,” Gilje writes. “Other members of the working class understood that going to sea offered a special license to resort to bad language.”

The earliest written example of the expression we’ve seen is from a religious treatise that uses the “trooper” version in describing one of the Apostles:

Peter seems to have been the boldest. He cou’d curse and swear like a Trooper. And his denying Jesus thrice, shows that he was capable of any thing” (A Conference Upon the Miracles of Our Blessed Saviour, 1730, by William Stevenson).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of the “trooper” variant, which we’ve expanded, appeared a decade later: “Bless me! she curses and storms at me like a Trooper, and can hardly keep her Hands off me” (from Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela).

As far as we can tell, the “sailor” variant didn’t appear in writing until a century later. The earliest written example we’ve seen is in a book by a traveler who found surprisingly little swearing aboard a ship sailing from New York to Liverpool:

To swear like a sailor, is a common mode of characterising excessive profanity. And yet I was on board this ship ten days before I heard an oath from one of the crew” (Memoranda of Foreign Travel: Containing Notices of a Pilgrimage Through Some of the Principal States of Western Europe, 1845, by Robert J. Breckinridge). The crew may have watched their language around Breckinridge because he was a Presbyterian minister.

And here’s an example that appeared a dozen years later: “he did swear like a sailor, from mere habit and forgetfulness, for no man not professedly religious had a diviner instinct of reverence and worship than he” (from “Uncle Josh,” a short story by Rose Terry Cooke, Putnam’s Monthly, September 1857).

The only OED citation for the “sailor” variant is from the 20th century: “Della was a pretty little thing. Tough as nails—on the surface. She could—and did—swear like a sailor” (The Rose Petal Murders, 1935, by Charles G. Givens).

We’ll end with a poem, “The Sailor’s Folly,” cited in Swear Like a Sailor. It was written on Feb. 13, 1801, in Charleston, SC, by Simeon Crowell, a reformed seaman who had once prided himself on his cursing and carnal songs.

When first the sailor comes on Board
He dams all hands at every word
He thinks to make himself a man
At Every word he gives a dam

But O how Shameful must it be
To Sin at Such a great Degree
When he is out of Harbour gone
He swears by god from night to morn. 

But when the Heavy gale doth Blow
The Ship is tosled to and froe
He crys for Mercy Mercy Lord
Help me now O help me God

But when the storm is gone and past
He swears again in heavy Blast
And still goes on from Sin to Sin
Now owns the god that Rescued him. 

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Categories
Christmas English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Slang Usage Word origin Writing

A belated Christmas carol

Q: I got stuck on one word when I read A Christmas Carol to my family on Christmas Eve. What is the story behind the boy’s use of the exclamation “Walk-ER!” when Scrooge asks him to buy a big turkey? I’ve looked for the etymology, with no success whatever.

A: The use of the name “Walker” as an exclamation expressing skepticism showed up in the early 19th century, originally as “Hookee Walker.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the origin is uncertain, but the usage apparently comes from “the name of Hookey (or Hooky) Walker, although no person of this name has been positively identified.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the interjection is from a slang dictionary: “Hookee Walker, an expression signifying that the story is not true, or that the thing will not occur” (Lexicon Balatronicum, 1811).

In the OED’s next citation, the name “Walker” appears by itself: “Walker, an ironical expression synonymous with bender and used in the same manner.” From “A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language” in Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, Written by Himself (1819).

(“Flash” is an obsolete term that refers to thieves, prostitutes, or the underworld, especially their language. Vaux was an English convict transported to Australia three times. In his “Comprehensive Vocabulary,” he defines “bender” as “an ironical word used in conversation by flash people.”)

As for the skeptical use of the term “Walker” in A Christmas Carol (1843), Scrooge asks a boy on Christmas Day if a prize turkey is still hanging in the window of the neighborhood poultry shop.

“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Scrooge. “Go and buy it.”
“Walk-ER!” exclaimed the boy.
“No, no,” said Scrooge, “I am in earnest.”

Dickens used the exclamation a few years earlier in one of his “Mudfog Society” stories: “Sir Hookham Snivey was proceeding to combat this opinion, when Professor Ketch suddenly interrupted the proceedings by exclaiming, with great excitement of manner, ‘Walker!’ ” From “Full Report of the Second Meeting of the Mudfog Society for the Advancement of Everything” (Bentley’s Miscellany, September 1838).

We’ve seen several questionable theories about the source of “hookey walker”—that it comes from the name of a popular song or a celebrated horse or a theatrical character or a clerk with a hooked nose. However, the OED notes that the interjection appeared in print before all those other usages were recorded.

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