English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

How a poke became a pocket

Q: I’ve read that a pocket was originally a small bag tied around the waist. Is this true?

A: Yes, etymologically “pocket” is a small bag. It originated as the diminutive of “poke,” an old term for a bag. And, yes, “pockets” were once tied around the outside of garments, not sewn in or on them.

The word “poke” showed up in English in the late 13th century, perhaps borrowed from or influenced by similar words in Anglo-Norman, Old French, or Old Dutch, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes a possible sighting from the early 13th century, but its first definite example is from an anonymous Middle English romance written at the end of the century: “Hise pokes fulle of mele an korn.” From The Lay of Havelok the Dane (1280-90), edited by Walter William Skeat in 1868 for the Early English Text Society.

The use of “poke” in this sense survives today in the expression “to buy pig in a poke” (to buy something sight unseen, as if in a bag), first recorded in a 16th-century book of proverbs: “Ye loue not to bye the pyg in the poke.” From A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood.

The diminutive form, “pocket,” appeared in Middle English writing in the 14th century, borrowed from the Anglo-Norman term for a little bag (spelled poket, pokete, or pochete). In English it originally had a similar sense (little bag), and was sometimes used as a measure of quantity in agriculture. In the 13th century, according to the OED, a “pocket” of wool was a quarter of a “sack,”

The first OED citation for “pocket” (which we’ll expand here) is from a list, dated 1350, of supplies used for maintaining the old London Bridge: “Also, in the Chapel there, in a pokete, 2500 of wyndounail [window nail], at 2s.6d the thousand, 6s.6d.” From Memorials of London and London Life (1868), edited by Henry Thomas Riley.

In the 15th century, the dictionary says, the noun “pocket” came to mean “any small bag or pouch worn on a person.” The earliest citation is from “The Mirror of the Periods of Man’s Life” (circa 1450), a hymn about the rivalry between virtue and vice for the soul of man:

“ ‘Apparaile þe propirli,’ quod Pride, ‘Loke þi pockettis passe þe lengist gise’ ” (“ ‘Apparel thee properly,’ quoth Pride. ‘Look that thy pockets surpass the latest style’ ”). Published in Hymns to the Virgin & Christ (1867), edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.

At first, tie-on pockets were worn outside the clothing of both men and women. But in the 16th century, the pockets began to be concealed, stitched into men’s clothes and worn under the skirts or petticoats of women’s clothes. Women could reach their pockets through slits hidden in the seams or pleats of their skirts.

We’ve found several references in the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I for pockets sewn into the clothes of male servants.

In 1575, for example, “a litle blak a More” (an African) was made “a peire of gaskens” (similar to leggings but baggy at the top) with “pockettes of fustian.” And in 1578, the 3-year-old son of a servant was made “a gowne of carnacion satten” with “pockettes of fustian.” (We wrote about “fustian” in 2018.)

The fashion historian Rebecca Unsworth notes that “the fullness of sixteenth-century dress for both men and women gave ample opportunities for the inclusion and concealment of pocket bags without unsightly bulges.” But a century earlier, “the narrower medieval silhouette” would have “restricted the placement of pockets in clothing.”

By the same reasoning, Unsworth writes, the use of tie-on pockets under women’s dresses “fell out of fashion with the adoption of the slender profile and gauzy fabrics of neo-classical dress at the end of the eighteenth century.”

Her article, “Hands Deep in History: Pockets in Men and Women’s Dress in Western Europe, c. 1480–1630,” published in the journal Costume (September 2017), has many illustrations of the different pockets used with men’s and women’s clothing during the period.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an online essay, “A History of Pockets,” that includes many illustrations of the various pockets used by men and women from the 17th to the late 19th century. Three images show a Lady Claphan doll from the 1690s in various stages of dress: fully clothed, in her shift, and in her under-petticoat with pockets tied around the waist.

In the 1790s, women began to wear tie-on pockets outside their dresses again, as in the 15th century, or they carried reticules, decorative bags hung over the arm. But in the 19th century, sewn-in pockets began replacing the tie-ons, which were easy prey for pickpockets.

We’ll end with a 19th-century nursery rhyme about a missing pocket:

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Henchmen and minions

Q: Have the terms “henchmen” and “minions” always been pejorative, as they seem to be now?

A: No, when “henchmen” and “minions” first came into English, they weren’t pejorative.

In the 14th century, a “henchman” was a highly ranked attendant who waited on royalty or noblemen on ceremonial occasions. And in the 15th, a “minion” was the esteemed favorite of a monarch or other powerful patron.

Eventually, of course, both took on negative connotations in Modern English, “henchman” more so than “minion.”

Today a “henchman” is one who unquestioningly, even violently, acts on behalf of a perhaps corrupt master. And because a king’s “minion” was usually male, “minion” in early times was sometimes used contemptuously to imply a pampered sexual pet; it later came to mean a servile or fawning subordinate.

So both words have come a long way. Here’s a closer look at their histories.

Etymologically, “henchman” is “horseman” (the “hench” part comes from hengest, Old English for a male horse). Spelled “henxstman” in Middle English, it was first recorded in the English royal wardrobe accounts for 1377-80, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A wardrobe item describes livery for one “Hans Wynsele, henxstman.” (Hans Wynsele was probably an attendant to King Edward III, whose reign was 1327-77, or his grandson King Richard II, 1377-99.)

However, since “henchman” is a native English word (Old English hengest + man), it probably was current before the late 1370s. As the OED says, the word was documented earlier in medieval Latin and Anglo-Norman forms that had been borrowed from English: Latin hengsmannus (1345-49), hengestmannus (1360), and Anglo-Norman henxtemen (plural, circa 1370).

The original “henchman,” the dictionary says, was “a high-ranking male servant with the role of attendant or page of honour to a monarch, nobleman, dignitary, etc., esp. one employed to accompany that person when riding in processions, progresses, marches, etc.”

Why would a ceremonial attendant have a title that implies a servant who tends horses?

“Although there appears to be no explicit evidence that the office of henchman involved duties relating to horses,” the OED explains, “the royal henchmen are listed as being under the command of the Master of the King’s Horse in the earliest documentary source for the word.”

The dictionary adds that “groom” and “marshal,” terms for two other “positions of honour in the royal household,” both originally denoted “servants employed to tend horses.”

The OED notes that early henchmen were apparently considered high-ranking servants, while those of the later 1400s and 1500s “were typically the sons of noblemen seeking an education in courtly manners.”

The office of royal “henchman” was abolished by Elizabeth I in the 1560s, but the title survived outside royal households. As the OED says, a “henchman” in later use meant “a liveried page or footman who walks alongside the horse of a Lord Mayor, sheriff, etc., in ceremonial processions.”

Pejorative senses of “henchman” began emerging in the 19th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “a devoted or zealous (male) political supporter, a partisan,” or “a person (usually a man) engaged by a politician to further his or her interests by corrupt or unscrupulous means.”

The earliest use of this sense, the OED says, was recorded in the Times (London) on April 3, 1835: “The moment the Government came into power they allied themselves with the most bitter enemies of those feelings; they placed their henchmen at the head of the state, and they crammed their Privy Council with them.”

An even more negative sense appeared in the US in the early 20th century, the dictionary says: “A male subordinate to a criminal or villain, esp. one who obeys his leader unquestioningly and is prepared to engage in violence or crime on his behalf; an accomplice, heavy, or sidekick.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an American journal: “Strangely enough, Paul Kelly has no police record—he always delegates his duties to a henchman” (Public Opinion, Dec. 5, 1905).

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper: “Demented supervillain The Joker … conducts his reign of terror flanked by trusty henchmen” (Lichfield Mercury, Aug. 4, 2016).

As for “minion,” it showed up later than “henchman” but took much less time to develop negative connotations.

It was first recorded in a 15th-century comic song satirizing the costumes of servants, who often were dressed better than their masters: “Off servyng men I wyll begyne … For they goo mynyon trym.”

The expression “go minion trim” in that song meant to dress like a minion, defined at that time, the OED says, as “a (usually male) favourite of a sovereign, prince, or other powerful person; a person who is dependent on a patron’s favour.”

The word was adopted from the Middle French mignon (darling). At the time “minion” entered English, mignon was used in France as a noun for “a king’s favourite,” as “a term of endearment,” and as an adjective meaning “pretty, delicate, graceful,” according to the dictionary’s etymological notes.

But as the OED says, the English “minion” could also be used for a simple “hanger-on.” So it’s not surprising that very soon “minion” became a pejorative word.

For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was sometimes used “with contemptuous suggestion of homosexual relations,” according to Oxford. Here are some examples:

“So are the hartes of our popishe protestauntes … hardened … in that they looke yea go backe agayne to theyr sodomiticall minion.” From The Hurte of Hering [Hearing] Masse, by the Protestant martyr John Bradford, written in the early 1550s.

“The king is loue-sick [lovesick] for his minion.” From Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, written sometime before 1593. (Some historians have suggested that Edward II had a homosexual relationship with his “favorite,” Piers Gaveston, whom he made 1st Earl of Cornwall.)

As the OED says, in later use the connotation of “favored” disappeared and “minion” arrived at its modern meaning: “a follower or underling, esp. one who is servile or unimportant.”

Oxford has this late 19th-century example: “It is no wonder if he helps himself from the city treasury and allows his minions to do so.” From a description of a “city boss” in The American Commonwealth (1888), by James Bryce, a Scottish viscount who taught civil law at Oxford.

And this citation was recorded a century later in the British magazine Q (October 1987): “Our first glimpse is an overhead shot of him being shaved and manicured, joking genially with pressmen while his minions fawn around him.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin

On ‘capitulate’ and ‘recapitulate’

Q: As much as I dislike the overuse of the phrase, I had a “Wait, what?” moment this morning when I realized that “capitulate” means to yield, so “recapitulate” should mean to yield again, but it doesn’t. How did this happen?

A: When the two words showed up in mid-16th century writing, the usual meaning of “capitulate” was to draw up an agreement or a statement, and the usual sense of “recapitulate” was to summarize the main points of such an understanding.

The two verbs ultimately come from the classical Latin caput (head) and capitulum (little head). In medieval Latin, a capitulum could mean the heading on a major section or chapter of a document, as well as the chapter itself, while capitulare meant to arrange sections of text under separate headings. The Latin usage is the source of our word “chapter.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this early sense of “capitulate” as to “draw up articles of agreement; to propose terms; to treat, parley, negotiate; to stipulate; to come to terms, to agree. Now archaic.”

The first OED example is from a 16th-century translation of Thucyides’ history of the Peloponnesian War: “They determyned … to capitulate and conferre wyth them touchynge the estate of the cytie.” From Thomas Nicolls’s 1550 translation of the Greek historian’s account of the war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC.

The dictionary defines the early use of “recapitulate” this way: “To go through or repeat again, usually in a more concise manner; to go over the main points or substance of (an argument, statement, etc.); to summarize, restate briefly.” (A slightly earlier sense, primarily in reference to Jesus, was “to gather or bring together; to sum up or unite in one.”)

The first Oxford example of “recapitulate” in its summarize sense is from The Spider and the Flie, a 1556 allegorical poem by John Heywood about a clash between Protestant spiders and Roman Catholic flies:

“The flie (after a fewe woordes concerninge appeale) doeth brefely recapitulate theffect passed in the principall case.” Heywood, a devoted Catholic who supported the religious beliefs of Queen Mary, dedicated the 556-page illustrated poem to her.

In the early 17th century, “capitulate” came to mean to surrender, a not surprising evolution from its original sense of drawing up an agreement or negotiating terms. The first OED citation is from the official account, ordered by Queen Elizabeth I, of the trial and execution of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex:

“Hee would not capitulate, but intreat, and made three petitions.” From A Declaration of the Practises & Treasons Attempted and Committed by Robert Late Earle of Essex and His Complices, Against Her Maiestie and Her Kingdoms (1601), by Francis Bacon. Lord Essex was a one-time favorite of Elizabeth and supporter of Bacon.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Word origin Writing

How nasty is ‘mean-spirited’?

Q: I’ve always thought “mean-spirited” meant petty or selfish. Increasingly, I’ve seen it used to mean nasty. Is this an American usage?

A: The phrase “mean-spirited” is defined variously as malicious, small-minded, selfish, inconsiderate, and so on in standard American and British dictionaries.

We don’t see a significant difference in the way the dictionaries treat the phrase, though the adjective “mean” by itself tends to be nastier in the US references.

The 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) define “mean” variously as selfish, petty, small-minded, unkind, unpleasant, spiteful, cruel, malicious, violent, offensive, nasty, troublesome, etc. US dictionaries are more likely to use the harsher definitions, though some UK dictionaries include them too.

An essay on Merriam-Webster’s website (“How ‘Mean’ Became Nasty”) notes that the nasty sense of “mean” has “become so widespread in American English” that it is “without question the most frequently used today.”

We suspect that the nastiness of “mean” in the US is influencing the way Americans use “mean-spirited.” However, the “nasty” sense of the phrase hasn’t yet made its way into definitions of “mean-spirited” in US dictionaries.

Interestingly, the selfish, nasty, and violent senses of “mean” all showed up around the same time in the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And all three appeared first in American English.

Etymologically, there are three distinct words spelled “mean” in English: (1) a verb with the sense of intend or signify; (2) an adjective or noun for a mathematical average as well as average people or things; (3) the adjective you’re asking about, the one with all those senses mentioned earlier.

We’ll limit ourselves here to “mean” #3. We’ll get to current usage in a while, but let’s look first at how the adjective arrived at its modern senses.

When the adjective “mean” first appeared in early Old English writing (spelled gemæne), it meant minor, lesser, or inferior, and was used to describe a minor rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the statutes of a religious guild, or prayer group, in medieval Exeter:

“And se mæssepreost a singe twa mæssan … & ælc gemænes hades broður twegen salteras sealma” (“and let the mass priest sing two masses … and every brother of mean condition two psalters of psalms”). From Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici, a collection of charters dated from as far back as the 6th-century reign of King Æthelbert of Kent, edited by Benjamin Thorpe (1865).

An aphetic form of the adjective (that is, minus the first syllable) showed up later in Old English as mæne, and referred to things held in common or jointly. The first OED citation is from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:

“Swa forð andlangas þæs broces forð þæt hit cymð to hryxies mæne weig” (“so forth along that it comes to the island of rushes held in mean way”). From Charters of Burton Abbey, published by Peter Hayes Sawyer (1979).

In Middle English, the senses of inferior and common broadened, perhaps influenced by the disparaging use of average in “mean” #2 above, according to the OED. As a result, “mean” came to describe people of inferior social status, ability, or education, as well as things considered inferior, second-rate, or contemptible. Here are some Oxford examples:

“Þe grete … in þe gaiest wise, & menere men as þei miȝt” (“the great … in their most ornate fashion, and the mean [common] men as they might be”). From William of Palerne (circa 1350), an English translation of a French romance.

“Þe comyn lettre of Mathew is ful skars, for mene men myȝte vnderstonde” (“the Gospel of Matthew is one that mean [unlearned] men might scarcely understand”). From John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a Latin work of history and theology.

“ ‘Suffre hem lyue,’ he seyde, ‘and lete hem ete with hogges, / Or elles benes and bren ybaken togideres, / Or elles melke and mene ale’ ” (“ ‘Suffer them to live,’ he said, ‘and let them eat with hogs, / Or else beans and bran baked together, / Or else milk and mean [second-rate] beer’ ”). From Piers Plowman (circa 1378), by William Langland.

(In the last citation, which we’ve expanded, Piers is referring to shirkers who would rather sing and drink ale than plow. Beans and bran were fed to pigs, and poor people sometimes added beans to grain when not enough grain was available for baking bread.)

In the 17th century, according to the OED, the adjective turned even more negative and came to describe someone “lacking moral dignity, ignoble; small-minded.” The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand here, warns that those in high positions are in danger of acting immorally and of despising the immorality of less important people:

“as a throne exposes those that sit on it to peculiar temptations to vice, so …. the sublimity of such a condition would make any soul, that is not very mean, despise many mean things, that too often prevail upon inferiour persons.” From Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects (1665), by the Anglo-Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle.

As we’ve said above, the selfish, nasty, and vicious senses of “mean” all first appeared around the same time in 19th-century American English, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s first example for the stingy or miserly sense is from the July 1840 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. A letter from Salonica, Turkey (now Thessaloniki, Greece), says no one can live in the city without a Jewish agent: “And you may depend it is a trial to Christian patience: for ‘as mean as the Jews of Salonica’ is an Eastern proverb.”

The earliest OED example for the nasty sense appeared a year later: “One [girl] thought me real mean for uttering such super-diabolical sentiments.” From Short Patent Sermons (1841), by Dow, Jr., pseudonym of Elbridge G. Paige. The book is a collection of Paige’s columns for the Sunday Mercury in New York.

The first Oxford citation for the vicious sense refers to an uncontrollable horse: “He’s a monstrous mean horse, gentlemen.” From Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, &c., in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835), by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest example in which “mean” is used for vicious people: “He [a cowboy] gets all-fired mean sometimes when he’s full.” From Saddle and Mocassin (1887), by Francis Francis Jr.

Getting back to the phrase “mean-spirited,” the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded here, uses it to mean half-hearted—in this case, not fully committed to living a Christian life:

“Away then with that mean spirited Religion which thus lessens and confines our Happiness; let us unfold our Hands, and pluck them out of our Bosoms, and encourage our selves in a vigorous Pursuit of an excellent Piety.” From Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Saviour (1694), by Francis Bragge, a vicar in Hertfordshire in southern England.

The next OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, uses “mean-spirited” in the sense of impudent or ill-mannered: “I mentioned to him one day that I was of the opinion he very seldom spoke the truth. What do you think he did? he kissed my hand! Impertinent, meanspirited wretch!” From a letter written on Jan. 3, 1825, by Jane Baillie Welsh to Thomas Carlyle. (They were married in 1826.)

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “mean-spirited” used in the sense you’re asking about (ungenerous, petty or selfish), but we’ve found many in searches of digitized books, including this one from the early 18th century:

“That these of Publick Employments should be of publick Spirits, it is a shame to be mean Spirited, and taken up with self interest.” From a sermon delivered Nov. 24, 1700, by John Hamilton, an Edinburgh clergyman.

The use of “mean-spirited” for nasty appears to have shown up in the late 20th century. The earliest example we’ve found refers to the news media:

“The watchdog role of the free press can often appear as mean-spirited. How do the government and public protect themselves from its excesses?” From “The Role of the Media in a Democracy,” an article by George A. Krimsky, a former AP editor, published in Issues of Democracy, a journal of the United States Information Agency, February 1997.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Burgle or burglarize?

Q: What is the difference between “to burgle” and “to burglarize”? How do you account (if you can) for this unnecessary back—or rather forward—formation? Ignorance of the original? Or is a subtle difference implied between the unidentical twins?

A: Both “burgle” and “burglarize” are respectable, widely used verbs, and they’re recognized as such in all 10 of the standard American and British dictionaries we consult.

However, most people tend to look askance at one verb or the other. Though both are standard English in the US as well as the UK, preferences differ. Americans prefer “burglarize,” according to some dictionaries, while the British consider “burgle” the verb of choice and see “burglarize” as a North American term.

As Jeremy Butterfield writes in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), American English “seems to have mostly preferred burglarize.” But the slightly later “burgle,” he says, “is now the regular word in Britain (and in other English-speaking areas except in N. America).”

Both verbs are 19th-century derivations from “burglar.” The first to appear, “burglarize” (1840), was created with the verb-forming suffix “-ize.” The other, “burgle” (1861), was a back-formation (or shortening) of the original noun.

As means of creating verbs from other parts of speech, both the “-ize” suffix and the back-form are many centuries old. Nevertheless, critics of “burgle” complain that it’s clipped from “burglarize”—which isn’t even true—while opponents of “burglarize” complain about the suffix.

Both have completely clean rap sheets and don’t deserve the abuse, as their histories show. Though they were comparatively late to appear, they have roots in the 1500s when their forebears “burglary” and “burglar” first showed up in writing.

Those felonious nouns—one for the act itself and one for the person committing it—can be traced to medieval Anglo-Latin, where a burgator in British law was someone who committed burgaria. In the 1200s, those were the terms for “burglar” and “burglary” in legal language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Before that, the words’ etymology is murky. “No corresponding words are known in continental Old French or medieval Latin,” the OED says.

But the dictionary suggests that “burglary” and “burglar”—along with the corresponding terms in Anglo-Latin and Anglo-French legal language—may have developed from “the first element of burgh-breche, the native English term for burglary.” (The Middle English burgh-breche came from the Old English burh-bryce, for breaking into an enclosure.)

The first English version to appear was “burglary” (1523), followed by “burglar” (1541).

The earliest use of “burglary,” according to our searches of historical databases, is in a legal dictionary written during the reign of Henry VIII, The Exposicions of Termys of Law of England and the Nature of the Writts (London, 1523), by John Rastell. Here is Rastell’s definition of the word:

“Burglary is when one breketh and enterith into a nother mannis howse in the nyght to the entet to stele goodis i which case though he bere away nothyng yet it is felony and for that he shalbe hangid / but the brekyng of an house in the day for suche entent is no felony.”

Rastell uses the word in the plural, spelled “burglaryes,” in a compilation of public acts entitled The Statutes Prohemium (2nd ed., 1527). He mentions “burglaryes of howsys and theyr receyuers,” and refers to robbing the dead as “burglaryes of men perishid or slayn.” It’s possible that the word appears in the first edition of this book, published in 1519, but we haven’t been able to find a copy to search.

As for “burglar,” it first appeared in another legal book (spelled “burglour”), according to the OED. This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Burglours are properly such as felonously in ye tyme of peace breke any house, church, etc.” From The New Booke of Justyces of Peace (1541), by the judge and legal scholar Anthony Fitzherbert.

[Historical note: It’s interesting that Fitzherbert, writing in French a few decades earlier, had used the word burglers in La Graunde Abridgement, his 1514 compilation of British legal cases. (The OED has the citation: “Burglers sont ceux que entrent mesons ou eglises al entent de inbloier beins.”)

This was a time when a dialect known as “law French” was the official written language of the British legal system. It seems likely that Fitzherbert put into law French a word, “burglers,” that was already in use in English. As we’ve said, it’s been suggested that the Anglo-Latin and Anglo-French terms used in English law developed from burgh-breche, which the OED describes as “the native English term for burglary.” So it’s possible that “burglar” existed before “burglary,” at least in spoken English.]

The word was spelled “burgler” in several English works published later in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The modern spelling “burglar” first appeared in writing, as far as we can tell, in a 1579 edition of the Rastell legal dictionary we mentioned above.

Here’s the passage, found on the database Old English Books Online: “but if a seruant will conspire with other men to robbe his master, and to that intent hee openeth his masters dores, or windowes in the night for them, and they come into the house by that way, this is burglary in the straungers, and the seruant is a thefe but noe burglar.”

Finally we come to those 19th-century verbs, “burglarize” and “burgle.” The OED’s earliest examples are from the early 1870s, but older ones turn up in searches of historical databases.

The earliest use of “burglarize” that we’ve found is from a humorous article in an 1840 issue of the Sporting Review, a British monthly. In the scene, competing horsemen in a point-to-point race are held up at the locked gate of a churchyard:

“In this dilemma there were but two resources open to the infuriated stewards,—one to carry the key vi et armis; the other, to burglarize the cellar.” From “Steeple-Chasing in Ireland: A Sketch,” by an Irish author writing under the name Shamrock. (The Latin vi et armis means by trespass.)

The next sighting is from an American newspaper: “Ten of those do-nothing-honestly fellows that snooze and drink whisky during the day, and rob hen-roosts and burglarize during the night, were arrested by the police yesterday near the R street levee, and will be arraigned this morning as vagrants.” From the Sacramento Daily Union, June 29, 1854.

As for “burgle,” the earliest example we’ve found is American: “He is the same man who was telling about his cabin having been burgled, some years ago, of 75 ounces of gold.” From the Daily National Democrat (Marysville, Calif.), Jan. 15, 1861.

In the summer of 1867, the British weekly Public Opinion, as well as several Australian newspapers, ran a brief paragraph crediting an American paper for inventing “burgle.” Here’s the item in its entirety, probably supplied by an American or British news service:

“The New York World has coined a new verb—‘to burgle.’ It is derived from the noun ‘burglar’ or ‘burglary.’ We cannot regard it as a happy invention; but no doubt, as the English race on both sides of the Atlantic are fond of neologisms, it will be adopted by many.”

We’re not convinced that the New York World was the first to use the term, since it began publishing on July 17, 1860, and a California newspaper used “burgle” only a few months later. (We’ve been unable to search the World’s archives for its first use of the verb.) But it does seem likely that “burgle” originated in crime reporting.

You may have noticed that “burglarize” appeared first in Britain, and “burgle” first in America. Only later did “burglarize” come to be the American preference and “burgle” the British.

As we’ve said, they’re respectable verbs. What’s more, they’re useful. Consider some of the outrageous verbal phrases people used in earlier times: “burglarily breake” (1530s); “burghlarlie rob” (1581); “burglariously enter” (1603); “burglarly steal” (1664); “burglariously break” (1638); and even “burglariously steal, take, and carry away” (1788).

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Whomspun history

Q: I often see the use of “whomever” as an object in a subordinate clause like “whomever he chooses.” I can see the logic of this, but it feels awkward to me. Is it because I grew up surrounded by grammatical laxity that “whomever” seems like a neologism born of pedantry? Was it already established as correct English before my time?

A: If “whomever” seems awkward to you, its stuffier sidekick “whomsoever” must strike you as even more awkward. The roots of both pronouns, as well as of “whom” itself, go back to Anglo-Saxon times, though it looks as if all three may be on the way out.

In Old English, the language was much more inflected than it is now—that is, words changed their forms more often to show their functions. You can see this in some of the forms, or declensions, of hwa, the ancestor of “who,” “whom,” and “what.”

When used for a masculine or feminine noun, as we use “who” and “whom” today, the Old English forms were hwa (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwone or hwæne (direct object). When used for a neuter noun, as we use “what” today, the forms were hwæt (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwæt (direct object).

As for “whoever” and “whomever,” the two terms ultimately come from swa hwa swa, the Old English version of “whoso,” and swa hwam swaswa, the early Middle English rendering of “whomso.”

An Old English speaker would use swa hwa swa (literally “so who so”) much as we would use “whoever” and “whosoever.” And his Middle English-speaking descendants would use swa hwam swaswa (“so whom soso”) as we would use “whomever” and “whomsoever.”

Here’s an early “whoso” example that we’ve found in King Alfred’s Old English translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiae, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “swa hwa swa wille dioplice spirigan mid inneweardan mode æfter ryhte” (“whoso would deeply search with inner mind after truth”).

And here’s a “whomso” citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from a 12th-century document in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Þæt hi mosten cesen of clerchades man swa hwam swaswa hi wolden to ercebiscop” (“that they could choose from the secular clerks whomso they wished as archbishop”).

“Whosoever” (hwase eauer) and “whoever” (hwa efre) also first appeared writing in the  12th century, while “whomever” (wom euer) showed up in the 14th century and “whomsoever” (whom-so-euyr) followed in the 15th.

The first OED citation for “whoever,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English sermon in the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175):

“Hwa efre þenne ilokie wel þene sunne dei. oðer þa oðer halie daʒes þe mon beot in chirche to lokien swa þe sunne dei. beo heo dalneominde of heofene riches blisse” (“Whoever looks well on Sunday and on the other holy days that man must also be in church, then he shall participate in the heavenly kingdom’s bliss”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “whomever” is from Arthour and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wom euer þat he hitt, Þe heued to þe chinne he slitt” (“Whomever he hit, he beheaded, to the chin he slit”). Arthurian legends can get gory at times.

So as you can see, “whomever” was indeed established in English before your time—quite a few centuries before.

As for the use of these terms today, you can find “whoso” and “whomso” in contemporary dictionaries, but they’re usually labeled “archaic,” while “whosoever” and “whomsoever” are generally described as formal versions of “whoever” and “whomever.”

“Who,” of course, is still one of the most common pronouns in English, but “whom” and company are falling out of favor, and many usage writers now accept the use of “who” and “whoever” for “whom,” “whomever,” and “whomsoever” in speech and informal writing.

As Jeremy Butterfield puts it in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “In practice, whom is in terminal decline and is increasingly replaced by who (or that), especially in conversational English, in which in most cases it would be inappropriately formal.”

Butterfield’s recommendation: “Despite exceptions, the best general rule is as follows: who will work perfectly well in conversation (except the most elevated kind) and in informal writing.” The main exception he notes is that “who” should not be used for “whom” right after a preposition.

Traditionally, as you know, “who” (like the Old English hwa) is a subject, and “whom” (like hwam) is an object. As Pat explains in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage book, “who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him).”

Pat recommends the traditional usage in formal writing, but she has a section in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I on how to be whom-less in conversation and informal writing:

A Cure for the Whom-Sick

Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing—personal letters, casual memos, emails, and texts.

Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.

A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, “Who with?” he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.

[Note: The reader who sent us this question responded, “Your example involving a Caribbean cruise seems fraught with danger in these pan(dem)icky times. If a colleague were to tell me that, my first instinct would be to ask, ‘Who would dare?’ ”]

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A stare’s nest by Yeats’s window

Q: I’m curious about the use of “stare” in the W. B. Yeats poem “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.” I couldn’t find a meaning on Google that made sense, and my eyes gave out while staring at the tiny print of my compact OED.

A: The word “stare” in Yeats’s poem is an old term for a starling.

In the poem, Yeats calls on the honey bees building a hive in the crumbling masonry of Thoor Ballylee, the ancient tower he owned in County Galway, to build instead in an empty starling’s nest by his window.

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

The noun “stare” here is pronounced the same as the verb “stare.” In the poem, it’s rhymed with “there.”

In Old English, the bird was usually called a staer or a stærlinc, the predecessors of “stare” and “starling,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first to appear, “stare,” had two senses: (1) used by itself, it meant simply a starling; (2) accompanied by a descriptive term, it meant a specific species of starling or a bird resembling a starling.

The earliest Oxford citation for the first sense is from an eighth-century Latin-Old English glossary: “Sturnus, staer” (sturnus is Latin for “starling”). From The Corpus Glossary, MS 144, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The first OED example for the second sense is from an eleventh-century manuscript at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp and the British Museum in London:

Turdella, se mare stær” (turdella is apparently a misspelling of turdela, a thrush in medieval Latin, while mare appears to be a misspelling of mere, Old English for pond, lake, or sea).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “starling” is from another Latin-Old English glossary: “Sturnus, stærlinc.” From Harley 107, an eleventh-century illuminated manuscript in the British Library.

Although the use of “stare” by itself for “starling” is considered archaic now, the usage does show up at times in poetry and literary prose, as you’ve noticed. The Yeats poem, part of the lyrical sequence “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” was written during the 1922-23 Irish Civil War that followed the Irish War of Independence.

As to the use of “stare” with a descriptive term for a specific starling, it also shows up once in a while, though now for only one bird. Saroglossa spiloptera, the spot-winged starling of southern Asia, is sometimes referred to as the “spotted-winged stare” or “spot-winged stare.”

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Independence ‘of’ or ‘from’?

Q: In an essay on teaching, Bertrand Russell says it’s hard for teachers to maintain their “independence of” the people who pay them. Shouldn’t that be “independence from” those people?

A: In that essay, “The Functions of a Teacher,” Russell uses the phrase “independence of” in a way that was common in the past but is less so today.

He argues that teachers need freedom to follow their intellectual impulses “but in the realm of the mind it is becoming more and more difficult to preserve independence of the great organised forces that control the livelihoods of men and women.”

(The essay appeared originally in the June 1940 issue of Harper’s magazine, and was reprinted in Unpopular Essays, 1950.)

In the past, the noun “independence” was used in such constructions with the prepositions “on,” “upon,” “of,” and “from.” Of those prepositions, “from” had apparently been the least common.

At least that’s what we assume from this comment in the Oxford English Dictionary’s “independence” entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1900: “Const. on, upon, of, rarely from.” Here are a few OED examples:

“The dignified clergy … pretended to a total independence on the State” (David Hume, The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Accession of Henry VII, 1761-62).

“A pretence of independence upon secular power” (Oliver Goldsmith, The History of England, From the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, 1771).

“Our habitual independence of conventional rules” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, 1852).

We wouldn’t say Bertrand Russell’s use of “independence of” is wrong or even unusual, but it’s less common these days and modern readers might find it jarring or perhaps confusing.

Today, “independence from” would be the usual construction, as in this Merriam-Webster example: “She asserted her independence from her parents by getting her own apartment.”

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‘Buck naked’ or ‘butt naked’?

Q: Thanks for your recent post about “butt” and “buttock.” How about “butt naked” and “buck naked”? Everyone I’ve asked claims “buck naked” is correct, but that makes no sense to me.

A: The older term is “buck naked,” first recorded just before World War I. The variant “butt naked” appeared half a century later.

Both versions are widely used, and neither should be considered incorrect. In fact, “butt naked” may be the more popular term today, as we’ll show later. No doubt many people feel, like you, that it makes more sense than “buck naked.”

Most standard dictionaries label the two adjectives “informal,” though a few regard the “butt” version as “slang.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels them “colloquial,” meaning they’re more likely to be found in common speech than in formal English.

The dictionary gives them nearly identical definitions: “buck naked” is “completely without clothing; stark naked,” and “butt naked” is “completely naked, stark naked.” It says the two terms originated and are chiefly used in North America.

Over the years, etymologists and lexicographers have puzzled over the meaning of “buck” here. The OED suggests two possibilities:

It may be derived from the “buck” that means a male animal, like a deer or goat, a usage that dates back to Old English. Or it “may allude to the resemblance of the smooth and pale skin of the buttocks to buckskin.”

In a similar way, the dictionary points out, the word “buff” has been used since the 17th century as a colloquial term for a person’s bare skin (“in the buff” still means naked). The term “buff” originally referred to leather of a light brownish yellow called “buff-skin” or “buff leather.”

But the use of “buck” could have more sinister origins. It may perhaps allude to “the common practice of stripping slaves naked for inspection by potential buyers,” Oxford says.

In the 19th century, the dictionary notes, the noun “buck” was also a racial slur used for a male Native American, African-American, or Australian Aborigine.

However it developed, “buck naked” was first recorded in early 20th-century American newspapers. Keep in mind, though, that colloquial expressions are used in conversation long before they make it into print. This is the OED’s oldest published example:

“A negro Adam, buck naked and believing himself to be in the Garden of Eden, was tried. … After hearing the evidence, the case was turned over to an insanity commission.” (The Daily Times Enterprise, Thomasville, GA, Dec. 6, 1913.)

And we found this example in an anecdote, rendered in black dialect, explaining the meaning of the word “tact”:

“ ’Tother day I’m visitin’ in a house an’ I goes to the bath room an’ opens de door—taint locked—and dere in de tub sits a woman, buck naked. Right away quick I slams dat door and yells: ‘ ’Scuse me, SUH!’ Dat’s tact!” (The Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, AZ, Dec. 19, 1919.)

The newer “butt naked” appeared several decades later. The OED’s earliest example is presented as only a possible sighting:

“Leaping out to confront her bare-butt naked might lead to misunderstandings” (from Aaron Marc Stein’s 1959 novel Never Need an Enemy).

The dictionary’s first definite example is from the late 1960s: “You read a National Geographic and there is some far off native girl standing butt-naked for the cameraman” (Melvin Van Peebles’s 1968 novel A Bear for the FBI).

The Dictionary of American Regional English says that from 1966 to 1970 its field researchers recorded uses of “butt naked” in Arkansas and New York and “butt nekkid” in Michigan. However DARE doesn’t include the dated quotations.

The older term, “buck naked,” was more popular until recently. However, “butt naked” seems to be the more popular term today.

A recent search of the NOW Corpus, a database of 4.3 billion words in web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present, shows these results: “butt naked,” 314 examples; “buck naked,” 187.

A less up-to-date comparison of the two terms with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books, has “buck naked” still ahead as of 2010, but shows “butt naked” closing the gap.

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Working hard or hardly working?

Q: I’m curious about the use of “hard” and “hardly” in that old play on words, “Are you working hard or hardly working?” Do the two usages have the same derivation or are they from different sources?

A: In Old and Middle English, “hardly” was an adverb meaning energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely. And “hard,” which was an adverb as well as an adjective, had similar adverbial meanings.

But today in Modern English, as you know, “hardly” usually means scarcely, probably not, certainly not, or with great difficulty, while “hard” (a bare or flat adverb with no “-ly” ending) still has those Old and Middle English adverbial senses.

The meaning of “hardly” began changing in the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though some of its old senses still show up once in a while.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t explain why the meaning of “hardly” changed so dramatically. Our guess is that the “-ly” adverb evolved from emphasizing the energy needed to cope with a difficult situation to emphasizing the difficulty of the situation itself.

In Old English, the adverbs “hardly” and “hard” were heardlice and hearde (-lice and -e were adverbial endings). Both can be traced to hardu-, a root reconstructed from prehistoric Germanic, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The ultimate source was apparently the Proto-Indo-European root kar- or ker- (hard).

The earliest OED citation for “hardly” is from an Old English translation of a Latin passage in which the fifth-century historian Paulus Orosius tells Romans that they were as hard as whetstone when Carthage was crushed, but had become as soft as malmstone (a flinty sandstone) under Christianity. In this excerpt, heardlice (that is, “hardly”) is used the way we now use the adverb “hard”:

“Hit biþ … geornlic þæt mon heardlice gnide þone hnescestan mealmstan æfter þæm þæt he þence þone soelestan hwetstan on to geræceanne” (“It is necessary that a man rub hardly if he intends to turn the softest malmstone into the best whetstone”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), by Orosius.

The earliest OED example for the adverb “hard” is from Crist III, an anonymous Old English poem about the Last Judgment: “Nis ænig wundor hu him woruldmonna seo unclæne gecynd … hearde ondrede” (“It is not any wonder how hard he dreaded the unclean nature of man on earth”).

In the 16th century, English writers began using “hardly” to mean “to an insignificant degree; scarcely, barely; not quite; almost not at all,” according to the dictionary, which describes this as “now the usual sense.”

The first OED example is from Glasse of Truthe, an anonymous 1532 work supporting Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Scholars believe the king either wrote it or directed its writing. Here’s the relevant passage:

“Hit is hardelye possible for any man to endite [put into words] or conuey any worke of suche sorte, that no man shall fynde a faute therin specially captious folke & maligners.”

Thus the two adverbs went their separate ways. The OED says the Old English and Middle English senses of “hardly” (energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely) are now archaic, obsolete, or rare.

We’ll end with a rare sighting from Original Sin, a 1994 novel by P. D. James: “He was ashamed of the Ilford House and ashamed of himself for despising what had been so hardly won.”

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How inclusive is ‘including’?

Q: I read this on “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.” Shouldn’t “include” refer to only some of the items on a list, not all of them?

A: When the verb “include” is used to mean “contain,” it usually refers to part of a whole, not all of it. And when the preposition “including” is used in that sense, it too usually refers to only part of something.

However, both the verb and the preposition are sometimes used for all the parts—a usage that’s been around for hundreds of years and may be closer to the Latin source of the words.

Most standard dictionaries say “include” (or “including”) refers to only part of a whole, but some say either word can refer to all the parts. Usage guides are similarly divided. As for us, we use “include” and “including” for part of something, not all of it.

Getting back to your question, that passage you quote (a subtitle in a Feb. 13, 2015, Smithsonian article commemorating Presidents’ Day) is unusual, but it’s not necessarily wrong.

Interestingly, the subtitle changed when the article was rewritten for a Feb. 19, 2020, post on Tween Tribune, a Smithsonian website for kids: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize. They include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have also won.”

The rewrite conforms with the usual practice, but it’s clunkier. If we were writing the subtitle, we’d do it this way: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “include” in the early 15th century from Anglo-Norman, but its ultimate source is the classical Latin verb includere (to enclose, confine, surround, and so on).

When the verb first appeared in late Middle English, it had the Latin sense (to surround). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes a battle in which the Greeks surround Hector during the Trojan War:

“Cruelly þei gan hym to include … He myȝt nat eskape with þe lyf” (“Cruelly they began to surround him … he might not escape with his life”). From Troy Book (1412-20), an epic poem about the rise and fall of Troy by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.

In the mid-15th century, the verb took on the sense you’re asking about, referring to part of a whole and sometimes all of it. Here’s the OED definition: “To contain as part of a group, category, etc.; to have as any of a number of sections, members, constituent elements, etc. Sometimes also: to consist of (all of the parts making up the whole); to comprise.”

Oxford’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, refers to part of a whole: “If you list, take the moralité! / Profitable to every comunalté, / Whiche includithe in many sundry wise, / No man shuld, of high or low degré, / For no prerogatif his neyghburghe to dispise.” From “The Horse, the Goose, and the Sheep,” a short poem by Lydgate, believed written around 1440.

The dictionary has some ambiguous examples from the 16th and 17th centuries in which “include” may possibly imply all the parts of a whole. The first definite citation for that sense, which we’ve expanded, is from an 18th-century book about substances used as medical remedies:

“The Class of the Metals, according to these Characteristicks, includes only six Bodies, which are, 1. Gold. 2. Silver. 3. Copper. 4. Tin. 5. Iron. And 6. Lead.” From A History of the Materia Medica, 1751, by John Hill, an English physician and writer.

The preposition “including” showed up in the 17th century. Although the OED says it refers to “part of the whole group or category being considered,” the dictionary’s examples use the term for both part and all of a whole.

The earliest citation refers to part of a group: “Four servants died, including the cook.” From a letter written Dec. 4, 1638, and published in The English Factories in India (1914), by William Foster.

However, the next Oxford example refers to all members of a group: “Sixteen hundred Children, including Males and Females, put out to Methods of Industry” (the Spectator, Feb. 6, 1712).

Seven of the ten online standard dictionaries we regularly consult say “include” (or “including”) refers to part of a whole.

American Heritage, for example, defines “include” as “to contain or take in as a part, element, or member.” And Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “to place, list, or rate as a part or component of a whole or of a larger group, class, or aggregate: included a sum for tips in his estimate of expenses.”

However,, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines “include” more broadly, and has an example that lists all the parts of something: “to contain, as a whole does parts or any part or element: The package includes the computer, program, disks, and a manual.”

And Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, also defines “include” broadly, giving examples of its use for all as well as part of a whole:

“Comprise or contain as part of a whole: the price includes dinner, bed, and breakfast; other changes included the abolition of the death penalty.” In a usage note, Lexico explains why “include” can mean either all or part of something:

Include has a broader meaning than comprise. In the sentence the accommodation comprises 2 bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and living room, the word comprise implies that there is no accommodation other than that listed. Include can be used in this way too, but it is also used in a non-restrictive way, implying that there may be other things not specifically mentioned that are part of the same category, as in the price includes a special welcome pack.”

Even some standard dictionaries with the narrower definition of “include” have examples that suggest a broader usage. Macmillan, for example, defines “include” as “to contain someone or something as a part,” but has this example suggesting everything: “The price includes dinner, bed, and breakfast.”

And several dictionaries use “comprise”—which (as Lexico notes) implies all items listed—in defining “include.” Webster’s New World, for instance, defines “include” as  “to have as part of a whole; contain; comprise.”

Some usage guides insist that “include” should refer to only part of a whole, and recommend using such terms as “comprise” or “consist of” when referring to all the parts of something.

For example, the entry for “include” in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says, “The word has traditionally introduced a nonexhaustive list but is now coming to be widely misused for consists of.”

However, some other usage guides disagree. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for instance, cites two examples in which “include” is used with a complete list of items, and says, “There is nothing wrong with either of those examples.”

Merriam-Webster’s says critics of the usage “have somehow reasoned themselves into the notion that with include all of the components must not be mentioned, which has never been the case.”

M-W quotes Henry W. Fowler, perhaps the most influential usage commentator of the 20th century, as saying in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “With include, there is no presumption (though it is often the fact) that all or even most of the components are mentioned.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, cites the same passage. In practice, he says, “include” is generally used for part of a whole, but Fowler “did not maintain this absolute distinction: his wording allowed for the possibility that include covers all parts of the whole.”

Yes, a case can be made for using “include” for all parts of a whole, but we choose not to use it that way. Since “include” usually refers to part of something, it might be confusing to use it otherwise.

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Running low on champagne

Q: Stress can weaken the immune system, while humor can strengthen it. So when friends call to ask how we’re coping with the coronavirus, I reply, “We’re running low on champagne, but otherwise we’re OK.” Now, why do I say “running low on” something that’s running out?

A: The verb phrase “to run low on” combines a usage from the late 16th century (“to run low,” meaning “to become scarce”) with one from the early 20th (“low on,” meaning “short of”).

The story begins in the 12th century when English adopted the adjective “low” (the opposite of “high”) from various Scandinavian languages. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, with “low” spelled lah in early Middle English, is from a homily about Jesus at Cana in Galilee:

“Þær wass an bennkinnge lah” (“there was a low row of benches”). From the Ormulum, a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk who identifies himself as Orm in one place and Ormin in another.

In the 16th century, according to OED citations, writers began using the adjective to describe “a supply of something: almost exhausted; running out. Frequently in to run low.”

At first, the adjective referred to liquids, as in this example of wine running out: “For wyne wherof they spende Gooth lowe, and draweth fast vnto an ende.” From “The Fyftene Ioyes [Joys] of Maryage” (1509), an English translation of a work by the French writer Antoine de La Sale.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb phrase “to run low” also describes a diminishing supply of wine: “When that the wine, hath ronne full lowe, / Thou shalt be glad, to drinke the lyes [lees].” From A Pleasaunte Laborinth Called Churchyardes Chance (1580), a collection of verse by Thomas Churchyard.

And here’s a 17th-century monetary example: “It will bee a reasonable vsefull pawne at all times, when the current of his money falles out to run low.” From The Guls Horn-Booke (1609), a portrait of young men of fashion in London by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Dekker.

At the beginning of the 20th century,  the phrase “low on” appeared, meaning “short of, deficient in,” according to Oxford citations. Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “I’m low on coin … but I know where I can get plenty more to-morrow.” Confessions of a Criminal: True Stories of Dick Lane Told by Himself (1904).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the longer expression “to run low on” appeared a couple of years later: “If one knows that he is running low on water there is little danger to be apprehended.” Standard Mechanical Examinations on Locomotive Firing and Running (1906), edited by W. G. Wallace.

The OED’s only citation for the full expression appears within its entry for the phrase “to run low”: “Human beings began as nomads, upping sticks whenever they ran low on food or water.” The New Statesman (April 7, 2003).

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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 (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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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin

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

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

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

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

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

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, (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).


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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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