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

Shedding a little night light

Q:  To quote James Taylor, would you please “shed a little light” on this? Is the fixture a “night light,” “night-light,” or “nightlight”?

A: It depends on which standard dictionary you consult.

The word is hyphenated, “night-light,” in four US dictionaries: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged).

However, it’s two separate words, “night light,” in Webster’s New World and in a British dictionary, Collins. And it’s a single unhyphenated word, “nightlight,” in these four British dictionaries: Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Macmillan, Cambridge, and Longman.

Our vote goes to the British foursome, and “nightlight.” As we’ve written several times on the blog, most recently in 2019, many compounds start out as two words, then acquire a hyphen, and finally become a single word.

We predict that as time goes on, the form “nightlight” will become more widely adopted in standard dictionaries.

When the term entered English, hyphenated at first, it didn’t mean something plugged into an electrical outlet, or even using candlelight. It meant “the faint natural light perceptible at night,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED, which gives the term as “night light,” cites this 17th-century example as the earliest known use in writing: “Nachtlicht, night-light, Night-shine” (from a 1648 Dutch-English dictionary by Henry Hexham).

Elizabeth Barrett (before she married Robert Browning) used this sense of “nightlight” poetically in her verse play A Drama of Exile (1844), rhyming the line “In the sunlight and the moonlight” with “In the nightlight, and the noonlight.”

But by that time, “nightlight” had also become a household item. The OED defines this sense as “a light source designed to provide faint illumination in a room at night; spec. a small, thick, slow-burning candle or an electric light of low power, used in the bedroom of a child or sick person.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a long poem by Robert Bloomfield, Good Tidings, first published in London in 1804. Here he describes a mother at her son’s sickbed: “Hour after hour, when all was still beside, / When the pale night-light in its socket died, / Alone she sat.”

Such a useful word was bound to survive into the age of electricity. This OED citation is from the late 20th century: “The light’s meager appetite for electricity … makes it the most environmentally sensible night-light around.” (From a British magazine, Harrowsmith Country Life, Dec. 14, 1994.)

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On ‘damage’ and ‘damages’

Q: In the last year or so, I’ve been irked to hear mass nouns being replaced by countable counterparts. Examples: “check the car for damages” … “economic supports for workers” … “non-profits are feeling pressures.” Is this a trend? Am I right to feel irked?

A: Let’s begin with “damage.” Yes, it’s a mass noun, but we wouldn’t describe “damages” as a count or countable noun.

As you know, a count noun (like “chair”) is one that can be counted—that is, modified with a numeral, an indefinite article, or a quantitative adjective like “few” or “many.” A mass noun (like “furniture”) can’t be counted. You can say “a chair,” “two chairs,” or “many chairs,” but not “a furniture,” “two furnitures,” or “many furnitures.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language considers “damage” a mass noun (it uses the term “noncount”), but lists “damages” among “plural-only nouns” for which “the singular form exists, but not with the standard sense relation to the plural.” It’s in a group of plural nouns that “have to do with compensation and reward for what has to be done,” such as “dues,” “earnings,” “proceeds,” “reparations,” and “wages.”

In contemporary English, as you point out, the singular noun “damage” means loss or harm to someone or something, while the plural “damages” refers to monetary compensation for loss or injury. Those are the meanings in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

However, a cursory search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles, indicates that “damages” is indeed often used now with what standard dictionaries consider the meaning of “damage.”

Here’s a recent example: “Damages from a two-alarm fire Friday morning at a commercial building near Funkstown could exceed $2 million, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s office” (Herald-Mail Media, Hagerstown, MD, April 17, 2020).

Centuries ago, however, both “damage” and “damages” were used to mean a loss as well as compensation for such a loss. Here’s an example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the plural used in the sense of loss or injury: “Repairing the damages which the kingdom had sustained by war” (The History of England, 1771, by Oliver Goldsmith).

And here’s an OED citation for the singular used in the legal sense: “He shall therefore pay 500li to the King and 200li Dammage to Mr Deane and make recognition of his fault and wrong” (from a 1631 case cited in Reports of Cases in the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, 1886, edited by Samuel R. Gardener. A star chamber is a secret or executive hearing).

As for the other two nouns you’re asking about, dictionaries generally regard “support” as a mass noun when used to mean financial assistance, but they say “pressure” can be either a mass or a count noun when used to mean stressful demands.

Here are two examples from the “pressure” entry in Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online: “backbenchers put pressure on the government to provide safeguards” (mass noun) … “‘the many pressures on girls to worry about their looks” (count noun).

Do you have a right to feel irked about a questionable usage? Well, you have that right, but when we come across a usage we don’t like, we usually laugh it off or simply ignore it. And every once in a while we learn that a bugbear of ours is not only legitimate but has been used for hundreds of years by writers we respect.

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San fairy ann: Why a duckboard?

Q: During World War II, my soldier brother used to say “san fairy duckboard” instead of “san fairy ann” when he meant “it doesn’t matter.” I asked him once why he replaced “ann” with “duckboard,” and he said duckboards were everywhere in the army. Do you have any information about this usage?

A: The expression “san fairy ann,” meaning “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s nothing” or “never mind,” originated as a World War I infantryman’s version of the French phrase ça ne fait rien.

And “duckboard,” another WWI term, was what soldiers called the slatted flooring placed in muddy trenches and camps.

We haven’t found a single published example that combines the terms into “san fairy duckboard,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used in speech by the American doughboys, British Tommies, Australian diggers, and other English speakers who fought in the war.

And assuming they used the phrase, we can guess what it meant—something like “it doesn’t mean duckboard” or “it’s not worth duckboard” or “it doesn’t matter any more than duckboard.” In such an expression, “duckboard” could have been a euphemistic substitute for an obscenity.

We do know that another word familiar from trench warfare, “sandbag,” was merged with “san fairy ann.” The phrase “sandbag Mary Ann” was used as a variation on “san fairy ann.” Well, the French used by English-speaking soldiers may have been wanting, but their English was certainly inventive.

The OED’s entry for “san fairy ann” calls it a “jocular form representing French ça ne fait rien ‘it does not matter,’ said to have originated in army use in the war of 1914–18.” The dictionary defines it as “an expression of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase, spelled somewhat differently, is from Walter Hubert Downing’s Digger Dialects (1919), a collection of Australian soldier slang:  “San ferry ann … it doesn’t matter.”

As for “duckboard,” the OED says that during WWI it was used, generally in the plural, to mean “a slatted timber path laid down on wet or muddy ground in the trenches or in camps.”

The dictionary’s earliest use is from a British wartime magazine: “Walking wounded are helped along the duck-boards that flank the light railways.” (The War Illustrated, March 17, 1917.)

In short, soldiers familiar with both “san fairy ann” and “duckboard” may very well have combined the expressions, even though we can’t point to a published example.

The original “san fairy ann” has had many variants, according to findings in the OED as well as our own researches.  The first element can be “san” or “son”; the second “fairy,” “faery,” or “ferry”; and the third “Ann,” “Anne,” “Anna,” “Han,” or “Aunt.”

It’s also been mushed together as “sanfairyann” and “sanferriens.” And besides the aforementioned “Sandbag Mary Ann,” we’ve seen “Sally fair Ann,” “Aunt Mary Ann,” and “Send for Mary Ann.” Finally, as the OED says, it’s been shortened to the simple “Fairy Ann.”

While “san fairy ann” originated during WWI and was mostly used a century ago, it survived into the WWII era and beyond, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED includes a 1956 example from a story by the novelist Frederick B. Vickers, who served in the Australian armed forces during WWII. We’ll quote a slightly different part of the passage to clarify the speaker’s meaning: “ ‘Don’t mention it, Joe,’ I said. … ‘San ferry ann, Joe.’ ” (From “Make Like You,” published in the story collection Coast to Coast, 1956.)

And this example, also cited in the OED, is from a British novel: “ ‘I wish you’d thought of my ulcer before you—’ he began, and then broke off. ‘Oh, san fairy anne!’ ” (It’s a Free Country, 1965, by Leonard Brain.)

Finally, Oxford quotes a 1970s newspaper advertisement: “San fairy Ann. … It doesn’t matter to us.” (The Times, London, June 22, 1973.)

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Drunk as a skunk

Q: I wonder about the derivation of “drunk as a skunk” and other skunkish expressions.

A: Through no fault of its own (or none that it can help), the unfortunate skunk has inspired many expressions, none of them complimentary.

But we believe that “drunk as a skunk,” an American expression that originated in the 1920s, is merely rhyming slang and has no real connection with skunkdom.

We say this because for more than 600 years, the inebriated have been described as “drunk as a” something-or-other, animate or inanimate. And generally the noun of comparison has little to do with alcohol consumption.

The formula “drunk as a …” began appearing in the late 14th century “in various proverbial phrases and locutions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original version was “drunk as a mouse,” the OED says. This is from “The Knight’s Tale” (1385), the first of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and we’re expanding the Oxford citation to add context:

“We fare as he þt dronke is as a Mous / A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous / But he noot which the righte wey is thider” (“We act like one that is drunk as a mouse. / A drunk man knows well that he has a house, / But he does not know which is the right way there”).

We found another use by Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “If that I walke or pleye unto his hous. / Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous” (“If I go for amusement to his house, / You come home as drunken as a mouse”).

The association of mice with drunkenness may have begun with an ancient fable about a tipsy mouse who’s rescued by a cat after becoming trapped in a vessel of wine or beer. Versions of the fable, first recorded in Latin by Odo of Cheriton in his Parabolæ in the early 1200s, was much repeated in various collections during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it may be that “mouse” was chosen simply to rhyme with “house.” In several songs and poems after Chaucer’s time, lines ending “drunk as a mouse” rhymed with “house” or “alehouse.”

But as we mentioned, the expression “drunk as a …” has accommodated a Noah’s Ark of animals. Since Chaucer’s time,  according to slang dictionaries, “mouse” has been joined by “swine,” “hog,” “sow,” “pig,” “duck,” “owl,” “dog,” “cat” “kit,” “rat,” “monkey,” “jaybird,” “loon,” “bat,” “coon,” “fish,” “fly,” “fowl,” “tick,” “donkey,” “coot,” “goat,” and of course “skunk.”

Humans have also joined the inebriated crew, and “drunk as a …” has included “lord,” “earl,” “emperor,” “pope,” “fiddler,” “beggar,” “bastard,” “piper,” “poet,” “sailor,” “cook,” “parson,” “porter,” and “tinker.”

And let’s not forget inanimate objects: “drum,” “sack,” “besom” (a broom), “log,” “wheelbarrow,” “top,” and “little red wagon.” We can certainly imagine a couple of those wobbling erratically.

In this long litany of inebriation, many of them hundreds of years old, “skunk” is a latecomer. The OED’s earliest use of “drunk as a skunk” is less than a century old: “O Dan, you’re drunk! You’re drunk as a skunk!” (From The Heart of Old Kentucky, collected in New Plays for Mummers, 1926, by Glenn Hughes.)

Our bet is that earlier uses of “drunk as a skunk” will turn up, because the “drunk”/“skunk” rhyme scheme had already suggested itself generations earlier. We found a couple of 19th-century examples:

“My wife she is a hateful scold, / And when I am half drunk, / She will begin to fret and scold, / And call me a dirty skunk.” (From “Soliloquy of a Drunkard,” published in the Philadelphia Scrap Book, April 26, 1834.)

“Ter see a man come home so drunk / It makes her loathe him like a skunk.” (From a temperance poem in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, January 1876.)

So much for skunks and alcohol. You asked about other “skunkish expressions,” and most of them have to do with things (or people) that are to be avoided or scorned.

Since the early 19th century, the OED says, “skunk” has been a colloquial noun for “a dishonest, mean, or contemptible person,” a usage the dictionary describes as “chiefly North American.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is about politics: “There were five skunks, who apostatized from Republicanism, within a few months back, and voted the Federal ticket on Monday last” (the Maryland Republican, Annapolis, Oct. 12, 1813).

And the adjectives “skunk-like” (1815) and “skunkish” (1831), the OED says, have meant “dishonest, mean, or contemptible” … “reminiscent of a skunk, esp. in odour or appearance” … “resembling or suggestive of a skunk.”

The word has also been a verb since the 19th century. To “skunk” someone means to defeat or get the better of (1832), as in “I skunked her at backgammon.” It can even mean to swindle or defraud someone (1867), as in “He skunked me out of $10.” Both senses are also used passively, and to be “skunked” is to be unsuccessful or to be cheated.

“Skunk” is also etymologically interesting. The animal is a native of the Americas, and its name is thoroughly American too.

As the OED says, it was borrowed into English from a “Southern New England Algonquian language.” And it’s apparently connected to the notion of a urinating fox.

Though the original Algonquian source is uncertain, the word has cousins in related languages: Western Abenaki (segôgw), Unami Delaware (šká:kw), and Meskwaki (shekâkwa), the last of which consists of the Algonquian elements shek– (to urinate) and wâkw– (fox).

In English, the word was first recorded as “squuncke” in 17th-century New England, the OED says. The earliest known use is in a list of animals likely to rob a henhouse: “The beasts of offence be Squunckes, Ferrets, Foxes” (from New Englands Prospect, 1634, by William Wood).

[Note: An Australian reader of the blog writes on June 19, 2020, with a courtroom quip attributed to the early 20th-century British statesman and lawyer Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead: “Smith (to the Court): At the time, my client was as drunk as a judge.  Judge (interjecting): Mr. Smith, I think you’ll find the phrase is ‘as drunk as a lord.’ Smith: As your lordship pleases.”]

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Wrapped around the axle

Q: I learned the expression “don’t get wrapped around the axle” from my husband, and I frequently use it as a less vulgar way of saying “don’t get your panties in a twist.” He now tells me that the axle expression comes from an exceedingly vulgar joke that I won’t repeat here. I am mortified if this is true. I’m an old lady who gives garden talks, not one prone to jokes in poor taste. Please set me straight.

A: The phrase “wrapped around the axle” conjures up the image of a frustrated wagon driver whose reins have gotten tangled in the undercarriage. In fact, that pretty accurately evokes its literal meaning in days gone by.

Originally, the phrase was used to describe things like reins, straps, drive belts, baling wire, articles of clothing—even mangled bodies—that had literally become wrapped around the axles of wheels on horse-drawn vehicles, railway cars, or industrial machinery.

Today the expression has a much less dramatic meaning. Though it’s not found in any of our slang dictionaries, we did a find couple of definitions online. These were provided by contributors to Urban Dictionary: “to be confused by something, to the point of paralysis,” or “to be extremely or overly upset.”

We’ve also seen it used on few leadership and self-help websites, where “don’t get wrapped around the axle” seems to mean don’t get sidetracked by small issues or caught up in bureaucracy.

The earliest example we’ve seen of the phrase in its original sense is from a 19th-century account of a mishap at a California woolen mill. The accident happened when a belt driving a piece of machinery, broke and “became wrapped around the axle or shaft of the wheel” (Sacramento Daily Union, Dec. 16, 1867).

And we like this account of a plucky Nebraska woman who eventually stopped a team of runaway horses: “When the lines, by some fortunate circumstance, became wrapped around the axle tree of the buggy in such a position as to bring them within her reach by leaning out over the dash board, she promptly did so, and while she could not loosen them, so guided the team as to keep them in the road, and probably saving her own life” (the Columbus Journal, May 17, 1882).

We will spare you the dozens of 19th- and early 20th-century examples that had less happy endings, most of them involving people killed by trains.

As far as we can tell, figurative uses of “wrapped around the axle” didn’t appear until the 1970s, when the phrase meant rule-bound or tangled in bureaucracy. Servicemen apparently were early adopters. Both of the following examples are from weeklies published at Fort Hood in Temple, Tex.

One is a complaint about an officious hospital nurse, “a civilian who’s so wrapped around the axle of routine that she’s forgotten about serving soldiers” (the Armored Sentinel, May 26, 1972).

Another is from a humorous column about the overuse of clichés: “We’re behind the power curve already and if we don’t get our feet on the ground it might fall through the crack or get wrapped around the axle” (the Fort Hood Sentinel, Jan. 6, 1977).

Both the literal and the figurative uses of “wrapped around the axle” are still around today.

Literal uses show up in news items about materials caught in the axles of everything from bicycles and tractors to 18-wheelers.

This is from a car-racing site: “Johnson hit the wall early and went three laps down making initial repairs after the tire carcass wrapped around the axle” (Frontstretch, Aug. 11, 2019).

Not surprisingly, figurative uses in recent news items are mostly about Covid-19 and its many anxieties. This example is from an Omaha weekly: “While it’s easy to get wrapped around the axle of all that seems to be going wrong, a lot of Omaha is righting itself in profound and beautiful ways” (the Reader, April 7, 2020).

Getting back to your question, your husband may have been referring to the slang use of “axle” to mean the penis and the slang phrase “getting his axle greased” to mean having sex with a woman.

However, those slang usages have no connection to “wrapped around the axle.” We haven’t found any examples of “wrapped around the axle” used in reference to sex.

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Depart … or depart from?

Q: My impression is that we used to “depart from” a location but that now, under the influence of airline-speak, we just “depart.” Example: “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland.” I’m a copy editor. Should I put that “from” back in, or is it acceptable without it?

A: The verb “depart” can properly be used with or without “from,” though it’s more often found with the preposition.

The two versions represent different uses of the verb—one transitive and the other intransitive. Both forms of “depart” have been in use since the 14th century, and both are still recognized as standard English.

In “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland,” the verb is being used transitively—that is, with a direct object.

Here are some other examples: “the train departed the station” … “the enemy has departed our shores” … “the judge has no plan to depart the bench” … “she departed this life in 1902” … “he departed the office of ombudsman last year.”

Used intransitively—without a direct object—the verb may or may not be followed by a prepositional phrase (like “from the Port of Oakland”). The prepositional phrase is used adverbially.

Here are other intransitive examples, using different prepositions or none at all: “he departed for home” … “the boat departs in 15 minutes” … “the bus departs at 5 p.m.” … “we departed on time” … “they’re ready to depart” … “the ship departs soon.”

You’ve probably noticed that the first bunch of examples, the transitive ones, have a somewhat formal or literary feeling—a jargony one in in the case of the ship’s departure. (Airlines in particular seem to prefer “depart” without “from” or “at,” as in “Flight 202 will depart Gate 5” and “it now departs 12:45.”)

The intransitive “depart,” used with “from” (or “at”), seems more natural to us than the transitive use without the preposition. But as we’ve said, both transitive and intransitive uses have been around since the Middle Ages.

The intransitive use was known earlier. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s implied in a 12th-century manuscript, though more definite sightings showed up in the 14th century.

A few examples, with and without prepositions: “we fra þe depart” (“we from thee depart,” c. 1300); “departed well erly from Parys” (1490); “yff I depart” (1526); “depart from Portsmouth” (1817); “the train departs at 6.30” (1895).

The transitive version of “depart”—with a direct object and without “from”—has been used to mean “to go away from, leave, quit, forsake” since about the mid-1300s, according to OED citations.

A range of examples: “departe vs nouȝt” (“depart us not,” circa 1340); “departed their company” (1536); “to depart the toune [town]” (1548); “may depart the Realm” (1647); “to depart Italy” (1734); “to depart the kingdom” (1839).

The dictionary says the transitive use is “now rare except in to depart this life.” But the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it hasn’t “fully updated” its entry for “depart” since it was published in 1895. And none of the examples—for any senses of the verb—go beyond the 1800s.

We don’t agree that the transitive “depart” is rare, and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “If the transitive was rare at the end of the 19th century, it no longer is,” the usage guide says, adding that “it seems common enough in American English.”

However, it may be that the use has declined in British English over the years. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2015), says “except in the formal or literary phrase departed this life, the construction no longer forms part of the standard language in Britain.”

Opinion is mixed in current standard dictionaries. The ten that we usually consult—five American and five British—all recognize the transitive “depart” as standard English. However, three of the five British dictionaries label it a North American usage. Apparently, a use that once was ordinary in both varieties of English has fallen off in the UK but survives in the US.

Nevertheless, some American news organizations have discouraged the use of “depart” without a preposition since at least as far back as the 1970s.

The revised 1977 edition of a stylebook adopted jointly by the Associated Press and United Press International has an entry for “depart,” with examples, saying it must be followed by a preposition. The entry concludes, “Do not drop the preposition as some airline dispatchers do.”

The most recent editions of the AP stylebook still have that entry for “depart,” identical except for the admonition at the end. The entry now reads, “Follow it with a preposition: He will depart from LaGuardia. She will depart at 11:30 a.m.

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Coots, feathered and otherwise

Q: Why is an old guy referred to as a “coot”? And what about “geezer”?

A: The use of “coot” for an old man, especially an oddball, seems to have evolved from the early use of “coot” as an informal name for various seabirds, at first apparently the common murre or guillemot (Uria aalge), and later the Eurasian coot (Fulica atra).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the name “coot” was “originally given vaguely or generically to various swimming and diving birds. In many cases it seems to have been applied to the Guillemot.”

Afterward, the OED says, the term “coot” was given to the Eurasian coot “and generically extended to all the species of Fulica.” (A murre in the US is a guillemot in the UK, the latter borrowed from French in the 17th century.)

The dictionary notes that in Dutch, the common murre is Zeekoet or sea coot, and the Eurasian coot is Meerkoet or lake coot. It also mentions a similar “Low German word, the earlier history of which is unknown.”

So how did “coot” evolve in English from the name for a bird to a noun for an old person, especially an eccentric or crotchety old man?

The usage may have been influenced by the odd behavior of the common murre during its breeding season and the similarity in pronunciation of the Eurasian coot’s Latin genus, Fulica, to the English word “fool.”

The common murre has often been referred to as the “foolish guillemot,” a name the English naturalist Thomas Nuttall attributed to “their fatuity in the breeding season, in allowing themselves sometimes to be seized by the hand, or killed on the spot without flying from their favorite cliffs” (A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada, Vol. 2, 1834).

In fact, “coot” originally referred to a foolish person when it showed up as a noun for a human being, a usage that the OED suggests may have been inspired by the foolish guillemot.

And Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests the foolish usage may have originated as a “play on Lat. Fulica.” In classical Latin, fulica referred to a water bird believed to be a coot.

The earliest Oxford example for the noun “coot” used in the avian sense is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “An ostriche, and a nyȝt [night] crowe, and a coote, and an hawke” (Leviticus 11:16).

In the 15th century, writers began using the noun in descriptions of people. The first Oxford citation is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, a Middle English poem written from 1412 to 1420:

“And yet he was as balde as is a coote.” This was apparently a reference to the Eurasian coot, which has often been referred to as the bald coot because of the white frontal shield on the forehead of the primarily black bird.

The OED has examples for “bare as a coot” and “black as a coot” from the 17th century:

“They poled him as bare as a Coot, by shaving off his Hair” (The Honour of the Merchant Taylors, 1687, by the English poet and biographer William Winstanley).

“The Proverb, as black as the Coot” (The Academy of Armory, 1688, a treatise on arms, armor, heraldry, etc., by the English herald painter and genealogist Randle Holme III).

When “coot” appeared in the 18th century as a noun for a person, it referred to a “silly person” or “simpleton,” according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from A Compleat Dictionary English and Dutch (1766), by William Sewel: “COOT, Een Zeekoet … A very coot, (or fool) Een gek in folio.”

Although “foolish guillemot” may very well have influenced this usage, that avian phrase didn’t appear in writing until somewhat later in the 18th century, according to our searches of digitized books.

The first example we’ve found is from an October 1779 entry in the account of Capt. James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific.

The term “Foolish guillemot” appears in a list of web-footed waterfowl found during a stop at the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. (Cook had died on Feb. 14, 1779, in a clash with Hawaiians, and the account of the voyage was completed by Capt. James King.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for the avian use of “guillemot” by itself is on a list of sea birds in The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick (1678): “the guillemot or sea-hen.” Willughby was an English ornithologist and ichthyologist.

The noun “coot” came to mean an old man in the 19th century. The earliest citation in Green’s Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, is from High Life in New York (1844), by Jonathan Slick, Esq., pseudonym of Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens: “There is no cheating that old coot, he’s wide awake as a night hawk.”

And we found this early example referring to an old man who isn’t quite so wide awake: “Yet the silly old coot couldn’t think of anything himself; and never was a husband so decidedly hen-pecked, and at the same time in such blissful ignorance of it, as this same gentleman” (from Female Life Among the Mormons, 1855, an anonymous work often attributed to Maria Ward, pseudonym of Elizabeth Cornelia Woodcock Ferris).

Finally, here’s an example of a female “coot,” from a March 30, 2020, story on Fox News in Seattle about a 90-year-old woman who survived Covid-19:

“Her daughter Neidigh said, ‘She’s one stubborn old coot (laughs).’ Her mother chimed in, ‘I’d admit I’m stubborn and I’m a fighter and I have a lot to live for and a lot of things I want to do.’ ”

As for “geezer” used to mean an old man, we discussed the usage in a 2018 post about the different senses of “geezer” and “geyser” in the US and the UK.

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Is ‘least favorite’ most disliked?

Q: The phrase “least favorite” has the literal meaning of something that’s liked, but not at the top of the list. Despite that, it’s often used idiomatically for something that’s actually disliked. Any thoughts?

A: Yes, “least favorite” refers literally to the bottom of a sequential list of favorite people or things, and that’s the way it seems to have been used when it showed up in English in the 19th century.

But as you’ve noticed, today the phrase is often used idiomatically as the opposite of “favorite”—that is, in reference to the top of a list of items disliked the most.

We couldn’t find a discussion of the expression in any standard dictionary, usage guide, or etymological dictionary. However, the entry for “unfavourite” in Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “least favourite” or “most disliked.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, discusses “least best,” a similar usage with contradictory literal and idiomatic meanings.

In its entry for “least,” the OED defines “least best” as “last in order of preference out of a group or set of options which are all considered to be good or desirable.”

However, the dictionary adds that “least best” is also “used ironically” to mean “worst,” a usage that showed up at the end of the 20th century, according to Oxford citations.

The expression “least favorite” showed up in the mid mid-19th century, according to our searches of newspaper and book databases. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a review of a book about the US by a Scottish politician:

“Among the many varieties of industry to which the versatility of American genius has been applied, the rearing of stock has hitherto been the least favourite” (Edinburgh Review, October 1847, on John MacGregor’s The Progress of America, published earlier that year in London). Up to that time, the reviewer says, raising cattle, sheep, and other farm animals in the US had been “chiefly confined” to New England and New York.

The idiomatic use of “least favorite” to refer ironically to someone or something most disliked apparently appeared in the second half of the 20th century, though it’s often hard to tell from the written examples we’ve found whether the phrase is being used literally or ironically.

Here’s a likely early example from a newspaper article about the likes and dislikes of kindergarteners: “Spinach used to be the all-time least favorite food. It has now been replaced by cooked celery, mushrooms and steamed beans” (from the Coronado [CA] Eagle and Journal, March 12, 1970).

And here’s another example from a California newspaper: “Her least favorite film was also a horror movie, or it was intended to be, though she thinks of it simply as a horror” (Santa Cruz Sentinel, Oct. 17, 1979). The movie, Night of the Lepus, is about giant mutated rabbits that threaten civilization.

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When negatives collide

Q: I often encounter a sentence such as “I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t steal the necklace,” when it actually means the opposite—the speaker or writer wouldn’t be surprised if she DID steal it. Is there a term for this (a type of double negative, maybe)? And how did it come to be so widespread?

A: We’ve seen several expressions for this kind of construction. Terms used by linguists today include “expletive negation,” in which “expletive” means redundant; “negative concord,” for multiple negatives intended to express a single negative meaning; and, more simply, “overnegation.”

Yes, it’s also been called a “double negative,” the term H. L. Mencken used for it more than 80 years ago. Like linguists today, Mencken didn’t find this particular specimen odd or unusual. As he wrote in The American Language (4th ed., 1936), “ ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t rain’ is almost Standard American.”

The linguist Mark Liberman discussed this usage—“wouldn’t be surprised” followed by another negative—on the Language Log in 2009. He called it a “species of apparent overnegation” along the lines of “fail to miss” and “cannot underestimate.” (More on those two later.)

Of course, what appears to be an overnegation may not be so. For instance, if everyone but you is predicting rain, you might very well respond with “I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t rain” (i.e., you wouldn’t be surprised if it failed to rain). No overnegation there, just two negatives used literally, nothing redundant.

But the usage we’re discussing is a genuine redundancy with no literal intent. And it’s a type of redundancy that’s very common, especially in spoken English. Yet it seldom causes confusion. People generally interpret those dueling negative clauses just as the writer or speaker intends.

You’re a good example of this. While you noticed the redundancy there (“I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t steal the necklace”), you correctly interpreted the writer’s meaning (if she did steal it). And no doubt most people would interpret it that way, whether they encountered the sentence in writing or in speech. Why is this?

In the case of written English, our guess is that readers interpreting the writer’s intent take their cues not only from the surrounding context but also from their own past experience. They’re used to seeing this construction and don’t automatically interpret it literally.

In the case of spoken English, where the usage is more common, listeners have the added advantage of vocal cues. Take these two sentences, which are identical except for the different underlined stresses. A listener would interpret them as having opposite meanings:

(1) “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t win” = I wouldn’t be surprised if he won.

(2) “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t win” = I wouldn’t be surprised if he lost.

In #1, the redundant or overnegated example, the speaker emphasizes the verb and whizzes past the superfluous second negative (“didn’t”). But in #2, the literal example, the speaker emphasizes the second negative, so there’s no doubt that it’s intentional and not redundant.

Language types have been commenting on the overnegated “wouldn’t be surprised” usage since the 19th century.

On the Language Log, Liberman cites this entry from “Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi,” a dissertation written by Hubert Anthony Shands in 1891 and published in 1893: “Wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t. This expression is frequently used by all classes in the place of wouldn’t be surprised if it did.”

The usage wasn’t peculiar to Mississippi, though. In old newspaper databases, we’ve found 19th-century examples from other parts of the country.

These two 1859 sightings, the earliest we’ve seen, appeared in a humorous story, written in dialect, from the May 7, 1859, issue of the Columbia Spy, a Pennsylvania newspaper:

“ ‘There’s been so much hard swearin’ on that book’ (pointing to Logan’s Bible) ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if the truth was not pretty considerably ranshacked outen it.’ ”

“ ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if you wa’nt vain arter this.’ ”

This example is from newspaper serving the twin cities of Bristol in Virginia and Tennessee: “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them didn’t run away after all without paying their bills.” (The Bristol News,  Feb. 8, 1876.)

And here’s one from the Midwest: “The business interests of Salina feel the weight of their power, and we wouldn’t be surprised if even Nature did not pause for a moment and measure their colossal proportions.” (The Saline County Journal in Salina, Kansas, Jan. 25, 1877.)

As mentioned above, there are other varieties of overnegation besides the “wouldn’t be surprised” variety. Here are some of the more common ones, along with their intended interpretations.

“You can’t fail to miss it” = You can’t miss it

“We can’t underestimate” = We can’t overestimate

“Nothing is too trivial to ignore” = Nothing is too trivial to consider

“I don’t deny that she doesn’t have some good qualities” = I don’t deny that she does have some good qualities

“We don’t doubt that it’s not dangerous” = We don’t doubt that it is dangerous

As we’ve said, even readers or listeners who notice the excess negativity will understand the intended meaning.

The Dutch linguist Wim van der Wurff uses the term “expletive negation” for usages of this kind. As he explains, the first clause “involves a verb or noun with the meaning ‘fear,’ ‘forbid,’ ‘prohibit,’ ‘hinder,’ ‘prevent,’ ‘avoid,’ ‘deny,’ ‘refuse,’ ‘doubt’ or another predicate with some kind of negative meaning.” What follows is a subordinate clause with “a negative marker” that’s “semantically redundant, or expletive.”

He gives an example from a letter written by Charles Darwin: “It never occurred to me to doubt that your work would not advance our common object in the highest degree.” (From Negation in the History of English, edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon Van Ostade and others.)

Historical linguists have shown that this sort of overnegation exists in a great many languages and in fact was a common usage in Old English and early Middle English.

“Negative concord has been a native grammatical construction since the time of Alfred, at least,” Daniel W. Noland writes, referring to the 9th-century Saxon king (“A Diachronic Survey of English Negative Concord,” American Speech, summer 1991).

But after the Middle Ages, the use of overnegation in English began to fall off, at least in the writings that have been handed down. Little by little, from around the late 15th to the 18th century, multiple negations became less frequent until they finally came to be considered unacceptable. Why?

Don’t point to the grammarians. It seems that this transition happened naturally, not because people started to object on logical or grammatical grounds.

In her monograph A History of English Negation (2004), the Italian linguist Gabriella Mazzon says the claim “that multiple negation was excluded from the standard as a consequence of the grammarians’ attacks is not correct, since the phenomenon had been on its way out of this variety [i.e., standard English] for some time already.”

As for today, Noland says in his American Speech paper, this type of overnegation “still has a marginal status even in standard English.”

We wouldn’t be surprised!

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Did she coin ‘wuss’ and ‘wussy’?

Q: The words “wuss” and “wussy” did not appear for the first time in the 1970s among college students, as you say. In 1966, when I was a junior at Bayonne High School in New Jersey, I asked the boys to use “wuss” and “wussy” because “pussy” made me feel uncomfortable.

A: Etymologists, the people who trace the history of words, generally date the origin of a usage from when the term was first recorded—in newspapers, magazines, books, radio programs, TV shows, and so on. That’s because the first recorded use of a word can be proven.

Most new words show up in speech before they appear in writing or other recorded forms.  You may have inspired the use of “wuss” and “wussy” in their weak or effeminate sense at Bayonne High School in 1966. However, there’s no way of proving this, unless you can provide dated evidence of the usage. For instance, a yearbook or school newspaper from 1966. (Note: She didn’t have such evidence.)

Your email inspired us to look further into the history of these terms. As a result, we’ve found several “wussy” examples from the late 1800s, beginning with its use to mean “pussy” in the feline sense.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an English version of the “Puss in Boots” fairy tale. Here “pussy-cat” and “wussy-cat” are used as rhyming terms:

“Pussy-cat, wussy-cat, with a white foot, / When is your wedding? for I’ll come to’t. / The beer’s to brew, the bread’s to bake, / Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, don’t be too late” (Mother Goose’s Melodies or Songs for the Nursery, 1878, edited by William A. Wheeler).

The next example is from a travel book that refers to two young women with “Pussy” and “Wussy” as nicknames:

“Pussy and Wussy at once took their places on the front seat. It was a little way of theirs always to look out for themselves—at least, Pussy did it, and Wussy followed suit” (The Foreign Freaks of Five Friends, 1882, by Cecilia Anne Jones).

In the early 20th century, the term “pussy-wussy” came to be used as an adjective or noun with the sense of weak, ineffectual, or effeminate. The  earliest example we’ve found uses it in the ineffectual sense.

In a speech on July 14, 1915, the American suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway used the term adjectivally to criticize prohibitionists as “white-ribboned sisters of virtue” who “depend on a pussy-wussy piece of white ribbon for protection from themselves.” (The white ribbon has been a symbol of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union since the 19th century.)

A year later, the term showed up as a noun for an effeminate man. In Drink and Be Sober (1916), a book calling for the prohibition of alcohol, Vance Thompson writes that the prizefighter Jess Willard was “unafraid of being laughed at as a ‘sissy’ or a ‘pussy-wussy’ ” for supporting the temperance movement.

We’re adding a note to our 2016 post about this early etymology. As we say in that post, the terms “wuss” and “wussy” appeared in writing by themselves in the second half of the 20th century, first in the weak or ineffectual sense, and later in the effeminate sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is for “wuss” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person:

“Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.” From “Campus Slang,” a Nov. 6, 1976, typescript of slang terms collected by Connie C. Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Eble had asked her students to contribute current slang terms on index cards.

When “wussy” showed up in print the following year, it was an adjective meaning effeminate: “Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” From the Harvard Crimson, Sept. 12, 1977.

A few years later, according to Oxford citations, “wussy” appeared in writing as a noun meaning “a weak or ineffectual person” as well as “an effeminate man.”

The first example uses the term jokingly in the weak or ineffectual sense: “Kong’s a wussy. … That wasn’t him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape” (Washington Post, July 18, 1981).

The OED says “wussy” originated with the addition of the suffix “-y” to the noun “wuss.” And it suggests that “wuss” may have originally been a blend of “wimp” and “pussy” used to mean a cat.

However, the evidence we’ve found indicates that “wussy” originated as a rhyming term for “pussy,” and that “wuss” is simply a short form of “wussy.” In fact, “wussy” showed up in English dozens of years before the first OED sighting of “wimp” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person (1920).

As for “pussy,” it originated in the 16th century when the “-y” suffix was added to “puss,” a proper or pet name for a cat.

Oxford’s earliest citation for “puss” used as a cat’s name is from an early 16th-century play: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat / Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.” From Johan Johan the Husband (1533), John Heywood’s comedy about an Englishman who believes his wife is cheating on him with the local priest.

When the suffixed “pussy” first appeared, the OED says, it was chiefly a colloquial term for “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability. Frequently used as a pet name or as a term of endearment.”

The first citation is from a bawdy ballad, perhaps written some time before 1560: “Adew, my pretty pussy, Yow pynche me very nere” (from Jacobite Songs and Ballads of Scotland from 1688 to 1746, edited by Charles Mackay, 1860).

In the late 17th century, “pussy” came to be used for both a cat’s name and the female genitals. The earliest example is from a risqué  song in which the word is used in both senses, Oxford says:

“As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.” From “Puss in a Corner,” in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by Thomas  D’Urfey.

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Why a black swan is a rara avis

Q: Lately I have seen several references to “black swan” meaning an unexpected event or an anomaly. Is this new or just new to me? I can guess how it originated but would love to hear from you about it.

A: The use of the phrase “black swan” to mean a rare or unexpected occurrence ultimately comes from a passage in the Satires of the Roman poet  Juvenal. The Latin passage is also the source of another English term for a rarity, “rara avis.”

In Satire VI,  Juvenal describes a wife with what he considers all the right qualities—looks, charm, money, fertility, and ancestry—as “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” (“a bird rare on earth and similar to a black swan”).

When Juvenal was writing in the late first and early second centuries, Romans believed that all swans were white, so a black swan would have been an impossibility. We know now, though, that black swans (at least mostly black ones) do indeed exist. More on this later.

When the phrase “black swan” first showed up in Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used in contrast to emphasize the whiteness of the European swan:

“The swan hatte signus in latyn and olor in grew [Greek] for he is al white in fetheres, for no man findiþ [findeth] a blak swan.” (From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.)

In the 16th century, the OED says, the usage took on the sense of “something extremely rare (or non-existent); a rarity, rara avis.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a sermon denouncing sensuality: “Captaine Cornelius is a blacke Swan in this generation.” (Earlier, the virtuous captain’s deeds are praised as “musicke to God.”) From a sermon on Easter Tuesday, 1570, by Thomas Drant at St. Mary Spital, a priory and hospital (lodging for travelers) in Spitalfields, London.

The next Oxford example is from a play that satirizes the theater: “The abuse of such places [ancient Roman theaters] was so great, that for any chaste liuer [liver] to haunt them, was a black swan, & a white crow” (from Schoole of Abuse, 1579, by Stephen Gosson).

In the late 17th century the term “black swan” appeared literally, in reference to Cygnus atratus, a swan that’s native to Australia. It’s mostly black, with a red bill and some white wing feathers.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1698 report in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: “Black Swans, Parrots and many Sea-Cows were found there.” The sightings were in Australia, known at the time as Hollandia Nova, New Holland, or Nieuw Holland, a usage introduced by the Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman in 1644.

As for “rara avis,” when the phrase appeared in English in the early 17th century it meant “a person of a type rarely encountered; an unusual or exceptional person; a paragon,”  according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford example is from The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, a 1607 play George Wilkins: “And by that, thou hast beene married but three weekes, tho thou shouldst wed a Cynthia rara avis, thou wouldest be a man monstrous: A cuckold, a cuckold.”

In the mid-17th century, the phrase came to mean “that which is seldom found, a rarity; an unusual, exceptional, or remarkable occurrence or thing.”

The earliest OED example is from a 1651 issue of the Faithfull Scout, a London weekly:  “Moderation, which may well be intituled the Rara avis of these times.”

Today, according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged, “rara avis” means “a rare person or thing.” The dictionary gives this example from the Atlantic: “that rara avis of politics, a disinterested man.”

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Even so, amen

Q: Merriam-Webster says “even so” means “nevertheless” or “in spite of that.” I’m puzzled by its use in this passage from the King James Version: “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”

A: Although the phrase “even so” means “nevertheless” or “in spite of that” today, it has had several other senses that are now considered archaic.

When the phrase showed up in Old English as efne swa, perhaps as far back as 1,200 years ago, it meant “in the very same way; likewise, similarly,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED citation is from Christ I, a collection of anonymous poems about the coming of Christ:

“Þu eart þæt wealldor, þurh þe waldend frea / æne on þas eorðan ut siðade, / ond efne swa þec gemette, meahtum gehrodene, / clæne ond gecorene, Crist ælmihtig” (“You are the door in the wall; through you the all-wielding Lord / only once journeyed out into this world, / and even so [in that way] he found you, adorned with powers, / chaste and chosen, Almighty Christ”).

The 12 poems of Christ I are in The Exeter Book, a 10th-century collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry. In Critical Studies in the Cynewulf Group (1949), the Swedish scholar Claes Schaar suggests that Christ I may have been written around 800 AD, though not, as some have speculated, by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf.

In Middle English, according to OED citations, “even so” came to be an intensifier “expressing emphatic agreement: ‘exactly so,’ ‘yes indeed.’ ” The dictionary’s first example is from an early 15th-century sermon:

“For lik as oure princes and lordes spoyleth and robbeþ þer suggettus … euen so God suffreþ þe ethen princes to robb and spoile oure lordes” (“For like as our princes and lords despoil and rob their subjects … even so [exactly so] God allows the heathen princes to rob and despoil our lords”). From a sermon written circa 1415 and collected in Middle English Sermons (1940), by Woodburn O. Ross.

In the passage you cite from Revelation 1:7 in the King James Version (written from 1604 to 1611), “even so” is used in the “exactly so” or “yes indeed” sense:

“Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”

The OED cites another example from the King James Version. Here “even so” is used in its “similarly” sense: “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (John 17:18).

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A needy confection

Q: In chapter 4 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Aunt Chloe uncovers “a neatly baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need to have been ashamed.” Could you explain that “need to have been” construction? It doesn’t sound quite right to me.

A: Yes, there is something unusual about that passage from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel. What’s strange is the presence of “to.” The clue here is “need,” which in that sentence is a modal auxiliary and not the principal verb.

“Need” is unusual because it can go both ways. It can be the main verb in a clause (as in “no one needs a car,” “no one needs to drive”) or a modal auxiliary (“no one need drive”).

We’ve written before on the blog about modal auxiliaries (the more familiar ones include “must,” “should,” “can,” and “might”). They’re used alongside other verbs to express things like probability, necessity, permission, or obligation.

When “need” is a modal, it’s not followed by a “to” infinitive. Like the other modals, it’s followed by a bare (“to”-less) infinitive.

This bare infinitive can be the usual simple one, as in “need be,” “need go,” “need leave.” Or it can be the perfect infinitive, as in in “need have been,” “need have gone,” “need have left.

The simple infinitive is appropriate here when speaking of the present or future: “no one need go.” The perfect infinitive is appropriate when speaking of the past: “no one need have gone.”

Which brings us back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In that passage, Stowe is describing something in the past—a cake baked and cooling and waiting to be served. So we would expect to find “a neatly baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need have been ashamed.” In the passage as she wrote it, “need to have been ashamed,” the “to” is extraneous.

Is Stowe grammatically out of bounds here? Yes. She’s blending two different forms of “need”: the one that’s a main verb (as in “no one needs to have been”) and the one that’s a modal auxiliary (as in “no one need have been”). However the misuse is understandable.

The truth is that the modal use of “need” is rare in American English, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.

Another source, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al., says the modal “need” is rare in both varieties of English, though “rarer” in the US than in the UK.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that writers sometimes confuse the two forms of “need”—the main verb and the modal. Here’s how the two differ.

  • As a main verb, “need” is inflected—that is, it changes according to its subject and tense. So “-s” is added in the third-person singular present (“no one needs”) and “-ed” in the simple past (“no one needed”). But the modal “need” is uninflected; it’s always “need.”
  • As a main verb, “need” can have a direct object, such as a noun (“he needs coffee”), a “to” infinitive (“she needs to leave”), or sometimes a gerund (“his shirt needs ironing”). But as a modal, “need” can’t have a direct object; what follows is always a main verb in the bare infinitive (“she need not leave”).
  • As a main verb, “need” can be used with auxiliary forms of “do” (“he doesn’t need coffee,” “did she need to leave?”). But the modal “need” cannot.
  • When it’s the main verb, “need” can be used in any kind of clause—whether statement or question, negative or positive. But the modal is used only in negative statements or in questions. As the Cambridge Grammar puts it, the modal “need” is “restricted to non-affirmative contexts” (the Comprehensive Grammar calls them “nonassertive contexts”).

In those first three respects—verb agreement, complements, and use with “do”—the modal “need” behaves just like “must,” “should,” and the other common modals. But in that last respect—its occurrence only in negatives and questions—“need” is unlike them. Here’s how it works.

Used negatively, it expresses non-necessity or non-obligation, as in “she need not come” … “he needn’t leave” … “nobody need go hungry.” (Or, in reference to the past: “she need not have come” … “he needn’t have left” … “nobody need have gone hungry.”)

Used in questions, it expresses doubt about necessity or obligation: “need she come?” … “need he leave?” … “need anyone go hungry?” (Or, in reference to the past: “need she have come?” … “need he have left?” … “need anyone have gone hungry?”)

Less frequently, the modal “need” is also used in semi-negative statements, those that include “hardly” or “only” or some other negative implication. Examples: “she need hardly speak” … “he need only ask” … “your dad need never know” … “the test is longer than it need be.” (Or, in the past: “she need hardly have spoken” … “he need only have asked” … “your dad need never have known” … “the test was longer than it need have been.”)

You can see why the differing forms of “need” can pose a challenge, especially for speakers who don’t customarily use the modal. And after all, aside from stylistic preferences there’s no pressing need to use the modal here.

For instance, take the sample clause above, the one about the excessively long test. This is how the same thought can be expressed in standard English in different ways.

With “need” as modal: “the test is longer than it need be” … “the test was longer than it need have been.”

With “need” as main verb: “the test is longer than it needs to be” … “the test was longer than it needed to be.”

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Sea chantey or shanty?

Q: Hello, my hearties. My husband, who had a recording company for years, was writing about an album of sea chanties he recorded when his spellchecker changed it to “sea shanties.” Surprised, he typed “sea chantey or sea shanty?” in Google and was told the proper spelling was “shanty.” How does this kind of nonsense take hold?

A: You’d better batten down the hatches before reading on. All 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult consider “shanty” an acceptable spelling of the word for a sailor’s song.

All five of the American dictionaries have entries for “chantey,” with standard variant spellings given as “chanty,” “shanty,” and “shantey.” All five British dictionaries list “shanty” as the only standard spelling, though one includes “chantey” as an “archaic North American” usage.

No matter how it’s spelled, the musical term is usually pronounced the same, SHAN-tee, in the US and the UK, according to the dictionaries.

Interestingly, the word was spelled with both “ch-” and “sh-” when it showed up in English in the mid-19th century. Here are the two earliest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence:

“The anchor came to the bow with the chanty of ‘Oh, Riley, Oh’ ” (Seven Years of a Sailor’s Life, 1867, by George Edward Clark).

“Sailors’ Shanties and Sea-Songs” (an article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, Dec. 11, 1869).

As for the origin of the spelling, the OED says the musical terms “shanty,” “chanty,” and “chantey” are “said to be a corruption of French chantez, imperative of chanter to sing.” The dictionary defines the usage as “a sailor’s song, esp. one sung during heavy work.”

Why is an English word derived from the French chantez often spelled “shanty”? Perhaps because “shanty” comes closer than “chantey” to the pronunciation of the French word: shahn-TAY.

However, it’s natural for English words of foreign origin to take on new spellings, pronunciations, meanings, forms, and so on.  For example, why should an English speaker now spell and pronounce “afraid” as effrayé because both terms ultimately come from the Old French verb esfreer?

As for the word meaning a small, crudely built shack, all 10 standard dictionaries agree that it should be spelled “shanty.” It’s also believed to come from a French word beginning with “ch”—in this case, chantier, Canadian French for a hut in a lumber camp.

The OED cites this English translation from the chantier entry in Dictionnaire Canadien-Français (1894), by Sylva Clapin: “an establishment regularly organized in the forests in winter for the felling of trees; the head-quarters at which the woodcutters assemble after their day’s work.”

The first Oxford example, which we’ll expand here, is from the journal of Zerah Hawley, a Connecticut doctor who spent a year in Ohio in the early 19th century.

In an entry dated Oct. 7, 1820, Hawley describes visiting “a child sick of the intermittent fever, whose parents with two children, lived in what is here called a shanty. This is a hovel of about 10 feet by 8, made somewhat in the form of an ordinary cow-house.”

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Is ‘butt’ short for ‘buttock’?

Q: I’ve long wondered about the use of the American word “butt” to denote the backside. Is it simply a shortened form of “buttock” or something else entirely?

A: Although the use of “butt” in this sense is now chiefly an American usage, it originated in British English—first as an animal’s hindquarters and later as the backside of a man.

So which term for a backside came first, “butt” or “buttock”? Probably “butt,” but like so much about language it’s not certain. Here’s the story.

When this sense of “butt” first appeared in writing in the early 15th century (spelled bott in Middle English), it referred to the hindquarters, especially of an animal, or a piece of meat consisting of the hindquarters, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from a recipe for beef and mutton in a medieval cookbook:

“Take fayre Bef of þe quyschons, & motoun of þe bottes, & kytte in þe maner of Stekys” (“Take fair rumps of beef, and butts of mutton, and cut in the manner of steaks”). From Harleian Ms. 279, dated 1430, in the Harley collection at the British Library.

In the 17th century, the term came to be used colloquially in northwestern England to mean a person’s buttocks or anus, according to the OED. The first Oxford example is from Burlesque Upon Burlesque (1675), by Charles Cotton, a satire based on the dialogues of Lucian, a second-century Assyrian who lived in the Roman Empire and wrote in Greek:

“For to behold those goodly horns, / That py’d beard, which thy face adorns, / That single wagging at thy Butt, / Those Cambrils [hocks], and that cloven foot.” Mercury, a god in Roman mythology, is speaking here to his son Pan, who has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. Mercury is the equivalent of Hermes in Greek mythology.

The OED’s earliest US example for “butt” used to mean the hindquarters is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1859), which defines it this way: “The buttocks. The word is used in the West in such phrases as, ‘I fell on my butt,’ ‘He kick’d my butt.’ ”

As for which came first, “butt” or “buttock,” the OED says “buttock” was “apparently formed” by adding the diminutive suffix “-ock” to “butt.”

However, the dictionary points out that “butt” was “first attested later” than “buttock” in the hindquarters sense. In other words, “butt” apparently existed in speech, but not writing, before “buttock” was recorded.

The dictionary defines “buttock” as  “either of the two round fleshy masses (comprising the gluteal muscles and surrounding tissues) situated beneath the lower back, that together form the bottom or rump, and support the body’s weight when seated.”

The earliest OED citation for “buttock” is in a description of the fetal position from a medieval treatise on science written around 1300:

“The heles atte buttokes, the kneon in aither eye” (“The heels at the buttocks, the knees in either eye”). From Popular Treatises on Science Written During the Middle Ages, edited by Thomas Wright, 1841.

In Anglo-Saxon days, a much older, similarly spelled word, buttuc, could mean the end of something, a small piece of land, a slope, or a ridge, according to various Old English dictionaries. The -uc ending here was a diminutive, so buttuc apparently referred to a little butt, though butt by itself wasn’t recorded in Old English.

Are the unrecorded Old English word butt and its diminutive buttuc ancestors of the modern words “butt” and “buttock”? Possibly. The OED says the use of buttoc in Anglo-Saxon times “with reference to topographical features, perhaps ‘one of two rounded slopes or banks’ is perhaps implied” by this passage from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:

“Þanon suðriht on ðæne heafodæcer. Of ðam heafdon on ðæne weg. Of ðam wege on ða buttucas. Of ðam buttucon on ðone broc” (“Straight south from the acre at the head of the field. Out of the headland on to the path. Out of the path on to the buttucas. From the buttocon at that brook”).  From a deed dated 1023, published in Anglo-Saxon Charters (1968) by Peter Sawyer. The property was in Evesham, a market town in Worcestershire.

However, the OED adds that the passage “is perhaps more likely to show a different formation,” a ridge or raised strip of cultivated land, a usage that’s now regional in the UK.

We should mention here that there are many other “butt” words in modern English. Here are some common ones: an object of ridicule (“the butt of their jokes”); the thicker end (“the butt of a rifle”); an unburnt end (“the butt of a cigar”); to hit or push (“he butted his head against the wall”; to interfere (“they butted in”); to adjoin (“the house butted up against a bowling alley”).

Most of the “butt” words (including the one for a fanny) ultimately come from a prehistoric root reconstructed as bhau- (to strike), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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The singularity of Mother’s Day

[Note: In recognition of Mother’s Day, we’re republishing a post that originally appeared on May 10, 2013.]

Q: Which is correct, Mother’s Day or Mothers’ Day? I have a customer who wants to use the name as an imprint on promotional gifts for the holiday. I think of Mother’s Day as singular possessive, my mother, but in this case is it correct?

A: We also think it’s Mother’s Day, and so do the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult—five American and five British.

More to the point, Anna Jarvis, the woman primarily responsible for the modern holiday honoring mothers, thought so as well, according to a dissertation by the historian Katharine Antolini.

In “Memorializing Motherhood: Anna Jarvis and the Defense of Her Mother’s Day,” Antolini says Jarvis wanted the singular possessive to emphasize that the day was to honor one’s own mother, not mothers in general.

As for common usage, “Mother’s Day” is the overwhelming favorite, according to our searches of online databases, though you’ll find many examples of the plural-possessive “Mothers’ Day” and the apostrophe-free “Mothers Day.”

Although the modern holiday originated in the US in the early 20th century, people have been celebrating mothers in one way or another since ancient times.

The specific term “Mother’s Day,” however, didn’t show up in print until the 19th century. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the June 3, 1874, issue of the New York Times:

“ ‘Mother’s Day,’ which was inaugurated in this City on the 2d of June, 1872, by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, was celebrated last night at Plimpton Hall by a mother’s [sic] peace meeting.” (We’ve gone to the Times archive to expand on the citation.)

The OED points out that Howe saw Mother’s Day not as a day to honor mothers (the modern sense) but as a “day on which mothers met to advocate peace, as by the dissolution of a standing army, etc.”

Howe, an abolitionist and social activist, is perhaps best known for writing the lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” (The music is from the song “John Brown’s Body.”)

Like Howe, Anna Jarvis’s mother—Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis—was an activist who organized women for various social causes.

After the death of her mother on May 9, 1905, Anna Jarvis organized several “Mother’s Day” services and began a campaign, with the help of the Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker, to make Mother’s Day a national holiday.

The first two services—on May 12, 1907, and May 10, 1908—were held at Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where Jarvis’s mother had taught Sunday school.

The national campaign got off to a bumpy start. On May 9, 1908, Senator Elmer Burkett, a Nebraska Republican, introduced a resolution to recognize the following day as Mother’s Day.

But as an article in the May 10, 1908, issue of the New York Times reports, the resolution inspired “a number of witty sallies” in the Senate and was referred to the Judiciary Committee where “it will be permitted to sleep peacefully.”

Interestingly, Burkett’s resolution used the plural possessive, according to an OED citation from the Congressional Record for May 9, 1908: “Resolved, That Sunday, May 10, 1908, be recognized as Mothers’ Day.”

Jarvis pressed ahead with her Mother’s Day campaign, writing letters and sending pamphlets to public officials. Two years after the Burkett resolution was put to rest, she had her first victory.

In 1910, William Glasscock, the Governor of West Virginia, proclaimed the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and soon the holiday spread to other states.

In 1912, Jarvis trademarked the phrases “Mother’s Day” and “second Sunday in May,” and established the Mother’s Day International Association to promote the holiday around the world.

On May 8, 1914, the US Congress passed a law designating the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and on May 9, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation declaring the first national Mother’s Day.

The American holiday inspired Mother’s Day observances around the world, but the date of the celebration varied from country to country.

In Britain, for example, where the holiday is also called Mothering Sunday (a name with roots in a religious ceremony dating back to the 16th century), it’s celebrated on the fourth Sunday in Lent.

A final note: Anna Jarvis, who was childless, began campaigning in the 1920s against the commercialization of Mother’s Day. She denounced confectioners, florists, and other commercial interests that she accused of gouging the public.

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Why fourteen isn’t onety-four

Q: Why do we say “twenty-four,” “thirty-four,” “forty-four,” etc., but we don’t say “onety-four” for “fourteen”?

A: The suffix “-ty” here denotes multiples of ten, so “twenty-four” would be two tens plus four, “thirty-four” would be three tens plus four, and so on.

The “-ty” suffix is used for multiples of two to nine tens. When only one ten is involved, it’s represented by the suffix “-teen.” So “fourteen” would be four plus ten, “fifteen” would be five plus ten, and so on.

This system dates back to Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, where “-ty” was tig, “twenty” was twentig, and “thirty” was þrítig. In Old English writing, “-teen” was –téne, -tīene, etc., “fourteen” was féowerténe, and “fifteen” was fífténe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

You may be wondering why “eleven” isn’t “oneteen” and “twelve” isn’t “twoteen” in Modern English. This usage also dates back to Old English, where “eleven” was endleofan, and “twelve” was twelf.

Although there’s some doubt about the ultimate origin of “eleven” and “twelve,” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the usage comes from prehistoric Germanic: “eleven” from ain-lif (“one left” beyond ten) and “twelve” from twa-lif (“two left” beyond ten).

Finally, we should mention that English has another “-ty” suffix, one used to form nouns denoting a quality or condition, such as “ability,” “certainty,” “modesty,” and “responsibility.” These nouns ultimately come from Latin, though many arrived in English by way of French.

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Textured hair

Q: What is textured hair? And how do I say it in Albanian?

A: We don’t get many requests to translate English phrases into Albanian, but you came to the right place.

As it happens, we know a hair stylist of Albanian origin, so he not only speaks Albanian but he knows all about textured hair. (Pat was one of his clients a few years ago when we lived in Connecticut.)

“There are a few Albanian translations,” says the stylist, Sabit Vrzivoli. The most likely, he suggests, are flok te dredhura (wavy hair) or flok kacurrela (curly hair).

“ ‘Textured hair’ is the description of the curl pattern of the hair, like curly or wavy,” he says. “It’s defined by how tight the curl is. ‘Coarse’ or ‘fine’ describes the thickness or texture of the hair strand.”

The phrase “textured hair” is relatively new, since we haven’t found any published examples older than 1990. It apparently originated in the African-American press and was first associated with black styles, but it has since acquired wider usage in the hair-care industry.

Dictionaries are a bit behind the curve (or wave) on “textured hair.” There’s nothing about it in any of the 10 standard online dictionaries we regularly consult.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no entry for the phrase and no examples of its use. However, the OED does say that in today’s English, the adjective “textured” used without a preceding modifier means “provided with a texture, esp. as opposed to smooth or plain.”

So apparently “textured hair” simply means any hair that isn’t straight. And as the British hair stylist Vernon François has written, that definition takes in a lot of territory.

In a HuffPost UK article entitled “What Is Textured Hair?” (Dec. 9, 2016, updated Sept. 13, 2017), François says there’s been some confusion about the term.

“What I mean when talking about ‘textured hair’ is hair that has some kind of curl pattern to it,” he says. “Basically, hair that is not straight.” He adds that the phrase “is effectively an umbrella term, which can then be broken down into kinky, coily, curly and wavy.”

As we mentioned above, the phrase “textured hair”—with “textured” specifically meaning some degree of curly—is a relatively recent usage.

The oldest example we’ve found is from an African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder (June 30, 1990). Here the phrase is used adjectivally: “When you choose your new hair style, keep in mind that your hair is growing out of the relaxer. Try mini-braids or one of the new textured hair styles.”

In early use, as in these examples from the black press, the phrase was sometimes preceded by “Afro-” or “African”:

“Syreeta [Scott, a Philadelphia hair stylist] used Afro-kinky textured hair to create this look” (Essence, May 2003) … “cultural hair stylists who specialize in grooming African textured hair” (New York Amsterdam News, March 12, 1994) … “these processes have given women the ability to do more with their African textured hair” (Michigan Chronicle, Feb. 22, 1995) … “the special needs of melanin skin and textured hair” (Amsterdam News, Sept. 14, 1996).

But over time the phrase has become more universal, as in this example from the Washington Times, March 8, 2000, about new quarters issued by the US Mint: “The front of the quarter shows George Washington’s stony profile, as usual, but his head is shrunken a bit with more textured hair.”

A September 2016 article in Glamour (“5 Things Every Woman With Textured Hair Should Know”) quoted the New York hair stylist Mia Emilio: “Sixty-six percent of people have some texture in their hair. And the range of curls varies greatly, from wavy all the way to super curly.”

To return to Vernon François and his HuffPost article: “People from all walks of life, all countries, can and do have textured hair. The ‘textured hair community’ is a global one.”

Finally, let’s look at the origins of “textured,” a word that has its etymological roots in weaving. It ultimately comes from Latin, in which textūra means a weaving and texĕre means to weave.

The adjective has existed in written English for only about two centuries. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1888 (“light-textured homespuns”), but we’ve found many uses from earlier in the 19th century. We’ll cite just a couple:

“Thin chalky land, covered with a fine textured turf interspersed with wild thyme, small wild clover, and eyebright, is that which produces the finest wool” (a column of news from England published in a Sydney newspaper, the Australian, Feb. 10, 1825).

“Look in at the ‘Senior’ [a London men’s club], and the broad, coarse, weather-beaten, sail-cloth textured face of Sir John Ross will meet your glance” (an article in the Boston Atlas, reprinted in the Alexandria [VA] Gazette on Aug. 12, 1845).

The adjective was derived from the now obsolete verb “texture,” first recorded in the 17th-century when it meant to weave or to construct as if by weaving. The defunct verb, the OED says, came in turn from the noun “texture,” which meant “the process or art of weaving” when first recorded in the 1400s.

That original sense of the noun is long dead, but it lives on today in meanings that began to appear in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is why we speak of the “texture” of a work of literature, music, or fine art, or say it is “textured”—that is, composed of various strands as if woven.

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Guilty as charged

Q: Do you know the history of the statement “guilty as charged”? I have not been able to find anything relevant from a Google search, so I would love to hear what you can uncover.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language, is no help here. The OED doesn’t have an entry for “guilty as charged” and the expression doesn’t appear in citations given for any other terms.

We haven’t found an entry for the phrase in legal dictionaries either, though some use it in defining such terms as “conviction,” “no contest,” and “reasonable doubt.” However, two of the ten online standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include the usage.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “having committed the crime one is accused of committing,” and gives this example: “The state will prove that the defendants are guilty as charged.”

Cambridge has two definitions—one uses the term in its legal sense and the other uses it more broadly, often to make light of the so-called charge:

(1) “responsible for doing something illegal that you have been accused of in court: They were guilty as charged and fairly tried, and therefore justice was served.”

(2) “used to admit that what someone has been accused of is true, often when you think this is not really bad: Guilty as charged! I am an Elvis fan!

As far as we can tell, the expression was first used in reference to moral or doctrinal accusations rather than formal legal charges decided in a court.

The earliest example we’ve seen, which uses similar though not identical wording, appeared in a defense of Quakers:

“We are not guilty of idolatry, as charged by our adversary.” (From The Invalidity of John Faldo’s Vindication of His Book, a 1673 treatise by William Penn. Faldo’s book, Quakerism No Christianity, had been published earlier that year.)

Here’s the first written use we’ve found for the exact expression, from a passage arguing that historians are tough on innocent people and easy on guilty ones:

“If these great Men were innocent and honest, they had the hardest Measures that can be received from Historians; but, if guilty as charged, their Memory cannot be too much loaden with Infamy” (The History of Scotland, 1732, by William Gordon).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the term used in reference to a court proceeding appeared in the late 18th century in a libel case involving a newspaper:

“I have no difficulty in saying, that if I had in my soul the slightest idea that they were guilty as charged in the information, of malicious and wicked designs, I should leave the talk of defending them to others” (The Case of Libel, the King v. John Lambert and Others, Printer and Proprietors of the Morning Chronicle, 1794, published by John Debrett).

Finally, our searches indicate that the figurative use of “guilty as charged” to make light of an accusation showed up in the late 19th century.

The earliest example we’ve found is from the March 12, 1898, issue of the Weekly Messenger in St. Martinville, LA. An article on page one dismisses handbills (“dodgers”) claiming that a local boycott is driving a five-and-dime (“racket store”) out of business:

“Murder! said the dodgers of a racket store lately opened in the lower part of Main street. And ‘Guilty as charged’ is the next line. In our estimation if this business is murdered by our home people it is because he is ‘guilty’ of an unpardonable mistake. … He circulated dodgers that were printed in New Iberia when there are two printing offices in St. Martinville.”

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‘The coronavirus’ or ‘coronavirus’?

Q: It’s everywhere but how do we say it? It’s “a coronavirus,” but many people refer to it as “the coronavirus.” It seems obvious that we shouldn’t use the definite article. We also need to consider that the virus is actually SARS-CoV-2.

A: Scientists and the general population often use different terms for the same thing. In fact, scientists themselves often use a clipped form of a cumbersome technical term.

The name of the virus, “SARS-CoV-2,” for example, is an abbreviated version of “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.” And the name of the disease, “Covid-19,” is short for “coronavirus disease 2019” (the year it emerged).

However, in general, nontechnical English, as you’ve noticed, the disease and the pathogen that causes it are often referred to as “the coronavirus.”

We see this as simply an elliptical, or shortened, way of saying “the new [or novel or 2019] coronavirus.” Using the article makes the noun particular, so that it means the one of current concern.

Neither the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, nor any standard dictionary comments specifically on the use of articles with the noun.

However, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) consistently uses “the coronavirus” in an explanatory essay: “a pandemic like the coronavirus” … “words related to the coronavirus” … “the difference between the coronavirus and the plague,” and so on.

You have to recognize that the nontechnical usage is still a work in progress. News organizations have reported on the current pandemic for only a few months, sometimes using “the coronavirus” and sometimes only “coronavirus.”

A search of newspaper and news agency archives suggests that we’re now seeing a preference for “the.” In the April 25 edition of the New York Times, for instance, we found many more noun uses of “the coronavirus” than just “coronavirus.” Here’s a small sampling:

“deaths linked to the coronavirus” … “the coronavirus has added danger” … “without catching the coronavirus” … “died of complications of the coronavirus” … “the fallout of the coronavirus” … “the fight against the coronavirus” … how the coronavirus behaves.”

As you know, there are dozens of pathogens called coronaviruses, and different ones cause different diseases, also called coronaviruses. These illnesses range from the common cold to SARS and now Covid-19.

When people use the term “coronavirus,” it’s often difficult to tell which is meant, the disease or the virus. But in most cases that makes little practical difference.

Again we’re talking here about nontechnical English, as opposed to the more specific terms used in scientific language (which we’ll get to in a moment). But nontechnical doesn’t mean nonstandard English.

Nearly all American and British dictionaries recognize “coronavirus” as standard English for a virus of this kind. And two of them have recently expanded their definitions to include a disease caused by such a virus.

Right now there are entries for “coronavirus” in nine out of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. All nine (five American and four British) define it as a noun meaning one of the family of viruses known as coronaviruses.

And two (one American, one British) add that it also means a disease caused by one of those viruses. Here, for instance, are Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “coronavirus”:

“1: any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19.”

“2: an illness caused by a coronavirus, especially COVID-19.”

The British dictionary Macmillan also has both definitions. For #2, it says the word appears “in general use to refer to the disease Covid-19 that is caused by a novel type of coronavirus.”

We expect that as time goes by, more standard dictionaries will recognize definition #2, with “coronavirus” meaning a disease, especially Covid-19. (On our blog, we capitalize only the “C,” as do many news organizations, including the New York Times.)

For now, the OED has only the virus definition. Its entry was last updated in 2008.

Oxford defines “coronavirus,” as “any member of the genus Coronavirus of enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses which have prominent projections from the envelope and are pathogens of humans, other mammals, and birds, typically causing gastrointestinal, respiratory, or neurological disease.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a scientific report in the journal Nature (Nov. 16, 1968): “In the opinion of the eight virologists, these viruses are members of a previously unrecognised group which they suggest should be called the coronaviruses, to recall the characteristic appearance by which these viruses are identified in the electron microscope.”

Viewed microscopically, the viruses are roundish and have projections forming a “corona” like that seen during a solar eclipse (the Latin noun corona means a crown or wreath).

In scientific as opposed to general English, “coronavirus” isn’t normally used by itself, without any modifiers, to mean the virus or the disease of the current pandemic.

The virus’s official name, announced on Feb. 11, 2020, by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” abbreviated as “SARS-CoV-2.”

As for the disease, its official name, announced the same day by the World Health Organization, is “COVID-19,” an abbreviation of “coronavirus disease 2019.”

The two international agencies, according to the WHO, “were in communication about the naming of both the virus and the disease.” But in its own communications with the public, the WHO says it won’t use the official taxonomic name of the virus (“SARS-CoV-2”), instead using more general terms like “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus.”

The agency decided this in part, it says, because “using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.”

The disease SARS (for “severe acute respiratory syndrome”) is now inactive. But outbreaks of MERS (officially “Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus,” or “MERS-CoV”), were still being reported in late 2019 in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, according to WHO reports.

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Why bacon strips are ‘rashers’

Q: At breakfast on Shrove Tuesday, we had a big platter of bacon strips, and wondered, “Why do you suppose they’re called rashers?” So I checked to see if you’d covered that topic and came up dry. Is this worth a column?

A: Yes, indeed. As you already know, a “rasher” is a strip of bacon, and “rashers” means several strips (who can eat just one?).

The usage is chiefly British, according to some standard dictionaries, and like you we’ve sometimes wondered where it comes from. As it happens, etymologists have wondered too, but they haven’t come up with an ironclad answer.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the word is “of uncertain origin” but it does point readers to a likely source: the now obsolete verb “rash,” meaning to slice or cut.

That old verb, the dictionary says, may be derived from a defunct meaning of the verb “raze” (to scrape or shave off), from rādere, which is “scrape” in Latin.

If that’s the origin of “rasher,” then it perhaps originally referred “to the practice of scoring a slice of meat before grilling or frying it,” the OED adds.

However it developed, the noun “rasher” has existed in writing since the 1500s, and its original definition hasn’t changed over the centuries. Oxford defines it as “a thin slice or strip of bacon, or (less commonly) of other meat,” either cooked or intended to be cooked “by grilling, broiling, or frying.”

In early times, “rashers” were evidently cooked over coals, as in the OED’s earliest example: “If I venture vpon a full stomacke to eat a rasher on the coales” (from John Lyly’s Elizabethan comedy Sapho and Phao, 1584).

The dictionary has several similar examples involving coals, including these from the poetry of John Dryden: “snatch the homely Rasher from the Coals” (1678), and “Rashers of sindg’d bacon on the coals” (1700).

Occasionally, the word has been applied to other cuts of meat, as in these OED citations: “A rasher of Mutton or Lambe” (1623); “some rashers of pork” (1756); “Great rashers of broiled ham” (1841); and “rashers of smoked whale” (1861).

By extension, the word has also been used to mean “a slice or portion” of any other food, the OED says. Its examples include “a Cherry-Tart cut into Rashers” (1634); “a rasher of watermelon” (1890); and “a rasher of light bread” (1965).

You may be wondering whether there’s a connection between “rasher” and two familiar English words—the medical noun “rash,” for a skin condition, and the adjective “rash,” meaning impetuous or foolhardy. Well, the answer is mixed.

The noun “rash” is probably related to “rasher,” though very distantly.

The medical term came into English in the late 17th century, Oxford says, “probably” from an obsolete French word for a skin eruption (rache or rasche). That French noun, like the later verb racher (to scrape or scratch), ultimately comes from the Latin verb rādere (to scrape), which we mentioned above as a possible ancestor of “rasher.”

This is the OED’s earliest known use of “rash” in the medical sense: “Measles, Small-pox, Red-gum, Rash, Blasts, spotted, viz. Red and Purpre Fevers” (Gideon Harvey’s A Treatise of the Small-pox and Measles, 1696).

Harvey uses the word many times in his treatise, so we’ll also give this more colorful passage: “He that mistakes a Rash (a term of art used by Nurses) for the Measles or Small-pox, can be no other than an illiterate drunken bold Fool.”

The medical term led to a later figurative use, meaning an outbreak or a spate of something, “esp. something unwelcome or undesirable,” as the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is of raindrops upon a woman’s skin: “Wet through and through: with her feet squelching and squashing in her shoes whenever she moved; with a rash of rain upon her classical visage” (Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, 1854).

Among the dictionary’s later examples are “a rash of diminutive chapels”  (1871); “a perfect rash of [labor] strikes” (1929); and “a rash of exclamation marks” (1980).

The adjective “rash” is another story. It comes from Germanic, not Latin, and it’s not related to either of the nouns. Here’s the OED definition: “Hasty, impetuous; acting or speaking without due consideration or regard for consequences; reckless, thoughtless, foolhardy.”

This word is also older than the nouns. It was first recorded in The Pearl, an allegorical poem written in Middle English in the late 14th century (some date it from around 1350). Here’s the passage, as cited in the OED: “Of raas þaȝ I were rasch and ronk, Ȝet rapely þerinne I watz restayed” (“Though I rushed, rash and headstrong, / Yet quickly I was restrained in my course”).

The word may be older than that, however. Oxford says the Middle English adjective was “probably” a form of an earlier one that existed in Old English but hasn’t been found in writing. The dictionary points to similar words in other Germanic languages, including rasch in older as well as modern forms of Dutch and German.

Before we go, a note about that scratchy Latin verb rādere (scrape), the probable ancestor of the nouns “rash” and “rasher.” It’s also the ultimate source of “abrade,” “erase,” “razor,” and perhaps “rascal” and “rapscallion,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As we all know, rascals and rapscallions are people who take more than their share of the bacon.

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A flight of chardonnays

Q: In recent years, I’ve observed “flight” used in restaurant menus for a selection of alcoholic drinks in a wine, beer, or whiskey tasting. Where does this usage come from?

A: The word “flight” has been used for centuries as a collective term for an airborne group of things—birds, insects, angels, arrows, even clouds.

In this usage, which began appearing in the mid-1200s, “flight” means “a collection or flock of beings or things flying in or passing through the air together,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But “flight” as a restaurant term for a sampling of foods or drinks is much more recent, dating from the late 1970s. The OED defines this sense as “a selection of small portions of a particular type of food or drink, esp. wine, intended to be tasted together for the purpose of comparison.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is about a wine tasting: “There were four flights of wines, as they say in the trade, four spätleses, four ausleses, four beerenausleses and four trocks [trockenbeerenausleses]” (New York Times, March 29, 1978. The terms describe late-harvest wines of varying sugar content).

The OED also has this example in which the “flight” is a selection of edibles: “They turned the dinner into a smoked salmon tasting…. Each flight of the tasting was garnished differently” (Washington Post, Dec. 14, 1983).

We’ll end with a flight of alcoholic examples from the OED:

“An inviting line-up of the famous single malt whiskeys available in tasting flights” (Sydney Morning Herald, June 17, 1997).

“The tasting bar offers three to six flights of wine in several categories: classic, prestige, all white, and all red” (Wine Lover’s Guide to Wine Country, by Lori Lyn Narlock and Nancy Garfinkel, 2005).

Cheers!

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A little off the fringe?

Q: Recently I came across an old postcard that offers advice to young men on how to choose a wife. Tip No. 3 says, “SEE that she has One Nose, One Mouth, One Tongue (a short one), One Fringe, and one only.” I am curious about this use of “fringe.” Any clues?

A: Sexism aside, how is “fringe” being used on that vintage postcard, and what’s the joke?

In searching for clues as to its origin and date, we found the card you’re probably referring to on a collectors’ site, and fortunately there are front-and-back images.

On the front side, one tip for choosing a wife suggests a reward of “£ 1000” for “a Girl who can Cook like Mother.” And the reverse side reads, “Affix Half-penny Stamp.”

Since British currency is mentioned, along with halfpenny stamps (which were used in Britain from 1870 into the mid-1930s), we know the card was printed in Britain between 90 and 150 years ago.

So “fringe” is meant in the British sense—a section of hair cut short across the forehead. In other words, what we in the US would call “bangs” (more on that later).

But why the advice to seek a wife with “One Fringe, and one only”? Our guess is that it means she shouldn’t have facial hair—that is, a second “fringe” on her upper lip or chin. Well, that’s vintage humor for you.

The hair sense of “fringe”—that is, bangs—originated in 19th-century British English and is still used in Britain today.

This sense of “fringe” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a portion of the front hair brushed forward and cut short.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an Australian newspaper in the 1860s: “There was something noble and majestic in his tall and upright form, his stately head and weather-beaten face, with its shaggy white eyebrows and the fringe of white hair that hung about his high forehead” (Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 1863).

The OED’s earliest examples are from the 1870s and come from England or Scotland. The first is from an advertisement in an illustrated magazine aimed at women: “Curled or waved fringes for the front hair” (the Queen, July 29, 1876).

This OED citation is from a periodical published a couple of years later: “None of that affected ‘Grecian fringe’ with which modern ‘girls of the period’ strive to hide what little forehead they possess” (Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1878).

However, “fringe” was used decades earlier to mean a man’s facial hair, as in this OED citation for “Newgate fringe,” a term for a beard that survived well into the 20th century:

“I seized my best razor, and, as a great example, shaved off the whole of the Newgate fringe from under my chin!” (from a letter of Charles Dickens, Oct. 25, 1853).

This sighting, which we found in an Australian newspaper, refers to a mustache: “The mouth is large and wide; the lips are hideous, clothed with a scanty fringe of hair” (from the Empire, Sydney, July 10, 1862).

The grooming use of “fringe” is one of several senses that have developed from the original, centuries-old meaning of the word in English—an ornamental border. Etymologists say the word’s medieval ancestor is a word in colloquial Latin, frimbia, an alteration of the classical Latin fimbria (border).

The noun came into Middle English by way of Old French (frenge) and was originally spelled “frenge.” (The change in later English from “e” to “i” was normal before a soft “j”-like sound, the OED says, noting the similar cases of “hinge” and “singe.”)

When first recorded in the 14th century, “fringe” meant a narrow ribbon or band with threads attached, either dangling or gathered in tassels or twists, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is a 1327 entry in the wardrobe and household accounts of King Edward III: “14 uln. frenge, serico nigro, per uln’, 3d.” (The entry is for 14 ulns of black silk fringe at 3 pence per uln. Here “uln”—short for “ulna,” the long bone of the forearm—was an archaic unit of measurement something like the “ell,” “eln,” or “cubit,” all based on the length of a man’s arm or parts of it.)

In medieval times, a “fringe” could be used to ornament such things as garments, helmets, or a saddle, as in this example: “A sadel Þat glemed ful gayly with mony golde frenges” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a romance from the late 1300s).

In later centuries, other meanings of “fringe” developed, and they too are still in use today.

For instance, since the first half of the 17th century, “fringe” has been used to mean something marginal or existing on the edge, figuratively or literally. This accounts for uses like “the fringes of Paris,” “the fringe of society,” “fringe theater,” “the fringe vote,” and so on.

And since the latter half of the 17th century, “fringe” has been used for something resembling an edge or border, especially if broken or serrated, as in “a fringe of foam” on a beach or “a fringe of trees.”

Getting back to hair, we’ve written before about “bangs,” a 19th-century American noun derived from the equine term “bangtail.”

In a 2011 post, we say a “bangtail” is an animal’s tail that’s been grown long, then cut straight across horizontally and abruptly (as if with a “bang!”). The word can also be a noun for the animal itself (usually a horse), or an adjective, as in “a bangtail mare.”

The horse in question might even be pulling a surrey with fringe on top!

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To internet, or not to internet?

Q: I saw this in a New York Times article the other day: “The Virus Changed the Way We Internet.” And this was the tagline of a recent Bayer TV commercial: “This is why we science.” Am I just an old fogy or can any noun be turned into a verb these days?

A: You won’t find the verbs “internet” or “science” in standard dictionaries, but there’s a case to be made for the verbing of the noun “internet.” In fact, the verb showed up in print just a year after the noun, though not in the sense you’re asking about.

When the noun “internet” first appeared in 1975, it referred to “a computer network comprising or connecting a number of smaller networks,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. When the verb appeared in 1976, it meant “to connect by means of a computer network.”

The usual sense of the noun now—a global computer network that allows users around the world to communicate and share information—evolved over the 1980s and ’90s. The verb took on the sense you’re asking about—to use the internet—in the 1990s.

Here are the two earliest OED citations for the verb used in that way: “A number of providers want you to Internet to their services” (Globe & Mail, Toronto, May 13, 1994) … “I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat. I just internetted” (Associated Press, Aug. 21, 1994).

Oxford doesn’t include a usage label that would suggest the verb is anything other than standard English. However, none of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have an entry for “internet” as a verb. (The collaborative Wiktionary includes it as an “informal” verb meaning to use the internet, and offers this example: “Having no idea what that means, I am internetting like mad.”)

As for the verb “science,” we couldn’t find an entry for it in either the OED or standard dictionaries. However, Oxford and four standard dictionaries include the adjective “scienced” as a rare or archaic usage.

Oxford describes the adjective as “now rare” when used to mean “knowledgeable, learned; skilled or trained in a specified profession or pursuit; (in later use also) adopting a scientific approach.” It says the term is “now somewhat archaic” when used in the sense of “well versed or trained in boxing.”

(Wiktionary includes the “colloquial, humorous” use of the verb “science,” meaning “to use science to solve a problem.” It also includes the adjective “scienced,” meaning “knowledgeable, learned; skilled or trained in a specified profession or pursuit.” It doesn’t cite any examples.)

Speaking for ourselves, we aren’t likely to use “internet” or “science” as a verb, at least not yet. Neither usage is widespread enough. However, we see nothing wrong in principle with the verbing of nouns. In a 2016 post, we defended it as process that dates back to the early days of English.

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When Harry met ‘high maintenance’

Q: Someone mentioned to me that the terms “high maintenance person” and “transitional relationship” come from the film When Harry Met Sally. I find no confirmation of this. Do you have any information about it?

A: No, those expressions didn’t originate with the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally. In fact, the 1988 screenplay, by Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, and Andrew Scheinman, doesn’t include the exact phrase “high maintenance person” or “transitional relationship.” But the film, directed by Reiner, uses similar wording and may have helped popularize the two usages.

In the film, Harry (played by Billy Crystal) says, “There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.” Sally (Meg Ryan) later asks, “Which one am I?” And Harry responds, “The worst one. You’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”

In another scene, Sally tells her friend Marie (Carrie Fisher): “Look, there is no point in my going out with someone I might really like if I met him at the right time but who right now has no chance of being anything to me but a transitional man.” Later, Sally tells Harry that her ex-boyfriend is marrying a paralegal in his office: “She’s supposed to be his transitional person, she’s not supposed to be the one.”

The phrase “high maintenance” has been used adjectivally since the early 1980s to describe someone “requiring a great deal of care or attention; esp. very demanding or fussy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation refers to a child with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder in which bones break easily: “An O.I. child is a high-maintenance child” (from People Weekly, April 19, 1982).

The first Oxford example for the expression used to describe a demanding adult is from an essay on friendship: “None is what I think of as a high-maintenance friend—someone, that is, who requires regular ministering to in the form of visits, daily telephone calls, or lengthy letters” (from “A Former Good Guy and His Friends,” an essay by Joseph Epstein, writing under the name Aristides in the spring 1985 issue of American Scholar).

The OED doesn’t include the expression “transitional relationship,” nor does it have any citations for “transitional” used to modify “man,” “woman,” or “person,” as the adjective is used in When Harry Met Sally. However, we’ve found two examples for “transitional person” from well before the movie opened:

“A transitional person performs the same role as the confidant, but sticks around longer. It can be a lover, a child, a lawyer or a good friend. No matter what, they’re on your side” (from “The Stages of Splitting Up,” Washington Post, Sept. 30, 1986).

“Eventually, the initiator may find a ‘transitional person,’ someone helpful in the separation process. ‘Usually people think of the transitional person as a lover, but it also may be an acquaintance, a counselor or therapist, a minister or even a brother or sister,’ Dr. [Diane] Vaughan said” (from “Drifting Apart: A Look at How Relationships End,” New York Times, Dec. 8, 1986).

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression “transitional relationship” used in the sense we’re discussing is from a self-help book on romantic relationships, published the year the movie opened:

“The distinguishing characteristic, then, of the transitional relationship is that it reflects growth, often profound growth. It allows a great leap ahead, that clear forward movement toward the close-to-perfect, enduring, perhaps permanent love” (Choosing Lovers, 1989, by Martin Blinder).

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Link, a bendable word

Q: There was a headline describing something as “linked with” cancer. I thought it should have said “linked to” cancer. But I am not sure why or if both are permissible.

A: Both prepositions are acceptable. You can link something “to” or “with” something else. In fact, the “with” usage is somewhat older, though writers have used both prepositions for hundreds of years.

Before we discuss the prepositions, let’s look at the history of “link,” which is ultimately derived from kleng-, a reconstructed prehistoric root meaning to bend or turn, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

That ancient Proto-Indo-European term gave Old English the noun hlęnce (plural hlęncan), meaning armor or a coat of mail.

Then it gave Middle English (by way of Old Norse) the word lynk, lynke, linke, etc., a noun for a section of a chain, and in the plural, chains or fetters.

Finally, lynk and its variations led to the Middle English verb linken, meaning to bind or fasten things together.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the bending sense of the prehistoric root “implies ‘joints’ and ‘links,’ and this is the meaning which the word is presumed to have had when it passed into Old Norse as hlenkr—from which English acquired link.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have any Old English citations for hlęnce or hlęncan used to mean armor, but here’s an example and a translation from the Boswell-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:

“Moyses bebeád … frecan árísan habban heora hlencan … beran beorht searo” (“Moses bade the warriors arise, take their coats of mail, bear their bright arms”). From a retelling of Exodus in the Junius Manuscript, believed written in the late 900s. We’ve added ellipses to show where words in the original manuscript are missing from the Boswell-Toller citation.

The first OED citation for the noun “link” is from a poem based on an Aesop fable: “Thinkand thairthrow to lok him in his linkis” (“Think and thereby lock him in his chains”). From “The Fox, the Wolf and the Husbandman,” in The Morall Fabillis of Esope, circa 1480s, by the Scottish poet Robert Henryson.

In the 16th century, the noun took on the more general sense of a connecting part, whether literal or figurative. In the first Oxford example, “link” refers to a political marriage: “A conuenient mariage … whiche should be a lincke necessary, to knit together the realme of Scotlande and England.” From The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall.

As for the verb “link,” the OED says it’s derived from the noun “though recorded somewhat earlier.” In other words, the verb appeared first in writing but it’s believed to have come from the earlier use of the noun in speech.

The earliest citation for the verb is from a poem about the friendship between two merchants: “In love he lynketh them that be vertuous.” From “Fabula Duorum Mercatorum” (“Tale of Two Merchants”), written sometime before 1412 by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.

Getting back to your question about prepositions, the earliest OED example for “link with” is from a poem by Lydgate about the rise and fall of Troy: “So was malice linked with innocence” (Troy Book, written from 1412 to 1420).

The first “link to” citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an allegorical poem in which spiders and flies stand for opposing Protestants and Roman Catholics during the 16th-century reign of Queen Mary I:

“Our chaine / That lingth [linketh] vs to credence: is not auctoritie [authority], / But good vse of auctoritie, by honestie” (The Spider and the Flie, 1556, by John Heywood).

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Is the pun in the pudding?

Q: In your discussion of “the proof is in the pudding,” you seem to have missed the pun. Puddings, as in doughs, etc., require proofing before baking.

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but there are several problems with your suggestion.

First of all, the word “proof” in bread baking means to make dough rise by means of yeast. And yeast is not normally an ingredient in puddings—even ones that are baked.

Second, that old proverb—“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”—dates from the early 1600s, as we wrote in our 2012 post. There, “proof” is a noun meaning something like a test. But “proof” in the culinary sense, a verb, wasn’t recorded until the second half of the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And third, “pudding,” a word dating from the Middle English of the late 13th century, originally meant a kind of sausage—that is, an animal’s stomach or intestine, stuffed with various ingredients and boiled.

This sense of “pudding” survived into the late 19th century, as we wrote in a 2016 post (even today, the Scottish dish haggis is sometimes referred to as a “pudding”). So the “proof of the pudding” proverb was probably about sausage.

Over time, of course, “pudding” was also used for other sorts of savory and sweet dishes. But it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that it arrived at its most common meanings in American and British English today.

In the US, it means a sweet dessert of a custard-like consistency, a sense first recorded in the 1890s.

In the UK, it means any sweet dessert, a usage first recorded in the 1930s. An unsweetened exception is Yorkshire pudding, a dumpling-like side dish made of batter (not dough), and no yeast.

So if puddings aren’t made with yeast, what does “proof” mean in the old proverb? Well, it’s not about baking.

As the OED explains, the noun as used in the proverb originally meant a “test” but is “now sometimes understood” to mean “evidence.” And “the proof of the pudding”—a popular phrase derived from the longer proverb—means “that which puts something to the test or (in later use) proves a fact or statement.”

As we mentioned earlier, the kitchen use of “proof” is much more recent than the proverb. This baking term (as in “to proof dough”) appeared in the 1870s, a couple of decades after a similar use of “prove” (as in “the dough proved quickly”).

“Proof” here is a transitive verb (one requiring an object) while “prove” is an intransitive verb (one that doesn’t require an object).

The OED defines “prove” in the baking sense this way: “Of bread or dough: to become aerated by the fermentation of yeast prior to baking; to rise. Occasionally also of yeast: to cause such aeration.”

Here’s Oxford’s earliest example: “The whole of the flour is … left about an hour … to prove” (from Charles Tomlinson’s Cyclopædia of Useful Arts, 1852).

The OED defines “proof” in this sense as  “to aerate (dough) by the action of yeast before baking.” This is the dictionary’s first example:

“After this laborious process the finished dough is covered over for some time … during which fermentation again begins, and the mass is ‘proofed’ ” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition, Edinburgh, 1875).

Those early examples of “prove” and “proof” in baking were probably printed in italics and quotation marks because the usages were unfamiliar to 19th-century readers.

To conclude, when that old proverb appeared there was no pun intended.

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When walk-ins walk in

Q: I am writing a standard operating procedure for my company (hotels) that describes, among other things, how employees should deal with “walk ins”— guests who “walk in” without a reservation. Are terms like “check in,” “check out,” and “walk in” hyphenated?

A: When compounds like those are used as verbs, they’re generally two separate, unhyphenated words. But as adjectives and nouns, they’re either hyphenated or a single word.

Here’s our advice on how to write those terms, based on preferences given in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. (Some dictionaries may follow the preferred spellings with lesser-used variants.)

Verbs (no hyphens):  “We’ll check in Friday and check out Monday, assuming they’ll let us walk in.”

Adjectives (hyphenated or one word): “The check-in clerk says checkout time is at noon, and they accept walk-in customers.”

Nouns (hyphenated or one word): “Our check-in was easy and so was the checkout, even though we were walk-ins.”

The verbs involved here are phrasal verbs, which are usually defined as a verb plus an adverb. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) gives “settle down,” “act up,” and “phase out” as examples. “A phrasal verb is not hyphenated,” the manual says, “even though its equivalent noun or adjective might be.”

The book illustrates this variability with the phrasal verbs “flare up” and “burn out.” Their equivalent adjectives and nouns are “flare-up” (hyphenated) and “burnout” (unhyphenated).

But as we wrote in 2009, the conventions of hyphenation change over time, and the tendency is for hyphens to disappear from familiar compounds. In 2019, we described the evolution of the verb “check out” as well as the noun and adjective “checkout.”

Many other compounds follow the “check out”/“checkout” pattern—the phrasal verb is two separate words but the adjective and noun are one. These include “break down,” “hold up,” “crack down,” “hand out,” “build up,” “back up,” “lay off,” “send off,” “send up” (to mock), and usually “close out.”

Many other compounds, for now at any rate, still follow the “check in”/“check-in” pattern—that is, the phrasal verb is two separate words but the adjective and noun are hyphenated. Some examples are “drop in,” “drive in,” “cave in,” “drop off,” “carry on,” “die off,” and usually “clean up.”

If you come across a compound that we haven’t mentioned, how can you tell whether the adjective and noun forms are hyphenated or one word? The easiest way is to check out the compound in an up-to-date dictionary.

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From the horse’s mouth

Q: What is the dialect spoken in that quote from Kipling in your “All het up” post? In addition to “het up,” the speaker uses “cramp,” “her,” “them,” and “piece” in nonstandard ways.

A: In “A Walking Delegate,” an 1894 short story by Rudyard Kipling, horses speak a language that combines several regional American dialects.

The Deacon, one of the talking horses in the story, is quoted in the passage cited: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.”

“Het up” here means heated up, “cramp” is to turn a wagon around sharply, “her” stands for “it,” while “them” means “these” or “those,” and “a piece” indicates a while, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The story has many other regionalisms, including “dreffle” (dreadfully), “harr” (hair), “natchul” (naturally), “ner haow” (no how), “nigh” (near), “sociable” (a party), and “sperrity” (spirited).

In the Kipling allegory, one of the horses, Boney, tries to get the others to rise up against their human oppressors. The Deacon and other older horses keep the younger ones from falling under Boney’s sway.

The title of the story refers to a union official who visits locals to make sure that workplace rules and agreements are followed. Kipling didn’t much like unions, socialism, or democracy.

In Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work (1955), the Cambridge historian Charles E. Carrington sees “A Walking Delegate” as a dialectal showpiece: “Though told as a horse story, it is more remarkable for the skilful use of several American dialects than for horse-lore.”

Kipling was living in Vermont when he wrote the story. He was married to a Vermonter, Carrie Balestier.

In Something of Myself, a memoir that was unfinished when Kipling died in 1936, he writes, “I tried to give something of the fun and flavour of those days in a story called ‘A Walking Delegate’ where all the characters are from horse-life.”

The story was a forerunner of another political allegory, Animal Farm (1945), by George Orwell. In Animal Farm, a group of farm animals rebel against a human farmer, but end up under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon.

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Help bake, or help to bake?

Q: “I helped him bake cookies,” or “I helped him to bake cookies”? Which is right?

A: The short answer is that both are right. However, there are some occasions when the verb “help” is more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive, and some by a “to”-less infinitive, though either construction would be correct.

When “help” itself is a “to” infinitive, for example, the following verb tends to be bare, or “to”-less.

As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), English speakers have a “natural reluctance to allow the sequence to help + to-infinitive, that is, to repeat to. This reluctance means that the bare infinitive is usually chosen in such cases, but not always.”

For an early example of such avoidance, Butterfield cites this passage from Shakespeare’s Richard III (circa 1593): “The time will come when thou shalt wish for me / To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad.”

When the verb “help” appears without “to,” however, Shakespeare routinely follows it with a “to” infinitive, as in this example we’ve found from The Tempest (c. 1611): “Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate / A contract of true love; be not too late.”

Style may also play a role, with “help” more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive in some formal or literary writing. As Butterfield points out, “no doubt formality and literariness also have an influence.”

He gives this literary example, which we’ve expanded, from The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), a novel by Iris Murdoch: “Hattie decided against the new dress which would look out of place on such a dismal wet morning, but she allowed Pearl to help her to stack up her hair.”

And we’ve found this formal example in nonfiction: “English language learners need visual stimulus to help them to process and store the information that comes from words” (What Every Teacher Should Know About Media and Technology, 2003, by Donna Walker Tileston).

Aside from special cases like those, Butterfield says, the use of the bare infinitive after the verb “help” is “preferred in everyday written and spoken English.” We’d say it’s more common, not necessarily preferred, in everyday English. And we’ll repeat here that both usages are standard English.

As for the etymology, the verb “help” meant to aid or assist when it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (c. 897), King Ælfred’s Old English translation of a sixth-century treatise by Pope Gregory:

“He nyle gifan ðæt him God geaf, and helpan ðæs folces mid ðæm þe he his healp” (“He is not willing to give what God gave him, and help the people with his help from God”).

In the 12th century, writers began using “help” with an infinitive—it was a “to” infinitive at first. The OED includes two examples from around 1175:

“to seke gan, and þa deden helpen to buriene” (“to seek to go, and help to bury the dead”), from the Lambeth Homilies, a collection of Old English sermons.

“forr hemm itt hallp biforenn godd / to clennsenn hemm off sinne” (“for them, it helped to cleanse themselves of sin before God”), from the Ormulum, a book of biblical commentary.

In the 16th century, writers began using “help” with bare infinitives, as in these two Oxford examples:

“To helpe garnishe his mother tongue” (from a 1548 translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin).

“I wyll helpe synners turne to the [thee]” (from Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songs, 1535, Miles Coverdale’s translations of German hymns by Martin Luther and others).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed infinitives several times on the blog, including a post in 2013 that explained why “to” isn’t part of the infinitive. It’s generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle.”

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Which virus is more deadly?

Q: Coronavirus is said to kill a larger percentage of those who catch it than the flu, but the flu is said to kill more people overall. Which disease is more deadly? The news media says coronavirus is deadlier. Is that an accepted technical usage?

A: As far as we can tell, the word “deadly” doesn’t have a technical sense that differs from its usual meaning.

We’ve found only one technical reference with an entry for the adjective. The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary says it means “likely to cause or capable of causing death.”

That’s pretty much the same definition given in any standard dictionary. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines the term in its medical sense as “tending to produce death: productive of death.”

So “deadly” can refer to either the overall number of people killed by a disease or the percentage of infected people who die of it. Since the term can be used both ways, we think writers should clearly indicate which sense is being used when comparing the deadliness of two diseases, such as coronavirus and influenza.

Without a vaccine and adequate public-health measures, coronavirus may turn out to be deadlier than the latest influenza strains in both ways. We assume you’ve seen the recent report by the COVID-19 Response Team at Imperial College in London.

Etymologically, “deadly” comes from adding -lic (an Anglo-Saxon version of the suffix “-ly”) to the Old English noun déad. The usage is ultimately derived from the reconstructed prehistoric root dheu- (to die), says The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

When “deadly” showed up in Old English, it meant “causing death, or fatal injury; mortal, fatal,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earliest OED citation, which uses deadlicne (the accusative, or objective, form of the adjective), is from a ninth-century translation of a Latin history:

“Forbræcon Romane heora aþas … and þær deadlicne sige geforan” (“The Romans broke those pleasant oaths … and carried out their deadly victory”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), a fifth-century work by Paulus Orosius.

In the late 14th century, the sense of the adjective widened to include something “having the property or capacity of causing death or fatal injury,” according to the OED.

The first citation is from a Middle English sermon by John Wycliffe, written around 1380: “Dedli drynke, ȝif þei taken it … anoieþ hem not” (“Deadly drink, if they have taken it … knoweth them not”).

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When ‘drastically’ is too drastic

Q: I see “drastically” used in this way more and more: “We call on NYPD to drastically increase police visibility in Orthodox communities” (from a Dec. 27, 2019, tweet by the NYC Jewish Caucus). Doesn’t “drastic” have negative connotations? Wouldn’t “dramatically” or “significantly” be more accurate?

A: We agree that “drastically” is jarring in that tweet, which followed a series of anti-Semitic incidents. The adverb “drastically,” like the adjective “drastic,” is generally used in connection with measures that are extreme, severe, or harsh.

The adverb is commonly seen in reference to sharp cuts or steep reductions, rather than to buildups or increases (especially if they’re beneficial ones).

It’s also used in reference to extreme change, as in “drastically different” or “drastically altered.” Generally, though, the implication is that the change is a negative one, not a cause for celebration.

We do occasionally see news items online with phrases like “drastically improve,” “drastically higher,” “drastically raise,” even “drastically benefit.”

But examples like those are rare in major news outlets, where the English is edited—unless they’re in quotations. We agree with you that “significantly” or “dramatically” would be appropriate to describe an increase or buildup.

Most standard dictionaries don’t have separate entries for “drastically,” merely noting that it’s the adverbial form of “drastic.” One exception, Merriam-Webster, says the adverb means “in a drastic manner” and is synonymous with “severely” and “seriously.”

We’ll focus here on “drastic,” a word that in modern English, Merriam-Webster says, means “acting rapidly or violently,” or “extreme in effect or action,” synonymous with “severe.” (Some other dictionaries add “harsh” or “with harshness.”)

Originally, however, “drastic” had a much more specific meaning as a medical term. It was used for medicines that induced a sudden and violent “unloading of the bowels” (to use a phrase common to 18th- and 19th-century physicians).

In bygone days it was used by doctors both as an adjective (“drastic remedy,” “drastic purgative”), and as a noun for the medicine (“a drastic”).

The adjective came into English in the mid-17th century from a Greek word meaning active, δραστικός (drastikós). This is its original definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of medicines: Acting with force or violence, vigorous; esp. acting strongly upon the intestines.”

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ll expand for context, is from a description of a case of blindness supposedly cured by 10 to 12 hours of violent purging:

“Within three or four days after this single taking of the Drastick Medicine had done working, he began to recover some degree of Sight, and within a Fortnight … would discern Objects farther and clearer then most other Men.” The “drastick medicine” given was mercury, and not only the patient’s bowels were emptied but also his stomach, bladder, tear ducts, pores, and salivary glands. He’d been warned beforehand of the “torment of the Cure.”

(From Some Considerations Touching the Vsefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy, a treatise by the chemist Robert Boyle. Natural philosophy, the study of nature, was a precursor of modern science. The OED doesn’t give a precise date, but the earliest copy we’ve found was printed in 1663.)

The adjective “drastic” caught on and flourished in medical writing, and in the 18th century doctors also began using the word as a noun. A “drastic,” according to the OED, meant “a drastic medicine” or “a severe purgative.”

The earliest known use of the noun, Oxford says, is from the 1783 volume of an annual compendium, Medical Communications: “Large quantities of the pills … acting as a drastic.”

Searches of old newspaper databases show that both forms of “drastic”—noun and adjective—were common medical terms until the late 1800s, familiar not only to doctors but to laymen as well. This is to be expected, since some doctors considered purging a panacea and prescribed it for almost everything, particularly in the first decades of the 19th century.

Much of the credit for this—or rather the blame—is due to an Edinburgh physician, James Hamilton, author of Observations on the Utility and Administration of Purgative Medicines (1805). The book went into many editions in Britain and the US, and was translated into Italian, German, and French.

Hamilton’s methods were widely adopted, and his adherents believed that a violent emptying of the bowels could cure typhus, rabies, mental illnesses, fevers, skin diseases, menstrual irregularities, heart palpitations, sore throat, and bad breath, among other things.

We mention this long-discredited medical practice only to illustrate how commonplace “drastic” was in its original senses.

The noun “drastic” is uncommon today, and few standard dictionaries still include it. One exception is Merriam-Webster, which defines it as “a powerful medicinal agent; especially: a strong purgative.” You’ll also find it in the collaborative Wiktionary (“a powerful, fast-acting purgative medicine”).

But the adjective “drastic” is another story. By the early 19th century, the OED says, it had taken on a “transferred” meaning derived from the medical sense: “vigorously effective; violent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citations are from British writers who were political philosophers and economists:

“In consideration of their too extensive and too drastic efficacy” (Jeremy Bentham, Scotch Reform, 1808).

“Occasions … in which so drastic a measure would be fit to be taken into serious consideration” (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848).

Around this same time the new adverb “drastically” emerged. Oxford’s definition: “in a drastic manner; with drastic remedies or applications; with effective severity.”

The earliest example we’ve found has no medical connection. It’s from a tongue-in-cheek comment on jurisprudence in foreign lands:

“In the East, where there are despots equal to our judges … they punish first offences, drastically it is true, but in a manner which still recommends itself to our secret prejudices” (The London Magazine, Nov. 1, 1827).

But at times in the 19th century, “drastically” was still associated with medical purges. Discussing cholera in a letter dated October 1849, a Manchester physician wrote of bile secretions that are “rendered drastically purgative instead of gently aperient” (Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, November 1849).

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Tidbit or titbit?

Q: Why do Americans use “tidbit” for a word that we in the UK properly spell “titbit”?

A: Americans may spell it “tidbit” because that’s how the term was pronounced when it first appeared in English in the 17th century as “tyd bit.”

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term may have originated as a combination of the adjective “tid” (playful, frolicsome, lively, etc.) and the noun “bit” (biting or a bite), though it says “the form tidbit is now chiefly North American.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the “titbit” spelling in the UK “probably” resulted from the “alteration of the first element after the second”—that is, the British turned “tid” into “tit” to make it rhyme with “bit.”

However, Oxford notes what it apparently considers a less likely explanation—that “titbit” was “perhaps” influenced by “tit” and “tittle” (terms for various small things).

No matter how the first part was spelled, the terms originally meant “a small piece of tasty food; a delicacy, a morsel,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a collection of proverbs and phrases spoken in Gloucestershire, a county in southwestern England:

“A tyd bit, i.e. a speciall morsell reserved to eat at last.” From A Description of the Hundred of Berkeley in the County of Gloucester and of Its Inhabitants, 1639, by the antiquarian John Smyth. (The “Hundred of Berkeley” refers to a section of the county.)

The work was later edited by John Maclean and published in 1885 as The Berkeley Manuscripts. Maclean writes in his preface that Smyth finished the work on Dec. 21, 1639.

The OED says the term showed up as “tit bit” two years later: “A Man-servant … should goe into a Victualers service, because he hopeth for tit bits either of gift, or by stealth, and relicks more ordinary of his Masters Dishes.” From A Right Intention (1641), John Dawson’s translation of a Latin treatise by Jeremias Drexel.

The term, Oxford says, soon came to be used figuratively to describe “a person or thing likened to a delicacy or morsel,” as in this 1650 citation from a London weekly overseen by John Milton: “The Kirk longs much, and is like to miscarry for a Tid Bit of yong Tarquin” (Mercurius Politicus, No. 3, June 20-27).

In this figurative sense, the term was spelled “tidbit” as well as “titbit” by British writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, as in these expanded OED examples:

“Author. Now for a taste of Recitativo. My farce is an Oglio of tid-bits,” from Eurydice, A Farce, by Henry Fielding. (The play was withdrawn after two performances in 1737 because of hissing. It was published for the first time in Miscellanies, 1743, as Eurydice, A Farce: As it was d-mned at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.)

“And except on first nights or some other such occasion, or during the singing of the well-known tit-bits of any opera, there was an amount of chattering in the house which would have made the hair of a fanatico per la musica stand on end” (What I Remember, an 1887 memoir by Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the oldest brother of Anthony Trollope).

In the early 19th century, the term took on its modern sense of “a small and particularly interesting item of news, gossip, or information,” according to OED citations: “Another tit bit of domestic scandal” (Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, December 1809).

The use of the “titbit” spelling in the UK, especially in the news and gossip sense, may have been reinforced by the name of a mass-circulation British newspaper that specialized in easy-to-read human-interest stories.

As the OED explains, “Tit-Bits (later Titbits) was the name of a British weekly newspaper devoted to such items and is regarded as one of the progenitors of popular journalism. First published on 22 Oct. 1881, it ceased publication in 1984.”

Tit-Bits was the first general-interest publication to buy a humor piece by P. G. Wodehouse, one of our favorite writers. You can read the Nov. 24, 1900, piece, “Men Who Have Missed Their Own Weddings,” on Madame Eulalie, a website devoted to Wodehouse’s early works.

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Sticking in a knife with a smile

Q: I have recently heard two instances of someone prefacing a criticism by saying, “I am telling you this lovingly.” It sounds to me like sticking in a knife with a smile. It’s similar to prefacing a remark with “clearly,” an indication that things may not be all that clear. Any thoughts about this?

A: We haven’t yet noticed “lovingly” used to criticise with a smile. But like you, we’re bugged by deceptive preludes to faultfinding.

As you know, these introductory remarks are often followed by the word “but” and the critical statement. Some of the more common ones: “I don’t want to criticize, but …,” “I hate to be the one to tell you, but …,” “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …,” and “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but ….”

These “contrary-to-fact phrases” have been called “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” “but heads,” and “lying qualifiers,” according to the lexicographer Erin McKean, as we noted in a 2012 post.

McKean says the object of these opening remarks is “to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of ‘best offense is a good defense’ strategy” (Boston Globe, Nov. 14, 2010).

“This technique,” she notes, “has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer.”

Once you start looking for these deceptive introductions, McKean says, “you see them everywhere, and you see how much they reveal about the speaker. When someone says ‘It’s not about the money, but …,’ it’s almost always about the money. If you hear ‘It really doesn’t matter to me, but …,’ odds are it does matter, and quite a bit.”

“ ‘No offense, but …’ and ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but …’ are both warning flags, guaranteed to precede statements that are offensive, insulting, or both,” she adds. “ ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but …’ invariably signals the advent of breathtaking, blatant, write-in-to-Miss-Manners-style rudeness. (And when someone starts out by saying ‘Promise me you won’t get mad, but …’ you might as well go ahead and start getting mad.)”

McKean doesn’t mention the use of “clearly” at the beginning of a sentence, but she discusses a few similar sentence adverbs: “Someone who begins a sentence with ‘Confidentially’ is nearly always betraying a confidence; someone who starts out ‘Frankly,’ or ‘Honestly,’ ‘To be (completely) honest with you,’ or ‘Let me give it to you straight’ brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip: ‘The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.’ ”

We should also mention a 2013 post of ours about “Just sayin’,” an expression that follows a critical comment: “ ‘You might look for a new hair stylist. Just sayin’.”

Why do people use deceptive phrases in criticizing others? McKean suggests that “our real need for these phrases may be rooted in something closer to self-delusion. We’d all like to believe we aren’t being spiteful, nosy or less than forthcoming. To proclaim our innocence in this way is to assert that we are, indeed, innocent.”

However, we think that many of us—including the two of us—use these sneaky expressions simply because we don’t feel comfortable criticizing others, even when criticism may be warranted. Unfortunately, a sneaky criticism often stings more than one that’s plainspoken.

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Is the parrot willful or willing?

Q: I suppose you’re going to inform me that, as has happened with so many other words, the meaning of “willfully” now has a positive connotation. The Daily Kos recently cited a study showing that the African gray parrot “willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy.”

A: No, “willfully” hasn’t changed. The writer no doubt meant “willingly,” not “willfully.” The headline on that Jan. 14, 2020, article, “African gray parrots voluntarily show kindness to others,” is a clue.

In an article on the kindness, even altruism apparently shown by parrots, the appropriate adverb would have been “willingly,” a positive term meaning voluntarily or gladly, not “willfully,” a negative one meaning deliberately, obstinately, even maliciously.

Here’s a fuller excerpt from the article: “It’s been known for a few years that some other higher primates (especially orangutans) will voluntarily help others, especially if they think they’ll get something in return, and that doesn’t seem too surprising. But a nicely conceived test of the very intelligent African gray parrot shows that it willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy when presented with the opportunity.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include the two terms, without definitions, as adverbial forms of the adjectives “willful” and “willing.” In other words, “willfully” means in a willful manner and “willingly” in a willing manner.

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) is one of the few standard dictionaries to define the two adverbs. It uses “wilfully,” the British spelling, for the word Americans usually spell as “willfully.” Here are Lexico’s definitions and examples:

willingly: Readily; of one’s own free will. she went willingly.”

wilfully (US willfully): 1. With the intention of causing harm; deliberately. she denies four charges of wilfully neglecting a patient. 2. With a stubborn and determined intention to do as one wants, regardless of the consequences. he had wilfully ignored the evidence.”

The adverbs were derived from their corresponding adjectives. The first, “willing,” was recorded in compounds in the late 800s; the second, originally spelled “wilful,” is believed to have existed by about 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though there are no surviving examples in Old English writing.

As for the meaning of the adjectives, Merriam-Webster says in usage notes that “willing implies a readiness and eagerness to accede to or anticipate the wishes of another,” while “willful implies an obstinate determination to have one’s own way.”

Getting back to the adverbs, the older of the two, “willingly,” first appeared in writing in the 900s, spelled willendlice, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

(The -líce suffix in Old English, precursor to the “-ly” ending we know today, was used to form adverbs out of adjectives. The modern spelling, “willingly,” evolved in the mid-1500s.)

The earliest Oxford citation for “willingly” is from a 10th-century Latin-Old English dictionary in which the Latin diligenter (diligently, conscientiously) is translated as willendlice.

A later Latin-English dictionary, this one from the 16th century, defines the Latin libenter (eagerly, cheerfully) as “wyllyngely, gladly.”

The OED, which defines “willingly” as “with a ready will, consentingly, without reluctance,” says the adverb can convey “various shades of meaning from ‘with acquiescence, submissively’ to ‘with pleasure, cheerfully, gladly’ or ‘wishfully, eagerly.’ ”

Most uses in modern English conform to the Oxford definition, as exemplified by this citation from a 19th-century novel:

“Often have I observed one … of the sisters willingly go without her dinner … in order that her portion might be reserved for Mr. Stallabras” (The Chaplain of the Fleet, 1881, by Walter Besant and James Rice).

And that’s still the chief use of the word today, though at times in the past it has had less altruistic meanings, even crossing into the negative senses of “willfully.” Those uses are now obsolete, the OED says.

The adverb often appears in the phrase “would willingly,” Oxford adds, which means “should like to,” while “would not willingly” means “would rather not.”

As for “willfully,” the dictionary says the word was first recorded around the year 1000, spelled wilfullíce in late Old English. It originally had senses similar to  “willingly”—voluntarily, of one’s own will—but those uses are obsolete, the dictionary says.

Today “willfully” has only two meanings, both negative. These are the OED definitions for those senses, which began to appear in the late 1300s and late 1500s, respectively:

(1) “Purposely, on purpose, by design, intentionally, deliberately. Chiefly, now always, in bad sense” and “occasionally implying ‘maliciously.’ ” (2) “In a self-willed manner, perversely, obstinately, stubbornly.” The two meanings are often hard to tell apart.

Here’s the earliest Oxford example for the purposely or deliberately sense, which we’ve expanded to add more context:

“Yf þat he wole take of it no cure, Whan þan it cometh, but wylfully it weyuen, Lo neyþer cas nor fortune hym deseyuen, But right his verray slouþe and wrecchednesse” (“If he will not take advantage of it when it comes, but willfully dismiss it, then neither chance nor fortune deceive him, but only his own sloth and wretchedness”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1374.

And in the dictionary’s first example for the self-willed or obstinate sense, a hard-hearted mother is willfully intent on marrying her daughter to a rich creep:

“The mother … beyng determinately (least I shoulde say of a great Lady, wilfully) bent to marrie her to Demagoras.” From The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney, 1590.

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