English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

On Fowler and his idiosyncrasy

Q:  Sir Ernest Gowers has written that the main reason for the popularity of Henry W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is “the idiosyncrasy of the author.” My understanding is that “idiosyncrasy” is a quirk of personality, not personality as a whole.

A: Etymologically, “idiosyncrasy” refers to an individual’s overall makeup—a combination of physical and mental characteristics. However, it now usually means a peculiar trait of someone or, less commonly, something.

The etymological sense reflects the Greek origin of the usage. In Hellenistic Greek, spoken from roughly 300 BC to AD 300, the noun ἰδιοσυγκρασία (idiosugkrasia) meant an individual’s combination of personality, appearance, character, and so on.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the usage comes from two ancient Greek terms:  ἴδιος (idios), “one’s own,” and σύγκρασις  (sugkrasis), “mixture.” (In Hellenistic Greek, σύγκρασις is a mixture of personal characteristics.)

Fowler favored the etymological sense of “idiosyncrasy.” In the 1926 first edition of Modern English Usage, he says “idiosyncrasy” should refer to overall character, not a single trait, and he defended its spelling with an “s” (not a “c”) at the end to reflect its etymology.

Gowers has a similar entry in his 1965 second edition of Fowler’s usage guide. The comment that got your attention is in the preface.

The last two editors of the usage guide, Robert Burchfield and Jeremy Butterworth, agree with Fowler on the spelling but don’t restrict the modern meaning to ancient etymology.

As Burchfield puts it in the 1996 third edition and Butterfield repeats in the 2015 fourth, “It is not suggested that everyone should be a walking etymologist, but simply that people should learn to spell correctly.”

All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult define “idiosyncrasy” as an unusual characteristic or behavior of someone or something. However, four of them include the less common sense favored by Fowler: the overall makeup of a person or thing.

We’d add that the plural “idiosyncrasies” is often used in phrases describing idiosyncratic people or things (“his many idiosyncrasies,” “her iPad’s little idiosyncrasies”).

In fact Lexico, an online standard dictionary with content from Oxford University Press, says the term is “usually idiosyncrasies” when referring to “a mode of behavior or way of thought peculiar to an individual.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, says English adopted “idiosyncrasy” in the early 17th century, either directly from Hellenistic Greek or by way of idiosyncrasie, which showed up in French in 1581.

In English, the word originally meant “peculiarity of physical or physiological constitution” or “an instance of this,” the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a medical treatise warning about the use of arsenic amulets to ward off plague:

“The idiosygcrasye or particular Natures (as Galen calleth them) are vnknown” (A Modest Defence of the Caueat Giuen [Caveat Given] to the Wearers of Impoisoned Amulets, as Preseruatiues [Protectives] From the Plague, 1604, by the English physician Francis Herring).

A few decades later, the term took on the sense Fowler preferred, which the OED defines as “the individuality of a person’s outlook, temperament, or behaviour; the distinctive nature of something.”

The first Oxford example is from a dictionary of English words derived from other languages: “Idiosyncrasie, the proper, or natural temper of any thing” (The New World of English Words, 1658, by Edward Phillips).

The term soon took on the usual modern sense, which the OED defines as “a way of thinking or a mode of behaviour limited to a particular person, people, or type of person.” The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise attacking dogmatism:

“And I believe the Understanding has its Idiosyncrasies, as well as other faculties. Some men are made to superstition, others to frantick Enthusiasm; the former by the cold of a timorous heart, the latter by the heat of a temerarious brain: And there are natures, as fatally averse to either.” (The Vanity of Dogmatizing, 1661, by the English philosopher and clergyman Joseph Glanvill.)

We’ll end with the latest Oxford citation for this sense: “One idiosyncrasy of the tequila drinker is the desire to swill the last mouthful in the bottle and with it the Agave worm” (from The Mammoth Book of Cocktails, 2003, by Paul Martin).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

The coast is clear

Q: We were wondering about “the coast is clear.” Smugglers? Invaders? As kids, we used it to mean “no adults around to say us nay.”

A: The expression dates from the seafaring days of the mid-1500s, when it literally meant the seashore is free of enemies. But the first written examples use the phrase metaphorically in much the same way you did as kids.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the literal usage refers to a seacoast being clear of “enemies who would dispute an attempt to land or embark.” When used figuratively in its various forms. it means “the way is open for an operation, event, etc.”

The earliest OED citation is from a pamphlet published in 1567 that warns the public against con men and tricksters. We’ll expand on the citation to provide context:

“Thus fedinge this old man with pleasaunt talke, vntyll they were one the toppe of the hyll, where these rufflares [rogues] mighte well beholde the coaste aboute them cleare. Quiclye stepes vnto this poore man, and taketh holde of his horse brydell, and leadeth him in to the wode, and demaundeth of him what and how much monye he had in his purse.” (From “A Caueat [Caveat] for Commen Cursetors,” by Thomas Harman. The obsolete noun “cursitor” meant a tramp or vagabond.)

We’ve found a couple of usages from the 1570s, including this one about the efforts of Eleanor of Aquitaine to secure the throne of England for her youngest son (King John):

“In the end winning al the nobilitie wholye vnto hir will, and seeing the coaste to be cleare on euery side.” (The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, by Raphael Holinshead, 1577.)

Our searches of historical databases turned up many other 16th-century uses of the phrase and its variants: “the coast is [or was] clear,” “if the coast be clear,” “no sooner cleered was the Coast,” “seeing the coast cleare,” and so on. And like those already cited, the majority have nothing to do with the sea.

Here, on the other hand, are a couple of the literal ones, referring to actual landings or embarkations:

“perceyuing [perceiving] the coaste cleare … they [the Corinthians] tooke seas forthwith.” (From an English version, published in 1579, of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes. The reference is to the coast of ancient Rhegium, now Reggio Calabria, Italy.)

“wee laded her [a ship] with all the speed we could, for as then the coast was cleare of Englishmen.” (Iohn Huighen van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into ye Easte & West Indies, a memoir published by the Dutch trader Jan Huygen van Linschoten in London in 1598. The coast here is that of the island of Terceira in the Azores.)

The OED quotes Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, in which “the coast is clear” is called “a proverbial expression” meaning “the danger is over, the enemies have marched off.”

Johnson provides two examples from literature: “seeing that the coast was cleare” (Sir Philip Sidney, circa 1580) and “when now the Coast was clear” (John Dryden, 1587). In both uses, the references are to spying, sneaking about, and slipping unseen from place to place, not to real seacoasts.

Though the phrase (along with its variations) has shown up in literal, seafaring uses since the 16th century, it has mostly appeared as a proverbial expression.

It seemed made to order for the Restoration comedies and amoral novels of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with their bawdy rakes and loose women on the lookout for a chance to behave badly.

This, for example, is from The Art of Cuckoldom, or, The Intrigues of the City-wives, published anonymously in 1697: “One Evening at the end of the Week, the Ladies Maid came to his Lodging from her Mistress, to tell him, That the morrow Morning following, the Coast would be clear, for her Husband was to be out the whole Forenoon: And therefore she desired his Company.”

Some uses, though, are more comic than licentious. We’ll conclude with this passage from a translation done around 1700 of Cervantes’s Don Quixote:

“Here Sancho got up without speaking a Word, laid his Finger on his Lips, and with his Body bent, crept cautiously round the Room, lifting up the Hangings, and peeping in every Hole and Corner: At last, finding the Coast clear, he return’d to his Seat. Now, quoth he, Madam Dutchess, since I find there’s no Body here but our-selves, you shall e’en hear, without Fear or Favour, the Truth of the Story.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Lukewarm’ and ‘lukecool’

Q: Why is there no antonym for ‘lukewarm’? There seem to be plenty of synonyms but I cannot find a commonly used antonym. Why not ‘lukecool’?

A: We’d use “coolish” if we wanted a single word for somewhat cool—that is, the opposite of “lukewarm” when it means somewhat warm.

As for “lukecool,” some creative English speakers are indeed using it as an antonym for “lukewarm,” though the usage hasn’t made it into any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly check.

Urban Dictionary, a collaborative slang reference, has several “lukecool” entries, including a May 17, 2013, contribution defining it as “only slightly cold, flip-side of lukewarm.” The contributor offers an example: “The A/C system must need some freon, it is only lukecool in here.”

The word occasionally appears in formal writing and speech. For example, Harold Leventhal, a US Appeals Court judge for the District of Columbia, has observed that nonlawyers “are ‘lukecool,’ if not hostile, to lawyers” (from “The Lawyer in Government,” a speech delivered Oct. 15, 1971).

And the term appears twice in the March 1981 issue of the British journal Current Archaeology. This is from a report about archeologists’ reactions to a proposed reorganization of the British government’s oversight of ancient monuments and historic buildings:

“Although inevitably there are some who are strongly against, the basic division is between those who are luke-warm and those who perhaps can be described as ‘luke-cool.’ At a straw vote taken at the Council for British Archaeology on January 8th, 32 declared themselves to be luke-warm as against 14 who are luke-cool, and this sort of split seems to be fairly general.”

In English Lexicogenesis (2014), an analysis of word formation, the linguist D. Gary Miller notes that “some words do not exist despite an obvious need.” One of the gaps he mentions is “(*)lukecool in the face of lukewarm, a very old word in English.” The parenthetical asterisk indicates that “lukecool” is considered nonstandard.

“Nothing but tradition makes luke acceptable as a qualifier of warmth but not coolness,” Miller writes. “Since only tradition stands in the way of lukecool, there is no reason it could not become generally accepted if enough people started using it.”

Yes, the people who speak a language ultimately determine what’s acceptable. But we think Miller may be too dismissive of the long association of “luke” with “warm.”

In fact, “luke” by itself originally meant moderately warm, so “lukewarm” is etymologically a puffed-up, or pleonastic, version of “luke.” And “lukecool” is etymologically an oxymoron, or contradiction in terms. However, most English speakers today are probably unaware of the warmish origin of “luke,” and may believe it means something like “sort of.”

The OED’s earliest example for the adjective “luke,” which we’ve expanded, is from Laȝamon, or Layamon’s Brut, an imaginative chronicle of Britain written sometime before 1200. In this gory excerpt, the King of Media kills Bedivere, one of King Arthur’s knights, by driving a spear through his byrnie, or coat of mail:

“he heold on his honde; ænne gare swiðe stronge. / Þene gare he uorð strahte; mid strongen his maine. / and smat þene eorl Beduer; forn a þan breoste; / þat þa burne to-barst sone; biuoren and bihinde. / an-opened wes his breoste; þa blod com forð luke.” (“The spear he thrust forth with his strong might, and smote the Earl Bedivere in the breast, so that his byrnie soon burst, before and behind, and his breast was opened. The blood came forth luke.”)

Oxford says the Middle English term luke appears to be derived from hléow, an Old English adjective meaning warm, sunny, or sheltered. The Old English word is the source of lew, a Middle English adjective that meant lukewarm and later appeared in the phrase lew-warm, which survives in dialectal English.

As for the adjective “lukewarm,” it didn’t appear until the late 14th century. We found this example in a Middle English herbal, or treatise on the medicinal use of plants:

“Resayve iij sponefull of þe juis luke warme, and yf þou haue evil stomake hit opyneþ hit” (“Take three spoonfuls of the juice lukewarm, and if you have an upset stomach it empties it”). From the Lelamour Herbal (1373), compiled from various Latin and Middle English sources by the Hereford schoolmaster John Lelamour (Sloane MS 5, folios 13-57, British Library).

In the 16th century, according to the OED, the adjective took on the sense of “having little warmth or depth of feeling, lacking zeal, enthusiasm or ardour, indifferent.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a treatise by Thomas More:

“Like as god said in thapocalips vnto the churche of Loadice. Thou arte neyther hote nor cold but luke warme, I would thou were colde yt thou mighteste waxe warme.” From The Four Last Things, written around 1522 and published posthumously (More was convicted of treason and executed in 1535).

And in its indifferent sense, as you know, “lukewarm” has many antonyms, including “avid,” “eager,” “enthusiastic,” “excited,” “passionate,” and “wholehearted.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Not quite cricket?

Q: Is the sports term “cricket” related to the “cricket” that’s an insect? And what about “croquet”? It sounds like a cousin, if not a sibling.

A: The name for the game “cricket” and the insect “cricket” aren’t related, and “croquet” isn’t connected with either of them. That’s the short answer. Now, for the rest.

Since the bug got its name before the games, we’ll start with the entomological etymology of “cricket.” Not surprisingly, the insect got its name from the noise it makes.

As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, the noun “cricket,” first recorded in the Middle Ages, is “of imitative origin, reflecting the sounds made by the insects,” which is later described as “a characteristic chirruping sound” produced by the males.

“Cricket” came into Middle English in the late 13th or early 14th century, adopted from the Anglo-Norman criket and Old French criquet, the dictionary says. The creature had similar onomatopoeic names at the time in medieval Dutch (crekel, krekel, criekel).

The English word first appeared in a copy of a verse treatise used to teach English children French. The manuscript is written in the French spoken in 13th-century England, and has explanatory glosses, or notations, added in Middle English.

In Le traité de Walter de Bibbesworth sur la Langue Française, the word salemaundre is glossed as “criket” in this passage: “au four meint le salemaundre” (“in the oven many a salamander”). Bibbesworth died in 1270. The OED dates the passage and gloss at sometime before 1325.

In Anglo-Norman, a cricket was sometimes referred to as a salemaundre or salamandre, according to citations in the online Anglo-Norman Dictionary.

As the OED explains, the insect, which is attracted to warmth, was identified in Middle English with the mythical fire-loving salamander, “perhaps from the house cricket’s traditional association with the hearth.”

In fact, crickets and hearths often appear together in poetry and literature. Here’s an Oxford citation from Milton: “Far from all resort of mirth, / Save the Cricket on the hearth” (Il Penseroso, 1645).

And here’s one from Dickens, which we’ve expanded: “To have a Cricket on the Hearth, is the luckiest thing in all the world!” (from a novella, The Cricket on the Hearth, 1845).

As for the sporting noun, it came into English some 300 years after the name of the insect. But unfortunately its origin is unknown, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest finding, dated as possibly 1575, is a mention of “Kricket-staues” (“staves,” for the bats used in the game). In the work cited, an anonymous translation of Hendrik Niclaes’s Terra Pacis (Land of Peace), they’re listed among playthings like “Balles,” “Rackets,” and “Dyce.”

The dictionary’s earliest sighting with a definite date is from the Guild Merchant Book (1598), records of the borough of Guildford:

“John Denwick of Guldeford … one of the Queenes Majesties Coroners of the County of Surrey being of the age of fyfty and nyne yeares or there aboute … saith upon his oath that hee hath known the parcell of land … for the space of Fyfty years and more, and … saith that hee being a schollar in the Free schoole of Guldeford, hee and several of his fellowes did runne and play there at Creckett and other plaies.”

The first Oxford citation with the modern spelling appeared about a dozen years later: “a Cricket-staffe; or, the crooked staffe wherewith boyes play at Cricket” (A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611, by Randle Cotgrave).

The OED defines the sport this way: “An outdoor game played on a large grass field with ball, bats, and two wickets, between teams of eleven players, the object of the game being to score more runs than the opposition.”

But this is added in an etymological note: “The character of the game denoted by the word has changed enormously over the centuries.”

The sport “developed in the south-east of England in the 16th and 17th centuries,” Oxford says, and by the end of the following century, “organized cricket was common, frequently with one or both sides fielding more than eleven players.”

In the 19th century, the OED adds, “it came to be viewed as the English national game and, subsequently, as an expression of English national identity or Englishness in general.”

At the same time, “cricket” colloquially came to mean “cricket played in the correct manner or proper spirit,” and consequently denoted “honourable dealings between opponents or rivals in any sphere,” or “fair play.”

Here’s the dictionary’s first example for “cricket” used outside the sport to mean dealing honorably: “We should be very much surprised if the Duke really thought that to dissolve [Parliament] would be ‘cricket’ ” (The Westminster Gazette, June 5, 1900).

As we said, the origin of the word is unknown. The OED rules out any etymological connection with the Middle French criquet (a piece of wood), or with the Old English crycc (a crutch or staff), or with a Middle Dutch regionalism, krik (crutch).

The only theory Oxford allows as a possibility is that the word may come from another 16th-century noun “cricket,” for a low wooden stool. The two nouns had a similar mix of spellings.

It could be that the wicket used in the game resembled a small stool. The dictionary notes that in “stool-ball,” an older game “somewhat resembling cricket” and dating from the 1400s, “the ‘stool’ was the wicket.” Alas, there’s no solid evidence for this as the etymology, but it does seem plausible.

Last but not least we arrive at “croquet,” the newcomer in the group. The game and the noun for it were first used in Ireland in the mid-19th century.

The word is “supposed to be” (as the OED says) derived from croquet, a dialectal term for a shepherd’s crook in Old Northern French, an ancestor of Anglo-Norman.

Historians of the game have said that in Brittany, 18th-century French peasants played the game under the name croquet. But there’s no documentary evidence for this; the word for the game apparently wasn’t used in France until the late 19th century.

Émile Littré’s Dictionnaire de la Langue Française (1886) describes croquet as an English word (“Angl. croquet”) for an English game: “Jeu anglais qui se joue avec un marteau, des boules et de petites arcades que l’on plante sur le terrain.” And the English word’s origin? Littré says it’s derived from a Norman term for a hook (“du normand croquet, crochet”).

Oxford’s definition of the sport is similar: “A game played upon a lawn, in which wooden balls are driven by means of wooden mallets through iron arches or ‘hoops’ fixed in the ground in a particular order.”

In the OED’s earliest citation, the game is described as played in County Meath, Ireland: “There is no game which has made such rapid strides in this county within a few years as croquet” (from The Field, a British sporting magazine, July 10, 1858).

The same magazine reported a few issues later (Nov. 27, 1858) that the game “was introduced into the North of Ireland some twelve years ago from a French convent.” As we said, the French use of croquet for the game in the 18th or early 19th centuries has not been confirmed.

The OED also notes that an anecdotal report, published in 1864, “stated that the game had been played under this name (though this is perhaps doubtful) near Dublin in 1834-5.” Who knows? As old documents continue to be digitized, earlier uses may come to light.

At any rate, the OED goes on to say this, unequivocally: “From Ireland the game and name were introduced into England in 1852, where between 1858 and 1872 croquet attained great popularity.” And the rest is history.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Tossing and turning

Q: Inspired by your discussion of “mix and match,” I wonder if you can comment on “toss and turn.” As the comedian Demetri Martin says, he often turns in his sleep, but he doesn’t toss stuff all over his bedroom.

A: Yes, the verb “toss” has many meanings and you can have a lot of fun with them. You can toss a baseball, a salad, a coin, a party, an old newspaper, your head, or your cookies. You can toss down a drink, toss around an idea, or toss off a blog post. You can be tossed off a horse, tossed out of a game, or tossed into the slammer.

When the verb first appeared in English in the early 16th century, it meant to be thrown about at sea by waves or wind, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the diary of Sir Richard Guildford’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1506:

“Soone after midnyght the grete tempest byganne to swage [ease] and wex lasse [wax less]. Howbeit the wroughte sees tossyd and rolled vs ryght greuously.” Guildford, who served King Henry VII of England in many senior roles, died on Sept. 6, 1506, in Jerusalem. The diary, written by Guildford’s unnamed chaplain, was published in 1511.

By the end of the 16th century, the verb “toss” had most of its modern senses, including the one you’re asking about, which the OED defines as “to fling or jerk oneself about; to move about restlessly.” The dictionary’s first example is from a biblical passage: “I am euen ful with tossing to and fro vnto the dawning of the day” (Geneva Bible, 1560, Job 7:4).

But when “toss” and “turn” first appeared together, with the two words reversed, the verb phrase referred to turning and tossing hay, wool, grain, etc., to loosen it.

The first Oxford citation describes the shelling of “peason,” or field peas: “by turning & tossing, they shed as they lie” (Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry, 1573, by Thomas Tusser).

The earliest example we’ve found for “toss and turn” used in its modern sleepless sense is from an 18th-century travel journal kept by an Annapolis, MD, physician during a trip up the East Coast to New England:

“My rest was broken and interrupted, for the Teague [an obsolete nickname for an Irishman] made a hideous noise in coming to bed, and as he tossed and turned, kept still ejaculating either an ohon [an expression of grief] or sweet Jesus” (Itinerarium, 1744, by Alexander Hamilton).

The phrase appeared a few years later in the erotic novel popularly known as Fanny Hill: “after tossing and turning the greatest part of the night, and tormenting myself with the falsest notions and apprehensions of things, I fell, through mere fatigue, into a kind of delirious doze” (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1749, by John Cleland).

Finally, here’s a transcript of the “toss and turn” routine that Demetri Martin tweeted on Feb 24, 2020:

When people don’t sleep well, they say they tossed and turned. And I’ve definitely had rough nights where I turned a lot in my sleep, know what I mean? But I’ve never slept so poorly that I ended up, like, lightly throwing things around the room. It’s four in the morning, and I’m like, “Oh, shit. I’m tossing. Stop it. The hell am I doing? Go to sleep, man. Stop it. You’re tossing. Stop it.” You wake up the next day and there’s this crap everywhere. I’m like, “Oh, my God. I slept very poorly. And why do I own so many beanbags? This is making it worse.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Writing

About ‘around’ and ‘surrounding’

Q: I hate the use of “around” or “surrounding” for “about” in sentences like these: (1) “There are a lot of concerns surrounding this announcement.” (2) “Do you have any questions around the change?” (3) “This discussion is centered around the new policy.” When did this start, and why do I hate it so much?

A: You’re not the only one who dislikes the usage. None of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult recognize the use of “surrounding” or “around” to mean “in reference to” or “concerned with”—the sense of “about” you mean.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, includes “around” as a preposition meaning “in reference or relation to; concerning, about.” And we’ve found written examples for both “around” and “surrounding” used this way since the late 19th century.

Here’s an early “around” example from a religious treatise by an Anglican clergyman: “This is not a controversy around details or externals. It bears upon the heart of the Gospel” (Crux Christi: Being a Consideration of Some Aspects of the Doctrine of Atonement, 1892, by John Bennett).

And here’s an early “surrounding” example from an Oklahoma newspaper: “It will be remembered that the Wichita reservation was kept out of the controversy surrounding the opening of the lands of the Kickapoos and Comanches and Apaches” (The Guthrie Daily Leader, April 13, 1895).

The earliest OED citation for the “around” usage is from the May 1897 issue of Punch: “Essence of Parliament … Useful, but not precisely alluring, debate around Employers’ Liability Bill.”

The dictionary’s most recent example is from an article about migrants seeking asylum in Britain: “Her biblical reflections … are thought provoking, and will … act as a stimulus to further biblical enquiry around the themes of justice and hospitality” (The Church Times, Sept. 20, 2013).

Searches with Google’s Ngram viewer indicate that the use of “surrounding” and “around” in the sense of “about” increased sharply in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But the usage is still relatively rare when “surrounding” and “around” phrases are compared with those using “about.”

We agree that “surrounding” and “around” seem out of place in your three examples. We’d use “about” in the first two: “There are a lot of concerns about this announcement” and “Do you have any questions about the change?”

However, we wouldn’t use “about” in the third example. We think “on” would be more to the point: “This discussion is centered on the new policy.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Taking a spin with Yeats

Q: I couldn’t find “perne” in the OED.  Did Yeats coin the word? It means something like to turn or gyrate. He uses both “perne” and “gyre” in “Byzantium.”

A: Yes, William Butler Yeats did coin the verb “perne,” which means to revolve or spin. The Oxford English Dictionary discusses it under the spelling “pern,” which is odd since Yeats never spelled the verb that way.

He first used the verb in 1920, but he didn’t exactly pull it out of thin air. He adapted it from an Irish dialectal noun, “pern,” meaning a spool or bobbin.

In fact, Yeats had used the Irish noun earlier in his poetry. Here it is in a poem about recollecting youth in old age: “He unpacks the loaded pern / Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn” (from an elegy eventually titled “Shepherd and Goatherd,” written in 1918 and collected in The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919).

No doubt aware that “the loaded pern” would be obscure to many readers, Yeats added a note at the end of the collection: “When I was a child at Sligo I could see above my grandfather’s trees a little column of smoke from ‘the pern mill,’ and was told that ‘pern’ was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound.”

The poet soon appropriated this noun and transformed it into a verb that would evoke the motion of revolving or spinning. In his poetry, it conveys the vacillation of a conflicted soul. He uses the verb for the first time in “Demon and Beast” (written in 1920, published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1921):

Though I had long perned in the gyre,
Between my hatred and desire,
I saw my freedom won
And all laugh in the sun.

The OED says that the verb was “adopted by W. B. Yeats from Irish dialect use.” The dictionary defines the verb as “to spin, revolve; to move with a winding or spiral motion.”

A better-known use of “perne” is from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (written in 1926, first published in October Blast in 1927).

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

By the way, the noun “gyre,” for a circle or spiral, also crops up frequently in Yeats’s poetry, as in these famous lines from “The Second Coming” (1919):

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

But getting back to “perne,” the OED notes that the Irish dialect noun that inspired it, “pern,” was in fact a variant of “pirn,” a Middle English noun for “a bobbin, spool, or reel.”

The old word “pirn” is now found in Scots dialect, the OED says, both as a noun and as a verb (meaning to weave, wind, or spin).

“Yeats does not seem to have been aware of the existence in Scots usage” of the noun and verb “pirn,” the dictionary says, “or he treated them as separate words, despite the obvious proximity in sense.”

And now a historical note about an even more obscure word spelled “perne,” a 16th-century verb that the OED labels “rare” and “now historical” (meaning that it’s now found only in references to times past).

The verb first meant “to turn (a garment)” and thus “to change (one’s opinion, adherence, etc.) frequently and insincerely,” Oxford says. It originated as a mocking reference to Andrew Perne, a noted turncoat.

Perne, who died in 1589, was master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and vice-chancellor of the university in the latter half of the 1500s. These were treacherous times for influential academics, but Perne managed to survive the violent and tumultuous times by skillfully shifting his political and religious views to suit the prevailing winds.

So this “perne,” unlike Yeats’s, is an eponym: a word inspired by a person or a person who inspired a word. We wrote posts about eponyms in 2010 and 2019.

The word (though in an adjectival form) was used to mock Andrew Perne even during his lifetime. This is the OED’s earliest sighting: “Who from their snares by sleight can slide, / In these so pernest tymes” (Epigrams and Sentences Spirituall in Vers, Thomas Drant’s 1568 translation of the works of Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople).

This anonymous use (misspelled) appeared around the time of Perne’s death: “What Doctor Pearne? Why he is the notablest turnecoate in al this land … it is made a prouerb … that if one haue a coate or cloake that is turned, they saye it is Pearned.” (From a religious pamphlet, A Dialogue Concerning the Tyrannical Dealings of the Lord Bishops, circa 1589.)

Rare though it is today, the usage was fairly well known in the early 17th century. Among the OED’s citations is one from Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), in which the phrase “retourner sa robbe” is defined as “to Pernize, or Apostatize it; to play the turne-coat.”

[Note: A reader writes on July 9, 2021, to say that the old word “pirn” is still used by weavers today. “This word is alive and well in the weaving world. A shuttle can hold a bobbin, which is flanged at both ends, or it can be made to use pirns, narrow tubes of cardboard or occasionally metal. Both serve the purpose of feeding weft thread across the warp, but pirns generally feed off the end while bobbins feed off the side. So many weaving terms have ancient roots; it’s always been fascinating to me.”]

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Let’s be negative

Q: Your recent “Let’s you and him fight” article brings to mind another expression, “don’t let’s,” as in “Don’t let’s go to the movies.” Do you know the origin of that construction?

A: There are three ways of making the contraction of “let us” negative: “(1) let’s not,” (2) “don’t let’s,” and (3) “let’s don’t.”

As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage explains, #1 is “widely used,” #2 is “chiefly found in British English,” and #3 is “typical of speech and casual writing” in American English.

Some language writers have criticized #3 as nonstandard because the “let’s” in “let’s don’t” cannot be read as a contraction of “let us” (it functions as a single word introducing a negative first-person plural imperative phrase, such as “let’s don’t go”).

Technically, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “let and ’s have fused syntactically as well as phonologically, and are no longer analysable as verb + object: they form a single word that functions as marker of the 1st person inclusive imperative construction.”

So is the American usage legit? We say yes. It’s standard informal English in the US. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees, labeling it “U.S. colloquial.” A colloquial usage, the OED says, is “characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

As for the etymology, “let’s not” was the first of these negative usages to appear in English. The earliest example we’ve found is from Volpone, a satirical play by Ben Johnson that was first performed in 1605: “And, reuerend fathers, since we all can hope, Nought, but a sentence, let’s not now despaire it.”

The first example we’ve found for “don’t let’s” is from the mid-19th century: “Don’t let’s have any deception” (from The Love Match, an 1845 novel by the English author Henry Cockton).

The “let’s don’t” version appeared a decade later. The earliest OED example contracts it in an odd way: “A shabby trick! Let’s do n’t” (from Blondel, an 1854 play by George Edward Rice based on a legend about Richard the Lionheart and his minstrel, Blondel).

The first example we’ve found with the usual “let’s don’t” spelling is from an essay in an American magazine: “ ‘Now let’s don’t talk and be jolly,’ would give us no very high idea of the social qualities of the most respectable people” (“Thoughts About Talking,” by “A Lady of Augusta, Georgia,” Scott’s Monthly Magazine, February 1866).

The Merriam-Webster usage guide, in defending “let’s don’t,” cites this example of its use by “one of the most resolutely literary men” of the 20th century: “In all events, let’s don’t celebrate it until it has done something” (from a letter written Jan. 26, 1918, by the New Yorker critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott).

We’ll end by citing a less literary, more political source: “So our crowd said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and their crowd said, ‘Let’s don’t’ ” (from remarks by President Bill Clinton at a  Democratic National Committee luncheon on July 24, 1999, in Aspen, CO).

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Cut and dried … or dry?

Q: I saw the expression “cut and dry” the other day on the legal scholar Jonathan Turley’s blog. I had always thought it was “cut and dried,” a distinction I learned by a correction in a high school biology paper—in 1961, as I recall. Any thoughts about this?

A: The expression as it first appeared in the mid-17th century was “cut and dried.” But the other version, “cut and dry,” was also used early on, and it’s not incorrect. Most standard dictionaries accept both forms, giving “cut and dry” as a variant or less common version.

To say that something is “cut and dried”—a decision, speech, proposal, etc.—means that it’s been decided or settled in advance. Some dictionaries add that it can mean clear and unambiguous.

The phrasal adjective is figurative, but it was adapted from a literal notion: herbs already harvested, dried, and prepared for sale in herbalists’ shops, “as contrasted,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “with growing herbs.”

Thus, the dictionary defines the figurative “cut and dried (also cut and dry)” as “ready-made and void of freshness and spontaneity,” or “ready shaped according to a priori formal notions.” The phrase is used mostly in reference to “language, ideas, schemes or the like,” the OED adds.

The dictionary’s examples begin in the early 18th century, but in searches of historic databases we found earlier ones from the mid- to late 17th century. The oldest examples are preceded by “ready,” and some use “dried” (spelled various ways) while some use “dry.”

The two oldest we’ve found appear in the same pamphlet (note how the author is careful to define his meaning):

“I being informed of their Intentions or Determinations before, I made this Reply to them, I did know that it was ready cut and dryed; my meaning was, that it was ready done to their hands.” He repeats the expression later in italics: “I soberly answered, It was ready cut and dryed; that is, to speak after the smilitude, it was ready done to their hands.” From “The Cause of the Innocent Pleaded, His Accusers Pretended Charge Confvted,” by Samuel Bradley (1664).

We’ve found several more in pamphlets and books of the later 1600s:

“a Catholick Answer ready cut and dried to all Indictments drawn up against them” (“The Tragical History of Jetzer,” by Sir William Waller, 1679).

“those Informations, which they kept ready cut and dryed for service upon all occasions” (“An Exact and Faithful Narrative of the Horrid Conspiracy [etc.],” by Titus Oates; written April 1679, published 1680).

“the whole Scheme of the Project ready cut and dry’d” (“The Character of a Papist in Masquerade,” by Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1681).

“the Excuses which I had always ready cut and dry’d” (A Late Voyage to Constantinople, John Philips’s translation from the French of Guillaume-Joseph Grelot, 1683).

“presented unto the Council ready cut and dry” (The History of the Eucharist, John Walker’s translation from the French of Matthieu de L’Arroque, 1684).

The OED’s first citation is dated 1710: “Your Sermon was ready Cut and Dry’d” (Letter to Sacheverell, a poem by Joseph Addison, pseudonymously signed “J.B.”).

As we mentioned above, “cut and dried” is more common than “cut and dry,” a preference that’s demonstrated by a comparison on Google’s Ngram viewer.

Why does “cut and dry” persist? It may have been reinforced in the early 18th century, when smokers began referring to tobacco as “cut and dry.” As the OED says, “cut and dry” was a noun phrase used elliptically to mean “cut and dried tobacco.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrasal noun is from a letter written to Jonathan Swift by his good friend Dr. John Arbuthnot (Jan. 30, 1718). The OED quotes only a line of Arbuthnot’s letter, but we think his anecdote is entertaining enough to quote in its entirety:

I knew a pretty young Girl in a Country Village, who, over-fond of her own Praise, became a Property to a poor Rogue in the Parish, who was ignorant of all Things but Fawning. This Fellow us’d to wait on Mrs. Betty every Morning, and she being a Shopkeeper, his usual Salutation was, Lord love your Heart, Mrs. Betty, you be main handsome, will you give me a Pipe of Tobacco? Am I, Isaac? (answers Mrs. Betty) let me see your Box; and then she fills it. Thus Isaac extolls her out of a Quartern of Cut and Dry every Day she lives; and tho’ the young Woman is really handsome, she and her Beauty are become a By-word, and, all the Country round, she is call’d nothing but Isaac’s Best Virginia.”

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It’s ‘along’ story

Q: In David Copperfield, Mrs. Gummidge uses an odd construction to blame herself for Daniel Peggotty’s readiness to visit the pub: “I am sorry it should be along of me that you’re so ready.” She’s apparently using “along of” to mean “because of,” a usage I’m unaware of. What’s going on?

A: English has had two different “along” words. The usual one today is a preposition or adverb with various lengthwise and accompanying senses. The other is an archaic adjective that survives in regional dialects and is the source of the usage in the 1850 novel by Charles Dickens.

Both words are very old, dating back to early Old English, but they’re not etymologically related, and weren’t originally spelled alike.

The Anglo-Saxon ancestor of the more common “along” was andlang, a preposition, adjective, or adverb with many of the term’s modern senses, including alongside, next to, over the length of, and parallel to.

The ancestor of the archaic or dialectal “along” was gelong, an adjective meaning belonging to, depending on, or as a result of (the usage in David Copperfield).

Originally andlang, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, referred to “extending a long way in the opposite direction.” It was “a compound formed from and-  ‘against, facing’ (whose original source was Greek anti-  ‘against’) and lang  ‘long.’ ”

“The meaning gradually changed,” Ayto writes, “via simply ‘extending a long way,’ through ‘continuous’ and ‘the whole length of something’ to ‘lengthwise.’ ”

At the same time, he says, “the and- prefix was gradually losing its identity: by the 10th century the forms anlong and onlong were becoming established, and the 14th century saw the beginnings of modern English along.”

As for the other word “along,” now archaic and dialectal, Ayto says its Old English ancestor, gelong, was formed from “the prefix ge-, suggesting suitability, and long, of which the notions of ‘pertaining’ and ‘appropriateness’ are preserved in modern English belong.”

In Middle English, the term was spelled ilongylongallang, and alonge. The “along” spelling showed up in the 1600s, perhaps influenced by the spelling of today’s more common “along.”

In later use, the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the less common “along” was “usually perceived as a special use of” the more common one.

Here are OED citations for early Old English appearances of andlang and gelong (we won’t include examples for all the senses of the two Old English words):

“Her for se here up þurh þa brycge æt Paris & þa up andlang Sigene oþ Mæterne oþ Cariei” (“A.D. 887. This year the army went up through the bridge at Paris and then up along the Seine to the Marne and then to Chézy”). From an entry for the year 887 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A, Parker Library, Cambridge.

“Þæt wæs swiþost on ðæm gelong þæt Hasterbal swa late fleah for þon þe he elpendas mid him hæfde” (“That was mostly the result of the failure of Hasdrubal [brother of Hannibal] to flee with his elephants”). The Old English Orosius, an early Old English translation of Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (History Against the Pagans in Seven Books), circa 400, by Paulus Orosius.

Getting back to your question, the now dialectal “along” (from gelong) has lost most of its original senses in modern English. As the OED explains, it appears “only in weakened use as a compound preposition, with of (also occasionally onwith, etc.)” and means “because of, on account of, owing to.”

The dictionary’s earliest “along of” citation is from an anti-Roman Catholic broadside, or flyer: “What a damn’d Journey have you made me take, Allong of you, and Mother-Churches sake, Been tost [tossed] at Sea.” (“The Catholick Gamesters or A Dubble Match of Bowleing,” 1680, by the printmaker and polemicist Stephen College.)

And this is Oxford’s earliest example with the modern spelling: “ ’Tis all along of you that I am thus haunted” (from The Fool of Quality; or, The History of Henry, Earl of Moreland, 1766, a novel by the Irish writer Henry Brooke).

Finally, here’s the most recent OED citation: “It was along of the din you were making that I came to see if he was hurting you” (from Missy, a 2008 novel by the Scottish author Chris Hannan).

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A moment of truthiness

Q: I think it’s truthy to say Stephen Colbert coined “truthiness.” How could he coin a word that’s been around since the 19th century?

A: We disagree. Colbert coined a new use for an old word that was never common and had pretty much died out by the time he rediscovered and redefined it.

And like the noun “truthiness,” the little-used adjective “truthy” was similarly rediscovered and redefined in the late 20th century.

When “truthiness” showed up in English in the 19th century, it was a colloquial term for truthfulness, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, February 1832:

“You do not speak the truth well, North. I do not deny that you may possess very considerable natural powers of veracity—of truth-telling; but then, you have not cultivated them, having been too much occupied with the ordinary affairs of life. Truthiness is a habit, like every other virtue.” (From a contribution by the Scottish author John Wilson to Noctes Ambrosianae, a monthly column of imaginary conversations.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes the original “truthiness” as a noun formed from “truthy,” a colloquial and regional adjective meaning “characterized by truth; truthful, true.” The dictionary labels the truthful senses of the adjective and noun as “now rare.”

The first Oxford example for the adjective is from an opera: “You … are afraid, Theodore, your sweetheart shouldn’t prove truthy.” (Poems; and Theodore, an Opera, a collection of works by the English author John Henry Colls, published in 1804, two years after his death.)

In the early 21st century, according to the OED, the old noun took on a new meaning, chiefly in the US: “The quality of appearing to be true while not actually or necessarily being so; the fact or quality of accepting or presenting something which is not true as the truth.”

The dictionary notes that the new sense was “first used by United States humorist Stephen Colbert” and it cites the Oct. 17, 2005, premiere of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central: “The truthiness is anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.” (We added the italics.)

On Jan. 6, 2006, the American Dialect Society named “truthiness” as its “word of the year” for 2005, saying it “refers to the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

The adjective “truthy” showed up the next day in an Associated Press article about the ADS decision: “Michael Adams, a professor at North Carolina State University who specializes in lexicology, said ‘truthiness’ means ‘truthy, not facty.’ ”

We’ll end with an expanded version of the remarks by Colbert’s on-air persona:

You’re looking at a straight shooter, America. I tell it like it is, I calls ’em like I sees ’em. I will speak to you in plain, simple English. And that brings us to tonight’s word: truthiness.

Now I’m sure some of the word police, the wordinistas over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word.’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.

They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.

And that’s exactly what’s pulling our country apart today. Cuz face it, folks, we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No. We are divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart. …

The truthiness is anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.

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From ‘agog’ to ‘go-go’

Q: I was recently reading a novel and “agog” jumped out at me. Where did this weird-sounding word come from? Does it have anything to do with being goggle-eyed? I’m all agog to know.

A: “Agog,” meaning excited, astonished, or expectantly eager, probably isn’t related to goggling or goggly eyes or, for that matter, to goggles.

But there’s an etymological trail leading from “agog” to “go-go” dancing and “go-go” boots—and if you don’t remember those, you’re not of our generation. Here’s how it all came about.

“Agog” entered written English in the early 1400s. Though the word’s source is uncertain, etymologists say it’s likely to have come from the Middle French phrase en gogues (amused, entertained), formed with the plural of the Old French noun gogue (fun, amusement).

When “agog” was first recorded in English, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was an adverb meaning “in excited readiness, expectation, or desire; in or into a state of great eagerness, enthusiasm, excitement, suspense, or (in later use) astonishment.”

The dictionary’s oldest example uses the word to mean in expectation or suspense:

“He shal be hourled so in high courte and holde so agogge, That hym were bettre lose his lande þenne long so be toylid” (“He shall be so attacked in high court and held so agog [in such suspense], that it would be better for him to lose his land than to be so long in litigation”). From Mum and the Sothsegger, an anonymous poem dated circa 1405. The “Mum” in the title is one who’s silent; the “Sothsegger” (soothsayer) tells the truth.

In this later example, “agog” is used to show excited readiness or desire:

“I suppose you now sit all agog, / In hopes to hear a smutty Epilogue” (from Nicholas Amhurst’s Poems on Several Occasions, 1720).

The word began appearing predicatively as an adjective in the 1600s. The OED’s earliest example is from John Wilson’s tragedy Andronicus Comnenius (1664): “They are all agog, / And may do mischief.”

The OED defines the adjective as “excited, eagerly expectant, enthusiastic; (in later use) astonished. Also: on the move, busily astir.”

But most often the adjective seems to express eager expectation, as in this poetic example: “And she too fires my Heart, and she too charms, / And I’m agog to have her in my arms” (John Oldham’s Poems, and Translations, 1683).

As we mentioned earlier, etymologists trace “agog” to the Middle French phrase en gogues, formed with the plural of the Old French noun gogue (amusement, fun).

And gogue, the OED says, is probably the source of the Middle French phrase à gogo, which originally meant “joyfully, uninhibitedly, extravagantly,” and later came to mean “galore, aplenty.” It was this latter sense of à gogoOxford says, that gave English the swinging-’60s term “a-go-go.”

This all began, the dictionary says, when a nightclub and discotheque opened in Paris in 1952 with the name Whisky à Gogo (literally, “Whisky Galore,” apparently after a 1949 British film by that name).

The club “quickly became a favourite with the young and fashionable set,” and in a few years “many clubs and discotheques bearing the same name and playing the latest music on disc had sprung up in France and elsewhere in Europe,” the OED says.

“The first club of this name in the United States (Whisky a Go Go) opened in Chicago in 1958,” the dictionary notes, though the most famous one opened in 1964 on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It became “a leading venue for popular music in the 1960s and popularizer of go-go dancing.”

Meanwhile, Oxford says, “a-go-go” came to mean “fashionable, modish, up to date, ‘with it,’ ” as well as “lively, ‘swinging.’ ”

Finally, about those “goggle” words. As we said, etymologists see no connection between them and “agog.” However, both “goggle” and “agog”are probably imitative in origin—that is, they imitate a sound, a motion, a feeling, etc.

The probable source of “agog,” the French gogue (fun and merriment), comes from “a Romance base of imitative origin,” the OED says. Which means that to the French, gogue sounded like fun.

As John Ayto puts it in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “it may perhaps be imitative of noisy merry-making.”

But the verb “goggle,” first recorded as “gogelen” (circa 1380), is thought to be from an onomatopoeic element “expressive of oscillating movement” of the eyes, the OED says.

The dictionary defines the verb this way: “To turn the eyes to one side or other, to look obliquely, to squint.” Later it meant “to look with widely-opened, unsteady eyes; to roll the eyes about,” the OED adds. The other “goggle”-type words are derived from the verb.

The adjective phrase “goggle-eyed” was first recorded (as “gogil yȝed”) around 1384. However, the adjective “goggle” by itself, as in “goggle eyes,” didn’t appear in writing until 1540; “goggly” followed in the late 1600s. And “goggles,” the noun for the eyewear, made its appearance in 1715.

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Why an app is called a widget

Q: How did an app come to be referred to as a widget?

A: The story begins in the early 20th century, when an unnamed gadget was called a “widget” for the first time, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The usage appeared in Beggar on Horseback, a 1924 play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly about a struggling classical composer who plans to marry the daughter of a rich industrialist.

In a dream sequence, the composer imagines giving up music to work for the industrialist: “What business are we in?” he asks. “Widgets,” his father-in-law says. “We’re in the widget business.” On waking up, the composer decides to marry the girl next door instead.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “widget” in this sense as “an indefinite term for a small gadget or mechanical contrivance.” The dictionary labels it “origin uncertain,” but adds that it’s “perhaps an arbitrary alteration of gadget.”

In the 1990s, according to the OED, “widget” took on the computing sense of “an application designed to perform a relatively simple task, esp. one which displays a simple piece of information (such as a weather report or the date and time) on the screen of a computer, smartphone, etc.”

The first Oxford citation is from a June 19, 1991, comment on a Usenet newsgroup ( “A customer wants to have a row of clocks showing different timezones. Unfortunately the clock widget doesn’t handle that case very well.”

As for “application,” it showed up as a computer term in the 1950s, according to the earliest OED citation:

“This approach to a file maintenance application implies that a number, or ‘batch’ of transactions is collected and sorted into the order of the master file” (Programming for Digital Computers, 1959, by Joachim Jeenel).

The shortened version, “app,” showed up a few decades later in an advertisement (originally with a period at the end to indicate an abbreviation): “Strong IBM customer … will hire a tech support person to … interface with app. development and comp. operations people” (Computerworld, April 20, 1981).

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Regarding ‘in terms of’

Q: Have you ever discussed the awful overuse of “in terms of” in current everyday parlance?

A: You’re right that the phrase “in terms of” is getting quite a workout these days.

The expression was little used in the 19th century, as a search with Google’s Ngram viewer shows. But it began rising steadily around 1910 and arrived at a sharp peak in 1980. Since then it has fallen slightly and leveled off, but it remains at a relatively high frequency of usage.

A comparison chart shows that “in terms of” is now clearly more popular than its usual synonyms, listed here in order of frequency: “regarding,” “concerning,” “in relation to,” “with respect to,” “as far as,” and “with regard to.”

The chart shows that “in terms of” was the least popular a century ago, but now it’s the favorite. Why? We can’t say. Perhaps it strikes people as more scholarly or scientific than the alternatives.

In fact, “in terms of” had scholarly beginnings. It was first recorded in the early 18th century as a mathematical expression meaning “by means of or with reference to specified variables or quantities,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest written use is from a technical dictionary, John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum (1704): “Square number A mix’d Number … whose Fractional Part is exprest in Terms of a Vulgar Fraction.”

These examples from the next three centuries more clearly illustrate the expression’s technical meaning:

“The nearest distance of the orbits of Venus and the earth was concluded in terms of the earth’s diameter” (Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects, 1866, by John Frederick William Herschel).

“Solve the given equation for y in terms of x” (College Mathematics, 2nd ed., 1951, by William Whitfield Elliott and Edward Roy Cecil Miles).

“Write down an expression, in terms of x, for the amount Dan received” (Cambridge O Level Mathematics, 2012, by Audrey Simpson).

The nontechnical meaning of “in terms of” emerged in the early 19th century. It’s defined in the OED as “by means of or in reference to (a particular concept); in the mode of expression or thought belonging to (a subject or category); (loosely) on the basis of; in relation to; as regards.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrase used in this sense is from a work by the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham: “Contradictoriness … manifested, in terms of a certain degree of strength, towards some proposition or propositions, that have been advanced by some one else” (The Elements of the Art of Packing, as Applied to Special Juries, 1821).

These later examples show how the usage has evolved:

“Most persons, on being asked in what sort of terms they imagine words, will say ‘in terms of hearing’ ” (The Principles of Psychology, 1890, by William James).

“System design is discussed here in terms of fact finding, developing specifications, meeting specifications, and matching equipment with the system” (Automatic Data-Processing Systems, 1960, by Robert Henry Gregory and Richard L. Van Horn).

“We need to recognise metropolitan and CBD business remain the major engine of growth in terms of new employment” (Australian Financial Review, May 25, 2000).

The phrase as we know it today, the dictionary says, is sometimes influenced by a use of the plural “terms” in a sense that dates from the late 14th century: “words or expressions collectively (usually of a specified kind); manner of expression, way of speaking; language. Chiefly preceded by in.”

Familiar expressions using this sense of “terms” include “in general terms,” “in layman’s terms,” “in the strongest terms,” and “in no uncertain terms.”

So “in terms of,” the OED says, sometimes comes close to meaning “in the language or terminology of.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A lion, a flower, and a king

Q: Is Leonotis, the plant genus, related etymologically to Leonidas, the Spartan king?

A: The botanical Latin name of Leonotis, a genus of flowering tropical plants native to Africa and India, ultimately comes from the classical Greek terms for “lion” and “ear.” Not surprisingly, a common name for it is “lion’s ear.”

As far as we can tell, the German botanist Christiaan Hendrik Persoon was the first person to use the term. In Synopsis Plantarum, Book 2 (1807), he lists Leonotis as a subgenus of Phlomis, a genus of shrubby and herbaceous plants native to the Mediterranean.

A few years later, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown listed Leonotis as a genus in Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae et Insulae Van Diemen (Introduction to the Flora of New Holland and Van Diemen’s Island), an 1810 treatise on the plants of mainland Australia and Tasmania.

Leonotis and Phlomis are each now considered a genus of the family Lamiaceae.

Neither Persoon nor Brown explain why they named the plant Leonotis, but the term probably refers to the shape of the corolla, or petals.

In this image of the species Leonotis leonurus, the corolla also looks a bit like the tip of a lion’s tail—and “lion’s tail” is another common name for the genus.

The botanical Latin name ultimately comes from the classical Greek terms for “lion” (λέων, leon) and “ear” (ὠτός, otos, the genitive form of οὖς, ous).

We’ve seen no evidence that it’s derived from Leonidas, the fifth century BC king of Sparta. However, the king as well as the plant had leonine names. The king’s name in ancient Greek, λέωνῐ́δᾱς, means “son of a lion.”

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Wild swimming

Q: When did the term “wild swimming” become common? I first I heard it a few years ago in an episode of the BBC mystery series Vera. Since then I’ve noticed it more and more. When I was a kid, we swam where there was enough water: a pond, a river, a lake, a pool. We called it all swimming.

A: The phrase “wild swimming”— swimming outdoors in natural waters—has been around since the late 1990s. It originated as a British usage, which is why you first noticed it while watching that BBC mystery series.

The Vera episode you mention first aired in the UK in 2012. In the script, Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope briefs colleagues about a murder victim whose body was found on a riverbank:

“Jenny Lister. Forty-one years old. Social worker. Wild swimming enthusiast. Now according to Billy, she was stunned by a blow to the head, probably with a rock, and then held under the water until she drowned.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase “wild swimming” as “chiefly British” and defines it as “the practice or activity of swimming for pleasure in natural waters, typically rivers and lakes.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use is from Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (1999), by Roger Deakin: “With so much twenty-four-carat water everywhere, there’s a tradition of wild swimming in all the towns and villages.”

In the book, Deakin, an environmentalist and documentary maker who died in 2006, describes a swimming tour he made in 1997 through Britain’s waterways, starting at the Isles of Scilly and ending at the North Sea.

When it was published in 2000 in the US, the trade magazine Kirkus Reviews called Deakin’s book “the foundational text for the international ‘wild swimming’ movement.” Since the book appeared, it has inspired a documentary and dozens of books on the appeal of swimming in open waters.

Deakin can probably be credited with inventing the term “wild swimming” as it’s popularly used. We’ve found only one earlier example, but it’s probably an outlier, since it appears to use “wild” in the sense of unauthorized or in an undesignated area:

“Tourist traffic at dams and banks, wild swimming and wild camping, sports fishermen and pedestrians cause damages in forests, at embankments and at structures.” (From Developments in River Basin Management, 1987, edited by Kokei Uehara et. al., a collection of papers presented at a conference in Brazil in August 1986.)

The OED’s 21st-century examples include two from British newspapers: “Wild swimming is much more fun, it is a sort of communion with nature” (The Bath Chronicle, Aug. 3, 2004) … “It’s an old quarry that is now an oasis that empties and fills with the tides, and it’s a wonderful place for wild swimming” (The Times, May 17, 2015).

Not everyone is fond of the term. In a column in The Guardian last year, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote: “I’ve never been a fan of the phrase ‘wild swimming’; in Snowdonia [Wales], where I grew up, we always just called it swimming. To call it ‘wild,’ I feel, is to centre the urban, the municipal and the populated, and to place the rural and the natural at the margins.”

We can see her point. The use of the modifier (“wild”) implies that the default mode of swimming is in an artificial pool built for the purpose. This is analogous to the phrase “woman doctor,” which implies that the default doctor is a man.

As for the adjective “wild,” it’s been in written English since the early eighth century in its general sense—existing in a state of nature. It was inherited from the Germanic languages; the OED points to the Old Saxon wildflêsc (“wild meat”) and the Middle Swedish wilskin (“wild leather”).

When first recorded in English, “wild” was used to describe plants and animals. It meant “living in a state of nature; not tame, not domesticated” (as applied to an animal), and “growing in a state of nature; not cultivated” (as applied to a plant or flower).

The earliest known uses in writing are from a Latin-Old English glossary dated around 725: “Indomitus, wilde” and “Agre[s]tis, wilde” (the first used for animals, the second for plants). The citations are from the Corpus Glossary, so named because the manuscript is held at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University.

Beginning in the 800s, the adjective was used more broadly—at first to describe uncultivated or uninhabited places, and later it was applied to people in senses both good and bad. It could mean free or unrestricted on the one hand, but uncivilized, unruly, or immoral on the other.

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

Mixing and matching

Q: I hear “mix and match” where merely “mix” is meant, as in a Bloomberg article about Covid-19 that quotes a doctor as saying “there is evidence that mixing and matching different vaccines may actually boost the immune response.” How long has “mix” been needlessly expanded? I’m ready to hear you say this has been going on for approximately 1,000 years. Well, at least 300.

A: No, not quite 1,000 years. Nor even 300. “Mix and match” apparently showed up about 60 years ago.

We agree that “mix and match” can often be replaced by “mix” alone, but the full expression suggests something more than merely mixing, especially when it’s used as retailese to promote things like a summer wardrobe, a sound system, or a cable TV package.

Standard dictionaries generally define the verb phrase “mix and match” as to combine different but complementary things—compatible items that complete or improve one another. So you can “mix” two clashing pieces of clothing, but “mix and match” only compatible ones.

The doctor quoted by Bloomberg seems to be using the expression in the dictionary sense. She uses it to mean combining compatible Covid vaccinations to improve their effectiveness.

It seems odd that a doctor would use a retailing expression to promote a Covid treatment, but people fighting the pandemic, and the news media covering them, have apparently adopted this usage. Here are some recent headlines:

“ ‘Mix and match’ UK Covid vaccine trial expanded” (BBC News, April 14, 2021).

“Can you mix and match Covid vaccines? Here’s what we know so far” (CNBC, April 9, 2021).

“Can We Mix and Match COVID-19 Vaccines? Experts Say Not Yet” (Healthline, March 27, 2021).

“Getting One Vaccine Is Good. How About Mix-and-Match?” (The New York Times, March 30, 2021).

“Scientists get serious about mixing and matching COVID-19 vaccines” (Medical Press, March 1, 2021).

As for the etymology, the expression emerged in the 1960s as both a verb and an adjective, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, though similar phrases in the 1940s and ’50s anticipated the usage.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the verb phrase means “to select and combine different but complementary items (originally of clothing) to form a coordinated set.” It has a similar definition for the adjective.

The dictionary cites this forerunner of the verb: “Tropical separates … Of crisp tropical rayon suiting nicely tailored … You can either ‘mix ’em or match ’em’ ” (from an ad in The Baltimore Sun, April 3, 1948).

And here’s a precursor of the adjective: “Mix-match styles, casual jackets and skirts which match or contrast, but are sold separately” (The Fashion Dictionary, 1957, by Mary Brooks Picken).

Interestingly, the first Oxford example for the actual verb phrase refers to mixing and matching laboratory glassware, not clothing. It comes from an ad that we’ve found in an earlier publication and expanded here: “Mix and match! Order anything in the complete Kimble line … mix Kimax rod, tubing and pipe with lime glass or Kimax volumetric ware” (Analytical Chemistry, Jan. 1, 1960).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective, which we’ve also expanded, is from an article about various terms for leotards and tights: “The leotard look in tights also appeared under the names of color-cued tights, Glamour Gams, streamlined stretch tights, full-fashioned tights, casual tights, Gotham-tites, mix-n-match Tights” (“Leotards and ‘Tightsomania,’ ” by Kelsie B. Harder, American Speech, May 1960).

From what we’ve seen, the phrase “mix and match” usually appears in the sense of combining and complementing things, not just combining them. And the items combined are compatible, not clashing. However, we don’t find the expression used much in general writing or conversation.

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We are met on a great battle-field

[Note: In observance of Memorial Day, we are reprinting this post, originally published on Jan. 9, 2015.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A seafarer’s middle ground

Q: Was “middle ground” originally a nautical and/or cartographic term? It’s still used commonly by mariners and mapmakers, but outside the seagoing community it seems mostly to be used figuratively.

A: Yes, “middle ground” was originally used by sailors and mapmakers. When it appeared in the 17th century, it referred to “a shallow place such as a bank or bar, esp. as a navigational obstruction,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the earliest OED example, the term is used as a proper name: “Within them lyeth a plate on the starboard side, a little to the n. wards of the Haven, called the Middle-ground” (from A Description & Plat of the Sea-Coasts of England, 1653, a guide for sailing in English waters).

The most recent Oxford citation is from a late 19th-century description of Humboldt Bay on the north coast of California: “Their burdens of detritus find fitful equipoise on the spit terminals, on the middle ground within, or on the bar without the entrance” (Overland Monthly, October 1896).

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the nautical sense of the term is now obsolete, but two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for it.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “a shoal in a fairway having a channel on either side,” while says it’s “a length of comparatively shallow water having channels on both sides.”

As you point out, the expression “middle ground” is still used by mariners and mapmakers. For example, the online International Dictionary of Marine Aids to Navigation describes the term this way: “Island or shoal which divides a fairway into two shipping channels; these subsequently join again into a single channel.”

And a glossary of nautical terms on the website of Practical Boat Owner, a British magazine, defines it as “A shallow bank which divides a channel or fairway into two parts. It is marked with Middle-ground buoys which usually indicate the deeper of the two channels so formed.”

As for the other senses of “middle ground,” in the 18th century it came to mean the middle distance in an artistic composition. The earliest OED example describes how painters divide their compositions “into fore-ground, middle-ground, and distance or back-ground” (from The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, by the English painter William Hogarth).

The modern figurative sense of “middle ground” showed up in the early 19th century, according to Oxford citations. The dictionary defines it as “a (metaphorical) place or position halfway between extremes; an area or position of moderation or possible compromise.”

The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise on religious imagination:

“But when, either by the refinements of rationalism—a gross misnomer—or by superstitious corruptions, the central facts of Christianity are obscured, no middle ground remains between the apathy of formality and the extravagance of enthusiasm.” (From Natural History of Enthusiasm, 1829, by Isaac Taylor.)

The dictionary’s most recent figurative example is from the late 20th century: “With Labour’s Tony Blair seeking to steal the political middleground by talking of lower taxes … the Tories will be under pressure to match the promises” (Daily Telegraph, London, Aug. 17, 1994).

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On mom, pop, and dad

Q: I can see how “mother” gave birth to “mom,” “mommy,” and so on, but how did we get “dad,” “daddy,” “pop,” etc., from “father”?

A: The various “mom,” “pop,” and “dad” words are all probably derived from the “ma,” “pa,” and “da” sounds that babbling infants utter and that parents mistakenly think are references to mother and father. The parents then respond with baby talk that gives reduplicative, or doubled, sounds like “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” a maternal or paternal sense.

The linguist Roman Jakobson has suggested that this process begins while babies are nursing: “Often the sucking activities of a child are accompanied by a slight nasal murmur, the only phonation which can be produced when the lips are pressed to mother’s breast or to the feeding bottle and the mouth full.”

After nursing, he says, “the nasal murmur may be supplied with an oral, particularly labial release; it may also obtain an optional vocalic support.” (The “nasal murmur” is an m-m-m sound; the “labial release” and “vocalic support” produce an a-a-h sound.)

Jakobson’s comments are from “Why ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa,’ ” a paper presented on May 26, 1959, at a linguistics seminar at Stanford University, and published in Perspectives in Psychological Theory (1960), edited by Bernard Kaplan and Seymour Wapner.

Since the mother is the source of a baby’s nourishment, Jakobson writes, “most of the infant’s longings are addressed to her, and children, being prompted and instigated by the extant nursery words, gradually turn the nursery interjection [“mama”] into a parental term, and adapt its expressive make-up to their regular phonemic patter.” In other words, “mama” comes to mean “mother” to the child.

Jakobson’s baby-talk approach, which is generally accepted by linguists, focuses on the physiological ability of infants to make various vowel and consonant sounds:

“Nursery coinages are accepted for a wider circulation in the child-adult verbal intercourse only if they meet the infant’s linguistic requirements” and “reflect the salient features and tendencies of children’s speech development.”

As it turns out, “a” is the easiest vowel for a babbling baby to produce. All you have to do is open your mouth and make a noise. Two of the easiest consonant sounds are “m” and “p.” All you have to do is put your lips together—no tongue or teeth required. That’s why they’re called labials.

The letter “d” is a bit harder since you have to put the tip of your tongue against the upper gum or upper teeth (the upper teeth don’t arrive until around 8 to 10 months of age).

The “f” and “th” sounds in “father” and “mother” are much harder to make, and even a toddler may have trouble with them. (In Old English, the “th” of “father” and “mother” was a “d,” which may have made things a little easier for Anglo-Saxon children.)

Of the various parental nursery terms in English, babbling infants generally say “mama” first, followed by “papa,” and then “dada,” according to linguists. The duplicatives “baba,” “nana,” and “tata” (plus “mama” and “papa”) and their variants are infantile parental terms in other languages.

English-speaking parents, as we’ve said, hear familiar speech sounds and assume that “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” are attempts to say “mother” and “father.” By repetition, pointing, smiling, head-shaking, and so on, the parents instill that belief in their babies and it becomes mutually reinforced.

In addition to Jakobson’s paper, we’ve relied on related comments by the linguists Larry Trask, John McWhorter, William Poser, Nancy J. Frishberg, and Robert A. Papen.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “mom” is a shortening of “momma,” a variant of “mama,” which is “probably ultimately [from] a (reduplicated) syllable /ma/ which is characteristic of early infantile vocalization and regarded by some as a development of the sound sometimes made by a baby when breastfeeding.”

Similarly, the OED says “dad” is probably derived from “an imitative or expressive formation” made up of the reduplicated syllable “da” and “characteristic of early infantile vocalization.”

And “papa” is also probably derived from a reduplicated syllable characteristic of early infantile vocalization. Oxford notes that πάππας (“pappas”) was the way a young child in ancient Greece pronounced πατήρ (“patir” or father).

Here, according to Oxford citations, are the dates when various parental terms were first recorded in English writing: “mama” (1555), “momma” (1803), “mom” (1846), and “mommy” (1846); “papa” (1681), “pa” (1773), “pop” (1840); “daddy” (1523), “dad” (1533), “dada” (1672), and “da” (1851). Linguists note that similar nursery words in other languages aren’t etymologically related, but the result of early infant-adult communication.

Of course, unrecorded examples of “mama,” “papa,” and “dada” undoubtedly occurred long before those dates. In fact, one scholar has suggested that a version of “mama” may have been one of the first words uttered by humans or their hominin ancestors:

“It does not seem unreasonable to assume that the equivalent of the English word ‘Mama’ may well have been one of the first conventional words developed by early hominins.” From a 2004 article by Dean Falk, a neuroanthropologist who specializes in the evolution of the brain and cognition in higher primates. (“Prelinguistic Evolution in Early Hominins: Whence Motherese?” in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.)

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Fair enough?

Q: Would you consider an article on the origin of “fair enough”? I recently read an online comment that suggested it originated in wooden boat building. I’m skeptical, but stumbling around on Google hasn’t gotten me an answer.

A: There’s no evidence that “fair enough,” an expression dating from the early 19th century, has its origins in boat building. All of the early examples we’ve seen are from ordinary conversation.

The oldest we’ve found is from an opinion piece originally published in the Baltimore Whig: “G. Your plan seems fair enough. T. Fair enough! Can any thing be fairer?”

The article, an imaginary dialogue between “Gaius” and “Titus” on political subjects, was reprinted in the Virginia Argus (Richmond) on Oct. 28, 1813.

That example uses “fair enough” as the adjectival complement of a verb (as in “sounds fair enough,” “looks fair enough,” “that’s fair enough,” “appears fair enough,” and so on), not as an expression that stands alone.

The stand-alone expression “fair enough” emerged slightly later, and is the equivalent of “that’s reasonable” or “I accept that,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And again, all of the OED’s examples are from everyday dialogue.

This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Two per cent discount—fair enough.” From The Itinerant (Vol. VI, 1817), a memoir by the English actor Samuel William Ryley. (The discussion is about lodgings at an inn.)

And Oxford has this example from conversation in a British novel: “ ‘Let me hear what the service is, and then I will answer you.’ ‘Fair enough.’ ” From The Adventures of Captain Blake: Or, My Life, by William Hamilton Maxwell (1835).

We’ve also found mid-19th-century examples in newspapers published in the US and in Australia: “Fair enough! cried I” (New York Daily Tribune, July 25, 1844) … “ ‘Fair enough,’ said he” (Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, March 19, 1853). So the expression was familiar to speakers of British, American, and Australian English.

But none of the OED’s examples of “fair enough” refer to boat building, and neither do any 19th-century examples we’ve found in old databases.

The dictionary’s only marine-related definition of the adjective “fair” is this one, in reference to weather: “Of the wind, etc.: favourable to the course of a ship, aircraft, etc.” Written uses date from late Old English.

And the dictionary’s only construction-related definition of the adjective is this one: “Of a line, curve, or surface: free from roughness or irregularities; smooth, even.”

For instance, phrases like “fair line,” “fair curve,” “fair plane” and so on mean a line (curve, etc.) that’s perfectly smooth—in any kind of carpentry, not specifically boat building.

Written examples of that usage in carpentry date from the late 15th century, but the OED’s only boat-building examples are modern ones—from Popular Mechanics in April 1939 (“to level everything off to a fair line”), and from a 2003 book, Don Danenberg’s How to Restore your Wooden Runabout (“to achieve fair surfaces”).

We should also mention that a verb, to “fair,” emerged in carpentry in the early 19th century and meant to smooth or blend the lines of a ship (later, an aircraft or motor vehicle). But this verb first appeared in 1822, which was after the conversational expression “fair enough,” so any connection is highly unlikely.

In websites devoted to boat construction and restoration, we’ve seen many uses of the verb “fair” and its derivatives in reference to the smoothing of a hull or other surface.

For example, enthusiasts speak of “fairing” a surface,” the “fairing” process, “fairing compound” or “fairing mix,” and they occasionally use “fair enough” to mean smooth enough. But all these uses came long after “fair enough” was a general expression for “I accept that.”

As for the etymology of the adjective “fair,” it was inherited from Germanic languages in which it meant beautiful, pleasant, bright, etc. It’s been known in writing since early Old English (fæger), where at first it was mostly used to describe good-looking men, a sense later transferred to women.

That general use of “fair”—for attractiveness in people or things—is “now somewhat archaic and literary,” Oxford says. It’s still sometimes found in uses like “your fair city,” “the fair sex,” “my fair companion,” and other courtly-sounding phrases.

From its early Old English senses of beautiful, agreeable, and pleasing, “fair” moved on and acquired additional meanings in Old and Middle English.

Because Germanic notions of beauty were often associated with lightness and brightness, “fair” sometimes meant light-colored hair or complexion. Other senses implied abstract notions rather than physical attributes: favorable, unbiased, honest, just, equitable, legitimate, reasonable, and so on.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Rapping paper

Q: I’ve always assumed that “rap” in its speaking sense was derived from “rapport,” but dictionaries offer only talking or conversing as a definition, and almost no indication of the etymology. Am I right about the origin?

A: The use of “rap” in the sense of talking in an easy, familiar, and frank way may very well have been influenced by “rapport.” But “rap” had nothing to do with conversation when it first appeared in Middle English.

It was originally a noun meaning “a heavy or severe blow from a weapon,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the earliest OED example, the weapons are stones:

“Þai gun anoþer fiȝt & stones to gider þrewe; Gode rappes for þe nones Þai ȝauen wiþ þe stones” (“They began another fight and threw stones at each other; Good raps for the nonce they gave with the stones”). From Roland and Vernagu, circa 1330, a medieval romance about Charlemagne’s conquest of Spain and Roland’s battle with the Saracen Vernagu.

A verb meaning to strike someone forcefully appeared a couple of decades later in this OED citation: “Mony a mannes hed foro þe body he rappeþ” (“Many a man’s head from the body he rappeth”). From The Seege or Batayle of Troye, an anonymous romance believed written around 1350 or earlier.

The OED says the verb “rap” probably came from the noun, which is thought to be “an imitative or expressive formation.” In other words, “rap” means  what it sounds like. The dictionary notes similar imitative words in other Germanic languages: rapp (Norwegian), rapp (Swedish), and rap (Danish).

Over the years, according to Oxford, the hitting sense of the noun and verb weakened. The verb came to mean “to strike (a person or thing) in a sharp, usually relatively light, manner,” while the noun meant “a sharp, but usually relatively light, stroke with a stick, etc.”

Getting back to your question, the OED says the verb “rap” took on a speech sense in the mid-16th century, when the phrase “rap out” meant “to utter (words, speech, etc.) sharply or suddenly” or “to swear (an oath) vigorously.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1541 letter by Sir Thomas Wyatt, an English politician and poet:

“I am wonte some tyme to rappe owte an othe in an erneste tawlke.” From Life and Letters of Sir Thomas Wyatt (1963), by Kenneth Muir. (Wyatt, who is said to have introduced the sonnet to English literature, was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London for a rumored affair with Anne Boleyn.)

The noun “rap” took on a similar sense in the 18th century. The OED’s first citation is from a 1787 letter by the antiquarian Joseph Ritson: “I shall be most glad of my Lords arrival if it were only for the raps you promise me.” From Letters of Joseph Ritson (1833), edited by his nephew Joseph Frank. (Ritson is better known for his 1795 compilation of the Robin Hood legend.)

Finally, in the 20th century, the verb took on an informal sense in American English that the OED defines as “to talk or chat in an easy or discursive manner.”

Oxford, an etymological dictionary, describes this usage as “probably influenced by rapport n. in later use.” Two standard dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and Longman, suggest that it may have been influenced by “repartee.”

The earliest OED citation for the American usage is from a collection of criminal slang: “ ‘Rap’ means to speak. If you ‘rap’ to a man you speak to him or recognize him.” From a lexicon of criminal jargon in the book How to Be a Detective (1909), by F. H. Tillotson, a Pinkerton’s detective.

A couple of decades later, the usage appeared in a short story by Damon Runyon: “I wish Moosh a hello, and he never raps to me but only bows, and takes my hat.” From “Madame La Gimp,” published in the October 1929 issue of Cosmopolitan.

And a few decades after that, it showed up as “rapping” in the writings of Eldridge Cleaver: “In point of fact he is funny and very glib, and I dig rapping (talking) with him.” From a letter Cleaver wrote on Sept. 19, 1965, from Folsom State Prison in California and included in his memoir Soul on Ice (1968). It’s interesting that Cleaver felt it necessary to include a parenthetical definition of “rapping.”

Meanwhile, says the OEDthe noun “rap” took on the sense of “a verbal display, esp. one intended to impress. Hence: improvised dialogue; banter, ‘spiel’; an instance of this.” The dictionary’s first example is from “All Through the Night,” a short story by Nelson Algren in the April 1957 issue of Playboy:

“People like to say a pimp is a crime and a shame. But who’s the one friend a hustling broad’s got? …  Who puts down that real soft rap only you can hear to let you know your time is up and is everything alright in there Baby?” (An expanded version of the story appeared later as “Watch Out for Daddy.”)

The next Oxford example is from a 1965 soul song originally performed by the C.O.D.’s: “His rap is strong, with lots of fame / When the girls see him coming they tighten up their game.” From “Michael (the Lover),” written by Larry Brownlee, the Chicago group’s lead singer.

And here’s an OED citation from The Politics of Ecstasy (1966), a collection of essays and lectures by Timothy Leary: “He started a three-hour rap about energy, electronics, drugs, politics, the nature of God and the place of man in the divine system.”

The word “rap” has had many meanings over the years: a bum rap, a spirit’s rapping, a rap on the knuckles, and of course rap music.

It’s notable that the use of “rap” in music is descended from the conversational meanings of the word, especially the “verbal display” sense mentioned above.

The OED has two definitions of “rap” as used in music—one for a performance or a work, and one for the genre itself. Both, like the “verbal display” meaning, are labeled “originally U.S. colloquial.”

In the earliest usage, dating from the late 1970s, “rap” means “a performance in which lyrics (typically rhyming and sometimes improvised) are spoken rhythmically over a strong background beat.” Here the word can also mean “a rap song” or “a set of rap lyrics,” Oxford says.

This is the dictionary’s earliest citation: “Young DJs like Eddie Cheeba, DJ Hollywood, DJ Starski, and Kurtis Blow are attracting followings with their slick raps. … Tapes of Hollywood’s raps are considered valuable commodities by young blacks.” From Billboard magazine, May 5, 1979.

Soon after, the OED says, “rap” came to mean “a genre of popular music in which lyrics (typically rhyming and sometimes improvised) are spoken rhythmically, and usually rapidly, over an instrumental backing which has a strong background beat and often features samples.”

And here’s Oxford’s earliest use of that sense of the word: “Rap isn’t simply a male monopoly as Blondie, Angie B and Cheryl rap to the shuffle boogie beat of the Sugarhill Gang band.” From the Boston Globe, April 10, 1980.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The went not taken

Q: In Little Women, the girls chide their friend Teddy for flirting, to which he replies that sensible girls “won’t let me send them ‘flowers and things,’ so what can I do? my feelings must have a went.” I haven’t seen “went” used as a noun before. Have you come across it?

A: The “went” that Teddy uses is an antiquated noun for a path or road. The word dates from the Middle Ages and wasn’t an everyday usage by the time Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868. A more modern character might say, “My feelings must have an outlet.”

We’ve found only one current standard dictionary that still recognizes this use of “went.” Merriam-Webster Unabridged, an American dictionary, labels it a British noun for “a traveled way,” synonymous with “road, lane, alley, passage.”

However, we don’t know of any standard British dictionary that now includes the term. And the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it’s obsolete except in dialect.

The OED defines a “went” as “a course, path, way, or passage,” and says the noun is related to the verb “wend.” Oxford’s earliest example for the noun, which we’ve expanded, is from a Middle English translation of Genesis:

“He knowned one ilc ſterre name, / He ſettes in ðe firmament, / Al abuten ðis walkne went” (“He alone knoweth the name of each star, / He sets in the firmament, / All across this vaulted way”). The passage, from around 1250, is cited in The Middle English Genesis and Exodus, edited by Olof Sigfrid Arngart (1968).

In the following century, Chaucer used the noun in a more literal way: “Hyt forthe went Dovne by a floury grene went Ful thikke of gras” (“It forth wended down by a flowery green path full thick with grass”). From The Book of the Duchesse, circa 1369. (Note that the first “went” in the Middle English passage means “wended” and the second means “path.” More on that later.)

Oxford notes that the noun “went” in this sense was sometimes used in reference to a crossroad. The dictionary cites 18th- and 19th-century examples in which “went,” used with a number, meant a point where several roads converged, as in a “three-went way” or a “four-went way.”

Though we’ve found some 20th-century examples of the noun “went,” it’s generally used historically—that is, in reference to times past—or as a curiosity. By Louisa May Alcott’s time it wasn’t in common use.

The word doesn’t appear in the dictionaries of John Kersey (1708), Nathan Bailey (1731), Samuel Johnson (1755), William Kenrick (1773), Thomas Sheridan (1780), Noah Webster (1806, 1828), or Joseph E. Worcester (1860).

As we mentioned, there’s a connection between the noun “went” and the quaint old verb “wend” (to turn, change direction, or go).

The story begins with “wend,” a word that may date as far back as the 700s in early Old English writing. Similar words are known in other Germanic languages, and the ultimate source, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is a prehistoric Proto-Germanic verb that’s been reconstructed as wandjanan (to turn or twist).

As the OED explains, “The core sense of the Germanic base is evidently ‘to turn.’ ” However, in Old English the verb “wend” acquired an additional meaning not known in its Germanic cousins: “to go.” This development, the dictionary suggests, came about “probably via a sense ‘to turn in a particular direction in order to go.’ ”

Significantly, a past-tense form of “wend” was “went,” which isn’t an unusual pattern in English. The “-d” ending of the infinitive became “-t” in the past tense, as in pairs like “send/sent,” “bend/bent,” “lend/lent,” and “spend/spent.”

Meanwhile, the unrelated verb “go” had its own past tense in Old English: eode (sometimes spelled yode). But beginning in the 1400s that old past tense began to slip away and was gradually replaced by “went.” This was only natural, since “went” was already a familiar past tense to English speakers, who often used “wend” and “go” for the same thing.

Consequently, “wend” acquired a new past tense all its own: “wended.” The result, the OED says, was that in many writings of the 15th century and a bit later “it is often unclear whether a particular instance of went should be interpreted as the past tense of wend … or of go.”

The meaning of “wend” gradually changed too. It lost its more straightforward “go” senses (to move, proceed, etc.), which were transferred to “go.” But it kept the twisting and turning senses. Today “wend” and its modern past tense “wended,” Oxford says, “often imply an indirect or meandering course” as well as denoting “unhurried movement.”

And as for that old noun “went,” it has wended its way into history.

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English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Let’s you and him fight

Q: Would you please comment on a recent headline in The New York Times: “ ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Review: Let’s You and Him Fight.” I like the “Him,” but not the grammar. Perhaps the writer meant “Let’s Let You and Him Fight”?

A: This is a joke—a rather old joke, in fact—on the “let’s” construction (short for “let us”). And it’s not supposed to be grammatically correct.

The normal construction, for a speaker offering to do something jointly, would be either “Let’s fight,” in which the participants are understood to be “me” and “you,” or “Let’s you and me fight,” in which the pronouns are added in apposition to “us” (more fully: “let us, you and me, fight”).

In the Times headline, the sentence begins with the contracted “let us,” but the writer then substitutes “him” for “me.” The joke is that the speaker declines the honor.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “let’s you and me (do something)” as an “irregular phrase” that’s colloquial in the US. Its citations date from the 1920s.

But we see nothing particularly irregular about it, and we’ve found numerous examples dating back to the mid-19th century in both American and British publications. To cite just a few:

1856: “let’s you and me make a bargain to try and get away” (from The Refugee: Or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, collected by the Boston abolitionist Benjamin Drew).

1858: “let’s you and me walk along the street together, and chat about this business” (The Young Duchess: Or, Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, a novel by George W. M. Reynolds, published in London).

1859: “let’s you and me be off” (Tighe Lyfford, a novel by Charles James Cannon, published in New York).

1862: “let’s you and me take a little country walk” (A Tangled Skein, a novel by Albany de Grenier Fonblanque, serialized in The St. James’s Magazine, London).

The construction was common enough to get the attention of textbook writers, who apparently regarded it as a normal English usage. Their only concern seemed to be that the proper pronoun case be used: “let’s you and me,” not “let’s you and I.”

Josephus Collett, in his Complete English Grammar (1891), parsed the phrase this way: “A common form of command or entreaty is expressed by an auxiliary verb followed by an infinitive—Let us (indirect object) go (to go, direct object); or, Let’s you and me go = Let us, you and me (appositive), go.”

In English Grammar and Composition for Higher Grades (1901), Gordon A. Southworth explained that only an object pronoun can be the object of a verb, then asked students to choose correctly here: “Let’s you and (I, me) bring the sleigh.” Similarly, Alfred M. Hitchcock, in his Composition and Rhetoric (1917), asked students to choose the correct pronoun here: “Let’s you and (me, I) go home.”

Publications for adults offered the same advice. In the business-writing column of the journal Correct English (April-May 1920), a reader questioned the correctness of a phrase spotted in a circular, “let’s you and I get together.” The editor replied: “ ‘let’s you and me get together’ is the correct form, the objective case being required after the verb let.”

Of course, there are other ways to say this: “let’s X,” “let us X,” “let you and me X,” even “let us X then, you and me.” (Poets are licensed to break the rules, as T. S. Eliot did in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky.”)

As we mentioned above, “let’s you and him fight” is an old joke.

It dates as least as far back as the early 1930s, when it was a catchphrase of J. Wellington Wimpy, a character in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theatre” comic strips, starring Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, “Let’s You and Him Fight” was the title of a Paramount Productions cartoon short featuring a boxing match between Popeye and Bluto, released in February 1934.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Plead, pleaded, and pled

Q: You had a recent post about the use of “lead” for “led.” What about the use of “plead” for “pled”? I see that in print every once in a while.

A: The usual past tense and past participle for the verb “plead” is “pleaded.” That’s the only standard form in British English and the most popular one in American English.

All ten of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) recognize “pleaded” as a past tense and past participle. All the American dictionaries also recognize “pled,” and three of them include “plead” (pronounced as “pled”).

However, some usage writers have complained since the mid-19th century about the use of “pled” and “plead” for the past and past participle of the verb “plead.”

In Vulgarisms & Other Errors of Speech (1869), Richard Meade Bache writes: “Plead, mispronounced pled, is frequently used for pleaded; as, ‘He plead (pled) guilty to the indictment.’ The sentence should be, ‘He pleaded guilty to the indictment.’ ” He gives “pleaded” as the only past and past participle.

In Dictionary of Errors (1905), Sherwin Cody offers this advice: “Say, ‘He pleaded guilty’ (not ‘pled’ or ‘plead’).” And in A Desk-Book of Errors in English (1906), Frank H. Vizetelly writes, “The spelling of pled for the past is not warranted, and is a colloquialism. Careful speakers use pleaded.”

As for now, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Both pled (or plead) and pleaded are in good use in the US.” It adds that “pled” is “fully respectable” in American English “in spite of occasional backward-looking by a commentator or two.”

The online Merriam-Webster standard dictionary says in a usage note that “pleaded” is the more popular usage today, both inside and outside the courtroom:

“In legal use (such as ‘pleaded guilty,’ ‘pled guilty’), both forms are standard, though pleaded is used with greater frequency. In nonlegal use (such as ‘pleaded for help’), pleaded appears more commonly, though pled is also considered standard.”

As we’ve said, three US dictionaries (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Webster’s New World) include “plead” as a variant past and past participle. Nevertheless, we’d avoid it, since the usage is unusual and could be confusing.

When the verb “plead” appeared in Middle English (borrowed from Anglo-Norman), it was spelled various ways, including plaide, plaidi, and pledde. The OED’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Þeȝ we ne bo at one acorde, / we m[a]ȝe bet mid fayre worde, / witute cheste, & bute fiȝte, / plaidi mid foȝe & mid riȝte” (“though we two are not in accord, we can plead better with fair word, without strife & fight, with togetherness & right”).

The past and past participle were also spelled in different ways in Middle English, including pladd, pladde, and pleyd. The “pled,” “pleaded,” and “plead” spellings appeared in early Modern English (the first two in the 1500s and the third in the 1600s).

Here are the earliest OED citations for the three spelling that are seen today:

“The canon law … which is dailie pleaded” (from a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, a collaborative history of England, Scotland, and Ireland).

“And with him to make part against her, came Many graue persons, that against her pled” (The Faerie Queene, 1596, by Edmund Spenser). We’ve expanded the citation.

“St. Augustine plead it in bar to Celer’s action of unkindnesse against him for not writing sooner” (The Alliance of Divine Offices, 1659, by Hamon L’Estrange). The passage is from a section comparing practices of the Church of England to those of the early Christian church.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Got your jabs?

Q: I’ve got both vaccinations now. Why do so many people refer to them as “jabs”? Is this something new?

A: No, the use of “jab” in reference to injections isn’t at all new. It’s more than a century old, dating from before World War I.

However, as we’ll show later, the Covid-19 pandemic has given the word “jab” (both the noun and the verb) a tremendous boost.

First, some etymology. You might say that “jab” means what it sounds or feels like. It developed as a variant of a late 15th-century word, spelled “job,” that was “apparently imitative of the sound or effect of a stab or prod,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The verb “job” used in this sense appeared in writing somewhat earlier than the noun, according to OED citations. In its earliest use, in 1499, the verb described what a bird does with its bill, but in the 1500s it was used more generally, Oxford says, meaning “to penetrate into, to stab, pierce, or prod at.”

Similarly, in the 1500s the old noun “job” meant “an abrupt stab with the point or end of something; a peck, a thrust, a jab,” the dictionary says. All these uses of “job,” verb and noun, are rare in modern English, Oxford says.

The modern “jab” emerged as a variant spelling of “job” in Scots English in the early 19th century. Oxford labels all uses of “jab”—verb and noun, then and now—as  “colloquial or dialect.”

The verb originally meant “to thrust with the end or point of something; to poke roughly; to stab,” the dictionary says, while the noun meant “an act of jabbing; an abrupt blow with something pointed, or (in Boxing slang) with the fist.”

The OED’s earliest examples for the verb and the noun are from the same source, John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1825): “To Jab, to prick sharply,” and “Jab, the act of pricking in this way” [i.e., sharply].

The use of “jab” in connection with injections was bound to come along, and it did, in the early 20th century. The noun was recorded first, as “slang (originally U.S.)” and meaning “an injection with a hypodermic needle,” the OED says.

In Oxford’s earliest example, the noun is a term in illicit drug use: “Jab, current amongst morphine and cocaine fiends. A hypodermic injection.” From A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914), by Louis E. Jackson and C. R. Hellyer.

Here’s a later medical use of the noun: “The visitor must … take precautions and submit to a variety of jabs.” From a Liberia Supplement to The Times (London, April 17, 1973).

As for the verb “jab,” it’s defined this way in the OED: “to inject or inoculate (a person) with a hypodermic needle; to use (a hypodermic needle) to make an injection.”

Oxford’s first example of the verb in this sense is from a 1938 issue of the journal American Speech: “To jab, to take drugs hypodermically.”

And here’s a medical citation from a book of military slang: “Be jabbed, to be inoculated or vaccinated.” From A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang, 1939-1945, by Eric Partridge et al. (1st ed., 1948).

As we said above, the pandemic has given new life to the word—both noun and verb.

A search of the NOW (News on the Web) corpus shows that until late 2020, the use of  “jab” had held steady for decades at a quiet frequency of 2 to 3 appearances for every million words. All that changed when uses of “jab” rose sharply in November and December, then skyrocketed during each month of early 2021.

Currently, the NOW corpus figures for the month of April are almost double those for January, at more than 28 per million words—an enormous increase. There’s no question about what’s caused the surge; vaccines were approved at the end of 2020 and made available to the public in 2021. The rise in the use of “jab” has closely tracked these developments.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is ‘graffiti’ a verb?

Q: Is it becoming acceptable to use “graffiti” as a verb? I recently encountered a sign that read “Do Not Litter / Do Not Loiter / Do Not Graffiti.”

A: Yes, “graffiti” is a verb. Five of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult (Cambridge, Collins, Lexico, Merriam-Webster, and Merriam-Webster Unabridged) recognize “graffiti” as both a verb and a noun.

Merriam-Webster, for example, defines the noun as “usually unauthorized writing or drawing on a public surface” and the verb as “to draw graffiti on” or “to deface with graffiti.”

The verb showed up in print a few decades ago, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED’s definition of the verb is “to cover (a surface) with graffiti, apply graffiti to; also, to write as graffiti.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a newspaper in southeastern England: “The material has a wood bark finish which is very difficult to graffiti” (South Oxfordshire Chronicle, Nov. 20, 1987).

As for the noun, English borrowed it in the 19th century from Italian, where graffiti is the plural of graffito (a little scratch). In English, “graffiti,” plural of “graffito,” originally referred to drawing or writing that was scratched on ancient walls or other surfaces.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the plural and refers to marks at the site of a Neolithic tomb on Mainland, the main island in Scotland’s Orkney archipelago:

“The slight scratching of many of the Maeshowe Runes, and the consequent irregularity and want of precision in the forms, and also, no doubt, in the orthography and grammar, of what, it must be remembered, are mere graffiti” (Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, 1863, by Daniel Wilson).

In the mid-20th century, according to the OED, “graffiti” first appeared in print as a singular mass noun—like “writing,” “art,” or “vandalism”—for “words or images marked (illegally) in a public place, esp. using aerosol paint.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the July 27, 1961, issue of The New York Times: “The slogans were scratched out … in the never-ending battle between those who write and those who remove graffiti.”

Here’s an early example we’ve found that’s more obviously singular: “the graffiti is passable—‘Norman Norell Is A Yenta’ ” (New York magazine, Sept. 1, 1969).

Most of the standard dictionaries we use say the noun “graffiti” can now be either singular or plural, but it’s usually a singular mass noun. The dictionaries say the singular “graffito” is usually limited to archeological or other technical writing.

The OED and many standard dictionaries also include “graffitied” as an adjective meaning covered with graffiti, and “graffitist” as a noun for someone who writes or draws graffiti. The first Oxford citation for the adjective, which we’ve expanded, refers to a school in Buffalo, NY:

“I came across a graffitied bulletin board in a guidance office that was a combination of ribbing and signifying. Under the graffiti ‘Hoes of Buffalo sign here’ were five names.” (From Ribbin’, Jivin’, and Playin’ the Dozens: The Unrecognized Dilemma of Inner City Schools, 1974, by Herbert L. Foster.)

The earliest OED example for “graffitist” is from the New Statesman (Dec. 2, 1966): “His gift is to bring out the scholiast—or the graffitist—in the reader.” A scholiast was an early commentator who made marginal annotations in ancient literature.

The next example refers to an artist inspired by graffiti: “For Pop Master and one-time graffitist Claes Oldenburg, the blossoming graffiti are like a dream come true” (New York magazine, March 26, 1973).

We’ll end with an Oxford example of “graffiti” used as a singular mass noun in Ed McBain’s 1977 mystery Long Time No See: “The graffiti was oversprayed—Spider 19 giving way to Dagger 21, in turn giving way to Salazar IV, so that nobody’s name meant a rat’s ass any more.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

On ‘lead’ and ‘led’

Q: I notice more and more the spelling “lead” where “led” is intended. Is this a case of evolution? Or merely a misspelling?

A: The only standard past tense and past participle of the verb “lead” is “led.” All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) agree on this.

But as you’ve noticed, the past and participle are sometimes written as “lead,” though this isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s a usage that’s been criticized since the late 19th century, if not earlier.

For example, a paper analyzing the writing of students applying for admission to Harvard College in 1896 found that “led” and “lead” were among “a large class of misspelled words that indicate a difficulty in deciding between ‘e’ (or ‘ee’ ) and ‘ea.’ ”

In the paper, “Sub-freshman English,” Adams Sherman Hill and Elizabeth Aborn Withey report that Harvard applicants misspelled the metal “lead” as “led,” and the past tense and past participle “led” as “lead” (Educational Review, December 1897).

Why the mix-ups? Merriam-Webster, one of the standard dictionaries mentioned above, says confusion over the pronunciations of the various words “lead” (the noun for a metal, the verb for going ahead, the adjective for most important, etc.) results in confusion over the spellings.

“The homophonic confusion leads to homographic confusion, and you will therefore occasionally see lead in constructions where led is called for (as in, ‘She lead the ducklings to safety’ instead of ‘She led the ducklings to safety’),” the dictionary says in a usage note, “When to Use Lead or Led.”

We’d add that “lead” belongs to the same class of irregular verbs as “bleed,” “breed,” and “feed.” Like them, it forms the past and past participle with a short “e” (“bled,” “bred,” “fed”).

We suspect that the people who write “lead” for the past and past participle pronounce the word as if it were spelled “led,” along the lines of “read,” which is pronounced like “red” in its past forms.

As it turns out, the past and past participle of “lead” have been spelled all sorts of way since the verb appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as lædan. In Old English, for example, the past tense was lædde and the past participle læded.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which uses the past tense, is from an early eighth-century Old English translation of the Book of Psalms: “Astigende in heanisse gehefte lædde heftned” (“You ascended on high; you led your captives in captivity”). From the Vespasian Psalter, Psalm 68:18.

In Middle English, the tense forms were written in many different ways: the past as leaded, ledd, ledde, and so on, and the past participle as læded, læd, ledde, etc. The “led” spelling first appeared in Middle English for both the past and past participle, but some of the other spellings were still seen in early Modern English.

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

The jig is up

Q: I am familiar with the phrase “the jig is up,” though I am not familiar with its origin. And I keep hearing people mispronounce “jig” as “gig.” Maybe they think “gig” makes more sense.

A: In the expression “the jig is up,” the noun “jig” means a trick or a joke. When “the jig is up,” the trick has been exposed and the game is over. The “j” is pronounced like the one in “jolly.”

The word “jig” has had this meaning since the late 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “a piece of sport, a joke; a jesting matter, a trifle; a sportive trick or cheat.”

(The other word you mention—“gig” in the sense of a job or engagement to perform—dates from the 1920s. As we wrote in a 2010 post, it’s probably of African-American origin. Here, “g” sounds like the one in “golly.” )

Interestingly, some people are misusing the expression in writing too, as in this HuffPost headline from Nov. 20, 2020:

Joe Scarborough Lays Down Ultimatum To Mitch McConnell Over Trump Support

“The gig is up,” the MSNBC “Morning Joe” host said in a withering monologue aimed at the Senate GOP leader.

However, sometimes “the gig is up” is a pun, as in this headline about independent-contractor jobs: “The Gig Is Up for Uber in the U.K.” (Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2021).

Here’s the earliest OED example for the “jig” that’s a con or a trick (the plural “jigs” is spelled “Iygs,” with a capital “i” instead of the modern letter “j”):

“Looke to it you Bookesellers & Stationers, and let not your shops bee infected with any such goose gyblets or stinking garbadge, as the Iygs of newsmongers.” From Thomas Nashe’s 1592 satire Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Diuell [Devil]. (Nashe is railing against the pamphleteers of the day; we’ve expanded the quotation to give more context.)

This OED example has the modern spelling: “When the Major now perceived the Jig, and how Kitchingman had fooled him, he could have pulled the Hair off his Head.” From Flagellum (1663), James Heath’s biography of Oliver Cromwell.

As for “the jig is up,” it means “the game is up” or “it is all over,” says the OED, which labels the usage “now dialect or slang.”  These are the dictionary’s earliest examples, starting with an older version, “the jig is over”:

“Mr. John Miller came in and said, ‘The jig is over with us’ ” (The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, June 17, 1777).

“As the Baltimore paper says, ‘The Jigg’s up, Paddy’ ” (The Philadelphia Aurora, Dec. 17, 1800).

William Dean Howells left no doubt about the phrase’s meaning when he wrote, “The die is cast, the jig is up, the fat’s in the fire, the milk’s spilt” (Harper’s Magazine, February 1894).

And since we can never resist quoting P. G. Wodehouse, here’s a final example: “You’re in the soup, Miss Briggs. The gaff has been blown, and the jig is up” (Service With a Smile, 1961).

The origin and history of “jig” are uncertain. Several similar and apparently related nouns spelled “jig”—a lively dance, the music for such a dance, a comic entertainment, as well as the “jig” that’s a trick or con—all emerged in the last half of the 16th century. And the order in which those senses developed isn’t clear.

What the dictionary suggests is that “jig” may simply be onomatopoeic in origin, “the large number of words into which jig- enters indicating that it has been felt to be a natural expression of a jerking or alternating motion.” (It’s interesting that in the late 1590s, when a “jig” was a joke or a con, a “jerk” could mean a witticism or an insult.)

The OED dismisses suggestions by some etymologists that the noun “jig” came from Old French, in which a gigue was a medieval stringed instrument. The Old French word, Oxford says, “had none of the senses of jig, it was also obsolete long before jig is known to have existed.”

Furthermore, the modern French gigue, for the dance and the music, came a century after the English noun, in the last half of the 17th century. It didn’t come from the earlier word for the stringed instrument, the OED says, noting suggestions that it was “simply adopted [from] English jig.”

There’s also a verb “jig,” first recorded in 1598. Some of its senses—to sing or dance or play a jig, or to move jerkily—“evidently” came from the noun, the OED says.

The dictionary also dismisses any connection between the verb “jig” and earlier, obsolete French verbs meaning to frolic (giguer) or kick (ginguer): “this resemblance may be merely accidental, or due to parallel onomatopoeic influence.”

In fact, “jigging” has long been associated with jerking, jogging, and fidgeting. The phrase “jig-a-jig” (or “jig-a-jog”), from the early 1600s, was used adverbially to mean “with a jigging or jogging motion,” the OED says, and arose from “imitative words expressing reiteration or alternation of light, short, jerky movements.”

We’re reminded of an old nursery rhyme that evokes a creaky wagon bumping its way home. There have been many iterations over the centuries, but we like the Mother Goose version:

To market, to market to buy a fat pig;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Summoned’ or ‘summonsed’?

Q: I’m curious about the police use of “summonsed.” Is this an example of a verb made out of a noun? Should it not be “summoned”? Or “issued a summons”?

A: The use of “summons” as a verb is not unusual or new. Since the 1600s it’s been a term used in law for ordering an appearance. (Etymologically, as we’ll explain later, the verb means to warn or advise.)

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: “to order (a person) to appear before a court or other judicial authority at a specified time; to issue writ of summons against; to serve with a summons.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a witch trial held in Essex County Court at Salem, Mass., on June 28, 1659:

“John Godfrey … shall be legally summonsed thereunto” (cited in Salem Witchcraft , 1867, by Charles W. Upham). Godfrey was charged with being a witch, but later won defamation suits against his accusers.

The dictionary has examples of the verb from every century since the 1600s onward. Here’s one from each century.

“A woman had but to summons her seducer before the judges” (1780, in the English clergyman Martin Madan’s Thelyphthora, a treatise advocating polygamy).

“Say another word, and I’ll summons you” (1839, in Charles Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby).

“The snakey bastard, chasing you off like that. He ought to get summonsed” (1958, in Alan Sillitoe’s novel The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner).

“Occasionally they summonsed people for not having lights on their bicycles at night” (2005, in the Irish writer John McGahern’s Memoir, published in North America in 2006 as All Will Be Well).

The verb “summons,” as the OED says, was derived from the earlier noun “summons,” which originally meant an official order to appear or assemble before some authority. The noun had been borrowed into English around 1300 from French (somonse).

The more familiar meaning of a “summons” today, “an official writ that orders a person to appear in a court of law,” began appearing in the later 1300s, according to Oxford.

Both the noun and the verb “summons” were preceded by the simpler verb “summon,” which came into English from French in the 1200s. Its ultimate source is Latin, summonere (or submonere), derived from monere (to warn or advise).

In classical Latin, summonere meant “to advise privately,” the OED says, but in post-classical times it took on more official meanings, including to command an appearance in court or at an assembly.

At first, the English verb “summon” also had an official flavor, as in some kind of warning to appear. Its earliest meaning, according to Oxford, was “to call authoritatively for (an official group, parliament, council, etc.) to gather or assemble.”

And very early on, around 1300, to “summon” had the same meaning as the later “summons.” It was defined, the OED says, as “to order (a person) to appear before a court or other judicial authority at a specified time; to issue a writ of summons against.”

But less legalistic uses of “summon” also began to emerge: to call for someone or something to come, as in to “summon” help (c. 1300); to muster or rouse, as in to “summon” one’s courage (1581); to conjure, as in to “summon” a ghost or spirit (1619); to evoke or call into existence, as in to “summon” an image (1679).

It may be that those broader and less official senses of “summon” created some ambiguity or confusion with its legal meanings. If so, that ambiguity could have influenced the development of the narrower and more specific verb “summons” in the 1600s. At any rate, “summons” now has a distinct meaning in common usage, and we’d rather be “summoned” than “summonsed” any day!

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A fly in the ointment

Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the earliest example for “a fly in in the ointment” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 19th century. I thought the expression came from Ecclesiastes.

A: The expression was probably inspired by Ecclesiastes 10:1, but as far as we know, that exact phrase—“a fly in the ointment”—doesn’t appear in any English translation of the Bible, nor in any of the Latin, Greek, or Hebrew texts.

In the King James Version of 1611, for example, the verse reads: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”

And here’s Ecclesiastes 10:1 in  the Leningrad Codex, dating from around 1010, the oldest surviving complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible:

זבובי מות יבאיש יביע שמן רוקח יקר מחכמה מכבוד סכלות מעט

The passage could be translated as “Dead flies make the perfumer’s oil stink, as does a little folly a reputation for wisdom and honor.”

When an early version of “a fly in the ointment” appeared in a collection of 17th-century sermons, the expression meant something that spoils what otherwise would have been a success:

“the pharisees did the will of god in giving alms, but that which was a dead fly in the ointment, was, that they did not aim at gods glory, but vain-glory.” From A Body of Practical Divinity (1686), by Thomas Watson, a Puritan preacher. Watson’s use of “dead fly” is clearly an allusion to Ecclesiastes 10:1.

The earliest OED example is from “Poor Relations,” a humorous essay by Charles Lamb (London Magazine, May 1823). We’re expanding the citation here:

“A poor relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature, … —Agathocles’ pot,—a Mordecai in your gate,—a Lazarus at your door,—a lion in your path,—a frog in your chamber,—a fly in your ointment,—a mote in your eye.”

Lamb’s inclusion of “a fly in your ointment” among various expressions derived from the Bible suggests that he too is alluding to Ecclesiastes 10:1.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the expression means “some small or trifling circumstance which spoils the enjoyment of a thing, or detracts from its agreeableness.” Most of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult agree with that general definition, though the circumstance may not be small or trifling.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The lying origins of ‘belie’

Q: I see usages like “His age belies his strength” when I think it should be “His strength belies his age.” But I’m a bit confused about this. What do you think?

A: The verb “belie” usually means to give a false impression (“His amiable smile belies his toughness”) or to prove false (“The fingerprints belie her claim to have been elsewhere”). All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include those two senses, though some add a slight variation or two.

So in answer to your question, one could say either “His strength belies [gives a false impression of] his age” or “His age belies [gives a false impression of] his strength.”

Of course “belie” can be misused. As Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) points out, it’s sometimes thought to mean disclose or reveal, “a sense almost antithetical” to giving a false impression. The usage guide gives this example of the misuse: a “soft drawl belied his Southern roots.”

As for its etymology, “belie” dates from Anglo-Saxon days, when it meant “to deceive (a person) by lying” or “to tell lies about, to slander or libel (a person),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English, the verb was written as beleogan, formed of the prefix be- (about) plus leogan (to lie or deceive). The earliest example in the OED, dating from the late 9th or early 10th century, uses belogene, the past participle:

“forþon þe we men syndon & beoþ ful oft belogene fram oþrum mannum” (“because we are men we are often belied [deceived] by other men”). From Bishop Wærferð of Worcester’s Old English translation of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, written in Latin over the late 6th and early 7th centuries.

In early Middle English, the verb (written as biliȝhe, beleiȝe, bilye, etc.) meant “to tell lies about; esp. to slander or libel, to calumniate,” the OED says. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation:

“Þe treowe is ofte mis trouwed & þe sakelese biloȝen … for wane of witnesse” (“the faithful are often mistrusted and the innocent belied [lied about] … for want of witness”). From Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoresses), a guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts; the OED dates this one from the early 1200s or perhaps late 1100s.

In the 14th century, the expression “belie the truth” came to mean “misrepresent or pervert the truth,” as in this Oxford example: “Þei lede lordes with lesynges and bilyeth treuthe” (“they lead lords with lies and belie the truth”). From Piers Plowman (1378), by William Langland.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels all these early senses of “belie” as obsolete or rare.

Over the next few centuries, the lying sense of “belie” lessened and the verb took on its modern meanings of to give a false impression and to prove something false.

Here’s an early Oxford example of the false-impression sense: “It is a straunge thing how men bely themselues: euery one speakes well, and meanes naughtily” (from “Of Alehouses,” a 1600 essay by William Cornwallis, an English courtier and member of Parliament).

And this is an expanded OED example of the other sense, to prove something false: “A Neat, spruce, affecting Courtier, one that weares clothes well, and … cares not what Ladies fauor he belies” (from Ben Jonson’s description of Fastidius Briske, in the cast of characters of his satire Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600).

Finally, here are some modern examples from Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary:

“Her gentleness belies her strength.”

“His manner and appearance belie his age.”

“The evidence belies their claims of innocence.”

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No pants, let alone a jacket

Q: An article in the San Francisco Chronicle about takeout meals says, “now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on a jacket, let alone pants.” Shouldn’t “jacket” and “pants” be flipped?

A: Yes, we’d flip “jacket” and “pants” in that passage from the Chronicle (Feb. 16, 2021): “now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on pants, let alone a jacket.”

The phrase “let alone” is used here to emphasize something by contrasting it with something less likely. If you don’t have to wear pants, you’re less likely to dress up in a jacket.

Lexico, an online dictionary using the resources of Oxford University Press, says the usage indicates “that something is far less likely or suitable than something else already mentioned.” It gives this example: “he was incapable of leading a bowling team, let alone a country.”

Another online dictionary, Longman, says the phrase is “used after a negative statement to say that the next thing you mention is even more unlikely.” It cites this example: “The baby can’t even sit up yet, let alone walk!”

The phrase is usually used as a conjunction in “sentences with a negative construction or negative overtones,” where “its sense is close to ‘much less,’ ”  according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Merriam-Webster cites a November 1914 letter in which Robert Frost says “I don’t feel justified in worrying, let alone complaining.”

You might also think of “let alone” as contrasting something relatively simple with something more difficult: “We can’t afford to rent, let alone buy” … “I wouldn’t trust him to drive a car, let alone pilot a plane” … “the disease can’t be treated, let alone cured.”

All ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult say “let alone” is generally used negatively, or cite negative examples of the usage.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the phrase “used colloquially with the sense ‘not to mention,’ ” is from the early 19th century:

“I didn’t hide, nor wouldn’t from any man living, let alone any woman.” From Tales of a Fashionable Life (1812), by Maria Edgeworth.

[Note: A 2012 post discusses the occasional use of the variant “leave alone” in British English, though it says “let alone” is the usual usage in both the US and the UK.]

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Are ‘vote’ and ‘veto’ related?

Q: The words “vote” and “veto” seem so similar, yet opposite. One involves the making of choices, the other the blocking of choices. Do these words have a common origin?

A: Despite their resemblance, “vote” and “veto” are not related etymologically, and they aren’t really opposites. They’re descended from different Latin verbs meaning, respectively, to vow (vovere) and to forbid (vetare).

We’ll start with “vote,” the older of the two words.

It first entered English as a noun in the 15th century, borrowed directly from votum, a Latin noun derived from the verb vovere. The classical Latin noun meant a vow or offering to a god, but in post-classical times it came to mean a choice or a decision.

In English, the noun “vote” has had its choosing or deciding senses from the start. (At various times in the past, both noun and verb have also had meanings related to vowing or pledging, but those are now obsolete.)

The earliest recorded meaning of the noun “vote,” dating from the mid-1400s, was a “formal statement of opinion by a member of a deliberative body on a matter under discussion,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s oldest citation, in Scots English, is from The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland (1458): “haifande wotis in the deliverance of causis” (“having votes in the deciding of causes”).

All the other meanings of the noun “vote”—a collective choice, an individual’s selection of a candidate, a decision by ballot or show of hands, and so on—developed steadily from the late 1400s onward.

The verb “vote” in the political sense emerged a century after the noun, and it also appeared first in Scots English. Here’s the OED definition: “to give or register a vote; to exercise the right of suffrage; to express a choice or preference by ballot or other approved means.” And this is the dictionary’s earliest example:

“swa that monsieur Desse … with the rest off capitainis and gentilmen woittit ilk ane for ther awyn part” (“so that Monsieur Dessé … with the other captains and gentlemen voted every one according to their duty”). From a Feb. 20, 1549, letter by the Scottish clergyman Alexander Gordon to Scotland’s Queen Dowager, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.

(A final note on “vote” before we move on to “veto.” The defunct “vow” senses of “vote” have been replaced by the word “vow.” But old senses related to prayers and vows live on in the related words “devote,” “devotion,” “devoted,” and “devout.” The “de-” is not a negative prefix but means “from.”)

The word “veto,” meanwhile, still echoes what it meant to the Romans. In classical Latin, veto meant “I forbid”; it was the first-person singular present form of the verb vetare (to forbid). As the OED explains, veto was “the word by which the Roman tribunes of the people opposed measures of the Senate or actions of the magistrates.”

The Latin expression veto was borrowed directly into English as the noun “veto” in the 17th century. And the noun’s original English meaning hasn’t changed. This is the OED definition:

“A prohibition having as its object or result the prevention of an act; an instance of rejecting, banning, or blocking an action, proposal, etc. Also: the power to prevent or check action in this way.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from William Mure’s True Crucifixe (1629): “Hee who doth exalt Himselfe to raigne … Dare gainst this Law most impudently stand, And God’s great Veto boldly counter-mand.”

A more specific meaning of the noun soon emerged, and it too is still alive today—the rejection of a legislative or other political measure, as in a presidential “veto.”

The noun in this sense was first recorded in a sermon by a Church of England clergyman, Anthony Farindon, sometime before 1658: “There is a Law staring in our face, like a Tribune with his Veto, to forbid us.”

As for the verb “veto,” it was formed within English in the 18th century, simply by the conversion of the noun into a verb. It’s defined in the OED as “to put a veto on (a legislative or political measure); to stop or block by exercising a veto.”

Oxford’s earliest example: “Letters for degrees (including D.D. for Potter) read in Convocation, but vetoed by the Proctors because they had not been previously acquainted with the contents.” We’ve expanded the citation, from a 1706 letter by the antiquary and diarist Thomas Hearne.

Although “vote” and “veto” aren’t etymologically related, over time they’ve become political bedfellows.

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

Lie and lay: the flip side

Q: My English teacher in the ’60s taught me the difference between “I lie” and “I lay.” It now makes my blood curdle to hear people refer to “a lay down” or “the lay of the land.”

A: We’ve written several times on the blog about the verbs “lie” and “lay,” including a post in 2011. However, the nouns “lie” and “lay” are a different species altogether. In the usages you mention, they’re interchangeable.

Both “lie of the land” and “lay of the land” are correct noun phrases meaning how something lies or is laid. And both a “lay-down” and a “lie-down” are correct as nouns meaning a nap or a rest.

You don’t have to take our word for this. The Oxford English Dictionary says those expressions—both versions of them—represent legitimate uses of the nouns “lie” and “lay.”

We’ll discuss the longer expression first. “Lay of the land,” as we briefly mentioned in a 2006 post, is the more common version in American English, “lie of the land” in British English.

All five of the standard American dictionaries we regularly consult include “lay of the land”; two of them also list “lie of the land,” labeling it a British variant. The five standard British dictionaries we use all include both versions, with four of them labeling “lay of the land” an American usage.

In either form, this is a centuries-old idiom that can refer to the topography of a landscape (the literal sense) or to a condition or state of affairs (the figurative sense).

The “lie” in this expression, the OED says, means the “manner of lying; direction or position in which something lies; direction and amount of slope or inclination.” Used figuratively, the dictionary says, it means “the state, position, or aspect (of affairs, etc.).”

And the “lay” in the expression is defined as “the way, position, or direction in which something is laid or lies (esp. said of country),” or the “disposition or arrangement with respect to something.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded example, from the late 17th century, shows the “lie” version (spelled “lye” here): “Nott to alter the proper lye of the Land.” (Minutes of a meeting in Hartford on April 4, 1697, allowing a “Sider house” to continue operating on town property as long as the land was not further altered. From the Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.)

The expression doesn’t appear again until the mid-19th century—this time with “lay”—in a work of Henry David Thoreau: “I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land.” (From “The Allagash and East Branch,” an essay probably written before January 1858 and published posthumously in 1864 as part of The Maine Woods.)

In subsequent uses, both versions appear, according to OED citations:

“Washington, from the lie of the land, can hardly have been said to be centrical at any time” (a comment on the nation’s capital in Anthony Trollope’s North America, 1862).

“The frequent lay of the land in the tea districts … is alternate stretches of low land suitable for rice, and high land fitted for tea” (The Tea Industry in India, by an English planter, Samuel Baildon, 1882).

“The corn rows follow the lay of the land on the contour and the land is strip-farmed” (The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 8, 1943).

“To show the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details” (The Story of Art, a history by Ernst Hans Gombrich, 1950).

Similarly, both “lay-down” and “lie-down” are legitimate nouns. The OED defines a “lay-down” as “an act of lying down, a rest,” and the equivalent of a “lie-down,” which in turn is defined as “a rest (on a bed, etc.).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a “lie” version, from the mid-19th century: “I should be very glad of a lie down but cannot” (from a letter written Oct. 13, 1840,  by Harriett Mozley and published in Newman Family Letters, 1962, edited by Dorothea Mozley).

The earliest “lay” example is from the late 19th century: “Nothing but ‘dub’ fights by novices, with now and then a deliberate ‘lay down’ ” (National Police Gazette, May 26, 1897).

Here are examples of each, used in the sense of a brief nap:

“Yes, Aggie, you go an’ ’ave a lie-down, see, and you’ll be all right” (Four One-Act Plays, by St. John Ervine, 1928).

“What you want is a nice lay-down and a cupper tea” (Busman’s Honeymoon, a 1937 mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers).

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