The Grammarphobia Blog

‘I bet’ or ‘I’ll bet’?

Q: What are your thoughts about using “I bet” versus “I’ll bet” to introduce a statement? I prefer “I’ll bet,” but I can’t explain why.

A: The verb “bet” has several meanings in addition to its usual gambling sense:

1. to agree (“I was bummed out” … “I bet you were”); 2. to disagree (“I’ll really stick to my diet this time” … “Yeah, I bet”); 3. to mean certainly (“You bet I’ll be there”); 4. to say you’re fairly sure (“I bet she felt crummy,” “I bet he’ll forget,” “I’ll bet you come late tomorrow,” “I’ll bet they’re late again”).

In #4, the usage you’re asking about, “I bet” or “I’ll bet” introduces a subordinate construction. You can find examples in standard dictionaries for both “I bet” and “I’ll bet” used in this sense, though “I bet” is more common.

In our opinion, “I bet” (present tense) sounds more natural when the subordinate construction is in the past tense (“I bet she felt crummy”) or the future tense (“I bet he’ll forget”).

But “I’ll bet” (future tense) seems more idiomatic when the complement uses the present tense to express the future, either with a time element (“I’ll bet you come late tomorrow”) or without a time element (“I’ll bet they’re late again”).

A few years ago, we wrote a post about the futurate—a usage that expresses the future with a tense not normally used for it, as in “He arrives Saturday.”

Something similar is at work when we use “bet,” “wager,” and “hope” to talk about the future. These verbs, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, often introduce “subordinate constructions allowing pragmatically unrestricted futures.”

For example, the underlined complements of “bet” in “I’ll bet you come late tomorrow” and “I’ll bet they’re late again” express what the Cambridge Grammar calls a “deictic future time.” The sense of a deictic expression depends on how it’s used.

As the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, explain, “The construction generalises to the deverbal nouns bet, wager, hope.” In other words, “I’ll bet they’re late again” is another way of saying “My bet is that they’re late again.”

Getting back to your question, we’ve generally (though not always) used “I’ll bet” or “we’ll bet” with complements that indicate the future but aren’t expressed in the future tense.

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We were sat … or were we?

Q: Do all British people say “sat” instead of “sitting,” as in this example from a Brit’s blog: “we were sat around the coffee table”?

A: No, not all British people would say something like “we were sat around the coffee table.” That usage isn’t considered standard English in either the UK or the US.

However, quite a few people in the UK do indeed use “sat” that way, and the usage shows up once in a while in the US too.

In an Oct. 3, 2012, post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, the lexicographer Catherine Soanes notes the increasing nonstandard use of the past participles “sat” and “stood” for the present participles “sitting” and “standing” in British English.

She reports hearing several instances of the usage on the BBC, including “She’s sat at the table eating breakfast” and “we were stood at the bar waiting to be served.”

Soames, editor or co-editor of several Oxford dictionaries, says the use of “sat” and “stood” for “sitting” and “standing” in continuous, or progressive, tenses is “regarded as non-standard by usage guides.”

“So are we witnessing a general decline of continuous tenses?” she asks. “Thankfully, no: this error predominantly seems to crop up with ‘stand’ and ‘sit.’ ”

So why do so many people, primarily in the UK, say things like “She’s sat” and “we were stood”?

“The answer’s not clear,” Soames says, “but my research shows that this usage (which used to be restricted to some regional British dialects) is becoming more widespread in British English, and is even appearing in edited writing such as newspapers and magazines.”

She reports finding over 3,000 instances of this construction in the Oxford English Corpus, including these two examples from the database:

“It is 2pm and I am sat in my parents’ living room, talking to one of the cats.”

“Three hooded kids are stood around the corner drinking alcopops and it’s raining.”

Although the usage is uncommon in US English, she says, it “isn’t completely unknown there, with around 340 examples (11% of the total)” in the Oxford corpus, including this example:

“My Mom and Alison were stood in the hallway watching me as I limped down the stairs.”

She also reported finding examples in the Oxford corpus from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India.

We suspect that in some cases “sat” is being used in place of “seated” (that is, as the past tense of the verb “seat”) rather than in place of “sitting.” So “we were sat around the coffee table” may be another way of saying “we were seated around the coffee table.”

Our own searches of the News on the Web corpus generally confirm Soames’s findings, though we’ve found the usage more overwhelmingly British now than she found it five years ago. Here are a couple of recent examples from London newspapers:

“We were sat in a pub having a drink” (from the Oct. 7, 2017, issue of the Telegraph).

“We were sat there for two and a half hours just studying it, watching it flying around the sky” (from the Sept. 21, 2017, issue of the Sun).

When the usage shows up in an American publication, a British citizen is often being quoted, as in this example from the July 9, 2017, issue of the Washington Post, about tennis fans living in a tent city near the Wimbledon tournament:

“And so all we had was a rucksack and an umbrella, and it started to rain, so we were sat up leaning against somebody’s garden wall, and it poured down with rain.”

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The ‘hey’ in ‘heyday’

Q: Did the word “heyday” originally refer to a day when hay is harvested?

A: No, “heyday” isn’t etymologically related to either “hay” or “day.” In fact, it’s probably related to the exclamation “hey,” used to call attention, express surprise, and so on.

“Originally, the word was heyda, an exclamation roughly equivalent to the modern English hurrah,” John Ayto says in his Dictionary of Word Origins. “Probably it was just an extension of hey, modelled partly on Low German heida ‘hurrah.’ ”

When “heyday” first showed up in English writing in the early 1500s, it was an “exclamation denoting frolicsomeness, gaiety, surprise, wonder, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from Magnyfycence, a 1530 morality play by the English poet laureate John Skelton: “Rutty bully Ioly rutterkyn heyda.”

The central character in the play, Magnificence, is tempted by such political evils as Crafty Conveyance, Courtly Abusion, and Cloaked Collusion.

That line of dialogue, a comment by Courtly Abusion to Cloaked Collusion, comes from a medieval song. It’s apparently a satire on the gibberish supposedly spoken by drunken Flemish visitors in England.

The next Oxford example is from Abcedarium Anglo Latinum (1552), an English-Latin dictionary by Richard Huloet: “Heyda or hey, euax.” (The Latin exclamation euax means good.)

And here’s an expanded OED citation from Ralph Roister Doister, a comic play by Nicholas Udall, written around 1550: “Hoighdagh, if faire fine Mistresse Custance sawe you now, Ralph Roister Doister were hir owne I warrant you.”

As for the noun “heyday,” it referred to a “state of exaltation or excitement of the spirits or passions” when it first appeared in the late 1500s, Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Thomas More (circa 1590), a play written and revised by several writers (a three-page, handwritten revision is said to be by Shakespeare):

“And lett this be they maxime, to be greate / Is when the thred of hayday is once spoun, / A bottom great woond vpp greatly vndoun.” (The word “bottom” here refers to a ball of thread.)

Ayto, in his etymological dictionary, says “the influence of the day-like second syllable did not make itself felt until the mid-18th century, when the modern sense ‘period of greatest success’ began to emerge.”

The OED defines the modern sense as the “stage or period when excited feeling is at its height; the height, zenith, or acme of anything which excites the feelings; the flush or full bloom, or stage of fullest vigour, of youth, enjoyment, prosperity, or the like.”

The earliest Oxford example is from The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, a 1751 novel by Tobias Smollett, who refers to Peregrine as an “imperious youth, who was now in the heyday of his blood.”

As for the old interjection “hey,” the OED defines it as a “call to attract attention; also, an exclamation expressing exultation, incitement, surprise, etc.; sometimes used in the burden of a song with no definite meaning; sometimes as an interrogative.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an account of the life of Saint Katherine of Alexandria, written sometime before 1225: “Hei! hwuch wis read of se icudd keiser!” (“Hey! What wise counsel from such a well-known emperor!”)

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My plastic blue new nice truck

Q: If, as a child, I said, “That me truck,” someone would have corrected me. But if I said, “my plastic blue new nice truck,” I don’t think anyone would have told me the order was wrong. So how do such conventions get passed on?

A: We’ve already written about the order of adjectives in noun phrases. A post in 2010 explains why we say “a perfect little black dress,” not “a black perfect little dress.” And a 2017 post discusses the lack of commas in such a phrase.

However, we haven’t written about how children become aware of the conventions for using premodifiers.

Entire books and countless papers have been written about the order of premodifiers. But we haven’t found a definitive answer as to how this apparently “natural” order is passed on.

As you suggest, a toddler who says “my plastic blue new nice truck” is probably not corrected to say, “my nice new blue plastic truck,” yet somehow the conventional order eventually becomes automatic.

How does this happen? We can offer a couple of possibilities.

As children become more articulate, either (1) they imitate what they hear around them, with adults consistently placing adjectives in a given order, or (2) they intuitively grasp that there’s a natural hierarchy of English adjectives.

We lean toward #2, though #1 may play a role. If #2 is the answer, and there’s a natural hierarchy, it may be organized roughly like this:

The adjectives closest to the noun reflect qualities that exist in the noun (like “blue” or “plastic”), while those further from the noun reflect subjective opinions or evaluations (like “nice” and “new”).

This seems to be the pattern when linguists and grammarians write about the order in which English premodifiers appear.

For example, English Grammar Today, by Ronald Carter et al., divides them into 10 categories, beginning with those that are always first in line—that is, farthest from the noun (the head of the phrase):

“1. opinion (unusual, lovely, beautiful); 2. size (big, small, tall); 3. physical quality (thin, rough, untidy); 4. shape (round, square, rectangular); 5. age (young, old, youthful); 6. colour (blue, red, pink); 7. origin (Dutch, Japanese, Turkish); 8. material (metal, wood, plastic); 9. type (general-purpose, four-sided, U-shaped); 10. purpose (cleaning, hammering, cooking).”

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Randolph Quirk and his co-authors suggest that “a subjective/objective polarity” accounts for the order of premodifiers in English:

“That is, modifiers relating to properties which are (relatively) inherent in the head of the noun phrase, visually observable, and objectively recognizable or assessible, will tend to be placed nearer to the head and be preceded by modifiers concerned with what is relatively a matter of opinion, imposed on the head by the observer, not visually observed, and only subjectively assessible.”

It’s interesting to note that English isn’t unique in the ordering of modifiers before a noun. In his book Linguistic Semantics (1992), William Frawley writes:

“English, German, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Hindi, Persian, Indonesian, and Basque all order value before size, and those two before color: Value > Size > Color.”

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Not on my watch

Q: I see the expression “not on my watch” all over the place these days. I assume it began life as a naval usage. Right?

A: The noun “watch” has been used for hundreds of years by soldiers, sailors, and officers of the law to mean a period of vigil on land or at sea. It’s unclear whose usage inspired “not on my watch.”

The earliest example we’ve seen for the expression cites a sailor, but he uses it figuratively to mean “no way” or “absolutely not.” A few years later, a police officer on a night watch uses it literally in the sense of “This won’t happen while I’m on duty.”

That early figurative example, tracked down by the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter, is from the March 17, 1907, issue of the Duluth (MN) News Tribune. It appears in an account of a brawl at a Bowery bar in New York City:

“Jack had started to meander on his way, but Tom pinched him and stung him a fifty for the bunch of busted glass. ‘Not on my watch,’ says Jack, and the two mixed it.”

(Jack Rollings, a sailor on shore leave from the USS Alabama, had broken a mirror and refused the demand of Tom Sharkey, the owner, for restitution.)

The earliest literal example that we’ve found (from the May 29, 1911, issue of the San Francisco Call) describes the response of Capt. Steve Bunner, night chief of detectives at the city’s central station, when a man threatened to commit suicide:

“ ‘Not on my watch,’ said Bunner. He pushed the button and two large policemen appeared. ‘Take this man to the detention hospital,’ he said.”

The usage is quite popular now, as you’ve noticed. The Kentucky Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes, used it recently in commenting on the presidential voter fraud commission’s request for registration information:

“There’s not enough bourbon here in Kentucky to make this request seem sensible. Not on my watch are we going to be releasing sensitive information that relates to the privacy of individuals.” (From the June 30, 2017, issue of the Hill.)

Another version, “not under my watch,” is also popular. The first example we’ve found is from the Sept. 15, 2000, issue of the Globe and Mail (Toronto).

John Hayter, chairman and chief executive officer at Vickers & Benson, explains why he supported the sale of the struggling Canadian advertising agency to Havas Advertising of Paris:

“There is absolutely no glory in overseeing the slow demise of Vickers & Benson. We have been a proud Canadian agency for 76 years, and not under my watch was I going to see it slowly, slowly fade away.”

When the noun “watch” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times (spelled wæcce or wæccan in Old English), it referred to wakefulness, especially keeping awake for guarding, observing, and the like, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED example is from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century treatise by the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius:

“Hu micele wæccan & hu micle unrotnesse se hæfð þe ðone won willan hæfð on þisse worulde” (“How great the watch and how great the grief of someone with wicked desires in this world”).

This Middle English example is from Confessio Amantis (1393), a long poem by John Gower about the confessions of an aging lover:

“So mot I nedes fro hire wende / And of my wachche make an ende” (“So I must needs go from her and make an end of my watch”).

Over the next two centuries, the noun “watch” came to mean people on guard or observation, as well as their period of duty, especially at night. The term was used for watches in towns, on military posts, and aboard ships.

Here’s an example from Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, first performed in the early1600s: “As I did stand my watch vpon the Hill / I look’d toward Byrnane, and anon me thought / The Wood began to moue.”

This biblical example is from the King James Version of 1611: “I will stand vpon my watch, and set mee vpon the towre, and will watch to see what he will say vnto me.”

And here’s a nautical example from The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), by Capt. John Smith:

“When we had run 30. leagues we had 40. fadom, then 70. then 100. After 2. or 3. Watches more we were in 24. fadoms.”

The OED suggests that the observation sense of “watch” evolved from the periods “into which the night was anciently divided.” The Israelites divided the night into three periods, the Greeks into four or five, and the Romans into four, according to Oxford.

Interestingly, “in my watch” and “upon my watch” showed up in English before “on my watch.” All three expressions originally meant to be on duty as a watchman or sentinel.

The oldest of these phrases in the OED comes from the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“Whyle they are yet stondinge in the watch, the dores shall be shut and barred. And there were certayne citesyns of Ierusalem appoynted to be watch-men, euery one in his watch” (from Nehemiah 7:3).

The dictionary’s first example for “upon my watch” is in the passage from the King James Version of 1611 cited above.

The OED doesn’t have an example for “on my watch.” The earliest we’ve found is from the March 1733 issue of the London Magazine:

“I was on my Watch in the Temple that Night the Murder was done; and nothing past but Gentlemen going to their Chambers” (from an account of the trial of Sarah Malcolm, a laundress hanged for three murders).

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Nonbinary thinking

Q: The company I work for has hired a person who identifies as gender nonbinary, and prefers to be referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she.” Our new hire adds that a simple, sensitive, and inclusive solution would be to use plural pronouns for everyone. At the risk of sounding like Archie Bunker, geez Louise, this is counter to my 50-plus years of English education! Am I wrong?

A: No, you’re not wrong. It’s silly to use “they” for someone who’s happy to be called “he” or “she.” And the binary majority might not consider the usage simple, sensitive, or inclusive. (We’ll discuss the nonbinary use of “they” later in this post.)

Several months ago we wrote about changing views on the use of the plural pronoun “they” in reference to an indefinite, unknown person.

A sentence like “Someone forgot their umbrella” is now considered standard English, even though “they” is plural and an indefinite pronoun like “someone” is technically singular—that is, it takes a singular verb: “someone is.”

The indefinite singular use of “they” is not new, as we wrote in that post. It’s been common in English writing since the early 1300s, and was considered perfectly normal until 18th-century grammarians took exception to it.

In spite of the admonitions, however, English speakers have continued to use “they” (along with “them,” “their,” and “theirs”) in reference to an unknown “someone,” “everybody,” “anybody” and the rest.

As we’ve said many times, common usage will out! Those old prohibitions are no longer recognized by linguists and lexicographers, and we accept their view (though we prefer to reword our own writing to avoid the plural “they” for indefinite pronouns).

Your question, however, leads us to a different singular use of “they.” Because it is gender-neutral, “they” has recently been adopted as the pronoun of choice by many people who identify as nonbinary—that is, neither male nor female.

We’ll invent an office-type example of this usage, with “Robin” as our nonbinary person: “If Robin is at their desk, please ask them to come to the meeting, since they expressed an interest.”

This nonbinary “they” (we’ll call it #2) is very different from the indefinite “they” (call it #1) that we discussed above.

The #1 “they” represents an unknown person (as in “Someone forgot their umbrella”), but the #2 “they” is a known person who doesn’t want to be referred to as a “he” or a “she.”

As of today, all the major dictionaries recognize the #1 “they” as standard English, but the #2 “they” is mentioned by only one. This is to be expected, since #1 has been around for 700 years while #2 is still unfamiliar to many English speakers.

The only standard dictionary to tackle the subject—at least so far—is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). Its entry for “they” includes this definition: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard. But it adds this warning in a usage note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”

In fact, the dictionary says a majority of its usage panel was against this new “they” at last report:

“As of 2015 only 27 percent of the Panelists accepted Scout was born male, but now they do not identify as either traditional gender. With regard to this last sentence, the Panel’s responses showed a clear generational shift: the approval rate was 4 percent among Panelists born before 1945 and 40 percent among Panelists born later.”

Dictionaries may lag, but the nonbinary use of “they” has been accepted by the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, which are looked to as guides by many news organizations and book publishers.

Last March both announced new policies on “they,” allowing its use in reference to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female.

AP said in its announcement that the change was “spurred in large part by expanding journalistic coverage of transgender and gender-nonbinary issues.”

The new AP Stylebook recommends using “the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible,” but adds: “If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.”

The newly published 17th edition of the Chicago Manual has this: “For references to a specific person, the choice of pronoun may depend on the individual. Some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preferences should generally be respected.”

Oddly, both AP and the Chicago Manual only grudgingly accept the use of “they” for an unknown person, a usage that is no longer questioned in dictionaries.

When used in reference to an unknown person, Chicago says, “they and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing.”

Yet they thoroughly embrace the nonbinary usage, a much newer, potentially confusing, and more grammatically radical use of “they.” And, as we’ve said, a use that has made it into only one standard dictionary so far—with a warning.

What’s our advice? Well, as things stand, the nonbinary use of “they” for a known person is accepted by some usage authorities and not by others. Only time will tell whether it will become common in ordinary English.

In the meantime, companies that want to be sensitive to the wishes of nonbinary employees might follow the examples of AP and the Chicago Manual.

If a pronoun is necessary, use “they,” “them,” and “their” for an employee who has that preference. But clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when “they” refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.

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When commas are uncommon

Q: I give up. How can I tell when to drop the commas in a string of adjectives before a noun?

A: The key here is the kinds of adjectives you’re combining and whether their order makes any difference. Here’s what you need to know.

  • If you can put “and” between the adjectives and make sense, use commas: “Daisy is a healthy, happy, outgoing puppy.” (It would be wordy, but you could say “healthy and happy and outgoing puppy.”)
  • If you can’t use “and” between the adjectives, drop the commas: “Daisy’s favorite toy is a big old blue velvet rabbit.” (You wouldn’t say “big and old and blue and velvet rabbit.”)
  • If the adjectives always occur in a certain order don’t use commas. “Her favorite playmates are two elderly black poodles that live down the block.” (You wouldn’t say “black elderly two poodles.”)

Some adjectives appear in a certain order when combined with dissimilar ones. These include adjectives for number (“two,” “three”), size (“little,” “tall”), age (“young,” “new”), color (“black,” “red”), and composition (“brick,” “leather”).

These adjectives always appear in a particular order. This explains why someone wears a “perfect little black dress,” not a “black little perfect dress,” as we wrote in 2010.

Here’s a parting sentence. It’s a mouthful, but we don’t feel a need to pause between adjectives when reading it aloud. And we didn’t feel a need for commas between adjectives when writing it.

“An overactive young terrier wearing a shiny new pink leather collar came out of an impressive red brick building and walked to the refurbished off-leash dog park to play with three aging French bulldogs in stunning white wool sweaters.”

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FLAS-id or FLAK-sid?

Q: My girlfriend, an English major, tells me that I’m pronouncing “flaccid” wrong. I say FLAS-id and she says FLAK-sid. Should we call the whole thing off?

A: No, you’re both right, and (as the Gershwin song goes) you’d better call the calling off off.

The word “flaccid” (meaning soft or weak) has two pronunciations in standard dictionaries. Some list FLAS-id first and others FLAK-sid, but both are considered standard English today.

Traditionally, “flaccid” was pronounced only one way—FLAK-sid, similar to the pronunciations of other English words in which the letter combination “cc” comes before “i” or “e” (as in “accept,” “success,” and “vaccination”).

The 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by Henry W. Fowler, lists only the traditional pronunciation.

But the 2015 fourth edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, says it can be pronounced either way, though FLAS-id “is probably more frequently heard.”

A more conservative usage guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), prefers the traditional pronunciation, but Bryan A. Garner, the author, warns readers about using the term:

“In short, the word is a kind of skunked term: pronounce it in the traditional way, and you’ll take some flak for doing so; pronounce it in the new way, and the cognoscenti will probably infer that you couldn’t spell or say cognoscenti, either.”

We think the traditionalists are fighting a losing battle. If we have to use the term, we’ll pronounce it FLAS-id, never mind the cognoscenti.

Language commentators began criticizing FLAS-id in the 19th century, as in this example from Pronouncing Handbook of Words Often Mispronounced (1873), by Richard Soule and Loomis J. Campbell: “flaccid, flak’sid, not flas’id.”

However, we’ve found many earlier examples from the 18th and 19th centuries for “flaccid” misspelled as “flacid,” suggesting that it was pronounced like—and perhaps influenced by—“placid.”

Here’s an example from A Dictionary of Surgery (1796), by Benjamin Lara: “When the parts continue mortisied for a great length of time, without either turning flacid, or running into dissolution, it is called a dry gangrene.”

In fact, the misspelling is common enough now to be cited by Garner, who gives this example from a May 12, 2002, restaurant review in the New York Post:

“The succulent shellfish practically melted on the tongue, but the tempura coating was oddly flacid.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed “flaccid” from French in the early 1600s, but the ultimate sources are the classical Latin flaccidus (limp) and flaccus (flabby).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “wanting in stiffness, hanging or lying loose or in wrinkles; limber, limp; flabby.”

The earliest citation in the OED is from Via Recta ad Vitam Longam, a 1620 book about health and hygiene. The author, Tobias Venner, a physician in the English spa town of Bath, warns against the dangers of drinking milk:

“And whosoeuer shall vse to drinke milke, because that it is hurtfull to the gummes and teeth; for the one it maketh flaccide, and the other subiect to putrefaction.”

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Is ‘trialed’ a trial?

Q: I recently read a British news report in which the word “trial” was being used as a verb meaning to test. Has this become a common usage? It sounds clunky to me.

A: Although the use of “trial” as a verb showed up in the US about a century and a half ago, it’s more common now in the UK.

The earliest example we’ve found is from Bessie and Her Friends, an 1868 novel in a series of children’s books by the American writer Joanna Hooe Mathews:

“Oh! we are very much trialed; are we not, Maggie?” (Bessie and Maggie were thwarted in their plans to pay for the medical treatment of a blind boy.)

The verb “trial” here is being used intransitively (without an object) in the sense of being tried or troubled.

The next example we’ve found (from the March 1888 issue of Wallace’s Monthly, an American sporting magazine) uses “trial” intransitively in the sense of competing in a horse race:

“She is a substantially put-up mare of well proportioned conformation and shows pure trotting-action, having trialed in 2:48 in her three-year-old form.”

And here’s an account of a dog field trial in the May 8, 1891, issue of the Fanciers’ Journal, a Philadelphia magazine:

“They would not put much pace on, and I don’t think Master Sam is nearly the dog at trialing as he was a couple of years ago.”

The earliest example for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “trial” transitively to mean “submit (something, esp. a new product) to a test or trial.” Here’s the quotation:

“Several distribution models are already being trialled in the United Kingdom,” from Computers in Education (1981), by Robert Lewis and Eric Donovan Tagg. (The past tense and past participle are usually spelled with a single “l” now.)

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence. Oxford Dictionaries Online, a standard dictionary, says “trial” can also be an intransitive verb in reference to a horse, dog, or other animal that competes in trials (as in our 1888 example, cited above).

We compete with our golden retrievers in obedience trials, and sometimes hear “trial” used as an intransitive verb by handlers. But the intransitive use of “show” seems more common at US trials, as in “We showed in Utility B last weekend.”

A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database from newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters on the Internet, indicates that the use of “trial” as a verb is significantly less common in the US than in other English-speaking countries.

Here’s a Commonwealth example: “Researchers from the University of South Australia have successfully trialed the use of drones to remotely measure heart and breathing rates” (from a Sept. 28, 2017, article on New Zealand Doctor Online).

And here’s one from the US: “This is the first time that Walmart had trialed a service where delivery personnel would directly enter a customer’s home” (from a Sept. 21, 2017, article on TechCrunch).

The NOW corpus also has some examples for the verb “trial” used in the sense of trying out for a sports team.

An Oct. 25, 2017, article in the Connaught (Ireland) Telegraph, for example, refers to “all of the players who trialed and trained” for the Irish team in an International Rules football competition with Australia.

When the noun “trial” showed up in English in the early 16th century, it referred to the “action of testing or putting to the proof the fitness, truth, strength, or other quality of anything,” according to the OED.

The earliest example in the dictionary is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by William Bonde, a priest-brother at Syon Abbey in England: “The tryall of our faythe, & examynacion or proue of our hope.”

The OED says the legal sense (“the examination and determination of a cause by a judicial tribunal”) showed up half a century later.

The first citation is from De Republica Anglorum: The Maner of Gouernement or Policie of the Realme of England (1583), by Thomas Smith:

“The Clarke asketh him howe he will be tryed, and telleth him he must saie, by God and the Countrie, for these be the words formall of this triall after Inditement.”

We’ll end with an example from Shakespeare’s Richard II (circa 1595). Here Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, responds when Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, accuses him of treason:

“Ile answer thee in any faire degree, / Or chiualrous designe of knightly triall.”

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All fixed for some pie

Q: I just read your “All the fixings” article about using the verb “fix” to mean “get ready” or “be ready.” It reminded me of a phrase my father used when he didn’t get a treat he was hoping to have: “I had my mouth all fixed for some pie.”

A: Your father was using the expression “all fixed for” in the sense of wanting something very much or longing for it.

This dialectal usage is sometimes followed by a gerund (“all fixed for eating some pie”) or, as in your father’s case, the treat itself (“I had my mouth all fixed for some pie”).

As far as we can tell from our searches of newspaper databases, the usage showed up in the late 19th century. In many of the examples, the person all fixed for something is disappointed—similar to your father’s use of the expression.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from the July, 4, 1895, issue of the Phillipsburg (KS) Herald: “Win Bissell got his mouth all fixed for a big feast of roasting ears on the Fourth, but a cow got in and cleaned up the patch Sunday night.”

And here’s one from the Oct. 21, 1909, Hammond (IN) Times: “Christ Brookham of 3619 Elm street reports to the police that duck thieves are abroad in the land, and that he is shy two nice fat ones, and was compelled to eat a third one when he had his mouth all fixed for chicken.”

In this example from the Jan. 16, 1915, Coronado (CA) Eagle and Journal, the person’s face, not his mouth, is “all fixed for” something good to eat:

“Did you ever get your face all fixed for a turkey dinner and find that the turkey supply was exhausted and all you could get was hamburger?”

And here’s a “throat” example, minus the word “all,” from the Aug. 25, 1917, issue of the Loveland (CO) Daily: “We had our throat fixed for trout, but they wan’t nothin’ come of it.”

But most of our sightings were of the “mouth all fixed for” variety. Here are a few more.

From the Nov. 4, 1921, Mohave County (AZ) Miner and Our Mineral Wealth: “J. H. Smith is short two fat ducks that were nabbed in back yard under the guise of a Halloween prank. Hubert says he would rather they had taken his chicken coop as his mouth was all fixed for a duck dinner.”

From the June 27, 1924, Clare (MI) Sentinel: “Oh, say! We are going to be invited out to supper this week and we have our mouth all fixed for chicken; but don’t mention it, as we are telling you this in confidence and wouldn’t like it to reach the ears of our expected hostess.”

And finally, from an advertisement for Junket in the April 3, 1947, San Bernardino (CA) Sun: “I had my mouth all fixed for that rennet-custard dessert you’re givin’ to Daddy! ’Course, Daddy likes it too—who wouldn’t? But you know rennet custards are my dish from ’way back. So how about it?”

This sense of “all fixed for” as longing for something is apparently derived from the use of the verb “fix” to mean be prepared or get ready, a usage that dates back to the early 1700s.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1715 entry in The Early Records of Lancaster, Massachusetts (1884), edited by Henry S. Nourse: “We’d fix things directly; I’ll settle whatever you please upon her.”

By the early 1800s, the verb was being used in the sense of preparing a drink or a meal, as in this OED example from Frances Trollope’s notes for Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): “You must fix me a drink.” Frances Trollope was the mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope.

And later in the 19th century, the expression “all fixed for” was being used in the sense of ready for a meal.

This example is from an ad for Platt’s buckwheat flour in the Nov. 6, 1871, issue of the Hartford (CT) Daily Courant: “Now we are all fixed for a good breakfast.”

The verb “fix,” which meant to make firm or stable when it showed up in English in the 1400s, is ultimately derived from fīxus, the past participle of fīgĕre, classical Latin for to fix or fasten.

The earliest OED example is from a collection of 15th-century songs and carols edited by Thomas Wright in 1847: “I thouȝt in mynd / I schuld ay fynd / The wehle of fortunat fyxyd fast.”

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Who put the ‘dis-’ in ‘dissent’?

Q: I’ve told my students that “dis-” is a prefix in “dissenter.” But now I’m being told in grad school that a prefix isn’t a prefix if the rest of the word doesn’t exist. So can I still refer to “dis-” as a prefix in “dissenter”?

A: The “dis-” in “dissent” and “dissenter” is indeed a prefix, especially if you go back to their etymological source, dissentīre, a classical Latin verb meaning to differ in sentiment.

Dissentīre was formed by adding the prefix dis- (in different directions) to the verb sentīre (to feel or think).

The Latin sentīre is also the source of “assent,” “consent,” “resent,” “sentiment,” and other English words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Can a lexical element at the beginning of a word be called a “prefix” if the rest of the word isn’t found by itself in standard dictionaries?

Well, some dictionaries do indeed define “prefix” in a restrictive way as an element added to the front of a word to change its meaning.

However, the two dictionaries we rely on the most, the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Unabridged, define “prefix” more broadly as an element added to the front of either a word or a stem.

The “sent” in “dissenter” is a lexical stem or base referring to the sense of feeling. You can find the same stem in all the words cited above from Ayto’s etymological dictionary.

The OED defines “dissenter” as “one who dissents in any matter: one who disagrees with any opinion, resolution, or proposal; a dissentient.”

The earliest Oxford citation is from Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning Government and Society (1651), by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:

“If any one will not consent … the City retaines its primitive Right against the Dissentour, that is the Right of War, as against an Enemy.” Hobbes had published the work in Latin in 1642 as De Cive (On the Citizen).

The dictionary says “dissenter” was formed by adding the suffix “-er” to the verb “dissent,” which it defines as “to withhold assent or consent from a proposal, etc.; not to assent; to disagree with or object to an action.”

The first OED citation for the verb is from The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, a work of history written around 1425 by the Scottish poet Andrew of Wyntoun: “Fra þis he dyssentyd hale” (“From this he dissented wholly”).

The noun “dissent,” which showed up more than a century later, is defined in the dictionary as “difference of opinion or sentiment; disagreement.”

The first Oxford citation for the noun is from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem by Edmund Spenser. The first three books were published in 1590 and the next three in 1596.

Here Artegall, the hero of book five, tries to resolve a dispute: “Did stay a while their greedy bickerment, / Till he had questioned the cause of their dissent.”

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Pre-, post-, and ante- position

Q: In addition to the grammar term “preposition,” is there such a thing as a “postposition” or an “anteposition” as a part of speech? Or am I mistaking “pre-” as a prefix in “preposition”?

A: Yes, “postposition” and “anteposition” are grammatical terms, though they aren’t among the terms for the traditional parts of speech.

And yes the “pre-” in “preposition” is a prefix—or rather was a prefix in its Latin source.

All three terms are etymological cousins. They’re ultimately derived from three related classical Latin verbs:

“preposition” comes from praepōnere (to put in front of), “postposition” from postpōnere (to put after), and “anteposition” from antepōnere (to put before).

As you know, a “preposition” is a term that’s typically put in front of a noun or noun phrase to position it in relation to other words, as “by” is used in “the house by the creek,” or “in back of” in “the copper beech in back of the house.”

“Postposition” refers to the placement of a term, or to a term that’s placed, after a grammatically related word or phrase. For example, “-ward” is a postposition in “homeward,” and “royal” appears postposition in “battle royal.”

“Anteposition” refers to the placement of a word or phrase before another, especially if that position is unusual. Examples: “fiddlers” in “fiddlers three” and “echoed” in “echoed the thunder.”

The first of the three terms to show up in English was “preposition,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example, dated around 1434, is from the writings of John Drury, a canon of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle:

“With what case xal þe [shall the] comparatif degre be construid with be cause of his degre? With an ablatif case of eyþer nownbre [either number] with oute a preposicion.” (The dictionary also cites two earlier uses of the Latin noun praepositiō in Old English.)

The first Oxford citation for “postposition” (from a 1736 English translation of a French history of China) says the prepositions in two Chinese phrases “are Postpositions, because they are put after the Nouns.”

And the earliest OED example for “anteposition” is from a 1728 Italian-English dictionary by Ferdinando Altieri: “The Position, or Anteposition causes the o to be pronounced open.”

By the way, the traditional parts of speech are noun, verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, preposition, conjunction, and interjection, though modern grammarians and linguists often use more precise classifications.

In Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I, she includes a sentence that uses all the traditional parts of speech:

“But [conjunction] gosh [interjection], you [pronoun] are [verb] really [adverb] in [preposition] terrible [adjective] trouble [noun]!”

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There, their, they’re

Q: Can you give me a very simplified way to remember how to use “there,” “their,” and “they’re”? I know “there” is a place or shows ownership, and “their” is more figurative, but I still sometimes get them wrong. HELP!

A: First of all, “there” does not show ownership, and “their” is not figurative. But like you, many people are confused by these sound-alike words.

Pat wrote a limerick about the various “there/their/they’re” words for her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, and it might help you to keep them straight. Here it is:


They seem to have taken on airs.
They’re  ever so rude with their stares.
They get there quite late,
There’s a hand in your plate,
And they’re eating what’s not even theirs.

Here’s the accompanying explanation:

● They’re is shorthand for “they are”: They’re tightwads, and they always have been.

● Their and theirs are the possessive forms of “they”: Their money is theirs alone.

● There (meaning “in or at that place,” as opposed to “here”) isn’t even a pronoun, unlike the others. Neither is there’s, which is shorthand for “there is.” But there and there’s frequently get mixed up with the sound-alikes they’re, their, and theirs.

We hope this helps.

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Is Angelina a celeb or a sleb?

Q: Is “sleb” a word you would find useful?

A: No, we don’t use “sleb,” and don’t expect to. If we want a short, informal version of “celebrity,” we use “celeb,” an older and far more popular term.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “sleb” as a British colloquial “alteration of celeb n., reflecting a monosyllabic pronunciation in rapid speech.”

The earliest example for “sleb” in the OED is from the title of a May 1, 1996, posting to the Usenet newsgroup alt.showbiz.gossip: “Sleb sighting.”

All the other Oxford citations are from British sources, as are most examples in the News on the Web corpus, a database from online newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters.

The earliest OED example for “celeb” is from the December 1907 issue of the Smith College Monthly: “She is a Senior Celeb and I’m just any Freshman.”

When “celebrity” showed up in English in the late 1300s, it meant the “state or fact of being well known, widely discussed, or publicly esteemed,” according to Oxford.

The first citation is from Chaucer’s Middle English translation, dated around 1380, of De Consolatione Philosophiae, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“þat is ryȝt clere and ryȝt noble of celebrate of renoun” (“that is right worthy and right noble of celebrity of renown”).

It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the word “celebrity” came to mean “a well-known or famous person,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED example is from the August 1831 issue of the New Monthly Magazine (London): “How will the new Chamber be composed? Of mayors, and notaries, and village celebrities.”

Now, according to Oxford, the term usually refers to “a person, esp. in entertainment or sport, who attracts interest from the general public and attention from the mass media.”

Finally, for American readers who may not have seen “sleb” in the wild, here’s an example from the May 10, 2017, issue of the Spectator (London):

“It’s an open secret that the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are none too comfortable with all the emoting and the sleb mingling.”

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Iteration and its iterations

Q: My latest pet peeve is people saying “iteration” when they could easily say “version.” It’s quite a fad in Washington journalism.

A: We’ve written a post about the meaning of “iterate” and “reiterate” (they mean the same thing), but we haven’t discussed the use of “iteration” for a version of something.

Although this usage is relatively new, standard dictionaries are beginning to accept it. Some define an “iteration” broadly as any kind of version, while others define it as a version of computer hardware or software.

We’re not particularly bugged by the new use of “iteration” for “version,” though we’re not surprised that such a stuffy-sounding word would insinuate its way into the officialese spoken in Washington.

When “iteration” showed up in English in the 1400s, it referred to the act of repeating. The ultimate source is iterāre, classical Latin for “do a second time” or “repeat.”

For hundreds of years, as “iteration” appeared in writings on alchemy, religion, medicine, mathematics, computer science, and so on, it meant either the act of repeating or a repeated action.

The earliest example of “iteration” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Ordinall of Alchymy, a 1477 illuminated manuscript by the English poet and alchemist Thomas Norton: “The multitude of their Iteration.”

The OED says the term was often used for “readministering a sacrament,” as in this example from The Apology of Iohan Bale Agaynste a Ranke Papyst (circa 1550): “the iteracyon of baptysme.” (John Bale, a Carmelite friar, converted to Protestantism during the reign of Henry VIII.)

By the late 1600s, according to citations in the dictionary, “iteration” was being used to mean a specific repetition. The first example is from Pharmacopœia Bateana (1694), a six-volume work by the English physician and medical writer William Salmon:

“For the three or four Iterations, the Regulus becomes apparently more bright and pure.” (In medieval Latin, regulus referred to metallic antimony.)

In the early 20th century, “iteration” came to be used in mathematics as “the repetition of an operation upon its product, as in finding the cube of a cube,” according to the OED.

The dictionary says this sense is especially used for “the repeated application of a formula devised to provide a closer approximation to the solution of a given equation when an approximate solution is substituted in the formula, so that a series of successively closer approximations may be obtained.”

If that left your head your head spinning, here’s a simpler definition from Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result.”

The first Oxford example for the mathematical sense is from The Calculus of Observations, a 1924 treatise by Edmund Taylor Whittaker and George Robinson:

“In 1674 a method depending on a new principle, the principle of iteration, was communicated in a letter from Gregory to Collins.” We went to the source to expand on the citation, but gave up after being bogged down in a Grimpen Mire of equations.

A computer sense developed in the mid-20th century.

In programing, according to M-W Unabridged, “iteration” refers to “the repetition of a sequence of computer instructions a specified number of times or until a condition is met” or to “one execution of a sequence of operations or instructions in an iteration.”

The earliest computer example in the OED  is from Numerical Methods for High Speed Computers, 1960, by Godfrey Newby Lance:

“Whichever criterion is used to determine the end of the iteration, it is clear that the orders to evaluate f(xr) and f(xr + 1) are identical except that xr + 1 is used instead of xr. This kind of modification is made extremely simple on high-speed computers.”

The citations in M-W Unabridged suggest that this technical computer usage may have led to the looser use of “iteration” for a version of something, first in reference to versions of software, and then more broadly.

A citation from the March 10, 1998, issue of PC Magazine, for example, uses “iteration” for a version of an operating system: “Current iterations of Windows 95 and Windows NT are far from perfect, but they’re easier to use and more stable.”

The word is used similarly in this citation from the winter 2000 technology issue of Fortune: “No one cares much about the latest iteration of a spreadsheet program or word processor.”

Finally, the term breaks free of computers in this M-W example:

“The scene, and hundreds of others from the first five seasons of ‘The Sopranos’ (as well as its current, sixth iteration), are in the process of being edited ever so slightly by the A&E Network” (from the May 9, 2006, issue of the New York Times).

We’ll end with a recent Washington sighting that we found online:

“Civil and Human Rights Coalition Denounces Latest Iteration of Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban” (from a Sept. 24, 2017, news release by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights).

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Thou lily-livered boy

Q: Some work colleagues and I were speculating where the expression “lily-livered,” meaning cowardly, came from. Do you know?

A: The use of the lily, especially the white Lilium candidum, to describe a coward dates from the Elizabethan age, but the usage may have roots in ancient Greece.

Shakespeare was apparently the first to use the expression “lily-livered” in writing. In fact, he uses it twice—in two plays believed written in the early 1600s:

“Go pricke thy face, and ouer-red thy feare / Thou Lilly-liuer’d Boy” (Macbeth).

“A lily-liuer’d, action-taking knaue, a whoreson” (King Lear).

Shakespeare is using “lily-livered” here as a metaphorical version of “white-livered,” which showed up in English a half-century earlier and meant “cowardly, feeble-spirited, pusillanimous,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first OED citation for the original expression is from a 1546 collection of proverbs by the English writer John Heywood:

“Why thynke ye me so white lyuerd (quoth she?) / That I will be tong tied? Nay I warrant ye.” We’ve expanded the citation to include two full lines of verse.

The dictionary says the expression may ultimately come from an ancient Greek term for cowardly, λευκηπατίας, or leukēpatias, literally “white-livered.”

As Oxford explains, the usage reflects the belief in ancient and medieval times “that a light-coloured liver was considered deficient in bile or choler, and hence lacking in vigour, spirit, or courage.”

In medieval physiology, as we wrote in 2009, the four humors (or fluids) of the body were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile).

These supposedly determined one’s temperament as well as physical and mental health. Imbalances among the humors were blamed for pain and disease.

A temperament governed by blood was buoyant, by phlegm was sluggish, by choler was quick-tempered, and by melancholy was dejected, according to this system.

In “Some Meanings of the Liver,” a paper published in the March 1979 issue of the journal Gastroenterology, Sherman Mellinkoff writes that ancient doctors believed “too much bile caused anger or depression; too little, timidity or cowardice.” Bile, or gall, is produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder.

As Merriam-Webster Online notes, “In the Middle Ages the study of anatomy, or the cutting up and examining of human corpses, was illegal. Most of what was thought about the body thus was based on the theory of humors.”

“The humor, or body fluid, that was supposed to control anger, spirit, and courage was bile, produced by the liver. A person who lacked courage was supposed to have a white liver, because it had no yellow bile to color it. Thus a cowardly person was called white-livered or, more poetically, lily-livered.”

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s use of “pigeon-livered” around 1600 in Hamlet (“I am pidgion liuerd, and lack gall”) reflects the old belief that the pigeon had a mild disposition because of its lack of a gallbladder.

We’ll end with an excerpt from Barchester Towers (1857), the second of six novels in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. Here Archdeacon Grantly urges his father-in-law, Mr. Harding, to stand up to Mr. Slope, the Bishop’s chaplain:

“You owe it to us all to resist him in this, even if you have no solicitude for yourself. But surely, for your own sake, you will not be so lily-livered as to fall into this trap which he has baited for you and let him take the very bread out of your mouth without a struggle.”

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I came, I seen, I conquered

Q: Greetings from the OC, where “I seen” is a fairly common regionalism among people of all ages, socioeconomic levels, and walks of life. As in, “I seen him in concert.” I even heard it in a radio commercial. Has “I seen” gone mainstream?

A: The use of “seen” for “saw” isn’t just an Orange County, CA, regionalism. This dialectal usage is heard in much of the US, as well as in England, Scotland, and Ireland, though it’s not at all mainstream.

The Dictionary of American Regional English describes the usage as “widespread” in the US, tersely adding that it appears “esp freq among rural speakers and those with little formal educ.”

We’ll add that some formally educated speakers—rural, urban, and suburban—may be slurring the expression “I’ve seen” so that it sounds like “I seen.”

DARE has examples from across the country or, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “From California to the New York Island, From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters.”

Similarly, the English Dialect Dictionary has many regional examples from England, as well as a few from Scotland and Ireland.

In fact, the use of “seen” as the past tense of “see” is often found in the news media. We saw several thousand examples in a search of the News on the Web corpus, a large database of reports from online newspapers, broadcasters, and magazines.

However, most mainstream examples were quoting people in the news, as in this recent one from the Oct. 16, 2017, issue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “After I seen what I seen, you know I called the police.”

And here’s an example from an Oct. 9, 2017, broadcast on the local CBS TV station in New York City: “I seen where it was going, and my friends too.”

The earliest American example in DARE is from an 1818 letter by Henry Cogswell Knight, an Episcopal clergyman in Massachusetts, about his travels in the South and West:

“Some words are used, even by genteel people, from their imperfect educations, in a new sense; and others, by the lower classes in society, pronounced very uncouthly, as … I seen.” (Knight was writing about local speech in Kentucky.)

And here’s a citation from Widow Rugby’s Husband and Other Tales of Alabama, an 1851 collection of short stories by the American humorist Johnson Jones Hooper: “That’s the last time I seen my face.”

The most recent DARE example is from a 1997 report on “coal speak” in eastern Pennsylvania: “Seen: Commonly used instead of ‘saw.’ ‘Don’t tell me yiz wasn’t dere, I seen yiz wit my own eyes!’ ”

The earliest EDD example from the British Isles cites Tom Brown at Oxford, an 1861 novel by Thomas Hughes: “I seen em.” (The novel appeared serially two years earlier in Macmillan Magazine.)

Here’s a Scottish citation from the April 3, 1899, issue of the Glasgow Herald: “Dod aye, I seen him hanged.” And this Irish example is from Mrs. Martin’s Company and Other Stories (1896), by the Irish writer Jane Barlow: “She that seen it took.”

In addition to “seen,” DARE has examples for “see” and “seed” used in place of “saw” as the past tense of “see”:

“I see him yesterday, or I see him last week, for I saw him” (from the May 16, 1781, issue of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, Philadelphia).

List of Improprieties … Seed for Saw” (from The Columbian Grammar, 1795, by Benjamin Dearborn).

EDD includes many other regional British dialectal past tenses for “see,” including “saigh,” “seed,” “seigh,” “zeed,” and “zid.”

We’ll end with a “zid” example from Desperate Remedies, an 1871 novel by Thomas Hardy: “When I zid ’em die off so.” (The novel, published anonymously, was Hardy’s first to appear in print. A rejected earlier novel was never published.)

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Mother, can I?

Q: God only knows how many times my parents corrected me for using “can” instead of “may” to ask permission. I probably corrected my own children just as often, but I finally gave up. I assume this is a lost cause.

A: Yes, it’s a lost cause, as you learned from struggling with your children, and it was probably a lost cause when your parents were struggling with you.

The old rule is that “can” means “able to” and “may” means “permitted to.” For example, “Jesse can run fast” and “May I go for a jog, Mom?”

However, dictionaries now accept the use of both “can” and “may” as auxiliary verbs for asking permission, though some suggest that “can” here is informal.

As Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains, “The use of can to ask or grant permission has been common since the 19th century and is well established, although some commentators feel may is more appropriate in formal contexts.”

The M-W lexicographers suggest that the permission sense of “can” evolved from the use of both auxiliaries to express possibility, “because the possibility of one’s doing something may depend on another’s acquiescence.”

Although the use of “can” to indicate permission became more popular in the 19th century, the usage actually showed up hundreds of years earlier, initially as to grant permission.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Book of Fayttes of Armes and of Chyualrye, William Caxton’s 1489 translation from the French of a work by Christine de Pisan:

“Þe lawe saithe suche a man can not make noo testament nor mary himself nor entre in to religyon.” (The term “can not” here means “is not permitted to.”)

The first OED citation in which “can” is used to ask for permission, rather than to grant it, is from a 1677 French-English dictionary by the Swiss-born English writer Guy Miege:

Y a-t-il moien que je lui parle? Can I speak with him?” (Literally, Y a-t-il moyen que je lui parle? means “Is there any way I can talk to him?”)

Although “may” has been used in the sense of granting permission since Anglo-Saxon times, it wasn’t used to ask for permission until the 17th century, according to citations in the OED.

At first it was used indirectly in parenthetical expressions, as in this example from Conjectura Cabbalistica, an essay by the English philosopher Henry More on cabbalistic views of Moses:

“Justice did but, if I may so speak, play and sport together in the businesse.”

As it turns out, the earliest Oxford citation for “may” used in the direct sense you’re asking about showed up two centuries after the dictionary’s first citation for “can” used that way:

“May we take your coach to town? I saw it in the hangar” (from The History of Henry Esmond, an 1852 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray).

Thus both etymology and common usage support using “can” to ask for permission.

So where did the old rule come from? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says Samuel Johnson was one of the first language authorities to draw “a strict line of demarcation” between “can” and “may.”

The “can” entry in Johnson’s 1755 dictionary says: “It is distinguished from may, as power from permission; I can do it, it is within my power; I may do it, it is allowed to me: but in poetry they are confounded.”

The M-W usage guide says Johnson’s “definition of can shows that he was ignorant of the origin of the word” and didn’t know its earliest senses, “although such uses may have been the ‘confounded’ ones he found in poetry.”

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers.   Today’s topic: the latest changes in the English language.

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On teens and teenagers

Q: In his 1910 novel Daisy’s Aunt, E. F. Benson writes that Daisy’s parents died “when she was quite young, and not yet halfway through the momentous teens.” I’m shocked that people were using “teens” so long ago.

A: Prepare yourself for another shock. People have been using “teens” for the teenage years since the mid-1600s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And here’s one more shocker. The OED has a British citation from the  early 1800s for “teens” used to mean teenagers—more than a century before the word “teenager” showed up in American English.

The OED defines the “teens” as the “years of the life of any person (rarely, of the age of anything) of which the numbers end in -teen, i.e. from thirteen to nineteen; chiefly in phrases in, out of one’s teens.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Cheats, a 1664 comedy by the English playwright John Wilson: How often have I told you, she was in her Teenes?”

The first Oxford citation for “teen” used to mean an adolescent is from the title of an 1818 guidebook by Isaac Taylor, an English clergyman: “Advice to the Teens; or, Practical Helps to the Formation of Character.”

Despite this early and apparently rare British example, the dictionary says the use of “teen” for a “young person in the teens” is “now chiefly N. Amer. and apprehended as short for teenager.”

The earliest American citation is from the July 30, 1951, issue of the Deseret News (Salt Lake City): “Doing something fun like redecorating your room … is really interesting biz for a teen who loves being busy.

The noun “teenager” showed up (with a hyphen) in the early 1940s, according to OED citations. The first example is from the April 1941 issue of Popular Science Monthly: “I never knew teen-agers could be so serious.”

The adjective “teenage” showed up two decades earlier. The first Oxford citation is from the March 11, 1921, issue of the Daily Colonist (Victoria, BC):

“All ‘teen age’ girls of the city are cordially invited to attend the mass meeting to be held this evening.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the adjective “teenaged” is from a 1953 entry in The American Thesaurus of Slang (1954), by L. V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark: “The teenaged set … a teenaged person.”

We’ll end with an expanded OED citation for “teenager” from a section on American advertising in The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947), a poem by W. H. Auden:

Definitely different. Has that democratic
Extra elegance. Easy to clean.
Will gladden grand-dad and your girl friend.
Lasts a lifetime. Leaves no odor.
American made. A modem product
Of nerve and know-how with a new thrill.
Patriotic to own. Is on its way
In a patent package. Pays to investigate.
Serves through science. Has something added
By skilled Scotchmen. Exclusively used
By upper classmen and Uncle Sam.
Tops in tests by teenagers.
Just ask for it always.

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How unique is ‘unique’?

Q: When I was in knee pants, I was taught that something “unique” is “one of a kind.” But when I wasn’t looking, the uniqueness of “unique” was apparently lost. Do I have to accept that it’s now merely “unusual”?

A: We were also taught that “unique” means “one of a kind,” and that’s the way we use it. You can use it that way too.

But while you weren’t looking, the lexicographers who put together dictionaries acknowledged what most English speakers already believed: “unique” can mean “unusual” as well as “one of a kind.”

Nevertheless, many usage authorities still insist on the traditional view, so feel free to use “unique” the way you were taught. But don’t criticize the people who use the term loosely. They have the dictionaries on their side.

English speakers borrowed “unique” in the early 1600s from the French, who got it from the Romans.

In Latin, unicus means “one and only,” and that’s how “unique” was used in English for more than two centuries.

At first, “unique” was mainly used by scholars and others aware of its Latin roots. For them, “unique” was an absolute term (like “infinite” or “eternal”), so there were no degrees of uniqueness. Nothing could be very or almost or sort of “unique.”

But as the word became more popular in the 1800s, it began losing its uniqueness in everyday usage.

As we say in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, writers who didn’t know or care about the word’s history began using it for the merely “unusual” or “remarkable” or “uncommon.”

The watered-down “unique” was often propped up with intensifiers—modifiers like “thoroughly,” “absolutely,” and “totally.” Before long, we had all kinds of uniqueness, from “rather” to “somewhat” to “very” to “most.”

For more than a century, usage guides have complained about the weakening of “unique” and berated “the illiterate” (Henry Fowler’s term) for emasculating it.

The latest version of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, a fourth edition by Jeremy Butterfield, notes that there’s still a “certain amount of hostility” toward the looser usage, and advises readers “to use it with caution.”

However, millions of people have ignored the usage gurus, and dictionaries have joined them. Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, for example, says:

“Many commentators have objected to the comparison or modification (as by somewhat or very) of unique, asserting that a thing is either unique or not unique. The objections are based chiefly on the assumption that unique has but a single absolute sense—an assumption contradicted by information readily available in a dictionary.”

The Unabridged lists many modern example of “unique” used to mean “unusual, notable,” including a 1956 comment by Arthur Miller at a news conference in London with his wife, Marilyn Monroe. Here’s an expanded version:

When Miller was asked how he saw Monroe, he responded: “Through two eyes. She’s the most unique person I ever met.”

In Origins of the Specious, published eight years ago, we acknowledged that “the horse is out of the barn here,” but we hoped that “it would come back home.”

That was wishful thinking. It’s clear today that “unique” means “unusual” as well as “one of a kind.” Thus does language change.

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The noisome origins of ‘noisy’

Q: “Noisome” and “noisy” look alike, despite their different meanings. Are they linguistically related?

A: No, “noisome” (smelly or disgusting) and “noisy” (making a lot of noise) aren’t etymologically related, though “noisy” very likely had smelly origins.

“Noisome,” which showed up in the 14th century, was derived from the combination of “noy,” an archaic form of “annoy,” with the suffix “-some”.

“Noisy,” which also appeared in the 1300s, is derived from “noise,” a word that English borrowed from Anglo-Norman in the 12th century.

Although “noisy” isn’t etymologically related to “noisome,” the noun “noise” probably had noisome origins in classical times, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the classical source of “noise” is likely nausea, Latin for sea sickness. That literal sense apparently evolved in the Romance languages to “upset, malaise,” then “disturbance, uproar” and finally “noise, din.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “noisome” is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: foolys þoo thyngis þat ben noȝesum to þem shul coueiten” (“fools shall covet those things that be noisome to them”).

The first OED example for “noisy” is from The Country-Wife, a 1675 comedy by the English playwright William Wycherley: “Your noisy pert Rogue of a wit, the greatest Fop, dullest Ass, and worst Company as you shall see.”

Finally, the dictionary’s earliest citation for “noise” is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Þe prude beoð his bemeres; draheð wind inward worltlich hereword, and eft wið idel ȝelp puffeð hit utward as þe bemeres doð, makieð noise” (“The proud are his trumpeters; they draw in the wind of worldly praise, and then, with vain boasting, puff it out again, as the trumpeter doth, to maketh noise”). We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.

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Biggity: too big for one’s britches

Q: An example in your piece about “ungrateful” and “uppity” uses “bigity,” as in “too big for one’s britches.” Did it originate among African Americans? I’ve heard it only from black folks in in the South.

A: The word “biggity” may indeed have originated in the 19th century among African Americans in the South, though a somewhat similar dialectal term, “bigotty,” showed up a bit earlier in England.

The Dictionary of American Regional English defines “biggity” (also spelled “bigity,” “biggaty,'” “biggedy,” etc.) as “exhibiting a sense of superiority or self-importance; arrogant, insolent, uppity.”

The earliest DARE example for “biggity” is from Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1881), by Joel Chandler Harris: “Dey er mighty biggity, dem house niggers is, but I notices dat dey don’t let nuthin’ pass.”

Many African Americans have criticized the portrayal of Uncle Remus, the narrator, as demeaning, patronizing, or racist. But others have said the characterization, with its Gullah dialect, is accurate.

In the foreword of a 1987 retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories, for example, the black folklorist Julius Lester writes:

“There are no inaccuracies in Harris’s characterization of Uncle Remus. Even the most cursory reading of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writer’s Project of the 1930s reveals that there were many slaves who fit the Uncle Remus mold.”

DARE has citations for “biggity” used by whites as well as blacks, in the American South and Midwest, from the late 19th to the early 21st century.

The states include Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and a Northeast outlier, New Jersey.

The latest example is a 2015 Louisiana entry from the dictionary’s Internet files: “I thought that everyone in a highschool band would be biggity and cocky towards freshman. It wasn’t the case though.”

DARE notes that the English Dialect Dictionary has an entry for “bigotty,” meaning “bumptious, overbearing, self-willed,” and suggests that both “biggity” and “bigotty” may have been derived from the noun “bigot.”

In support of this notion, DARE editors point readers to a 1902 citation from Dialect Notes, a journal of the American Dialect Society: “Bigoted or bigoty … Conceited; proud; haughty.”

The earliest citation for “bigotty” in the English Dialect Dictionary is from an 1873 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “Maayn beg·utee luyk, id-n ur [very bumptious (like), is he not?].” The EDD adds: “Nothing suggestive of religious intolerance is implied.”

The idea that “biggity” originated among African Americans is supported by an example we’ve found in “Negro English,” an article by the American linguist James A. Harrison in the January 1884 issue of Anglia, a German quarterly devoted to English linguistics.

The article, written in English, has a glossary entitled “Specimen Negroisms” that includes this example: “To talk biggity = to talk big, to order.”

Harrison’s work “is believed to be the first linguistic study of ‘Negro English,’ ” according to the Oxford Handbook of African American Language. However, modern scholars have challenged some of Harrison’s ideas, such as his view that “Negro English” would eventually fade away.

In Figures in Black (1987), for example, Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes Harrison’s prediction that African American Vernacular English (the term linguists now use), would become, as Gates says, “a mere relic of the slave past.”

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Is it all relative … or academic?

Q: What is the difference between “it’s all relative” and “it’s all academic”? It seem to me that there’s something hypothetical about both of them.

A: The two usages, which showed up in the early 1800s, have a sense of uncertainty about them. “Relative” here means indefinite or indeterminate, while “academic” means impractical, theoretical, or inconsequential.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to be relative” as “to be evaluated differently depending on a person’s perspective; to be incapable of definitive or absolute evaluation. Frequently in it’s all relative.”

In other words, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, a usage that showed up in the early 1600s.

The earliest example for “it’s all relative” in the OED is from an 1804 case report by Christopher Robinson, a judge on the High Court of Admiralty:

“It may be difficult to lay down the precise bounds, where ordinary commerce ends, and extraordinary speculation begins. It is all relative.”

The dictionary defines “academic” in the sense you’re asking about as “not leading to a decision; unpractical; strictly theoretical or formal. Now also in weakened sense: of no consequence, irrelevant.”

The dictionary’s first example is from an 1812 issue of the Monthly Review, a British literary journal:

“His erudition must be worked into the edifice, not exhibited in lumpish disconnection. He must preserve the epic form, without sliding into academic discussion.”

The OED doesn’t have a citation for “it’s all academic.” But examples aren’t hard to find.

The earliest example we’ve found is from the February 1892 issue of Books, a publication of the Denver (CO) Public Library: “It is all academic to the last degree. It is perhaps the airiest of suspicions.”

In a recent example, Richard Posner, who had just retired as a federal judge in Chicago, said in a Sept. 14, 2017, interview that he was ordinarily polite in court but found it irritating when lawyers were unprepared or talkative or went off the point:

“So I do get annoyed; I’m criticized for that. I should control myself, but of course now, it’s all academic. I’m not a judge. Too late to correct me.”

As for the etymology, “academic” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin acadēmicus, describing the ancient Academy of Athens or its philosophy, while “relative” ultimately comes from the classical Latin relātus, past participle of referre (to refer).

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Seedy endings

Q: I’m often flummoxed when I try to spell words with endings that sound like “seed.” Is there a way to keep these endings straight?

A: Words that end with a “seed” sound are notoriously hard to spell, as Pat notes in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I.

“It helps to keep in mind that all but four end with cede,” she writes. “Three end with ceed, and only one ends with sede.

The cede-less variety consists of “exceed,” “proceed,” “succeed,” and “supersede.”

When in doubt, look it up. But if you don’t have a dictionary handy and you have to guess, the odds are good that the ending is “-cede.”

The “-cede” ending is ultimately derived from cēdere, classical Latin for to go away or give ground, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So etymologically, “antecede” means to go before, “intercede” to go between, and “recede” to go back, while “cede” and “concede” both mean to give ground or yield.

The “-ceed” ending is similarly derived from cēdere, the OED says, so “exceed” has the etymological sense of to go out, “proceed” to go forward, and “succeed” to go near.

Although the “-sede” ending in “supersede” may have been influenced by cēdere, according to Oxford, it ultimately comes from supersedēre, classical Latin for to sit on top of or abstain.

We published a post a couple of years ago about the difference between “accede” and “concede.” (“Concede” has an element of defeat, while “accede” implies a more ready acceptance.)

In the earlier item, we cite the OED as saying “cede” originally meant “to give way, give place, yield to”—as in “a servant cedes to his master.”

But that sense is now obsolete, the dictionary says, and “cede” now means “to give up, grant; to yield, surrender: esp. to give up a portion of territory.”

The earliest OED citation for the modern sense is from a 1754 travel book by Alexander Drummond:

“That honour was entirely ceded to the Parthian royal race.” (The Parthian Empire, which existed from 247 BC to 224 AD, ruled parts of ancient Iran and Iraq.)

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Is ‘ungrateful’ the new ‘uppity’?

Q: The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb says “ungrateful” is the new “uppity,” citing its use to condemn wealthy black athletes who take a knee to protest police brutality. Any comment?

A: In his article, Cobb mentions a tweet by Joe Walsh, a conservative talk-show host and former Republican congressman from Illinois:

“Stevie Wonder began a performance in Central Park last night by taking a knee, prompting Congressman Joe Walsh to tweet that Wonder was ‘another ungrateful black multi-millionaire.’ Ungrateful is the new uppity.”

The word “ungrateful” (not feeling or showing gratitude) has been used a lot lately to criticize protesting African-American athletes, along with quite a few other disparaging terms.

For example, a widely circulated post by Breitbart News on Facebook calls the protesters “a bunch of rich, entitled, arrogant, ungrateful, anti-American degenerates.”

However, the use of “ungrateful” to criticize blacks isn’t especially new. It’s been used that way at least as far back as the mid-1800s.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from British Guiana: Demerara After Fifteen Years of Freedom, an 1853 book by John Brummell, a land owner in the Demerara region of the British colony:

“Even now, when the British nation, disappointed at the results of Emancipation in the West Indies, plainly demand that the lazy and ungrateful negro, should not be allowed to relapse into barbarism.”

And an article in the May 1864 issue of the Christian Examiner, an American journal, uses the term in predicting the reaction of plantation owners to the freeing of slaves at the end of the Civil War.

The writer says the planters will complain “that emancipation has been the ruin of the South; that the lazy and ungrateful negro chooses to earn a competency on his own soil.”

But how is “ungrateful” being used in that 1864 example? Did the writer really believe that plantation owners would think their former slaves should feel gratitude for being enslaved?

We suspect that the term is being used here in the sense of “uppity” (arrogant or conceited), a word that showed up later in the 19th century.

The first citation for “uppity” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris’s 1881 collection of African-American folk tales. (An earlier term, “uppish,” also means conceited or stuck up.)

Uncle Remus, the fictional black narrator of the stories, uses “uppity” for a stuck-up sparrow that tattles on Brer Fox: “Hit wuz wunner deze yer uppity little Jack Sparrers, I speck.”

Uncle Remus also uses “uppity” to describe Brer Rabbit, Brer Rooster, and a flighty black maid, Tildy.

In a few years, the word “uppity” was being used in mainstream newspapers without racial overtones, according to our searches of NewsBank databases.

The March 20, 1886, issue of the Macon (GA) Telegraph, for example, describes how a woman was tricked into pulling the bell-line to stop a train. When the conductor questions her, the woman says “you needn’t git so uppity.”

And the Jan. 23, 1888, Duluth (MN) Daily News has an account about a merchant in a town who “becomes a little uppity and bigity, and so he moves to the city.”

Of course the term has long been used to disparage African-Americans. The OED cites this example from Frederick Lewis Allen’s 1952 social history The Big Change:

“The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about ‘uppity niggers’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow.”

And we’ll add a comment by Rush Limbaugh, who said that Michelle Obama was booed at a NASCAR event because the crowd didn’t like her travel spending and her campaign for healthy living.

“NASCAR people understand that’s a little bit of a waste,” Limbaugh said on a Nov. 21, 2011, broadcast of his radio show. “They understand it’s a little bit of uppity-ism.”

Getting back to your question, is “ungrateful” being used now in the sense of “uppity”?

Well, Joe Walsh, the talk-show host, does seem to be using it that way. But some other critics of protesting black athletes may be using it in the sense of unpatriotic.

For example, Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion, called the NFL protests “misguided and ungrateful.”

“There are many ways to protest, but the national anthem should be our moment to stand together as one UNITED States of America,” she said in a statement.

As for the etymology here, the words “grateful” and “ungrateful” ultimately come from grātus, classical Latin for agreeable, pleasing, popular, and thankful.

In fact, the word “grateful” meant both agreeable and thankful when it showed up in English in the mid-1500s. Similarly, “ungrateful” once meant disagreeable as well as not feeling or showing gratitude.

The earliest example for “ungrateful” in the OED uses the term in the sense of not feeling or showing gratitude:

“The Macedons … confessyng them selues bothe wicked and vngrateful, for depriuynge him of anye name wherof he was worthye.” (From John Brende’s 1553 translation of a work by the Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus.)

The first citation for “ungrateful” used to mean disagreeable is from “Orchestra,” a 1596 poem by John Davies about dancing:

“How shee illudes with all the Art she can, / Th’vngratefull loue which other Lords began.” (We’ve expanded the citation to add context).

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One of a kind

Q: I am 74 and grew up in what is now Silicon Valley. When I was a teenager, the phrase “one of” was used to indicate something unique, as in “Hey, man, it’s a one of.” Can you tell me something about the usage?

A: Our guess is that the teenagers you hung out with were using “one of” as short for “one of a kind,” an expression dating back at least as far as the 17th century.

The clipped usage shows up occasionally in writing, as in this example from a 2011 Huffington Post article about disaster relief:

“Rather than ‘one-of’ projects, community literally means a group of interacting organisms sharing a populated environment.”

However, you won’t find the clipped version in standard dictionaries or in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

We also didn’t see it in any of our slang dictionaries. The Dictionary of American Regional English has an entry for “one of,” but it’s used differently to mean an event that one just misses.

Here’s a DARE citation from 1914: “Come within one of … Come near, in the sense of barely to escape … ‘I come within one of breaking my best china platter this morning.’ ”

The earliest written example we’ve found for “one of a kind” (meaning “a unique instance”) is from Primordia, a 1683 work of theology by the English cleric Thomas Tanner:

“And what need Cain have given any name to his City, if there were no other City in the World beside? For names are for distinction, and are useless where there is but one of a kind.”

This example is from an article on antiquities in A New Universal History of Arts and Sciences, a 1759 encyclopedia:

“Singular medals are invaluable. We commonly understand by singular medals, such as are not found in the cabinets of the curious, and are only met with by chance; but in a stricter sense are such whereof there is not above one of a kind extant.”

And here’s an example from The Four Gospels, a 1789 translation of the Greek, with commentary, by the Scottish Enlightenment scholar and clergyman George Campbell:

“A proper name is not necessary where there are no more than one of a kind.”

The OED cites only 20th-century examples in which “one of a kind” is an adjectival phrase meaning “unique.” Here are a few citations:

“Non-recurrent phenomena are one-of-a-kind and uniquely occurrent.” (From Arthur C. Danto’s article “On Historical Questioning,” published in The Journal of Philosophy, Feb. 4, 1954.)

“A one-of-a-kind film.” (From The New Yorker, April 21, 1975, referring to the 1945 movie Children of Paradise.)

“I think of myself standing there in the gallery, surrounded by one-of-a-kind boutique-wear and real pearls.” (From Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye.)

We wrote a post in 2008 about the British usage “one-off,” which began as a commercial term in manufacturing. It was first used in the 1930s as a noun phrase and in the ’40s as an adjective.

In that expression, the OED says, “off” is “used with a preceding numeral to represent a quantity in production or manufacture, or an item or number of items so produced.” Any number can precede “off,” but the OED says the most common is “one.”

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A political groundswell

Q: In The Heir of Redclyffe, an 1853 novel, Charlotte M. Yonge describes a “ground-swell” (she hyphenates it) as “a continuous low moan, or roar, far, far away.” How did it become a political term?

A: When the word showed up in the early 19th century, it referred to a “deep swell or heavy rolling of the sea, the result of a distant storm or seismic disturbance,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But the term was also used figuratively “with reference to mental or political agitation,” the dictionary says, though it doesn’t have any political examples.

In fact, the earliest citation in the OED is a figurative usage from Zapolya: A Christmas Tale (1817), a verse play by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “It is the ground-swell of a teeming instinct.”

The dictionary’s first literal example is from The Heart of Midlothian (1818), the seventh of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels: “The agitation of the waters, called by sailors the ground-swell.”

Interestingly, this literal example was used to describe the agitated state of a crowd. (The novel was originally published as Tales of My Landlord, under the pseudonym Jedediah Cleishbotham.)

By the way, the OED uses a hyphen for “groundswell,” but the dictionary’s entry hasn’t been fully updated. Standard dictionaries now list the term as one word.

Although Oxford doesn’t have any citations for “groundswell” used politically, perhaps the most common sense today, we’ve found several from the 19th century.

For example, a July 12, 1872, headline in the New York Herald sums up reaction to the nomination of Horace Greeley as the Democratic candidate for president as “The Groundswell After the Political Storm at Baltimore.”

And the Aug. 25, 1898, issue of the Minneapolis Journal has this headline on page one: “A GROUNDSWELL / What Senator Davis Predicts for the Republican Party. / Full Control of the Senate and House Is Anticipated.”

Finally, a June 17, 1902, editorial in the Morning Herald (Lexington, KY) comments on “a ground-swell of dissatisfaction against the system” for managing the state’s charitable institutions.

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The ‘newfangled’ iPhone X

Q: An article on the tech blog Engadget refers to Apple’s latest novelty as “the newfangled iPhone X.” I assume the adjective “newfangled” is somehow related to the noun “fang,” but I can’t for the life of me see a connection.

A: Yes, “newfangled” is indeed related to “fang,” but we have to go back to Anglo-Saxon days to find the ancestor that gave us both words.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the two terms ultimately come from fōn, an Old English verb meaning to capture. In early Old English, the verb was spelled feng.

The earliest citation for the verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as far back as 725:

“Hēo him eft hraþe andlēan forgeald / grimman grāpum, ond him tōgēanes fēng” (“She rose quickly and seized him tightly in her grim embrace”). We’ve expanded the OED excerpt, which describes Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother.

In the early 13th century, Chambers says, the Middle English words for “new” and “seized” came together to form the adjective neufangel, meaning fond of novelty (literally, seized by the new).

The first OED example is from the Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of moral advice written around 1250. In the citation, neufangel is used in the sense of fickle—that is, fond of new lovers:

“If þi loverd is neufangel, / Ne be þou nout forþi outgangel” (“If thy husband is fond of new lovers, don’t therefore be thou fond of going out”).

In the late 15th century, the adjective added the “-ed” suffix that it has today. The first OED example is from a sermon, dated around 1496, by the Anglican Bishop John Alcock: “Boyes of fyfty yere of age are as newe fangled as ony yonge men be.”

A few decades later, the adjective took on the usual modern sense: “Newly or recently invented or existent; gratuitously or objectionably modern or different from what one is used to,” the dictionary says.

The first example given is from A Disputation of Purgatory, a 1531 polemic by the English Protestant writer John Frith: “Let vs se and examine more of this newfangled philosophye.”

(Frith, who questioned the belief in purgatory, was burned at the stake in 1533 after Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor, accused him of heresy. More, in turn, was beheaded in 1535.)

Interestingly, the noun “fang” didn’t refer to a sharp tooth when it showed up in the 14th century. It meant the act of seizing, embracing, or protecting. Not surprisingly, it’s derived from the Old English verb meaning to capture.

The first OED citation (from the Romance of Alexander, 1340-70) uses the noun in its protective sense: “In fang with my faire godis.”

In the mid-16th century, “fang” came to mean a canine tooth, especially one of “the teeth of dogs, wolves, or other animals remarkable for strength of jaw,” according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford citation is from The Decades of the Newe Worlde, Richard Eden’s 1551 translation of Latin writings by the Italian historian Peter Martyr d’Anghiera:

“Theyr teeth are very sharpe, and especially theyr fanges or dogge teeth.” We’ve expanded the excerpt, which refers to the teeth of iguanas.

If you’d like to read more, we had a post a few years ago that discusses “fangled” as well as “newfangled.” Yes, “fangled” was once a word, and Shakespeare used it!

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As bad or worse than?

Q: A recent headline in the Washington Post says the Cassidy-Graham health bill “is as bad or worse than all the others.” Politics aside, what do you think of the grammar?

A: Ouch! There’s a missing link in that headline about the legislation proposed by Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

The headline writer intended to link “as bad as” and “worse than” in one construction. But in linking them together, the second “as” got lost.

“As” could be put back—making the bill “as bad as or worse than all the others”—but that’s a bit clunky, especially in a headline.

We’d prefer a version with “worse” at the end, as in these two examples: (1) “as bad as all the others, or worse” and (2) “as bad as all the others, if not worse.”

In her grammar and usage book Woe Is I, Pat discusses this faulty construction as well as two similar ones with missing links:

As bad or worse than. Stay away from this kind of sentence: Opie’s math is as bad or worse than his English. Do you see what’s wrong with it? There are two kinds of comparisons going on, as bad as and worse than. When you telescope them into as bad or worse than, you lose an as. Putting it back in (Opie’s math is as bad as or worse than his English) is correct but cumbersome. A better idea is to put the rear end of the comparison (or worse) at the end of the sentence: Opie’s math is as bad as his English, or worse. (Another way to end the sentence is if not worse.)

As good or better than. This is a variation on the previous theme. It’s better to split up the comparison: Harry’s  broom is as good as Malfoy’s, or better. (Another way to end it is if not better.)

As much or more than. Here’s another variation on as bad or worse than. Don’t use this phrase all at once; split it up: Otis loves bourbon as much as rye, or more. (Another ending is if not more.)”

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Green thumbs and green fingers

Q: Why is an ability to grow plants called “a green thumb” in the US and “green fingers” in the UK?

A: Both expressions showed up in writing in the 20th century, “green fingers” first and “green thumb” a few decades later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Similarly, “green fingered” appeared first, followed by “green thumbed.”

We’ve found “thumb” and “fingers” examples in both American and British writing, but a good gardener generally has “a green thumb” in the US and “green fingers” in the UK, according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus.

We think the written evidence clearly indicates that the original expression was “green fingers,” though F. E. L. Priestley, a language scholar at the University of Toronto, has suggested that “a green thumb” may have come first.

In A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Language (2006), Eric Partridge quotes Priestley, one of his correspondents, as saying, “I think the original was ‘a green thumb,’ probably by analogy with the miller’s ‘golden thumb’ (as in Chaucer).”

In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386), Geoffrey Chaucer writes that the miller “hadde a thombe of gold.” Scholars have debated whether the reference is to the grain-colored thumb of the miller or his heavy Midas touch in weighing the flour.

In early editions of his slang dictionary, which was first published in 1961, Partridge says the expression to “have green fingers” was coined by C. H. Middleton, the host of “In Your Garden,” a popular BBC radio program in the 1930s and ’40s.

But as newly discovered written evidence indicated that the expression predated the radio show, later editions of the slang dictionary, edited by Paul Beale, say that “perhaps the phrase was merely popularized by Mr. Middleton.”

Our guess is that the influence of Middleton’s BBC show may have encouraged the use of the “green fingers” idiom in the UK. However, we haven’t seen any reasonable theories of why Americans prefer “green thumb.”

As we’ve said before on the blog, idioms are peculiar to a people, place, or community, and they don’t have to make literal sense. However, we doubt that Chaucer’s “thombe of gold” has anything to do with the American usage. We’ve seen no evidence to support it.

The earliest OED citation for “green fingers” is from The Misses Make-Believe, a 1906 novel by the Scottish-born writer Mary Stuart Boyd: “What old wives call ‘green fingers’: those magic digits that appear to ensure the growth of everything they plant.”

The dictionary defines “green fingers” as a “skill or success in making plants grow, esp. in to have green fingers.” The first example of the verb phrase is from Congo Song, a 1943 novel by the South African writer Stuart Cloete:

“Some men have green fingers. Plants like them. They can make things grow because they love them.”

The first Oxford citation for “green thumb” is from the July 9, 1937, issue of the Ironwood (MI) Daily Globe:

“Besides being green-eyed, Miss Dvorak has what is known as ‘the green thumb.’ That’s horticultural slang for being a successful gardener with instinctive understanding of growing things.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “green-fingered” is from Colour in My Garden, a 1918 book by the American gardening writer Louise Beebe Wilder:

“Under the care of our green-fingered grandmothers gardens throve and were full of hearty, wholesome colour.” (In addition to “green-fingered,” Wilder uses the British spelling of “color.”)

The first Oxford citation for “green-thumbed” is from the June 6, 1937, Washington Post: “He is, I think, the ‘green-thumbed’ type of gardener, who has lived and loved his flowers and has learned from them and from the soil.”

We’ve seen many theories for why the word “green” is used in both “green thumb” and “green fingers.” The most common are that one’s thumbs or other fingers are stained green by handling mossy flowerpots or by pinching old blooms when deadheading.

Although the two theories make sense, we’ve seen no evidence in early Oxford citations that the writers were using “green fingers” or “green thumb” literally.

We suspect that “green” here is being used loosely in a gardening sense, much as it’s used in an environmental sense in such expressions as “green movement” (1977), “green energy” (1980), “green-minded” (1984), “green economy” (1986), and so on.

We’ve written several times on the blog about “green,” including a post about the golfing expression “rub of the green,” an item about whether a tree can blush green, and a piece about the sexual use of the word.

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On nobs and snobs

Q: I enjoyed your post about “snob,” but I’m wondering if the word is related to “nob,” the British term for someone who’s wealthy or socially prominent.

A: No, the two words aren’t etymological relatives. The only thing they have in common is an “-ob” ending that’s an irrelevant coincidence, as far as we can tell.

When “nob” first appeared, in the 1300s, it meant a knot, a now obsolete usage. The sense of someone important, chiefly a British usage, showed up in the 1600s.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the slang VIP sense is of uncertain origin, though it may have been influenced by the archaic “nab” or colloquial “nob,” terms for the head.

The dictionary says one theory is that “nob” is a shortened form of “noble” or “nobleman,” perhaps originally a graphic representation, but that wouldn’t explain why early written forms of the word were spelled with “a” instead of “o.”

The earliest OED citation for “nob” used in the bigwig sense you’re asking about is from an Oct. 10, 1676, entry in the Inverness Tailors’ Minute Book:

“The said John Baillie … resolved … that the most discreet and sound nabbs of the freemen should join with him in council.”

The dictionary’s first example with the “o” spelling is from Letters of W. Fowler (1809): “My Drawings and Engravings … have recommended me to the notice of the first Nobbs of this Kingdom.” (William Fowler, 1761-1832, was an English artist known for his drawings and engravings.)

The first OED citation with the modern spelling is from The English Spy (1825), a satirical book by the author and journalist Charles Molloy Westmacott about fashionable life in Regency England: “Nob or big wig.”

The noun “snob,” as we wrote in our post last week, meant a shoemaker when it showed up in the late 17th century. The OED describes its origin as obscure.

The noun didn’t get its modern sense (someone who despises the less wealthy or prominent) until the early 20th century.

We haven’t seen any evidence in either the OED or other language references that “snob” and “nob” are etymologically related.

However, the linguist Anatoly Liberman has suggested on the Oxford University Press blog that the two words may be related in a looser way, like “children living in the same orphanage (identical clothes and similar habits, but the union is artificial).” We’re wary of such speculations, but you might find them interesting.

If you’d like to read more, we’ve also discussed “nob” in a 2012 post about “hobnob” and in a 2006 post about the singer known as Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs (noting the use of “nobs” and “nibs” in cribbage).

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Days of our lives

Q: I found your post about the months very interesting. So we got the names from the Romans. And, as far as I can tell, we got the days of the week from Teutonic gods. English seems to gather from everyone.

A: Yes, English is indeed a great gatherer, but the names for the days of the week ultimately come from Roman gods.

Most of the classical deities were replaced by corresponding Teutonic ones when the Latin days of the week were adopted by Germanic speakers.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “The Latin days of the week in imperial Rome were named after the planets, which in turn were named after gods.”

Each day took its name from the planets supposedly controlling its first hour under the Ptolemaic system. Ptolemy considered the Sun and the Moon to be planets.

“The planetary names, classical Latin diēs sōlis, diēs lunae, diēs martis, etc., came into common use in the Roman Empire, and were adopted in translated form by the Germanic peoples, including the Angles and Saxons (before they came to Britain),” the OED says.

The dictionary adds that “the names Mars, Mercurius, etc., being understood as names of Roman gods, were translated using the names of the Germanic gods supposed to correspond to these.”

Here’s a brief history of the English days of the week:

Sunnandæg (Old English for Sunday) comes from the Latin diēs sōlis (day of the sun).

Monandæg (OE for Monday or moon’s day), from diēs lunae (day of the moon).

Tywesdæg (day of Tiw, war and sky god in the Germanic pantheon), from diēs martis (day of Mars).

Wodnesdæg (day of Woden, highest god in the Germanic pantheon), from diēs mercuriī (day of Mercury).

Þunresdæg (day of Thor, god of thunder), from diēs Iovis (day of Jupiter).

Frigedæig (day of Frig, goddess of wisdom and wife of Woden), from diēs Veneris (day of Venus).

Sæternesdæg (day of Saturn), from diēs sāturnī.

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Run the gambit?

Q: I keep hearing “gamut” misused, as in “run the gambit,” which doesn’t make sense. What’s the deal with people confusing these two words?

A: Yes, “run the gambit” is on the loose, but “run the gamut” is much more popular in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, the British National Corpus, and News on the Web, a database from online newspapers and magazines.

The original idiomatic expression, “run the gamut,” which means to extend over an entire range, showed up in English nearly three centuries ago.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Courtier, Robert Samber’s 1724 translation of a 16th-century etiquette book by the Italian writer Baldassare Castiglione:

“When they talk with any one, after a Pause, [they] renew their Discourse in such a Tone as if they were running over the Gamut.”

The next example is from Flim-Flams! (1805), a novel by Isaac D’Israeli, father of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli:

“He runs through the whole gamut of the heart, from bass to treble.”

Those two early citations reflect the musical origins of the expression. As an etymology note at Merriam-Webster Online explains, the term comes from a musical scale developed in the 11th century by the musician and monk Guido d’Arezzo:

“Guido called the first line of his bass staff gamma and the first note in his scale ut, which meant that gamma ut was the term for a note written on the first staff line. In time, gamma ut underwent a shortening to gamut but climbed the scale of meaning. It expanded to cover all the notes of Guido’s scale, then all the notes in the range of an instrument, and, eventually, an entire range of any sort.”

The first English example for the noun “gamut” in the OED is from a treatise on counterpoint, written sometime before 1445, by the English composer Lionel Power:

“Gamut hathe 3 acordis: re, mi, sol be proprechaunt; re a 12, mi a 13, sol a 15.”

The dictionary notes that “run the gamut” has the rare musical sense of to “perform all the notes of the scale, or all the notes within the compass of a particular singer or instrument,” but adds that the usual, more expansive meaning of the expression is “to experience, display, or perform the complete range of something.”

When the word “gambit” showed up in English in the 17th century, according to the OED, it referred in chess to “a game, or sequence of moves, involving a sacrifice to launch an attack or gain some other advantage.”

When used in chess now, the dictionary says, the term usually refers to “an opening in which a player offers a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary is from The Royall Game of Chesse-Play, Francis Beale’s 1656 translation of a work by the Italian chess writer Gioachino Greco: “Illustrated with almost an hundred Gambetts.”

In the mid-19th century, Oxford says, the term “gambit” took on two expanded senses: (1) a “remark intended to initiate or change the direction of a conversation” and (2) a “plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, esp. at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the first sense is from the Jan. 1, 1853, issue of Punch: “Would you think I … played Knight’s gambit, or rather opening, if I ventured the colloquial critique—‘very fine oysters!’ ”

The earliest example for the second sense is from Memoirs of the Court and Cabinet of George III (1855), by the Duke of Buckingham:

“The dashing gambit which his opponent directed, was neither evaded with caution nor defended with skill.”

As for “run the gambit,” the misuse has been around for dozens of years. The earliest example we’ve found is from Fuad: King of Egypt, a 1936 biography by the Indian author Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah:

“Zaghlul was the popular idol, and anyone who was even faintly critical of his activities must perforce run the gambit of mob disapproval.”

And here’s a double whammy from the official record of an April 1, 1959, hearing about freight car shortages, held by a US Senate subcommittee in Kansas City, Kansas:

“All the cars that go out to my district, the main industry of which is lumber, have to run the gambit in California, or they have to run the gambit in Washington.” (The speaker, Rep. Charles O. Porter, an Oregon Democrat, addressed the Freight Car Shortage Subcommittee of the Senate Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.)

This excerpt from a 1947 book in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, the State Department’s official record of major American foreign policy decisions, describes Soviet policies toward the West:

“The zigs and zags have run the gambit from out and out revolutionary hostility to the Popular Front with Social Democrats during the 30’s, the pact with Hitler, Big Power unity, parliamentary ‘cooperation’ and now back to anti-parliamentary, anti-imperialist revolutionary hostility and noncooperation.”

We’ve found hundreds of more recent examples for “run the gambit,” including these:

“Food offerings run the gambit from Wisconsin classics like cheese curds and pretzel sticks to salmon and sirloin” (from the Aug 10, 2017, issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).

“Let’s run the gambit of possible outcomes, which not surprisingly range from ‘everyone dies’ to “everyone dies’ ” (from a Jan. 20, 2017, item on Huffington Post).

“Villa options run the gambit from deluxe pads to rustic fincas” (from the July, 18, 2015, issue of the Guardian).

“Wedding flowers are an expression of individual taste and run the gambit from lush exotics to simple handmade arrangements” (from the Feb. 15, 2015, Hartford Courant).

“The Forest Service has closed 886,000 acres of forests to the public because of the infiltration of pot growers, who run the gambit from ‘flower children” caught in a ’60s time warp to dangerous organized criminals” (from the Nov. 2, 1988, Christian Science Monitor).

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says, “Misusing gambit for gamut is an increasingly common malapropism,” but Bryan A. Garner, the author, lists it at only the lowest stage in his five-stage language-change index.

The term “malapropism” refers to the unintentionally comic misuse of a word, especially by confusing it with a similar-sounding one. The misuse of “gambit” for “gamut” may also be called an “eggcorn,” mistaking a word or phrase for a similar-sounding one.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misunderstandings, we discuss malapropisms and eggcorns, as well as spoonerisms and mondegreens, two other kinds of language bloopers. A 2011 post on our blog includes an excerpt from Origins about such misuses.

A 2005 entry by the linguist Ben Zimmer on the Eggcorn Database cites “run the gambit” and includes several more examples.

The database also has a 2005 contribution by the linguist Arnold Zwicky on the variation “run the gamete.” A “gamete” (1878) is a male or female reproductive cell.

Interestingly, “run the gamete” is almost as popular as “run the gambit” in general online searches, and one of the examples we’ve found even uses the expression correctly:

“Hotels run the gamete” is a Nov. 3, 2005, headline in USA Today about Caribbean procreation vacations that include romantic dinners, spa treatments, and island potions said to increase the chances of a pregnancy.

Finally, here’s a comment about “run the gambit” from The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style:

“As is often the case with idioms, the original meanings of the words composing them can be lost, obscured, or confused. In this case, the uncommon word gamut is sometimes confused with the word gambit.”

Although the term “gambit” has expanded significantly from its original chess usage, American Heritage concludes, “the phrase run the gambit is a mistake.” We’ll add that “run the gamete” is too, despite that procreative exception.

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Snob appeal

Q: What is the origin of the word “snob”? Is it an acronym like “posh”?

A: No, “snob” isn’t an acronym, and “posh” isn’t either.

We wrote a post about “posh” in 2011. The origin of the adjective is unknown, but it may have been influenced by the rare use of “posh” as a noun for a dandy.

As for “snob,” imaginative wordies have suggested a variety of acronyms, but haven’t offered a shred of evidence to support their theories.

The most highbrow of the theories is that “snob” originated as an abbreviated form of the Latin phrase sine nobilitate, meaning “without nobility.”

The abbreviation was supposedly used to indicate which Oxbridge students or ship passengers should be addressed with titles. Oxford Dictionaries online describes this theory as “ingenious but highly unlikely.”

As we’ve written several times on our blog, acronyms were rare before the 1930s, according to the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower.

In The F-Word, a book whose subject is the source of several phony acronyms, Sheidlower writes that “etymologies of this sort—especially for older words—are almost always false.”

In fact, the word “snob” originally meant the kind of person today’s snob would look down on. When it showed up in English in the 18th century it meant a shoemaker, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest citation for the term in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785): “Snob, a nick name for a shoemaker.”

A few years later, Ayto writes, Cambridge University students adopted “snob” as a slang term for a “townsman, someone not a member of the University.”

The first OED citation for “snob” used in the townie sense, dated around 1796, is from Cap and Gown, an 1889 collection of Cambridge humor by Charles Whibley: “Snobs call him Nicholson! Plebeian name.”

A few decades later, Ayto says, the meaning of “snob” widened to the “general sense ‘member of the lower orders.’ ”

The first example he cites is from a July 22, 1831, article in the Lincoln Herald about a newly elected Parliament expected to approve reform legislation in Britain: “The nobs have lost their dirty seats—the honest snobs have got ’em.”

In the mid-1800s, Ayto says, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray “sowed the seeds of the word’s modern meaning.”

In The Book of Snobs, an 1848 collection of his satirical works, Thackeray uses the term for “someone vulgarly aping his social superiors,” according to Ayto.

The OED cites this example from the book: “such persons as are Snobs everywhere … being by nature endowed with Snobbishness.”

In his etymological dictionary, Ayto writes that the term “has since broadened to include those who insist on their gentility as well as those who aspire to it.”

The OED defines the modern sense of “snob” as a “person who despises those whom he or she considers to be inferior in rank, attainment, or taste.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Doctor’s Dilemma, a 1911 play by George Bernard Shaw:

“All her childish affectations of conscientious scruple and religious impulse have been applauded and deferred to until she has become an ethical snob of the first water.”

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