English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Waste paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Word origin Writing

A fortuitous  etymology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cut to the chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin

The twisted history of ‘bent’

Q: Colson Whitehead uses the adjective “bent” in this passage from Harlem Shuffle, his latest novel: “Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked.” One can read many meanings into “bent” and I began wondering about its derivation and use over time. What can you tell us?

A: Yes, the adjective “bent” has a variety of meanings. You might say it bends in all directions, every way but straight. A piece of wire can be bent, an angry person can be bent out of shape, a speculator can be bent on making a killing in options, someone on a bender can be bent, and a crook, as well as his illicit gains, can be bent.

Appropriately, the adjective “bent” has a winding history, dating from the Middle English of the 14th century when it was derived from the verb “bend.” And as we’ve written in a 2012 post, “bend” itself has a romantic origin, evoking the graceful curve of a medieval archer’s bow.

But the story begins even farther into the past, when “bend,” both noun and verb, had menacing meanings. In Old English, a “bend” was originally a fetter or a shackle—anything used to restrain or tie someone up—and to “bend” was to fetter them.

The noun was first recorded (as bęnd) around the year 890, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s the OED’s earliest example, which uses the Anglo-Saxon plural benda:

“Þa benda sumes gehæftes” (“the ties were loosed”). From An Ecclesiastical History of the English People, an Old English translation from Bede’s Latin chronicle of the 700s.

The noun was used in that sense until it was eventually superseded by “band” and “bond,” two competing nouns adopted later from Old Norse in the 12th and 13th centuries. “Band” and “bond” were originally variants of each other and meant the same thing as “bend,” the OED says: “a shackle, chain, fetter, manacle,” and so on.

That sense of “bend” is now obsolete except in nautical usage (it means a knot), but for a time during the Middle English period all three nouns—“bend,” “band,” and “bond”—were used interchangeably in that early sense of something for restraining a person.

Not surprisingly, all those words have been traced to the same prehistoric Indo-European source. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says a verb stem reconstructed as ‌‌bhendh- (to bind) is the ultimate origin, not only of  “bend,” “band,” and “bond” but also of “bind,” “bandana,” and “ribbon.”

Meanwhile, the verb “bend” had come into the language soon after the noun. In Old English, it meant “to fasten or constrain with a ‘bend’ or bond; to confine, fetter,” the OED says.

When first recorded around 1000 (as bęndan), it specifically meant “to constrain or bring into tension by a string,” as an archer would draw a bow. The dictionary’s earliest use in writing is quoted from an illuminated manuscript, The Paris Psalter: “He bende his bogan, se is nu gearo to sceotanne” (“He bent his bow, that is now ready to shoot”).

Later on, in the first half of the 14th century, the verb began to take on its modern meanings. That early sense, “to constrain a bow with the string,” became associated “with the curved shape into which the bow is brought,” the dictionary says, and the verb acquired a new meaning—to arch or curve.

Oxford’s earliest citation for that sense of the verb is from an anonymous poem that uses a participle. The poet’s beloved is described as having eyebrows that arch: “Heo haþ browes bend an heh” (“She hath brows bent on high”). From “The Fair Maid of Ribblesdale,” written sometime before 1350 and collected in The Harley Lyrics, edited by George Leslie Brook in 1968.

[A historical aside, from The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty (1916), by Walter Clyde Curry: “The word which seems to express most forcibly and clearly for Middle English poets their ideal of beautiful eyebrows, is the adjective ‘bent.’ It describes the eyebrows arched or curved in the form of a strung bow.”]

Because of its association with arches and archery, the verb “bend” developed two different groups of meanings in the 14th through 16th centuries, Oxford explains: (1) “to bow or curve, deflect, inflect, bow oneself, stoop, submit, yield”; and (2) “to direct or level a weapon, to aim, bring to bear, bring one’s force or energies to bear.”

And those senses in turn blended into a third set of meanings, recorded from the early 15th century onward: “to direct or turn one’s steps, oneself, one’s mind, eyes, ears, in any specified direction.” All this, from a verb that once meant to tie somebody up!

Meanwhile, as the verb “bend” was taking on all those meanings, its participle “bent” emerged as an adjective with corresponding senses: arched, curved, bowed, stooped, directed, determined, and so on. Here are some of those adjectival meanings, along with dates of the first OED sightings:

Braced for action, ready to spring, leveled or aimed like a weapon (c. 1330); forced into a curve, curved, crooked (c. 1374); arched (1380, when “bent brows” meant sharply curved eyebrows); determined or resolute (1548); furrowed (1647, when a “bent brow” was a frowning or wrinkled forehead); bound for or directed at (1697, as in “homeward bent travelers”).

Now we arrive at the figurative slang uses of “bent” that came along in the 19th century. The most prolific of these have to do with being drunk or stoned, and the OED’s earliest example, from American fiction, describes an inebriated doctor:

“He was seldom downright drunk; but was often … confoundedly bent.” From Asa Greene’s 1833 satire of medical quackery, The Life and Adventures of Dr. Dodimus Duckworth, A.N.Q.

This may have come into American use from Scots dialect, Jonathan E. Lighter suggests in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. In mid-18th-century Scots slang, as recorded in poetry, to “bend” was to drink hard.

Scots dialect may also have influenced the use of the noun “bender” for a drunken binge, which dates back to the early 1840s in American writing. The earliest example we’ve found is in a Vermont newspaper’s account of a man arrested after drunkenly (and violently) defending the memory of Ethan Allen:

“When brought before the Recorder in the morning, he had forgotten all about old Ethan, said he had been on a bit of a bender, and was let off by paying for his lodging at Harper’s Hotel.” (The Spirit of the Age, Woodstock, Dec. 10, 1841.)

In the 20th century, the drinking sense of “bent” was applied more widely (like the term “wasted”) to narcotics use. This is the OED’s earliest example: “He was bent, barely able, it seemed, to keep his head up” (Nathan C. Heard’s novel Howard Street, 1968).

And around that same time, according to Random House, the expression “bent out of shape” could mean drunk, high on drugs (especially on LSD), or angry, while  the phrase “get bent” could mean either “get stoned” or “go to hell!”

Another sense of “bent,” penniless (that is, almost “broke”), came along in the early 20th century. The first known example is from a feature story in The Evening Sun, New York, fall 1909:

“ ‘What’s the matter, old man?’ asked a man near him. ‘Broke?’ ‘Not yet, friend,’ replied the sorrowful one, ‘but I’m—well, bent.’ ” From an article by Quincy Sharpe Mills cited in a book about him, One Who Gave His Life (1923), by James Luby.

The use of “bent” that you spotted in Colson Whitehead’s novel—corrupt or “crooked”—also appeared in the early 20th century. The OED’s first example, which we’ve expanded here, is from a glossary of underworld terms:

“BENT, Adjective. General usage. Crooked; larcenous. See ‘TWISTED.’ Example: ‘His kisser shows that he’s bent.’ ” From A Vocabulary of Criminal Slang (1914), by Louis E. Jackson with C. R. Hellyer, a police detective in Portland, OR.

In an associated usage, the adjective also came to mean illegal or stolen, as in “bent car” or “bent goods” (dating from 1930 in the OED). The dictionary also has these senses of “bent”: ruined or out of order (1930); eccentric or insane (both 1942); homosexual (1959); and altered in pitch or tone (1950, used in music to describe a sliding or “blue” note).

Standard dictionaries describe the criminal sense of “bent” as chiefly British, but slang dictionaries and the OED, an etymological dictionary, don’t make that distinction. Colson Whitehead, an American writer, set Harlem Shuffle in the New York of the early 1960s.

In case you’re interested, we wrote in 2008 about  the expression “hell-bent for leather.” And we wrote a post a few years later about verbs, like “bend,” that have two possible endings for the past tense and past participle: either “-d” or “-t.” Today, the past tense “bended” survives only in the expression “on bended knee.”

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

Greenwashing and pinkwashing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swear like a sailor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuckin’ A.”

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

“Fuckin’ A.”

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

“Fuckin’ A well tol’, Bubba.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A belated Christmas carol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Cut, butt, skip, or ditch in line?

Q: When I was growing up in Columbus, Ohio (I’m 68 now), if someone cut in line, we called it “dishing.” It later changed to “ditching.” I think it’s still used that way, but I now live in Cincinnati, where I don’t hear it.

A: There are quite a few regional variations in the way Americans refer to the act of unfairly getting in front of people who are standing in line.

The most common of the expressions is “cutting in line,” but Americans also speak of “butting,” “budding,” “budging,” “skipping,” “ditching,” and “dishing” in line, according to the linguist Steve Hartman Keiser. In Britain, this boorish behavior is usually referred to as “jumping (or barging) the queue,” as we note in a 2014 post.

In “Ditching the Immigration Line,” a paper about the use of these various expressions in discussing US immigration policy, Keiser says the “cutting” version “is by far the most widely used and recognized. It is attested in each of the 25 states in which my students and I have conducted interviews, and in most states it is clearly the majority response” (American Speech, fall 2007).

“The upper Midwest is an exception to this rule: budging in line is the most common term in Minnesota and is also widely attested in Wisconsin, northern Illinois, and Iowa,” he writes. “Butting in line is even more common than budging across much of this area (in spite of folk perceptions in Wisconsin that budging is the dominant term throughout the state), and these two are in competition as the most common terms across western Canada as well.”

Keiser notes that “butting” is sometimes spelled “budding” to reflect the flick-of-the-tongue pronunciation of “t” when it follows a vowel and precedes an unstressed syllable—a sound that linguists refer to as a “flap.”

He says “budding” (or “butting”) “appears to have a wider general distribution than budging” and “can be found in eastern Canada, upstate New York (where budging is also attested), Pennsylvania, Maryland, and northern Ohio.”

Skipping in line is the dominant variant in the Milwaukee metropolitan area and the immediately surrounding counties, though it is a minority variant (alongside cutting) as one moves south to Racine, Kenosha, and the Chicago metropolitan area,” Keiser writes, adding that “it competes with budging and butting as one moves west toward Madison and north toward Sheboygan.”

Although Milwaukee “appears to be unique in privileging skipping in line,” he says, “the term is used at least as a minority variant in other parts of the country,” noting sightings in Ohio, Louisiana, and Michigan.

As for “ditching in line,” Keiser says it’s “perhaps the most interesting” of the variants, “first, because its origins are unclear, and second, because it is extremely robust within a very limited geographic region and apparently nonexistent elsewhere.”

“The geographic distribution of ditching in line is sharply delimited to central Ohio,” he says, “specifically the several-county region surrounding Columbus including towns such as Circleville, Lancaster, Newark, Delaware, and Bellefontaine, but not cities such as Springfield, Dayton, Cincinnati, Mansfield, and Cleveland.” Within the Columbus metropolitan area, he adds, “dishing in line” is also a variant.

The “ditching in line” usage apparently showed up in central Ohio in the mid-20th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is one discovered by the linguist Grant Barrett and cited in Keiser’s American Speech paper:

“Along the hall in the new gym the seemingly endless cafeteria line forms. Girls, giggling and laughing, ‘ditch’ in line.” The Coshocton Tribune, Nov. 2, 1956 (from The Red and Black, the student newspaper of Coshocton High School).

Keiser’s paper doesn’t include any citations for “dishing in line,” and we couldn’t find any written examples.

As far as we can tell, the more common “cutting in line” version appeared a decade earlier. The earliest example we’ve found is from the Dec. 8, 1945, issue of The Daily Illini, the student newspaper at the University of Illinois:

“ ‘When they used to come and cut in line, I’d make them go to the end,’ he recalled. ‘I tried to treat everybody fair’ ” (from an interview with an employee who was leaving a job at the Illini Union).

And here are some of Keiser’s examples of the other variant expressions:

“They don’t get to butt in line where somebody wants to go through the process in a legal way” (from comments by President George W. Bush at a Jan. 9, 2004, meeting with women owners of small businesses at the Commerce Department in Washington).

“However, what do you say to the people who are waiting patiently and going through the correct processes to come legally? How do you justify people who butt in line?” (KSL Television & Radio, Salt Lake City, April 11, 2006, from a post to an online discussion about immigration).

“Oh, that’s just great! Come here illegally, budge in line, get rewarded” (Iowa State Daily, March 29, 2006, from an online comment to an article about immigration and residency).

“Have you ever been skipped in line at a movie, the motor vehicle department or at a shopping mall? Well multiply the anger you felt over that by many fold to describe the situation taking place for aspiring immigrants waiting in line to enter our country legally” (Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2006, from an online letter to the editor).

We’ll end with an interesting example Keiser cites from John Kasich, a former Ohio congressman and governor: “What I can tell you is this—if the American people were not concerned about people who ditched the line, and jumped in front of people who waited for years, you would have an immigration bill” (Fox News, April 19, 2006).

Although Kasich was born and raised in a Pittsburgh suburb, he has a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University in Columbus, center of the “ditching” usage.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Disparate, or merely different?

Q: Some readers may enjoy your take on the difference between “different” and “disparate.” This sentence from a recent New York Times does not sit well with me: “Two similarly titled papers with markedly disparate conclusions illustrate the range of disagreement on this subject.”

A: We think the use of “disparate” can be justified in that Oct. 20, 2021, opinion column by Thomas B. Edsall.

He discusses two scholarly papers that concluded for “markedly disparate” reasons that conservatives were on the whole happier than liberals. (As Edsall writer later, that’s questionable.)

“Disparate” is generally a much stronger word than “different.” Traditionally, it means that there are no common grounds for comparison. And that seems to be true of the two papers’ explanations for the so-called happiness gap between conservatives and liberals.

We won’t attempt to summarize the explanations, since this isn’t a blog about politics or sociology; we’ll simply say that they don’t lend themselves to comparison. Their reasons aren’t merely “different” in the simplest sense of that word (like apples and oranges, which are both fruits). And they aren’t opposites, since things that are opposite are correlated—that is, they have a relationship.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that in logic “disparate” applies to “things or concepts having no obvious common ground or genus in which they are correlated.”

The dictionary adds that “disparate” is “distinguished from contrary, since contrary things are at least correlated in pairs, e.g. good and bad.” And it’s “also distinguished from disjunct, since disjunct concepts may all be reduced to a common kind.”

The OED is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, and its entry for “disparate” may be outdated (it has no examples later than 1883). Nevertheless, its principal definition—“essentially different or diverse in kind”— largely agrees with those in most current standard dictionaries. Here’s a representative sampling, from two British and two American sources:

Lexico: “Essentially different in kind; not allowing comparison … Containing elements very different from one another.”

Collins: “Disparate things are clearly different from each other in quality or type … A disparate thing is made up of very different elements.”

American Heritage: “Fundamentally distinct or different in kind; entirely dissimilar … Containing or composed of dissimilar or opposing elements.”

Merriam-Webster: “markedly distinct in quality or character … containing or made up of fundamentally different and often incongruous elements.”

M-W adds in a synonym note that “different may imply little more than separateness but it may also imply contrast or contrariness,” as in “different foods.” But “disparate emphasizes incongruity or incompatibility,” as in “disparate notions of freedom.”

As for the etymology, the OED says that “disparate” came into English in the early 17th century from the Latin disparatus (“separated, divided”), past participle of the verb disparare (“to separate, divide”). The Latin verb was formed from the prefix dis- (in the sense of “in twain, in different directions, apart”) and the verb parare (“to make ready, prepare, provide, contrive, etc.”).

In English use, the dictionary adds, “disparate” is “apparently often associated with Latin dispar unequal, unlike, different.” However, only one of the ten standard dictionaries we consult, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th ed.), includes “unequal” among its definitions. That sense of “disparate” seems to be found mostly in legal language, as in “disparate treatment,” a phrase often used in discrimination cases.

The OED’s earliest example of the adjective in written English is from a sermon delivered on Nov. 5, 1608, by John King, Bishop of London: “Two disperate species and sorts of men.”

And this is the latest citation: “The questions are so utterly disparate as not to be reducible to the same argument” (Frederic Harrison, writing in The Pall Mall Gazette, Nov. 3, 1883).

A noun form, used chiefly in the plural, was recorded a couple of decades earlier than the adjective. The OED defines “disparates” as “disparate things, words, or concepts; things so unlike that they cannot be compared with each other.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from Timothy Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholie (1586): “Contrary faculties, or such as we call disparates in logicke.”

Like “disparate,” the much older adjective “different” has its roots in Latin. And as we’ll explain, it’s often used today in ways that overlap “disparate.”

It can be traced ultimately to the classical Latin verb differre (to differ), derived from ferre (to bear or carry) plus dif-, a prefix used instead of dis- before a verb beginning with “f.”

To the Romans, the OED says, differre had many meanings: “to carry away in different directions, to scatter, disperse, to separate, to bewilder, distract, to spread abroad, publish, to postpone, defer, to keep (someone) waiting,” as well as “to be different, to disagree.”

The earliest sense of “different” that’s still used in modern English, according to the dictionary, is “unlike in nature, form, or quality; not of the same kind; dissimilar,” a sense not unlike “disparate.” This use of “different” was first recorded in the late 14th century and is still quite common now.

Two other uses of “different” are also current today: (1) “distinct; separate; other” (mid-16th century), used in reference to “two or more separate people or things of the same type, rather than two or more things which differ in nature, form, or quality”; and (2) “out of the ordinary, unusual; other than is expected; novel” (mid-19th century).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A usage with legs

Q: The other day one of my students asked me why a segment of a journey is called a “leg.” I didn’t have an answer. Could it be because distance was once measured in leagues, and someone misheard “league” as “leg”?

A: Many English words have literal meanings as well as figurative ones fashioned from them. The noun “leg” originally referred to one of the two long limbs that we stand or walk on, but it has taken on many metaphorical senses over the years.

For example, it may refer to something that covers a human leg (like a pants leg, 1558), or functions as a human leg (a furniture leg, 1616), or serves as a part of something else (a leg of a relay race, 1933). And in the plural, it may describe something popular with staying power (a show with legs, 1930). The dates are for the earliest citations of the senses in the Oxford English Dictionary.

When “leg” is used in the journey sense, according to the OED, it refers to “a part or section of something,” specifically “a distinct stage or stretch.” The dictionary’s earliest written example uses the term nautically for “the course and distance sailed on a single tack”:

“The Swash was under what Mrs. Budd might have called her ‘attacking’ canvas, and was close by the wind, looking on a good leg well up the harbor” (Graham’s Magazine, December 1846).

When English borrowed the word “leg” from early Scandinavian languages (lägger in Old Swedish, leggr in Old Icelandic, leg in Old Danish), it meant “the lower limb of the human body, or the part of the lower limb between the hip and the ankle,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written in Middle English sometime before 1200:

“hii ȝogede hire harmes and greiþede ham-seolue breost wiþ breost bones þar crakede hii soten hire legges þe kempes weren stronge” (“They yoked their arms and crushed themselves breast to breast. Their bones cracked. They thrust out their legs. The warriors struggled fiercely”).

In the struggle, the Trojan warrior Corineus defeats the giant Gogmagog. The clash ends a battle between a group of giants and a Trojan force led by Brutus of Troy, a legendary founder of Britain.

So how did English speakers refer to their legs before the word “leg” appeared in the 12th century? The Anglo-Saxons used the word “shank” (sceancascanca, or scance in Old English), a noun that could mean the whole leg or just the lower part, from the knee to the ankle.

The earliest example we’ve seen for “shank” used to mean a leg is from Old English Martyrology, a collection of the lives of saints and other religious figures, written in the second half of the ninth century:

This passage is from the life of St. Victor Maurus, a Christian Moor said to have been tortured and beheaded in 303 on orders of the Roman Emperor Maximian (circa 250-310). Victor is speaking here to the guards taking him to his execution:

“cwæð he to þæm þe hine lædon secgað ge maximiane þæm casere þæt he bið to geare dead ond him beoð þa scancan forbrocen hæfdon ær þon he sy bebyrged” (“Then he said to those who were escorting him, tell Emperor Maximian that he will be dead within a year, and that his legs will be crushed before he will be buried”). Maximian retired to a life of luxury in 305, but he hanged himself five years later after being defeated in a rebellion against Emperor Constantine.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Don’t badger me

Q: I’m wondering about the use of the expression “don’t badger me” to mean don’t bother me, a usage that may have a different connotation in Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin Badgers.

A: As you may suspect, the verb “badger,” meaning to pester, comes from the noun “badger,” for the mammal that’s fierce when attacked. The pestering sense of the verb is probably derived from the human baiting of badgers as a blood sport.

The European badger (Meles meles) was common in Anglo-Saxon England, but it wasn’t called a “badger” until the early Modern English of the 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English and Middle English, the word for the animal was a term of Celtic origin, spelled broc, brokbrock, etc. (In The Tale of Mr. Tod, a children’s book by Beatrix Potter, a badger named Tommy Brock is the arch enemy of Mr. Tod, a fox.)

So how did the animal come to be called a “badger”? The OED says the name probably comes the noun “badge” and is “so called with reference to the white mark borne like a badge on its forehead.” The word “badge” originally referred to a heraldic symbol worn to identify a knight and his retainers.

The earliest OED citation for the noun “badger,” which we’ve expanded, refers to the “propertyes … of a bauson or a badger” and cites “a whyte rase [slash] or a ball in the foreheed.” (From The Book of Husbandry, 1523, by John Fitzherbert.) The word “bauson” is an archaic, French-inspired term for a badger.

The verb appeared more than two and a half centuries later. The dictionary defines it as “to bait, hound; to subject to persistent harassment or persecution; to pester, bother.”

The OED says the meaning is “probably with allusion to baiting or drawing of badgers by humans,” though it notes “the supposed tenacity of a badger in biting until its teeth met.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the verb, which we’ve also expanded, is from a critical description of the Académie Française, the official authority on the French language:

“Paris is the only place where it can support any kind of consequence; though, even there, sorely badgered by the wits of the capital, who, expecting neither favour nor friendship, point all their epigrammatical batteries against their members.” (From Paris in Miniature, 1782, Joseph P. Macmahon’s translation of Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s Le Tableau de Paris.)

The OED includes a mid-19th-century naturalist’s explanation of the verb: “A ‘brock’ … led such a persecuted life, that to ‘badger’ a man came to be the strongest possible term for irritating, persecuting, and injuring him in every way.” (From Sketches and Anecdotes of Animal Life, 1855, by the Rev. John George Wood.)

We’ll end with a picture of Bucky the Badger, the fierce-faced mascot of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Badgers:

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

The life of a lived experience

Q: It seems that the phrase “lived experience” originated in research, but like so many terms that are understood in a particular context it has escaped into the wild, where it has much the same meaning as “experience.” Any thoughts?

A: The term “lived experience” has been used since at least the late 19th century to mean an experience lived through as opposed to one learned about secondhand.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adjective “lived” can be used to describe “life, an experience, etc.: that has been lived or passed through.” The dictionary’s first citation, with “lived” modifying “life,” is from a theological treatise:

“It is the actual lived life, and the actual died death of Jesus which makes the moral and mathetic [learning] life so instinct with converting power” (from The Antiquity of the Gospels Asserted on Philological Grounds, 1845, by Orlando T. Dobbin).

The earliest example we’ve seen for “lived experience” is from a late 19th-century feminist magazine in Australia. A report on a paper read at a feminist meeting cites the various issues facing women and says, “all these subjects are open to discussion, suggestion and action, upon the ground of lived experience” (The Dawn, Sydney, July 1, 1889).

In the 20th century, “lived experience” took on a related sense in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and so on: one’s perception of events firsthand rather than through representations by other people. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book about the French philosopher Henri Bergson:

“ ‘Tensional’ experience is the term used in this essay to describe the intermingling of lived experience and of the experience which is of increasing practical use the more superficial it becomes” (The Ethical Implications of Bergson’s Philosophy, 1914, by Una Bernard Sait).

This more recent OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a book about interracial friendship and communication among adolescents:

“direct questioning regarding racial attitudes is very difficult where young people are involved, for they are at an age when they are only beginning to establish the relationship between their lived experience and social ‘opinion’ and ‘knowledge’ about it” (White Talk Black Talk, 1986, by Roger Hewitt).

search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “lived experience” has increased sharply in recent decades—in both its original sense and the newer one, which is common in phenomenology (the study of how human beings perceive phenomena).

However, none of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include “lived experience,” perhaps because the noun “experience” by itself can have much the same meaning in general usage.

American Heritage’s “experience” entry, for example, says the noun may mean, among other things, an “event or a series of events participated in or lived through.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is your Mandarin rusty?

Q: When a friend, a fourth-generation Maine islander, likes something, he says, “Well, that’s not too rusty.” I always assumed it was just him, but I recently reread Huckleberry Finn, where a hungover duo is “looking pretty rusty.” Is this an Americanism or does it go farther back? I’ve always thought of rusty as strictly having to do with old iron.

A: English speakers have used “rusty” figuratively since the Middle Ages to describe the appearance, morals, refinement, or fitness of people. And we still often use the adjective in figurative senses derived from its original use for the coating on oxidized iron and its alloys.

For example, if your knowledge or skill is impaired by lack of practice, you might say your tennis or typing or constitutional law or Mandarin is rusty. Something that’s the color of rusting metal—hair, leaves, fur, a sunset—may be described as rusty. And a hoarse or grating voice is sometimes said to be rusty.

The noun “rust,” as you may imagine, is very old. When it showed up in early Old English writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a “red, orange, or yellowish-brown substance which forms progressively as a flaking, permeable coating on the surface of iron and its alloys as a result of oxidation, esp. through exposure to air and moisture.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an eighth-century Latin-Old English glossary: “Erugo, rust” (Corpus Glossary, MS 144, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).

The OED’s next citation is from a Latin-Old English version of Matthew 6:19 in the Lindisfarne Gospels: “In terra ubi aerugo et tinea demolitur: in eorðo ðer uel huer rust & mohða g[e]freten bið uel gespilled bið” (OE translation: “On earth where rust and moth corrode or devour”). The manuscript was written in Latin around 700. A scribe added an Old English gloss, or translation, in the 900s.

The adjective “rusty” also showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. It’s written as rustega in the dictionary’s earliest Old English example: “Þa wurdon Ianes dura fæste betyned & his loca rustega, swa hie næfre ær næron” (“Then the gates of Janus were shut fast and their locks became rusty as never before”). In ancient times, the doors at the Temple of Janus in the Roman Forum were closed in times of peace and opened in wartime.

Getting back to your question, “rusty” began taking on figurative senses in the 1300s, when the term could mean physically decrepit or morally corrupt. The OED’s earliest citation for the decrepit sense is from Chaucer’s Middle English translation of an Old French allegorical poem:

“Ful hidous was she forto sene / Ful foule and Rusty was she” (“Full hideous was she to the sight / Full foul and rusty was she”). From Fragment A of The Romaunt of the Rose, a translation, believed done by Chaucer in the 1360s, of the first part of Le Roman de la Rose (circa 1230), by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the morally corrupt sense of “rusty” is from William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1378). In the allegorical poem, Piers says he won’t hire “Robert þe Ribaudour [the tale-teller] for his Rousti wordes.”

Over the years, “rusty” has been used figuratively to describe many other things, including something that’s rust colored (late 1300s), writing that’s rough or unsophisticated (c. 1425), a grating sound or hoarse voice (c. 1430), someone lacking polish or refinement (1456), physical or mental impairment because of age or inactivity (perhaps 1507), something that’s old-fashioned or obsolete (1549), and knowledge or accomplishment impaired by disuse (1575).

Some of those senses are rare or obsolete today, but contemporary standard dictionaries say “rusty” can now refer to something that’s rust-colored, to knowledge or skill impaired by lack of recent practice, to someone who’s stiff with age or inactivity, and to a hoarse or croaking voice.

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A friend of Dorothy

Q: In The Crown, Queen Elizabeth uses the phrase “a friend of Dorothy” to mean a gay person. Do you know when or where the expression was first used this way? The episode was set in the early 1980s.

A: An early version of the expression showed up in writing in the 1970s, but it had undoubtedly been used before that in speech, where “friend of Dorothy” or “Dorothy’s friend” was a coded way of identifying a man as gay.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the name “Dorothy” here comes from “the heroine of the book The Wizard of Oz (1900) and its sequels, by L. Frank Baum. The film version of the story (1939), with Judy Garland as Dorothy, was a particular favourite amongst some homosexuals.”

That’s the most common (and authoritative) explanation for the source of the expression, but others cite the American writer Dorothy Parker or Dorothy Dean, a socialite who was associated with Andy Warhol and gay New York culture.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ll expand, cites a definition of the phrase “Dorothy and Toto” in The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon (1972), by Bruce Rodgers: “1. gay boy and his dog 2. dominating effeminate homosexual man with his paid-for escort 3. extended to any male couple whose effeminate partner is in command ‘When’s Dorothy and Toto getting here with the chest of drawers?’ ”

The next two examples in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, treat the expressions “Dorothy’s friend” and “friend of Dorothy” as meaning simply a gay man:

“Dorothy’s friends, the male gay community, from the 50s onwards” (Slanguage of Sex: A Dictionary of Modern Sexual Terms, 1985, by Brigid McConville and John Shearlaw).

“A Somewhere-Over-The-Rainbow Coalition which offers little to the friends of Dorothy because, like the Wizard of Oz, its power is illusory” (Capital Gay, a London magazine, Feb. 12, 1988).

And here’s the entry for “friend of Dorothy” in Gay-2-Zee: A Dictionary of Sex, Subtext, and the Sublime (2006), by Donald F. Reuter:

“Phrase meaning someone is gay, and rooted in: 1) our fondness for Judy Garland, the iconic entertainer who played Dorothy Gale in the classic film musical The Wizard of Oz with her trio of sexless male buddies; 2) our association to and admiration for sharp-tongued writer Dorothy Parker, whose famed ‘vicious circle’ of pals included gay men; and 3) the need for gay men, during much of the twentieth century, to speak in code (for fear of being found out).”

Getting back to The Crown, in season four, episode seven of the streaming TV series, Princess Margaret’s love interest, Derek (Dazzle) Jennings, says he’s becoming a Roman Catholic priest. When Margaret tells the Queen, this exchange follows:

Elizabeth: That’s the second reason he was never the right man for you.

Margaret: The first being?

Elizabeth: Well, he’s, you know, a friend of Dorothy.

Margaret: Dazzle?

Elizabeth: Famously, yes.

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To beg the question

Q: I notice with distressing regularity the misuse and cheapening of words and phrases. One expression that comes to mind is “beg the question.

A: Like it or not, “beg the question” has more meanings in modern English than the one it started out with.

Essentially, a 16th-century technical phrase with a very narrow definition became so widely used in general English that its original meaning was left behind. It now has so many meanings that it’s best avoided except in a treatise on logic.

Back in 1581, when “beg the question” was first recorded, it had a specific meaning in philosophy. It described a fallacy in logic that consists more or less of arguing in a circle—that is, basing an argument on premises that are unproven, or that simply restate the argument.

To illustrate, here’s an argument that “begs the question”: “My son is innocent because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime.”

The argument to be proved is “My son is innocent,” but the premises on which it’s based—“because he’s a good boy and would never commit a crime”—also need to be proved; they merely state the argument in different terms. The premises of an argument should be indisputable, like “because he was in Toronto at the time, and someone else’s fingerprints are on the weapon.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines the philosophical sense of “beg the question” as “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”

The earliest known use, cited by the OED and other references, is from an account of the 1581 interrogation of Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who refused to accept Anglican doctrine despite being tortured on the rack:

“I say this is still to begge the question” (from a comment by an Anglican interrogator in A True Report of the Disputation or Rather Priuate Conference Had in the Tower of London, with Ed. Campion Iesuite). Campion, convicted of treason, was drawn and quartered.

Although the original sense of the expression is still alive, linguists and lexicographers say that it’s no longer the predominant meaning and hasn’t been since the mid-18th century.

Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary, labels the original meaning “formal,” and says on its website that the expression “is only very rarely used this way.”

Today, nine of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, both American and British, offer additional definitions like these: “raise a question or point that has not been dealt with”; “invite an obvious question”; “avoid the question”; “evade the issue”; “ignore a question by assuming it to be established or settled”; “avoid giving a direct answer by posing another question.”

All those differing uses of “beg the question”—especially the first two—are treated as standard English today and are found in even the most elevated writing and speech. Unless the expression is found in context, there’s no way to tell what it means.

So what happened to the original “beg the question”? You might say that it carried the seeds of its own destruction, because it didn’t use either “beg” or “question” in its ordinary meaning. The linguist Mark Liberman, writing on the Language Log, has called its history “a cavalcade of misleading translations.” Here’s the story.

The fallacy in logic here was first identified by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. He referred to it in several different works, calling it τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ αἰτεῖσθαι and τὸ ἐν ἀρχῇ λαμβάνειν, ancient Greek for “asking at the beginning” and “assuming the initial thing.” In other words, using premises that assume at the outset the truth of what you’re trying to prove.

Many centuries later, in the 1100s, the Greek term was translated into medieval Latin as petitio principii, “a postulate (or a postulating) at the beginning.”

The Latin version began appearing in British manuscripts written in Latin in the 1300s, the OED says. And since the 1530s petitio principii has regularly appeared, often italicized, in English writing about philosophy and logic, where it’s so familiar that it’s sometimes called petitio for short.

A mid-16th-century writer defined it this way in a treatise on the mass: “Petitio principii, that is when a ma[n] wyl proue [prove] a thynge to be true, by the same thinge, or wyth an other, that is as doubtfull as that is, which is called into questio[n].” From A New Dialogue Wherin Is Conteyned the Examinatio[n] of the Messe (1548), by William Turner.

In the late 1500s, petitio principii was translated into English for wider audiences, people who weren’t educated at the elite universities and didn’t know Latin. Unfortunately, it was awkwardly rendered as “beg the question”—a puzzling usage that was doomed to confuse ordinary readers and was worse than no translation at all.

In the first place, “beg” was inappropriate. The classical Latin petitio might indeed have been translated as a begging or a pleading. But in medieval  Latin, the noun as used in logic meant “a postulate” or “a postulating”—that is, something taken for granted as a basis for reasoning.

In the second place, “question” was inappropriate. As used in logic, the Latin principii meant at the beginning or starting point (of an argument). It’s true that one meaning of “question” is something being argued, but that’s not what “question” means to most people.

Since the Middle Ages, “question” has more commonly meant a request for information, like a sentence ending with a question mark, not a statement being defended in an argument.

The linguist Carol Lynn Moder, who has written extensively on the history and development of “beg the question,” has shown that subtle shifts in the meaning of the phrase began to set in at the very beginning.

Even when using “beg the question” in its Aristotelian sense, Moder writes, 16th-century writers were shifting the sense of “beg” away from its postulating meaning: “Authors in this period regularly invoked the common ‘requesting alms’ meaning of beg to suggest the unseemly characteristics of those committing this fallacy.”

She cites these examples from 1579-80, even before “beg the question” became the usual form of the expression: “Alas, this is such a poore begginge of that in question” … “a shamefull petition or begging of that which is in question” … “a shamefull begging of that which is questioned.”

The “beg the question” wording, which first appeared in writing in 1581, had become the usual form of the expression by the mid-17th century, Moder says. And well into the 18th century, the expression was regularly used it in its narrow, logical sense—but this was soon to change.

In the mid-18th century, she writes, the expression began “to move out of its Aristotelian niche, appearing more widely in magazines, plays, travel writing and memoirs in contexts less clearly concerning logical disputations.”

Furthermore, Moder says, literacy spread, and as printed materials became more widely available the expression was read and interpreted by readers unfamiliar with formal logic.

From the mid-18th century onward, she adds, “beg the question” began acquiring meanings that had little or nothing to do with that Aristotelian fallacy.

This could have been predicted. If the parts of a formulaic expression don’t make sense together—like “beg” and “question”—people will find a sensible meaning for themselves. As far as we can tell, the expression now usually means to “raise a question that begs to be answered”—and it’s then followed by an actual question.

(Moder’s paper “Begging the Question: Chunking, Compositionality and Language Change” was first published in 2016 and later as a chapter in Formulaicity and Creativity in Language and Literature, 2018, edited by Ian MacKenzie and Martin A. Kayman.)

Incidentally, we were surprised to find that despite the wider definitions in standard dictionaries, the OED’s sole definition of “beg the question” is that original one: “to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume without proof.”

The OED is behind the curve here. It has no citations later than 1870, a century and a half ago, and cites no examples of the wider uses that have existed from the mid-1600s onward.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, as we mentioned above, is the one from 1581. And this is the latest: “The vulgar equivalent for petitio principii is begging the question” (A Treatise on Logic, 1870, by Francis Bowen). We can only assume that the OED will eventually record the many other uses of the expression.

So how are modern speakers and writers supposed to use “beg the question”? Our advice is don’t; use either “raise the question” or “evade the issue,” depending on what you mean. As Mark Liberman says in that Language Log post:

“If you use the phrase to mean ‘raise the question,’ some pedants will silently dismiss you as a dunce, while others will complain loudly, thus distracting everyone else from whatever you wanted to say. If you complain about others’ ‘misuse,’ you come across as an annoying pedant. And if you use the phrase to mean ‘assume the conclusion,’ almost no one will understand you.

“My recommendation: Never use the phrase yourself … and cultivate an attitude of serene detachment in the face of its use by others.”

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A weighty look at gravitas

Q: What are your thoughts about “gravitas” and its overuse in recent election cycles?

A: This pompous word for “seriousness” or “solemnity” sounds ancient, but “gravitas” has only been an English word since the late 19th century. As you’ve noticed, though, it’s become ubiquitous lately.

In fact, “gravitas” has been worked to death. You might say that among certain classes of writers, “gravitas” carries a lot of weight. It seems especially popular in criticism (literary, artistic, etc.) as well as in writing about politics and culture.

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, shows that its use has shot up steeply since the mid-1980s, charting an almost vertical climb.

But there are signs that the word is showing some wear. In the last couple of years, the chart shows, its use has leveled off and may have peaked.

What’s more, writers have started giving it modifiers—“epic gravitas,” “monumental gravitas,” “enormous gravitas,” “great gravitas,” “tremendous gravitas”—as if mere “gravitas” alone is losing its cachet. Our suspicion is that “gravitas” will eventually sink of its own weight.

The word as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary means “weighty dignity; reverend seriousness; serious or solemn conduct or demeanour befitting a ceremony, an office, etc.; staidness.” But by the mid-20th century it was used more widely to mean “seriousness or sobriety (of conduct, bearing, speech, temperament, etc.); opposed to levity and gaiety.”

And it doesn’t always refer to people and their behavior. Here’s the current definition in Merriam-Webster: “high seriousness (as in a person’s bearing or in the treatment of a subject).”

As for its etymology, the noun was borrowed in the late 1800s from the Latin gravitas, which primarily meant weight in its physical sense, but was also used figuratively to mean weightiness or seriousness. The noun comes from the Latin adjective gravis (heavy, important).

It’s interesting that the word “gravity” itself, which came into English in 1509, first meant seriousness or solemnity. It was “introduced in figurative senses, corresponding generally to the English senses of the adjective [grave],” the OED says. “The primary physical sense of the Latin word came into English first in the 17th cent.”

Similarly, when “gravitas” first appeared in English writing in the late 19th century (usually italicized), it had the figurative rather than the literal meaning of its Latin ancestor.

Initially, English speakers may have used “gravitas” as a substitute for the serious meaning of “gravity,” which by then was commonly used in its scientific sense.

In its earliest uses, both American and British, “gravitas” referred to a character trait admired by the Romans.

The oldest use we’ve found is from a humorous poem: “The gravitas that marked a Roman / Methinks will never find a home in / Our versatile and jovial Harry” (from The Epitome, 1887, an annual publication by students at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA).

The next appeared in London: “He is a man exceptionally endowed with that gravitas which the Romans used so much to desiderate in character” (St James’s Gazette, March 18, 1897).

And this early 20th-century example is from an American magazine: “But many of these have what President Roosevelt has not—namely, that noble old Roman virtue, gravitas” (Current Literature, November 1904).

The OED’s earliest citation is mid-1920s British: “He never sheds a certain Roman gravitas” (The Manchester Guardian Weekly, Oct. 20, 1924).

And we found this example from that same year in an Australian newspaper’s eulogy for a headmaster: “When, indeed, did anyone … embody such gravitas, such dignity, such fortitude, such independence, such justice, such contempt for all that is unworthy and dishonourable? Temperamentally he was more an antique Roman than an Englishman” (The Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Queensland, Dec. 30, 1924).

Only since the mid-20th century has “gravitas” been applied to serious things and ideas rather than to people. These two OED citations illustrate the wider use of the term:

“A certain gravitas in the atmosphere of the Scottish universities” (The Spectator, May 30, 1958) … “Its leading articles, and even its news coverage, will have a superb Victorian gravitas” (The Times, London, Aug. 2, 1961).

The noun, which is almost never italicized today, is only the latest in a long list of English words derived from the Latin adjective gravis and its prehistoric source—an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as gwerə– (heavy).

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd ed.), by Calvert Watkins, says the root gwerə– produced not only the Latin gravis but also the Sanskrit element guru- (heavy, venerable), the Greek words βαρύς (barus, heavy) and βάρος (baros, weight), the Latin brutus (heavy, cumbersome), and the Celtic elements brig-o- (strength) and brig-a- (strife).

These eventually gave English the words “grief,” “grieve,” “gravid,” “guru,” “aggravate,” “aggrieve,” “baritone,” “barium,” “isobar,” “brio,” “brigade,” “brigand,” and “brigantine,” in addition to “gravity,” “gravitas,” and the adjective “grave.”

And by the way, the noun “grave,” for a burial place, has entirely different origins. Its prehistoric source is an Indo-European root reconstructed as ghrebh- (dig, bury, scratch), according to Watkins. Ancient Germanic descendants of this root ultimately gave English not only the noun “grave” but also “engrave,” “gravure,” “groove,” the adjective “graven,” and the verb “grub.”

Thus the two English words “grave,” both of which have an air or solemnity, came into the language from different directions.

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On ‘pent’ and ‘spent’

Q: I came across the following passage in the The New Yorker from a 1949 diary entry by Patricia Highsmith:  “I came home in a silent, pent fury.”  It made me wonder if “spent” and “pent” are related—a letting go and a holding in. Thoughts?

A: No, “spent,” the past tense and past participle of the verb “spend,” isn’t etymologically related to the adjective “pent” (more commonly “pent-up”), which originated as the past participle of the verb “pen” (to enclose or confine).

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says “spend” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb expendere (to weigh out or pay out). In Old English, it was aspendan (to spend, spend entirely, squander) or more frequently forspendan (to spend utterly, spend away, exhaust with spending).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of an Anglo-Saxon version of “spend” is from the Old English Orosius, an anonymous ninth-century translation of a Latin history written in the fifth century. The citation is in the OED’s entry for the obsolete verb “aspend”:

“Hys gestréon béoð þus eall aspended” (“His wealth was thus all spent”). The manuscript is believed to have been written in the late 800s during the reign of King Alfred. The writer took many liberties in translating the Latin of Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (History Against the Pagans in Seven Books), written in the early 400s by the Roman historian Paulus Orosius.

As for “pent,” Chambers describes it as a variant spelling of “penned,” the past participle of the verb “pen” (to confine someone or something). The verb, in turn, is derived from the noun “pen” (an enclosure), which is of uncertain origin but possibly Germanic.

The noun first appeared in Anglo-Saxon land charters, but it’s often hard to date the early examples because pen in Old English could mean an enclosure or a hill. The earliest OED example “positively identified” as an enclosure is from a 1227 copy of a 1061 land grant:

“Þonne adun onstream oð rean clif, þanon oð hæð pen suþewardne on þone holan stoc” (“then downstream to the cliff, thence to the heath pen and southward to the hollow place”). From Pre-Conquest Charter-Bounds of Devon and Cornwall (1994), by Della Hooke.

The verb “pen” apparently existed in Old English as pennian, but only a negative version has survived in writing, onpennian (to “open,” which etymologically is to un-pen).

The OED’s earliest onpennian example, which we’ve expanded, is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory. The past participle onpennad is used here:

“Ðæt wæter, ðonne hit bið gepynd, hit miclað & uppað & fundað wið ðæs ðe hit ær from com, ðonne hit flowan ne mot ðider hit wolde. Ac gif sio pynding wierð onpennad, oððe sio wering wirð tobrocen, ðonne toflewð hit eall” (“The water, when it is dammed up and cannot flow where it wants, grows and rises and tries to go where it originally intended. But if the dam is opened, or the weir bursts, it all runs off”).

The dictionary’s first written citation for “pen” used as a verb meaning “to enclose, shut in, confine, or trap (a person or thing)” is in Middle English, from a sermon written sometime before 1200:

“Þe pit tineð his muð ouer þe man þe lið on fule synnen … gif ure ani is þus forswolgen and þus penned, clupe we to ure louerd ihesu crist” (“The pit closes its mouth over the man who lies down on foul sins … and if any of us are thus swallowed and penned, let us call upon Our Lord Jesus  Christ”). From Old English Homilies of the Twelfth Century (1873), edited by Richard Morris.

The OED’s earliest example for “pent” used as an adjective in the sense of “penned” is from a pseudo-Chaucerian text: “He nas nat alway in cloystre ypent” (“He was not always pent in a cloister”). From the Plowman’s Prologue, added to a 1542 edition of Chaucer’s works.

Finally, the dictionary’s first example for “pent-up” appeared a dozen years later: “Yea as a capon longe pent vp in the caue [cave] / Exiled haue I bene miserably.” From The Resurreccion of the Masse (1554), a collection of religious poems by Hughe Hilarie, thought by some scholars to be a pseudonym for John Bale, an English dramatist and Protestant polemicist.

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A prohibitive favorite

Q: I came across another editing miss at the NY Times. A few weeks before this month’s mayoral election, Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee, was described as “the prohibitive favorite.” I can’t imagine what “prohibitive” means here. Perhaps “presumptive” was intended.

A: Although “prohibitive” usually refers to something that prohibits or that costs too much, the adjective has a third sense in American English, where it’s also used to describe an overwhelming favorite in politics, sports, business, and so on.

Of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult, three of the five American dictionaries (American  Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and say “prohibitive” may refer to someone or something with a near-certain chance of winning.

Is the usage legit? We think so, since the three US dictionaries treat it as standard English. (So far, all five British and two American dictionaries list only the older and more common meanings of the word.)

The wording of the “prohibitive” entry in American Heritage suggests that the overwhelming sense may have evolved in a roundabout way from the prohibiting and costly senses:

“1. Prohibiting; forbidding: took prohibitive measures. 2. So high or burdensome as to discourage purchase or use: prohibitive prices. 3. So likely to win as to discourage competition: the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.”

As far as we can tell, the overwhelming sense began appearing in American sportswriting in the late 19th century. The earliest examples we’ve found are from newspaper reports on horse races:

“Lucky Baldwin’s Los Angeles won the rich Pocahontas Stakes with some ease by half a length from Pee Weep. Los Angeles was a prohibitive favorite, and all the betting was on the place 5 to 1 against Pee Weep” (The Sun, New York, Aug. 26, 1888).

This example showed up a couple of months later: “In the next race, Banner Bearer was a prohibitive favorite, as he only had Haggin’s Prose as a competitor” (St. Paul Daily Globe, Oct. 11, 1888).

The usage increased sharply in the second half of the 20th century, though it seems to have fallen off a bit in recent years, according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books. Here are some recent examples:

“With a prohibitive favorite at No. 1 in the 2021 NBA draft, the real betting intrigue starts after Cade Cunningham” (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 2021).

“The winner of the Democratic primary will be a prohibitive favorite to win, all else held equal” (, Jan. 24, 2018).

“The Wisconsin native came in as a prohibitive favorite and showed why, dusting the 25-car field in the $6,000-to-win event” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 22, 2021).

“On the sitcom side, ‘Ted Lasso’ is considered the prohibitive [Emmy] favorite among fellow Outstanding Comedy Series nominees” (Yahoo News, Sept. 19, 2021).

“If Vegas posted odds on the next winner of the Kennedys’ Profiles in Courage award, [Gen. Mark] Milley would be a prohibitive favorite” (Boston Herald, Sept. 16, 2021).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include this sense of “prohibitive.” And it isn’t discussed in any of the usage manuals we’ve checked.

When the adjective showed up in Middle English in the early 15th century, it referred to something that prevents, forbids, restricts, and so on, according to the OED. The dictionary’s earliest examples use the term to describe medical preventatives.

A treatise on surgery, for example, says Hippocrates counsels that using three bandages to bind a fracture is “prohibitif or defensyf,” preventing movement and strengthening the area (Grande Chirurgie, an anonymous early 15th-century translation of Chirurgia Magna, 1363, a Latin work by the French physician Guy de Chauliac).

Another medical work cited by the OED says the herb rue is “prohibityue of cursez of humours [discharge of pus]” (Treatises of Fistula in Ano, circa 1425, by the English surgeon John Arderne). “Fistula in ano” is an old term for a painful lump between the spine and anus, caused by long periods on horseback. Today the ailment, now called a pilonidal cyst, is more likely to affect truck drivers than horseback riders.

In the early 19th century, “prohibitive” took on a new sense, one the OED describes as the most common now—too costly to pay, buy, or use. The dictionary’s first two citations refer to taxes:

“Hence the embargo, the Non-Intercourse Act, and the prohibitive duties” (The Times, London, Dec. 20, 1811) … “A tax whose effect will be prohibitive” (The American, Philadelphia, June 5, 1886).

The dictionary’s latest example for the costly sense of the adjective is from the Ottawa Citizen (March 13, 2005): “Working mothers are giving up on careers, either because the cost of child care proves prohibitive or because they can’t tune out the guilt.”

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So what’s on offer?

Q: A New Yorker review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, says a preacher’s teen-age son “covertly helps himself to a generous amount of gløgg, the potent Scandinavian drink on offer.” Why “on offer” instead of simply “offered”?

A: “On offer,” a phrase dating from the mid-19th century, is a fairly common expression in modern English. In the Oct. 4, 2021, review you cite, it identifies what’s being offered at a Christmas party.

The phrase originated in Britain, and is more common in British than in American English. But from our experience, it’s not uncommon in the US. And the author probably chose it for reasons of rhythm and style.

None of the five standard US dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for the phrase. Merriam-Webster merely notes, within its entry for the noun “offer,” that “on offer” is a “chiefly British” usage that means “being offered especially for sale.”

By contrast, all five of the standard British dictionaries we consult have entries for “on offer.” They all give similar definitions: available to be bought or used. And the examples they give are from commercial rather than social contexts:

“We were amazed at the range of products on offer” (Cambridge) … “country cottages on offer at bargain prices” (Collins) … “the number of permanent jobs on offer is relatively small” (Lexico) … “Activities on offer include sailing, rowing, and canoeing” (Longman) … “These are just some of the films on offer this week” (Macmillan).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “on offer” as “available or obtainable” and also “on sale” (that is, discounted). The noun “offer” as used in the phrase means “the condition of being offered,” the OED says.

The earliest uses of “on offer” that we’ve found in searches of old newspaper databases are from mid-19th-century crop and livestock reports. Here are the first few, all from issues of The Farmer’s Magazine, a British journal devoted to agricultural and rural affairs:

“Decidedly the best of this truly excellent breed [of Hereford cattle] were brought forward by Mr. Rowland of Creslow, who had on offer about 40” (January 1843) … “Not a single fresh head of stock was on offer from abroad” (January 1843) … “the above advance [in wheat prices] has been mostly supported, although the quantities on offer have been on a liberal scale” (June 1843).

We’ve also found the expression in issues of The Economist from that same decade: “the supply of hops on offer is more than adequate to meet the demand” (June 26, 1847). The phrase reappears in virtually all The Economist’s subsequent weekly crop and livestock reports of the 1840s.

The earliest example given in the OED is also from a market report: “Old wheat scarce and dear. Very little barley on offer” (The Daily News, London, Aug. 23, 1881).

And this is the OED’s most recent citation, from a very different sort of market: “They are urged to book ‘de-stressing’ treatments such as massage and reflexology, to drink the herbal teas on offer throughout the day [etc.]” (from Business Day, South Africa, Jan. 28, 2000).

While all of the OED’s examples are of a commercial nature, we’ve heard the phrase used at times in casual social situations, like that Christmas party in Franzen’s novel. You can call these figurative uses if you like.

And we’ve seen plenty of uses of “on offer” that are neither commercial nor social. These examples are from literary criticism:

“Immediately striking is the range of continuities and discontinuities on offer” (Americans on Fiction, 1776-1999, by Peter Rawlings, 2002) … “it is clear that Achilles is capitalizing on the erotic potential on offer in Vergil’s epic” (Latin Poetry in the Ancient Greek Novels, by Daniel Jolowicz, 2021).

And this one is from politics: “How happy are we with the current vision of political ‘reality’ on offer and the way the major political parties seem to see the future?” (Politics on the Couch: Citizenship and the Internal Life, by Andrew Samuels, 2018).

In fact, “on offer” is used in a wide variety of contexts when a writer wants an alternative to “offered.”

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‘I’m by way of being a doctor’

Q: I’ve noticed a construction in older British novels (Agatha Christie, for example) where a character says “I’m by way of being a doctor” instead of simply “I’m a doctor.” Can you tell us anything about this odd use of four unnecessary words?

A: This usage—“I’m by way of being” a doctor, a writer, an actor, etc.—is a mainly British colloquialism that isn’t seen or heard much these days.

In fact, we’ve found only five examples in a recent search of the British National Corpus, a database of written and spoken British English from the later part of the 20th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of the verb “to be” plus the compound preposition “by way of” plus a gerund has several senses: “to have as one’s particular role; to make a special point of doing something; to purport or be reputed to be or do something; (sometimes) spec. to be in the habit of doing the specified activity.”

The dictionary describes the usage as “colloquial (chiefly British)” and says it’s “now somewhat literary.” In fact, four of the five examples we found in the British National Corpus are from fiction.

In the passage you cited from Agatha Christie’s 1938 mystery Appointment With Death, the expression is used in the sense of “to have as one’s particular role.”

The BNC has this more recent example from Master of the Moor, a 1982 mystery by Ruth Rendell: “I’m by way of being a bit of an expert on the moor, you know.”

The linguist Anne-Katrin Blass has noted that “in most cases, the construction co-occurs with downtoners” (like “a bit”) or “other markers of tentativeness” (like “you know”).

“Thus, it might be claimed that the communicative purpose of using this phraseological unit in discourse is to signal a certain reluctance to commit oneself fully to the idea one is expressing,” she writes.  (“Textual Functions of Extended Lexical Units: A Case Study of Phrasal Constructions Built Around by way of,” a paper published in the ICAME Journal, April 2012.)

As you can see, Blass is reluctant to commit herself fully to this theory. And so are we. Although Ruth Rendell’s use of the construction is clearly tentative, Agatha Christie’s doesn’t seem to be.

[Note: A reader of the blog who’s by way of being a doctor wonders “whether the expression does not suggest modesty (or false modesty) or casualness, an attempt to lessen the impact of the announcement.”]

The earliest citation for the construction in the OED uses it “to make a special point of doing something”—in this case, introducing a young man to society: “The Colonel was by way of introducing him into the fashionable circles” (from The Inheritance, an 1824 novel by the Scottish writer Susan E. Ferrier).

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression used in the occupational sense you’re asking about is from a short story by Henry James: “Oh, you see I’m by way of being a barrister” (from part one of “An International Episode,” published in The Cornhill Magazine, London, December 1878 and January 1879).

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What’s ‘done’ doing here?

Q: In some Southern dialects, one hears the perfect tense expressed with “done” in place of the auxiliary “have.” Example: “We done ate” instead of “We have eaten.” And “done been” forms an emphatic remote perfect tense. Example: “We done been ate.” I have always assumed this is Gullah influence, but perhaps you can give further insight.

A: The word “done” has many roles in American regional English, especially in the South and South Midland, and among the Gullah of the coastal Southeast. However, lexicographers use different terms than yours to describe this regional usage.

The word “done” functions as an adverb, an auxiliary, or the infinitive “do” in expressions like the ones you’ve cited, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

However, the adverbial use is “not always clearly distinguishable” from the auxiliary usage, the dictionary explains.

DARE says “done” is being used adverbially “to emphasize the attainment of a state or completion of action” in this passage:

“Then she begun to sing again, working at the washtub, with that singing look in her face like she had done give up folks and all their foolishness and had done went on ahead of them, marching up the sky, singing.” From William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying (1930).

The dictionary says “done” is acting as the auxiliary “have” in this citation: “You just done made up your mind that you ain’t going to be no good to me.” From Richard Wright’s novel Lawd Today! (completed in 1935 and published posthumously in 1963).

And here’s a DARE example, which we’ve expanded, for “done” used in place of the bare (or “to”-less) infinitive “do” in Gullah, a creole language found among African-Americans of the Lowcountry of Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas:

“I come mighty nigh marryin him mysef one time. E use to beg me so, but I’m glad now I didn’ done it.” From the novel Scarlet Sister Mary (1928), by Julia Peterkin.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites an obsolete use of “done” as an auxiliary in Scottish English. The OED says the auxiliary “done” here is used periphrastically (by a combination of words) to add tense to a bare infinitive that would otherwise need to be inflected.

In this example, the OED says “done” is “a periphrastic auxiliary” that turns the bare infinitive “discuss” into a past participle: “As I afore, haue done discus” (“As I before have discussed”). From Tract Concernyng the Office and Dewtie of Kyngis, Spiritvall Pastoris, and Temporall Ivgis [Judges] (1556), by William Lauder.

And in this example, “done” turns the bare infinitive “invent” into a past participle: “And many other false abusion / The Paip hes done invent” (“And many another false abuse / The Pope has invented”). From a 1578 poem collected in John Graham Dalyell’s Scotish Poems of the 16th Century (1801).

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With a grain of salt

Q: Why “salt” when we “take something with a grain of salt”? Is the salt to counteract something sweet?

A: The use of “with a grain of salt” to mean with caution or skepticism first appeared in early 17th-century English as a translation of cum grano salis, a modern Latin expression coined a century earlier.

The earliest written example of cum grano salis that we’ve seen is in a Latin treatise by a French legal scholar who uses it to describe a clause attached to a gift:

“ex parte altera excedit quod intelligatis cum grano salis” (“on the other hand it exceeds what is understood with a grain of salt”). From Tractatus de Viribus Iuramenti (A Treatise on the Strength of the Oath), 1502, by Antonius de Petrucia (Antoine de Peyrusse).

And here’s another early sighting: “Sed caute & cum grano salis (utaiunt) legendus est, quia intricatus facile legenti errorem obijcit” (“It should be read cautiously and with a grain of salt, as they say, because it is easy to present an intricate error to the reader”). From Compendium Sive Breviarium (1514), a brief history of the Franks, by Johannes Trithemius, a German Benedictine abbot.

“Why salt?” you ask. Well, the reason for “salt” here is uncertain, but the earliest English example of the usage that we’ve found suggests that it comes from salting food to make it taste better:

“The terms of Divinitie are to be taken into the mouth, as the Canonists [canon lawyers] speak, cum grano salis, with a grain of salt, that is, wisely tasted, and understood: otherwise, they will not prove good nourishment.” From Experience, Historie, and Divinitiem (1642), by Richard Carpenter, a vicar of Poling in Sussex.

The first English example in the Oxford English Dictionary was recorded a few years later in a biblical commentary on Revelation 6:11. The commentator says Christian martyrs would undoubtedly be aware of those still to be martyred and speak to God for them, then adds, “But this is to be taken with a grain of salt.” From A Commentary or Exposition Upon All the Epistles and the Revelation of John the Divine (1647), by John Trapp, an Anglican theologian.

The first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, writing in classical Latin, uses a similar phrase literally for an ingredient in a recipe: addito salis grano (“with the addition of a grain of salt”).

In his encyclopedic, 37-volume Naturalis Historia, he describes a poison antidote found among the belongings of Mithridates VI, ruler of the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pontus, after his defeat by the Roman General Pompey in 66 BC:

“in sanctuariis Mithridatis, maximi regis, devicti Cn. Pompeius invenit in peculiari commentario ipsius manu conpositionem antidoti e II nucibus siccis, item ficis totidem et rutae foliis XX simul tritis, addito salis grano: ei, qui hoc ieiunus sumat, nullum venenum nociturum illo die. contra rabiosi quoque canis morsum a ieiuno homine commanducati inlitique praesenti remedio esse dicuntur.”

Translation: “After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.”

Was the salt added to the recipe to make the concoction more palatable? We think that’s possible, though you might take our explanation with a grain of salt.

Usage note: Although cum grano salis was originally translated as “with a grain of salt,” the usual expression now in British English is “with a pinch of salt,” a version that first appeared in the 19th century. Here’s an early example: “what men say of a lovely woman is generally to be taken with a pinch of salt!” From Puck (1870), a novel by Ouida, pseudonym of the English novelist Maria Louise Ramé.

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How first names became last names

Q: Just read your post about how families got their names. But you don’t mention a kind of name I’m curious about—a last name that’s the plural of a first name, like Williams and Roberts and Stevens.

A: Names like those belong to a type known as patronyms: surnames based on a father’s or male ancestor’s first name. But they didn’t originate as plurals.

A last name like Williams, for instance, can be traced to medieval times, when a first name might be followed by “son of William” or “William’s son.” Later, these descriptions became a single name: Williamson or Williams, which was not a plural but the genitive form “William’s” without the apostrophe. (The genitive case indicates close relationships, including possession.)

This accounts for many last names of the type you mention—“son of Robert” and “Robert’s son” became Robertson and Roberts; “son of Stephen” and “Stephen’s son” became Stephens, Stevens, Stephenson, Stevenson, and so on.

In their paper “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States,” James C. Scott, John Tehranian, and Jeremy Mathias explain it this way:

“One ‘John,’ for example, might be distinguished from another by specifying his father’s name (‘William’s John’ or ‘John-William’s-son/Williamson’); by linking him to an occupation (‘John-the-miller,’ ‘John-the shepherd’); by locating him in the landscape (‘John-on-the-hill,’ ‘John-by-the-brook’); or by noting a personal characteristic (‘John-do-little’). The written records of the manor or the parish might actually bear notations of such by-names for the sake of clarity.” (Comparative Studies in Society and History, January 2002.)

We discussed names based on location—the most numerous type of English surname—in the post you mention. And we’ve also written about names based on occupation and on personal characteristics. But we haven’t written about patronyms until now.

Patronymic surnames, especially the kinds you ask about, can sound as if they had a first name hidden inside. In fact, some first names aren’t hidden at all but used intact for surnames, as with the last names Charles, Thomas, James, Henry, etc. Still other last names—Baldwin, Foulkes, Godwin, Osmond, Thurstan, and many more—were men’s first names long ago. As first names they’ve receded into history, but they survive today as last names.

It should be noted that in the medieval period, people with additional names were generally sons. Daughters usually had them only if there was a need for record-keeping purposes and so on—that is, if they were property owners, taxpayers, heirs, litigants, etc.

The practice of using fathers’ first names as children’s second names occurs in all European languages. In England, the practice began in early Old English, when patronyms were often formed with the genitive suffixes -ing or –en (denoting “from” or “descended from”) or with the Anglo-Saxon version of “son”: suna, sune, or sunu.

Stephen Wilson mentions many Old English examples in his book The Means of Naming: A Social and Cultural History of Personal Naming in Western Europe (1998). He notes, for instance, that Bosing as a second name meant “from Bosa”; Otten meant “from Odo (or Otto)”; and Hussan sunu meant “son of Hussan,” a name recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as 603.

But in those days these were merely descriptive bynames (or secondary names) used to distinguish one Wulfstan or Ælfred from another. Scholars of onomastics, the study of naming, say the practice of giving people what would eventually become family names didn’t emerge in Britain until soon after the Norman Conquest.

And the first to have them were the Norman invaders.

“The earliest hereditary family names in England are recorded in some Norman families in the late 11th century,” according to The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland (2016), a four-volume, 2,992-page work that was 20 years in the making.

“By the middle of the 14th century almost everyone who was not a pauper had a byname or ‘surname’ of some sort, however impermanent,” write the authors, Patrick Hanks, Richard Coates, and Peter McClure. “The growth of hereditary surnaming took longer.”

While the Norman nobles usually derived their surnames from the names of their lands or baronial properties—either in England or back in Normandy—humbler families usually adopted second names from places, occupations, personal traits, fathers’ baptismal, or fathers’ pet names (shortened or altered forms, like Robb and Robin, for Robert).

Mothers’ names, too, were used to form second names, though less commonly. A matronym might be given, for instance, to honor a mother who died in childbirth or one who was socially or economically more important than the father. Occasionally a matronym was given to a child born out of wedlock or adopted.

Examples of matronymic surnames include Annis, derived from Agnes; Babb and Babbitt, from Barbara; Catlin and Gatling, from Catherine; Sisley, from Cecily; Jeeves, from Genevieve; Jowett, from Juliana; and Marriott, Merrit, and Marrit, all derived from Mariot, a medieval pet name for both Mary and Margery.

Then there are Mallet, Malin, Malkin, Mallinson, Malkinson, Maulson, Malleson, and more, all from pet names for Maud and Matilda, two extremely popular baptismal names for women in medieval Britain.

In addition, some surnames can be traced to either gender. Beaton and Beeton, for instance, came from pet names used for both Beatrice and Bartholomew. And Tibbs is from Tibbe, a pet name for both Isabel and Theobald.

But getting back to patronymic surnames, a great many can be traced to pet names, the shortened or altered forms we’ve been talking about. Medieval examples of men’s pet names include Cole (from Nicholas), Duke (Marmaduke), Judd (Jordan), Lar (Lawrence), Phipp (Philip), Sim (Simon), and Wat (Walter).

To existing pet names, diminutive suffixes like “-kin,” “-cock,” “-ot,” “-lot,” “-et,” “-let,” “-in,” “-lin,” and “-en” could be added to form even more pet names in medieval times. So a pet name like Tom could also take the form Tomelin or Tomkin; Lar could become Larkin; Sim could become Simmins or Simcock; Cole could become Colin; Wat could become Watkin. And all of those could be handed on as last names.

Combinations of all these elements—the names and pet names of fathers, an added “-son” or “-s,” diminutive suffixes, plus variant spellings—gave English a nearly endless supply of patronymic last names.

We’ll list some of these, but first a few caveats.

New research methods, based on documentary evidence from medieval records, have disproved or superseded many of the etymologies you’ll find online or in popular surname dictionaries. To date, the definitive source is The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland.

Peter McClure, the book’s chief etymologist, has written that the medieval pet forms of many first names “have still to be reliably established, notwithstanding the confidence with which dictionaries of personal names assert particular etymologies.”

Keep in mind that some modern pet names, like Hal and Bill and Bob, were unknown in Middle English. And different names sometimes had identical pet names, so the exact source of a patronymic surname may be impossible to pin down without a medieval document to verify a line of descent.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many surnames have alternative sources. For example, the surname Day can be traced to a pet name for both David and Ralph, but it’s also an occupational name traditionally associated with dairies. And Simonson is both a patronymic and a locative name (short for Simonstone, a hamlet in North Yorkshire).

So, with those warnings in mind, here are a few of the more common first names dating from Middle English (with their medieval pet name in parentheses), and the forms of them that have come down to us as modern surnames.

  • David (pet names Davy, Day, Dey, Dawe, Dawkin): David, Davidson, Davison, Davis, Davies, Day, Daykin, Dakin, Dakins, Dayson, Deason, Dawes, Dawson, Dawkin, Dawkins, McDaid, McDade, McDavitt, McDevitt.
  • Geoffrey, Jeffrey (pet names Geff, Jeff, Gep, Jep, Gipp, Jepp, Jebbe, Joppe, Job): Geoffries, Jeffries, Jefferson, Jeffers, Jepps, Jeffson, Jepson, Jephson, Jipson, Jebson, Jesson, Jobson, Jaffrey, Jeffcock, Jeffcott, Jephcott, Jeffers, Joplin, Joblin, Jobling, Jobbins.
  • Henry (pet names Hann, Hanke, Hanry, Hen, Hend, Hendy, Hancock, Henriot, Herriott, Henekin, Hankin, Harry): Henry, Henson, Henrys, Harry, Hanks, Harriott, Herriott, Harris, Harrison, Hancock, Handcock, Hancox, Hankins, Hankinson, Hawkin, Hawkins, Hawkinson, Hendrick, Hendricks, Hendry, Fitzhenry, Penry, Pendry, McHenry, McHendry.
  • Hugh (pet names Huget, Hugin, Hugun, Huchon, Hewet, Huet, Huget, Hewkin, Hewlett, Hudd, Howet, Howat, Hukin): Hughes, Hughson, Hewson, Hewett, Hewlett, Hewit, Hewitson, Howson, Howison, Howitt, Howlett, Howett, Hudd, Hudson, Huggins, Hugginson, Hutcheon, McCutcheon, Hutcheonson, Hutchins, Hutchings, Hutchinson, McHutchison, McQuillan, McQuilkin, Fitzhugh, Pugh.
  • John (pet names Jak, Jakke, Jake, Jeke, Jegge, Jen, Jenet, Jankin, Jenkin, Jonkin, Hann, Hancock, Hankin, Henks): Jones, Evans, Johns, Johnson, Jackson, Janks, Jenks, Jakins, Jeakins, Jenkins, Jenkinson, Jennings, Johncock, Hanks, Hankin, Hancock, Handcock, Hancox, Hanson, Fitzjohn. (The name John was handed down not just in pet names but in nicknames—that is, names based on a personal trait—like Littlejohn, Bonjohn, Grosjean, Prujean.)
  • Ralph (pet names Raff, Rauf, Raw, Rawle, Raul, Raulin, Rawkin, Day, Dey, Daw, Dakin, Daude, Dawlin, Dawkin, Haw, Hawkin): Ralphson, Rawes, Rawkin, Rawson, Rowson, Rawle, Rawlin, Rawlings, Rawlinson, Daud, Dawkin, Dawkins, Dawlin, Dawling, Dawson, Dawes, Hawes, Hawkin, Hawkins, Hawson, Howis.
  • Richard (pet names Deke, Dick, Dicken, Diccon, Rick, Rich, Hikke, Hikock, Hecock, Hiche, Higg): Richard, Richards, Richardson, Ricks, Rix, Rickard, Rickards, Rickett, Rickman, Rich, Ritchie, McRitchie, Ritson, Dickenson, Dickson, Dixon, Dix, Dickens, McDicken, Hitchen, Hitchins, Hitchings, Hitchinson, McHutchison, Hitchcock, Heacock, Hicks, Hickox, Hickey, Hickman, Hickson, Higgs, Higgins, Higginson, Higgitt.
  • Robert (pet names Robb, Dobb, Hobb, Hopp, Nobb, Robin, Robet, Rabb, Dobbin, Hoby, Hobin, Hobkin, Hoblin, Hopkin): Roberts, Robertson, Robarts, Robbins, Robinson, Robison, Robinet, Robnett, Rabson, Rapson, Robson, Rabb, Rabbitt, Dobb, Dabb, Dobbs, Dabbs, Dabson, Dabinett, Dobkin, Dobson, Dobbin, Hobb, Hobbes, Hobson, Hobbins, Hoblyn, Hopkins, Hopkinson, Hopson, Nobb, Knobbs, McRobb, McRoberts, McRobbie, Probert, Probyn.
  • Roger (pet names Rodge, Dodge, Hodge, Hodgkin, Roget, Rogerun): Rogers, Rogerson, Roget, Dodge, Dodgson, Hodge, Hodges, Hodgson, Hodgetts, Hodgkins, Hodgkinson, Hodgkiss, Hodgkison, Hotchkins, Hotchkiss, Fitzsimmons, Rosser, Prosser, Prodger.
  • Simon (pet names Sim, Sime, Simcock, Simkin): Simon, Simons, Simonson, Simson, Simpson, Simpkin, Simpkinson, Simcox, Simnett, Simms, Simmons, Simmonds, Symonds, Symondson.
  • Thomas (pet names Tam, Tamelin, Tom, Tomelin, Tomkin): Thomas, Thoms, Thomasson, Thompson, Thompkins, Tomkins, Tomkinson, Tomlin, Tomlins, Tomlinson, Thomsett, Thompset, Tamlyn, Tamblin, Tamblyn, Tamplin.
  • Walter (pet names Wat, Watte, Watkin): Walter, Walther, Walters, Wolters, Waters, Waterson, Watts, Watten, Watkin, Watkins, Watson, Watkinson, Fitzwalter, Fitzwater, McWalter, McWatt, McWatters, McQuaid, Gwatkin, Gautier (through the French form).
  • William (pet names Will, Wilke, Wilet, Wilot, Wilcok, Wilkin, Wilky): Williams, Williamson, Will, Wills, Willis, Wilson, Willett, Wilcock, Wilcox, Wilcockson, Willmott, Wilks, Wilkes, Wilken, Wilkie, Wilkins, Wilkinson, Wilkerson, Fitzwilliam, McWilliam, McWilliams, McQuilkin, Culkin, Gillam, Gwilliam.

As you can see, a small number of male first names formed great numbers of English surnames. In addition, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales had their own ways of forming patronymic surnames.

In Irish and Scottish Gaelic, mac is a common noun meaning “son,” and prefixed to a name, Mac or the clipped Mc signifies “son of” (e.g., MacDermot = “son of Dermot”). And in Irish Gaelic, is a common noun for “grandson.” But in names, the prefix (Anglicized outside of Irish as O’), stands for “descendant of.”

In Wales, the Welsh ap or ab (equivalent to “son”) was used to form patronymics. So ap, added to Hugh, resulted in ap Hugh, for “son of Hugh” (shortened to Pugh). This also accounts for Price (from ap Rhys); Bowen (ap Owen); Bevan (ap Evan, a form of John); Pritchard (ap Richard); Pumphrey (ap Humphrey); Parry (ap Harry), and others.

English nobles also sometimes used patronymic affixes other than “son.” Frequently they used “de” (a French nobiliary particle, a type we wrote about in 2010), or “fitz” (after the French fils, for “son”), creating names like Fitzgerald (“son of Gerald”), Fitzgibbon (from a pet form of Gilbert), Fitzpatrick, Fitzwarren, and so on.

Names are endlessly interesting. In a previous post we discussed names that include the old diminutive “-kin” (like Watkins, from Walter). And we’ve written about British names that don’t look like their pronunciations (as with Cholmondeley, pronounced “Chumley”), as well as those odd-looking surnames that begin with a double “f” (as in ffoulkes and ffolliott).

Finally, we’ve written about first names that are abbreviated in old documents (like Charles as “Chas” and Jonathan as “Jno.” or “Jno.”).

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The spooky season

Q: I am wondering what information you can share on the origins of “Spooky Season” to describe the lead-up to Halloween. All of a sudden the term seems to be everywhere.

A: The phrase “spooky season” showed up in the early 1900s and reappeared every ten or fifteen years until it began increasing in popularity at the end of the 20th century.

The earliest example we’ve found uses the expression to mean a time in autumn in which unexplained things are said to be happening. In this passage, a British journal devoted to the paranormal cites reports in a London tabloid of mysterious events:

“The ‘spooky’ season has now overflowed into the ‘Daily Graphic,’ which has several times lately published testimony to happenings which may be explained as coincidence—if anyone wishes to do so in defiance of all laws of probability” (from Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult, and Mystical Research, Sept. 16, 1905).

The first written example we’ve found that clearly uses the phrase to mean the Halloween season is from an Illinois newspaper article about a crackdown on rowdy trick-or-treaters:

“The spooky season of the year is now at hand, when ‘the mystic moon is chill, and the spooks and phantoms wander out to do their magic will.’ But the 31st night of October does not bring such an abundance of pleasure to the heart of the mischief-makers as it did in ‘ye aulden tyme.’ With the increase of the police forces, city marshals and watchmen the blessed night has lost most of its significance” (Franklin Reporter, Franklin Grove, Oct. 23, 1913).

A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the usage increased sharply in the late 1990s and continued rising in the first two decades of the 21st century.

Here’s a recent example from The New York Times: “October marks the start of myriad unofficial seasons: spooky season, pumpkin spice season, cuffing season, cozy season, hoodie season and, of course, decorative gourd season. (Or ‘szn,’ for those inclined to abbreviate.)”

Interestingly, some people have complained about the expression because one of the meanings of the noun “spook” (source of the adjective “spooky”) is an offensive term for a Black person. But this racist sense didn’t show up in English until nearly a century and a half after “spook” first appeared in its ghostly sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says English borrowed “spook” at the beginning of the 19th century from terms for “ghost” in Dutch (spook) and German (spuk). In English, the term meant “a spectre, apparition, ghost.” Here’s the dictionary’s earliest English example, which we’ve expanded:

“If any wun you heart shool plunder / Mine horses I’ll to Vaggon yoke, / Und chase him quickly; — by mine dunder / I fly so swift as any spook” (from The Massachusetts Spy, July 15, 1801).

The OED says two other meanings of “spook” appeared in the mid-20th century: (1) “An undercover agent; a spy” and (2) “A derogatory term for a black person.”

This is Oxford’s earliest spying example: “ ‘Spotter.’ (One who spys upon employees.) … Silent eye, spook, spotter.” From The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942), by  Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark.

And this is the earliest pejorative example: “Spook (n), Frightened negro.” From Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary (1945), edited by Lou Shelly.

So is “spook” a no-no now? The racial sense is offensive, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with using it for a ghost or a spy. Similarly, “spade” in its racist sense is offensive, but there’s no reason to avoid the word for garden implements or playing cards. The pejorative sense of “spade” showed up 1,200 years after the word for the tool and 330 years after the word for the card suit.

Linguists have a term for the ability of a word like “spook” or “spade” to have multiple meanings: “polysemy,” which ultimately comes from the ancient Greek πολύσημος (having many senses), made up of the combining form πολυ- (poly-, many) and the noun σῆμα (sema, sign or mark).

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The ‘boo’ in ‘peekaboo’

Q: I’m a mom with an almost 2-year-old son. One of his favorite games is peek-a-boo. With Halloween coming up, I wonder if there’s any connection between the “boo” to scare someone and the “boo” in “peek-a-boo.”

A: Yes, there is a connection between the “boo” used to scare people on Halloween and the “boo” in the children’s game “peekaboo,” a term now usually written without hyphens.

The word for the game is a compound made of the verb “peek,” the combining form “-a-,” and an exclamation (variously spelled over the years as “bo,” “boe,” “boh,” “boo,” and “bough”) intended to surprise or frighten someone.

The exclamation was spelled “bo” when it first appeared in writing in the 16th century (it was certainly used much earlier in speech). The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an anonymous medieval tale of a blacksmith who fashions a woman at his forge. Here he asks her to speak and say “bo”:

“Speke now let me se, / And say ones bo / Than he toke her by the heed / And sayd dame art thou deed” (A Treatyse of the Smyth Whych That Forged Hym a New Dame, 1565). Scholars say the poem was composed around 1360; the OED’s 1565 citation is from the most complete copy known to exist.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the exclamation clearly used in its scary sense is from a long poem inspired by London’s plague of 1625: “When a child cryes boh / To fright his Nurse” (from Britain’s Remembrancer, 1628, by George Wither, an English pamphleteer, satirist, and poet).

And here’s an example with the usual modern spelling: “Boo is a word that’s used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying Children” (from The Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence, 1692, by J. Curate, a pseudonym).

The OED defines the compound “peekaboo” as “a game played with a young child which involves hiding oneself, or one’s face, and suddenly reappearing, saying ‘peekaboo.’ ” However, the OED’s earliest written example uses the term figuratively. Here a wife dismisses her husband’s romantic overtures as child’s play:

“I’le lay my life this is my hus­bands dotage, I thought so, nay neuer play peeke-boe with me, I know you do nothing but studie how to anger me sir” (The Comicall Satyre of Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600, a play by Ben Jonson).

Undoubtedly, the term was used literally to mean the game itself in speech long before 1600. However, the dictionary’s first literal example in writing is from a 19th-century novel about an orphan girl who unravels the mystery of her parentage:

“Little Nina, grown more bold climbed up beside him, and poised upon one foot, her fat arm resting on his neck, played ‘peek-a-boo’ beneath the shade, screaming at every ‘peek,’ ‘I seen your eyes, I did’ ” (Darkness and Daylight, an 1864 novel by the American writer Mary Jane Holmes).

The word “boo” has had several other meanings since it first appeared (in the form of “bo”) as “an inarticulate spoken sound or exclamation, esp. one made abruptly in order to surprise or frighten,” according to citations in the OED.

The most common is “a sound used to express disdain, contempt, disapproval,” as in this Oxford example: “I’ve heard the folks laugh at that sign; And one crie boo: another chuckled” (from Poor Vulcan, 1778, a comic opera by the English composer and dramatist Charles Dibdin).

Similarly, the dictionary says, “peekaboo” has had a variety of senses since it first showed up in writing at the beginning of the 17th century.

The senses include clothes with a pattern of holes that let the wearer’s body be seen (1895 as an adjective; 1908 as a noun); a hairstyle that conceals one eye (1948, adjective; 1968, noun); and a fighting style in which the boxer protects his face with gloves, then suddenly delivers a surprise punch (1960, adjective).

Finally, here’s a recent example that we’ve found for “peekaboo” used in its original sense of a children’s game:

“Peekaboo is a game played over the world, crossing language and cultural barriers. Why is it so universal? Perhaps because it’s such a powerful learning tool” (from an April 17, 2014,  BBC feature, “Why all babies love peekaboo”).

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Pop-ups popping up all over

Q: Our local weather forecast the other day was for a “random pop-up thunderstorm opportunity.” The term “pop-up” seems to be all over the place these days. When did it first pop up?

A: The word “pop-up,” a noun and an adjective for something that pops up, is older than you think. It dates back to the 1860s with meanings in cookery and in baseball. But its use for a temporary business was a late 20th-century invention.

We’ll discuss these usages later. But first, some early etymology.

As you might expect, it all starts with “pop,” an old word that’s imitative in origin (it sounds like what it means). This explosive little word has been around since Middle English—the verb form since the late 1300s and the noun since the early 1400s

The verb, in its early senses, meant to strike, punch, knock, or move someone or something quickly or unexpectedly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the noun meant the action itself.

The combination of “pop” and “up,” which came along a few centuries later, was inevitable. The adverb not only made “pop” more emphatic, but gave it a direction. (So did the addition of other little adverbs like “in” and “out” and “over” and “off,” but we won’t get into those.)

The phrasal verb “pop up” appeared in the mid-17th century. The first OED citation is from a book of devotional meditations: “Some … presently popped up into the Pulpit” (Mixt Contemplations in Better Times, by Thomas Fuller, 1660). The reference is to “pretended Ministers.”

Oxford defines the verb here as “to move or go somewhere quickly or unexpectedly, esp. for a short time.” In the 18th century, “pop up” came to be used in a less material way—the things that suddenly appeared or occurred could be thoughts, ideas, words, images, desires, and so on.

These OED examples are from Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarrissa: “Good motions pop up in my mind” (first ed., 1748) … “Hankerings, that will, on every, but remotely-favourable incident … pop up” (third ed., 1751).

In the mid- to late 1800s “pop-up” appeared as both a noun and an adjective—sometimes spelled as two words, sometimes hyphenated, sometimes joined.

The OED’s earliest noun sightings—in cooking and in baseball—date from the 1880s. But in searching old newspaper databases we found examples, both culinary and sporting, from the 1860s. The oldest we’ve seen is in a recipe for “pop-ups”:

“Puffs, or ‘pop-ups,’ are very easily made. Two eggs, well beaten, two teacupfuls of milk, and flour enough to make a thin batter, with a pinch of salt, are all that are required.” From a housekeeping memoir, Six Hundred Dollars a Year: A Wife’s Effort at Low Living Under High Prices, by the British writer Jane Webb Loudon, copyrighted in 1866 and published anonymously the following year.

(Incidentally, this airy concoction, similar to Yorkshire pudding, was known earlier as a “popover”—the OED’s first citation is from 1850—and that’s the name that has survived in the US, supplanting “pop-up” in American kitchens and cookbooks.)

The noun “pop-up” was next used in baseball. In the earliest example we’ve found, the writer uses the verb “pop up” several times (as in “popped up a foul,” “popped up the ball”), then uses “pop up” as a noun:

“[Joe] Start opened with a pop up back of short. [John] Hatfield went for it and got it on the fly.” And in the next inning: “Hatfield went out on a pop up for [George] Zettlein” (The New York Clipper, July 3, 1869). The Brooklyn Atlantics beat the New York Mutuals, 2-1.

(In case you’re wondering, “pop fly” came along a bit later. The earliest use we’ve found is from a South Carolina newspaper’s  account of a match between two local teams: “They led off beautifully, though the first man was put out on a ‘pop fly.’ ” From The Newberry Herald, Sept. 2, 1874.)

The OED’s earliest sightings for the adjective “pop-up” date from 1920s, but we’ve found baseball uses of “pop up fly” and “pop-up hit” (variously hyphenated and not) from the 1880s.

And the 20th century brought adjectival uses ranging from “pop-up picture book” (1926) to “pop-up toaster” (1930) and finally to computer terms like “pop-up window” (1982),  “pop-up menu” (1983), and so on. (In computing, the simpler noun form “pop-up” has been used for these since 1985, the OED says.)

As for those temporary shops and restaurants, the word “pop-up” seemed made to order. After all, most things that pop up tend to pop back down again, like those brief entrepreneurial ventures.

The adjective, which was used to describe them back in the early 1990s, is defined in the OED as “relating to or designating a shop or other business which opens quickly in a temporary location and is intended to operate for a short period of time.” Here are both the earliest and the most recent Oxford examples:

“There are also more pop-up stores, often filled with ‘distress merchandise’ from bankruptcies, which appear in November and evaporate by New Year’s Day” (The Ottawa Citizen, Nov. 13, 1993) … “But though pop-up dining has come to the UK late, it’s come with a vengeance” (The Independent, Dec. 4, 2011).

The noun for such a shop or business came along in 2000, according to Oxford citations. Here are the dictionary’s earliest and most recent citations:

“Remembering that back in Blighty [an affectionate term for England or Britain] country pubs are closing at the rate of six a week, the pop-ups could play another vital military role … on Army recruitment campaigns” (from an article about prefabricated pubs, The Mail on Sunday, May 7, 2000) … “The eight-week pop-up … will open from 8am and customers can sit down or do the takeaway option” (The Irish Times, Jan. 11, 2014).

As for that weather forecast you mentioned (“random pop-up thunderstorm opportunity”), did it come from the use of “pop-up” for a temporary shop? Well, the business use may have been an influence, but we can’t say for sure.

However, it’s not surprising that forecasters, always on the lookout for new ways to talk about the weather, should think of “pop-up” for a sudden, unexpected meteorological event. Perhaps we should brace ourselves for “pop-up” nor’easters this winter.

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Seamstresses, midwives, and gender

Q: At fashion shows, one who sews is invariably referred to as a “seamstress,” though men sometimes do the job. Similarly, one who helps a woman in childbirth is a “midwife” (feminine as in the French sage-femme), though some are men. Any thoughts?

A: The original term for someone who sews was “seamster” (spelled sæmestre, seamystre, semestr, etc., in Old English), and it referred to men as well as women for hundreds of years—until “seamstress” appeared in the 17th century.

As for “midwife,” it’s not a gendered term (unlike its French counterpart, sage-femme). When midwif appeared in Middle English, mid meant “with” and wif meant woman, as we note in a 2016 post. So etymologically “midwife” refers to someone (usually a woman, but not always) who is “with” a woman giving birth. We’ll have more to say about “midwife” later, but first a look at “seamstress.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “seamster” as “originally a designation of a woman, but in Old English already applicable to a man.” The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a will, dated around 995, in which a woman named Wynflæd beqeathes two female slaves to her granddaughter Eadgyfe:

“Hio becweđ Eadgyfe ane crencestræn and ane semestran” (“She bequeathes to Eadgyfe a weaver and a seamster”). From Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici (1839-48), edited by John Mitchell Kemble. The term semestran is the accusative (direct object) of seamystre, and crencestræn is the accusative of crencestre.

The first OED citation for “seamstress,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 1643 treatise about the early days of the English Civil War of 1642-51: “a great masse of money and plate, was brought into the Guild-Hall, the Semstresse brought in her silver Thimble, the Chamber maid her Bodkin, the Cook his Spoones” (Twelve Several Treatises, 1661, by James Howell, a supporter of Charles I and Charles II).

Several gender-free nouns have shown up over the years for someone who sews, including “tailor” (1297), “sewer” (1399), “needleworker” (1611), and “sewist” (1867). The dates are the first appearances in the OED.

“Tailor” and “needleworker” refer to someone who sews for business, while “sewist” usually means someone who sews as a hobby. We’ve seen “sewer” used both ways, though some people are reluctant to use it because it’s spelled the same as the conduit for sewage. We wrote a post a few years ago on “sewer” versus “sewist.”

The two of us generally use gender-free occupational nouns (“actor,” “author,” “editor,” etc.) for men and women. But the goal of language is communicating. And we’re willing to make exceptions if the people we’re communicating with expect a gendered term.

So in discussing the winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress, we’d use “actress,” and in talking about a female sewer (pronounced SOH-er) for a fashion show, we’d use “seamstress,” the usual term for a woman who sews professionally.

However, language changes, and these usages may soon go the way of “authoress” and “editrix.” We wrote a post in 2018 about the history of “stewardess” and other “-ess” words.

As for “midwife,” the noun first appeared around 1300 in Middle English as a compound of the Old English mid and wif. The earliest citation in the OED is from a Middle English life, or story, of St. Edmund the Confessor:

“Þe mide-wyues him wolden habbe i-bured, ac þe moder seide euere nay” (“The midwives would have buried him, but the mother said ever nay”). From The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann, a collection of the lives of saints and other church figures.

Although a “midwife” is usually a woman who helps women give birth, the term has also been used since at least the 17th century in reference to men. The OED says the men were originally referred to as “man-midwives” and “were called on to help female midwives only in cases of difficult births.”

The man-midwives were barber-surgeons who used surgical instruments like forceps “in a desperate attempt to save the life of the birthing woman,” Deanna Pilkenton and Mavis N. Schornon write in “Midwifery: A Career for Men in Nursing,” a February 2008 article on the website of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.

The first OED citation for the term is from a play, The Whore of Babylon (1607), by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker: “Why they are certaine men-midwiues, that neuer bring people to bed, but when they are sore in labour, that no body els can deliuer them.”

And here’s a description of a difficult 17th-century birth that we’ve found in Aristotle’s Masterpiece: Or, the Secrets of Generation, an anonymous 1694 sex manual:

“In case of Extremity, greater regard must be had than at other times; and first of all, the Situation of the Womb, and her posture of lying, must be cross the Bed, being held by such as have the strength to prevent her from slipping down, or moving her self in the operation of the Man-Midwife, or the Chyrurgeon [surgeon].”

The man-midwife of the 17th century, sometimes referred to as a “forceps man,” was “the predecessor of the obstetrician,” according to Pilkenton and Schornon:

“Female childbirth attendants, largely excluded from educational institutions (and thereby prohibited from using surgical instruments), would remain practicing empirical midwifery. Hence, midwifery and obstetrics would be divided along gender and philosophical lines for many years to come.”

Today, “women have overcome many barriers to practicing medicine and now make up a large proportion of obstetricians,” the authors say, but men now comprise only “a minuscule number” of midwives.

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

The four corners of the earth

Q: In regard to “the four corners of the earth,” how did our globe come to have four corners?

A: The expression “four corners of the earth” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as “feowerum [four] foldan [of the earth] sceatum [corners]” and in Old English it meant the remotest areas of the world.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the four corners, quarters, etc. (of the earth, heavens or world)” refers to “the remotest parts.” The dictionary defines the noun “corner” in such expressions as “an extremity or end of the earth; a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows.”

The OED doesn’t speculate on how “four corners” came to be used in this sense, but it notes that “the four corners (of a document)” refers to “the limits or scope of its contents,” while “within the four seas” has meant “within the boundaries of Great Britain,” and “of all four sides” is another way of saying “entirely, thoroughly.”

It’s possible that “four” here may have originated as a reference to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or to the four bodies of water surrounding Britain: the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Interestingly, the earliest Oxford citation for the word “four” uses it in the Old English version of “four corners of the earth.” The expression comes up in a description of the Last Judgment in Crist III, an anonymous Old English religious poem that the dictionary dates at 878:

“Þonne from feowerum foldan sceatum, þam ytemestum eorþan rices, englas æbeorhte on efen blawað byman on brehtme” (“Then from the four corners of the earth, from the utmost of the earthly realm, angels all-bright shall blow trumpets together with one voice”).

The earliest Oxford citation that resembles the modern version of the expression is from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 late Middle English translation of the Bible, the first complete translation of the Old and New Testaments in English. Here’s the Old Testament passage cited:

“And he shal set vp a toke [send a token or sign] amonge the Gentiles, and gather together ye dispersed of Israel, yee and the outcastes of Iuda from the foure corners of ye worlde” (Isaiah, 11:12).

Coverdale also uses the expression in translating a New Testament passage: “And after that sawe I foure angels stode on ye foure corners of the earth, holdinge ye foure wyndes of ye earth, yt ye wyndes shulde not blowe on ye earth, nether on ye see, nether on eny tree” (Revelation 7:1).

By the way, the adjective “four” is missing from the earliest known Hebrew version of the Old Testament passage mentioned earlier. The website of the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem has an English translation of the passage from the Great Isaiah Scroll, a Dead Sea Scroll dated at roughly 350 to 100 BC:

“He will raise a signal for the nations and assemble the banished of Israel and gather the dispersed of Judah from the corners of the earth.” (The translators, Peter W. Flint and Eugene Ulrich, render the Hebrew כנפות הארץ as “corners of the earth.” You can examine the scroll and the English translation on the website.)

The word כנפות appears in various passages of the Hebrew Bible and has been translated as corners, wings, edges, borders, ends, extremities, and so on. Some scholars have translated the phrase in Isaiah as “ends of the earth,” an interpetation that makes sense to us.

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Fact, fiction, or faction?

Q: I know it is relatively new, but please fill me in on the origins of the literary term “faction.”

A: The genre known as “faction,” which in its meaning and etymology is a blend of “fact” and “fiction,” apparently got its name in 1930.

The earliest use we’ve found is in Hugo Gernsback’s essay “Science Fiction vs. Science Faction,” published in the fall 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly, which he then owned.

In the text, Gernsback uses “faction” six times, italicizing it, and says he coined the word. Here’s how he introduces the term.

Jules Verne, he says, “knew how to use fact and combine it with fiction. In time to come, also, our authors will make a marked distinction between science fiction and science faction, if I may coin such a term.”

He later writes: “In sharp counter-distinction to science fiction, we also have science faction. By this term I mean science fiction in which there are so many scientific facts that the story, as far as the scientific part is concerned, is no longer fiction but becomes more or less a recounting of fact.”

The science fiction scholar Gary Westfahl has written that “Gernsback’s editorial could be read as the first manifesto on behalf of hard SF, in that Gernsback isolates, defines, and defends a type of SF where scientific accuracy is central” (from “ ‘The Closely Reasoned Technological Story’: The Critical History of Hard Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies, July 1993).

For the next 30 years, the term was confined to science fiction criticism, as far as we can tell. The earliest literary use of “faction” we’ve found outside science fiction is from The New York Times Book Review (April 2, 1961).

In this passage Lewis Nichols, writing the “In and Out of Books” column, reports on Ernest K. Gann’s upcoming project: “He’ll decide whether his investigations will go into fact or fiction, novel or documentary. At the present moment he’s thinking of trying something he calls ‘faction,’ which is a combo. He expects to give faction ‘a hell of a go,’ before perhaps settling for one part of it or the other.”

Later that same year, the usage appeared in an academic paper about the novels of James Joyce. After describing Ulysses and Finnegans Wake as “deeply autobiographical in their materials,” the author writes:

“The coincidence of ‘faction’ with fiction is, however, markedly high in all of Joyce’s writings” (from “James Joyce: Unfacts, Fiction, and Facts,” by William T. Noon, in PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America, June 1961).

A few years later, the term cropped up three times in a very different venue—a trade magazine The author apparently felt the context sufficiently explained the term. We’ll quote just one of the uses:

“Perhaps it is not faction, nor fiction, nor even fancy to believe in the near future we will have a German who gets up to put on his Italian suit, has ham for breakfast from the Netherlands, looks at his Luxembourg watch, kisses his Belgian wife goodbye amid the delightful aroma of French perfume, and then drives off to work in his English car … which is insured by an American insurance company!” (from “Insurance and the European Common Market: Faction, Fiction or Fancy?” by David L. Bickelhaupt, Journal of Risk and Insurance, March 1964).

Later in the 1960s, the term became somewhat more common in literary criticism. The two earliest uses cited in the Oxford English Dictionary are from the same year:

“This is the great work of faction of 1967—fiction based on fact, the novel form of our time” (a publisher’s note with Hugh Atkinson’s novel The Games) … “An Australian has tried his hand at writing a ‘faction’ (half fact, half fiction) novel” (The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Dec. 30, 1967).

Those two 1967 citations illustrate each of the OED’s definitions—“faction” can mean the genre as a whole or a single work. The dictionary defines the word this way: “A literary and cinematic genre in which fictional narrative is developed from a basis of real events or characters; documentary fiction or drama; (also) a work in this genre.”

The OED, en etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the word was “formed within English, by blending” the nouns “fact” and “fiction.”

Standard dictionaries define the term similarly. Here’s American Heritage: “1. A form of literature or filmmaking that treats real people or events as if they were fictional or uses real people or events as essential elements in an otherwise fictional rendition. 2. A literary work or film that is a mix of fact and fiction.”

In 2017, we wrote about such phrases as “creative nonfiction,” “literary nonfiction,” and “narrative nonfiction.” In 2011, we discussed the word “fact,” and in 2008 we wrote about “fiction” and “nonfiction.”

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Bespoke burgers and running shoes

Q: I was driving in the Grand Rapids area the other day and noticed a sign for “bespoke homes.” I’d only heard “bespoke” used in British tailoring contexts and didn’t know it was imported. How long before we have bespoke hamburgers or bespoke Air Jordans?

A: Yes, the adjective “bespoke” is more common in the UK than in the US. And it usually refers to custom-made clothing. But the word is evolving—in American as well as British English. In fact, “bespoke burgers” and “bespoke running shoes” have already shown up in both the US and the UK.

Here are a few American examples we’ve found:

“Samsung’s Bespoke Appliances Bring Custom Color And Coordination To Your Home” (Forbes, May 13, 2021).

“How to Buy a Bespoke Shotgun. A custom-fitted shotgun is expensive, but if you can afford one, it will become a family legacy to be handed down from one generation to the next” (Outdoor Life, May 20, 2021).

“Bespoke Bathing: Say the words ‘carbon fiber’ and you’ve got an aficionado’s full attention. That’s no surprise, as this sleek material is used in supercars, aircraft and top-end sports equipment … and now tubs” (Brickell Magazine, Miami, Dec. 27, 2018).

“Decadent Dogs and Bespoke Burgers at Riley’s” (Hartford Courant, Nov. 17, 2014).

“Adidas Wants to Create Bespoke Running Shoes Using 3-D Printing” (Racked, Oct 7, 2015).

And now here are some British examples :

“Duchess of Cornwall shares her bespoke recipe for a Victoria Sponge—with a twist” (from a recipe for sponge cake in The Independent, Sept. 2, 2011).

“In recent years, there has been a growing trend in bespoke burgers, with themed restaurants cooking them to provide the ultimate laid-back dine out experience” (Somerset Live, a website covering news, entertainment and sports in Somerset, Dorset, and Wiltshire, Aug. 24, 2021).

“software experts dedicated to designing bespoke software for one-off applications” (Reading Evening Post, June 24, 1980).

“Adidas Futurecraft 3D Wants to Print You a Pair of Bespoke Running Shoes in Store” (an Oct. 7, 2015, post on the website ManyMiles).

“With over 40 models on display you’ll be sure to find a style to suit you. Standard Range and Bespoke.  Garden Sheds • Summer Houses • Gazebos • Garages • Greenhouses • Conservatories, etc.” (West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, June, 17, 1999).

All of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult define the adjective “bespoke” as meaning custom-made. Two of them, (American Heritage and say it refers especially to clothing, while two others (Collins and Longman) include websites and computer software along with clothes.

Most of the published examples the standard dictionaries provide describe clothing, but quite a few others suggest that the term has outgrown its apparel etymology.

Cambridge, for instance, cites “bespoke furniture” and Macmillan “bespoke software.” Merriam-Webster notes the online use of “a very bespoke approach” to high-end real estate.

Lexico, an online dictionary using the resources of Oxford University Press, has examples in both its US and UK editions for “bespoke kitchens,” “bespoke software systems,” “bespoke itineraries,” “bespoke leather sofas,” even “a bespoke craftsman boatbuilder.”

Though the use of “bespoke” for things other than clothing may seem odd to you, the earliest example for the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to a commissioned play—one ordered in advance—for a performance by a touring theatrical troupe:

“At length the bespoke Play was to be enacted” (A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke, 1755, an autobiography by the actress, playwright, and novelist). The book also uses “bespoke” as a verb meaning to commission: “the Gentleman bespoke a Play.”

As Merriam-Webster explains in an etymology note, “In the English language of yore, the verb bespeak had various meanings, including ‘to speak,’ ‘to accuse,’ and ‘to complain.’ In the 16th century, bespeak acquired another meaning—‘to order or arrange in advance.’

“It is from that sense that we get the adjective bespoke, referring to clothes and other things that are ordered before they are made,” M-W continues. “You are most likely to encounter this adjective in British contexts, such as the recent Reuters news story about a young pig in Northern England who was fitted with ‘bespoke miniature footwear’ (custom-made Wellington boots) to help it overcome a phobia of mud.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

When ‘only’ is apt to be dismal

Q: Recent weather stories have referred to catastrophic floods that “will only become more common” and heat waves “expected to only intensify in the years ahead.” What is “only” doing in those sentences?

A: Here “only” is an adverb meaning “inevitably,” and it’s often used in forecasting something bad. Those two examples are dismal forecasts, contrary to what one would wish, and at the same time seen as certainties.

Standard dictionaries define this use of the adverb in varying ways, but all imply both the certainty of the result and its contrary or negative nature.  In fact, some split their definitions of “only” to separate the two notions.

For instance, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says “only” here can have these meanings: “a. in the last analysis or final outcome; inevitably,” as in “actions that will only make things worse”; and “b. with the negative or unfortunate result,” as in “received a raise only to be laid off.”

And Merriam-Webster has these meanings: (1) “in the final outcome,” as in “will only make you sick”; or (2) “with nevertheless the final result,” as in “won the battles, only to lose the wars.”

The adverb is often used with verbs that are either modals (like “will,” “would,” “can, “could,” etc.) or are in the infinitive. Your examples illustrate each usage: “will only become more common” and “expected to only intensify.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical usage, discusses these adverbial uses of “only” among those that emphasize “the contrary nature of a consequence.”

In one such use, Oxford says, the adverb is “frequently” used with a modal verb or infinitive to mean “inevitably although contrary to intention or desire.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 17th-century sermon and shows “only” followed by an infinitive: “serving only to make a servant more disposed & more able too, as well for the plotting as the acting of villany” (from a collection, King Davids Vow for Reformation, by the Anglican clergyman George Hakewill, 1621).

And the OED’s next citation, from later in the century, has “only” plus a modal verb: “This unlimited power of doing anything with impunity, will only beget a confidence in kings of doing what they list” (from Justice Vindicated, by Roger Coke, 1660). Here the archaic verb “list” means wish, desire, or choose.

The dictionary’s most recent example, from a show-biz memoir, is in a description of Robert Redford: “He is very into incognito so he sports lots of scarves and mufflers and hats and shades, which only make him look more Redfordish” (You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, 1991, by Julia Phillips). In that sentence, “look” is an infinitive.

The other use of “only” that emphasizes “the contrary nature of a consequence” also originated in the early 17th century, according to the OED.

In this case, the adverb is “followed by a dependent infinitive clause” and means “with no other consequence or result than.” And that consequence is sometimes unexpected, surprising, or ironic.

This is the OED’s earliest citation: “He recouerd [recovered] … only to be made more miserable” (from The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania, a prose romance by Lady Mary Wroth, 1621).

We still use the adverb in that same way. This is the OED’s most recent example: “Cursing Rachel and Jeff for having stolen me away from the detention centre … only to bring me to this dungeon” (from By the Sea, a novel by Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2001).

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

Handsome is as handsome does

Q: Oliver Goldsmith uses “handsome is that handsome does” in The Vicar of Wakefield. Did he coin the usage, and is that the original wording of the expression “handsome is as handsome does”?

A: No, Goldsmith didn’t coin the usage. It was a familiar English proverb—though worded somewhat differently—more than a century before he used it in his 1766 novel.

Fred R. Shapiro, in The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), notes that a version appeared in a 1659 collection of proverbs: “He is handsome that handsome doth.”

And the Oxford English Dictionary has another pre-Goldsmith example, from Philip Ayres’s Mythologia Ethica (1689): “Our English Proverb answers very aptly: He handsome is that handsome does.”

Since the expression was described in writing in the mid-17th century as proverbial, you can be sure that it was commonly used in speech well before that time.

In fact, the formula “X is as X does” was used in pithy sayings before the “handsome” variety came along, as in these two examples:

“But as the auncient adage is, goodly is he that goodly dooth” (A View of Sundry Examples, 1580, a collection of prose by Anthony Munday).

“By my troth, he is a proper man; but he is proper that proper doth” (The Shoemakers Holiday, 1600, a play by Thomas Dekker).

So the formula in various versions—with “goodly” and “proper,” as well as “handsome”—was in use well before Goldsmith’s time, though the “handsome” form is the one that survived. And Goldsmith wasn’t even the first novelist to use the “handsome” proverb in fiction.

This example comes from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749): “I never thought as it was any Harm to say a young Man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now; for handsome is that handsome does.”

In context, the same message is conveyed in Goldsmith’s novel: deeds count for more than looks. Mrs. Primrose, the wife of Goldsmith’s vicar, has this reply for those who comment on the beauty of her children:

“Ay, neighbour, they are as heaven made them, handsome enough, if they be good enough; for handsome is that handsome does.”

The proverb is a play on words, contrasting two different senses of “handsome.” The adjective was used both (a) for a person who’s good-looking  and (b) for one who does the right thing. (We’ve written before about the interesting etymology of “handsome.”) So the gist is that a truly handsome person is one who acts handsomely.

The “that” in the original version of the expression (“He is handsome that handsome doth”) is a relative pronoun referring to the antecedent subject “he,” just as the relative “who” is used.  (As we’ve written before on the blog, both “that” and “who” can refer to people.)

By the 18th century, elliptical versions of the saying were appearing without the subject “he,” as in those passages from Fielding and Goldsmith. And the old saying continued to evolve, as proverbs generally do.

Versions with “who” or “as” in place of the relative “that”—“handsome is who [or as] handsome does”—began appearing in the early 19th century, according to our searches of old newspaper databases.

In the newer forms, “who” simply fills in for the old relative pronoun, but “as” plays a different role. The “as” in “handsome is as handsome does” is a conjunction meaning “in so far as,” “to the same extent as,” etc. These are the earliest published uses we’ve found:

“remembering, always, however much the opinion of the great may militate against the fact, that ‘handsome is who handsome does,’ and that even a nobleman may venture to walk Court, without being eternally disgraced” (from Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, London, Feb. 3, 1816).

“Handsome is, as handsome does; saith the proverb. That I hold to be a real live letter, or a real any-thing else, which is calculated to do real good” (Bombay Gazette, Nov. 28, 1821).

Numerous examples of the “as” version appeared through the 1820s and onward. American examples began cropping up in the 1840s, like this one: “ ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ is a good old nursery ‘saw,’ and it applies most admirably to the case in point” (Richmond Enquirer, May 16, 1845).

Today that version—“handsome is as handsome does”—is the form most commonly used. In modern usage it has become an idiom—that is, the meaning of the words is no longer literal but understood.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Let’s swap

Q: During the pandemic baking craze, people making “adjustments” to a recipe have said things like “I swapped out wheat flour for almond flour.” I find this confusing.

A: “Swap” is a legitimate English verb, and there’s nothing wrong with the more emphatic form “swap out” either, as in “swap out X for Y.”

The “out” isn’t necessary but it’s not incorrect, as we wrote in 2012. The use of “out” makes for a more casual usage, but then “swap” is a rather casual verb to begin with, certainly more informal than “substitute,” a similar verb we’ve written about.

Though “swap” may be described as less than formal, it’s a perfectly respectable verb dating from medieval times. As Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage puts it, “Swap is in use in all but the most formal writing.”

Though there’s nothing wrong with “swap,” we agree with you that the verb is sometimes confusing. Here’s why.

In its exchange sense, “swap” is generally used two ways: (1) to swap one thing for another and (2) to swap things with someone else. Note the two prepositions.

As the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, to “swap” means to give or dispose of in exchange “for something else” or to exchange (things) “with another person.” The dictionary uses the italics.

So both of these sentences would be acceptable: “I swapped wheat flour for almond flour” and “I’ll swap recipes with you.”

However, some people use “with” for both usages, and that’s probably what you find confusing: “I swapped wheat flour with almond flour.” Did the swapper end up with wheat flour or almond flour?

The “for” version, in our opinion, is clearer because the preposition unambiguously means “in place of.” So to “swap X for Y” plainly means to put X in place of Y.

As we’ve written before, we feel the same about “substitute.” The use of “with” is accepted there, but we find “substitute X for Y” clearer than “substitute Y with X.

Now for some etymology. You’d never guess it, but “swap” was probably onomatopoeic in origin. That is to say, it means what it sounds like—a clap or a smack.

As the OED explains, when the verb first appeared in writing in the mid-1300s it meant to strike or smite, and it was “probably of echoic origin, signifying a smart resounding blow.”

(The dictionary notes a similar echo effect in dialectal German, where a schwappe is a “resounding box on the ear” and schwappen means “to make a clapping or splashing noise, to strike with a resounding blow.”)

So how did the bargaining or trading  sense of “swap” emerge in English?

As the dictionary explains, by the late 1300s, it was being used with the apparent sense of “to ‘strike hands’ in token of an agreement or bargain.” And to this day, striking is associated with bargaining.

“The development of the sense of concluding a bargain from that of striking is paralleled in various uses of strike,” according to the OED.

For example, people arriving at an agreement have been said to “strike a price” (first recorded in 1526), “strike hands” (1530), “strike truce” (1544), “strike peace” (1624), “strike a league”  (1749), “strike a bargain” (1766), and “strike a compact” (1865). The newcomer, “strike a deal,” isn’t discussed in the OED, but we found an early use from 1882.

Getting back to “swap,” in only a few decades it moved from the sense of striking a blow (circa 1350) to that of striking an agreement.

Oxford’s earliest citation for the bargaining sense, where the meaning is “apparently to ‘strike hands’ in token of an agreement or bargain,” is from an anonymous Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (circa 1390):

“Sweet friend, swap we so—sware with trawþe / Queþer, leude, so lymp, lere oþer better” (“Dear sir, swap we so—swear with truth / Whether hands, in the end, be empty or not”). We’ve expanded the OED’s citation to include the line about hands.

Two centuries later, the verb was being used to mean “to strike (a bargain),” the dictionary says. Here’s Oxford’s earliest example: “Aliena … swapt a bargaine with his Landslord” (from Thomas Lodge’s prose tale Rosalynde, 1590).

Very soon afterward, “swap” acquired its modern sense and was used alone, without “bargain” as an object. We’ll repeat the OED’s definition: to give or dispose of in exchange “for something else”; to exchange (things) “with another person.”

The dictionary’s earliest example: “Soft, Ile not swap my father for all this” (John Lyly’s play Mother Bombie, 1594).

The old hitting and smiting uses of “swap” are mostly obsolete today, but the bargaining and exchanging senses of the verb have survived.

It’s used both with and without direct or indirect objects, as in “They swapped clothing” … “He’s agreed to swap” … “I’ll swap you for it” … “Don’t swap with him” … “They buy, sell, and swap.”

There’s also the mid-19th-century expression “swap horses in midstream,” defined in the OED as “to change one’s ideas, plans, etc., in the middle of a project, progress, etc.”

As for the noun “swap,” it developed in a somewhat parallel fashion. Like the verb, the noun originally had senses in the late 1300s relating to a blow struck, though occasionally it was used to mean a kiss (perhaps a noisy one).

Meanings related to an exchange, however, didn’t appear for hundreds of years. The OED’s earliest example is from the early 17th century:

“They … will either beg them, or make a swap with you in priuate” (from a compendium of travel narratives, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes, by Samuel Purchas, 1625).

Finally, a few words about the spelling of “swap.” In its earliest uses it was spelled with an “a.” But over the centuries it’s also been spelled “swop,” particularly in British English, and the “o” spelling is accepted today as a chiefly British variant. In the OED’s opinion, “the spelling swap for both [verb and noun] is recommended.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Jerry!

Q: If I say, “It wasn’t Jerry,” I mean it wasn’t Jerry. But if I say, “Damn if it wasn’t Jerry,” I mean it was Jerry. How does “Damn if” change the meaning to its opposite?

A: The statement “Damn if it wasn’t Jerry” is short for “I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Jerry.” The idiom “I’ll be damned,” often followed by “if,” is used to express surprise or negation. In this case, both senses are expressed., which labels the usage “informal + impolite,” defines the two meanings of “I’ll be damned” this way:

(1) “used to show that one is very surprised about something,” as in “I spent an hour putting the machine together and I’ll be damned if it didn’t fall apart as soon as I tried to use it.”

(2) “used to say that one cannot or will not do something,” as in “I’ll be damned if I can remember where I left my keys.”

Our searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases indicate that the usage showed up in American English in the early 19th century but soon appeared in British English.

The earliest American example we’ve found is from a report in an Indiana newspaper about a schoolmaster who killed one of his students.

The 17-year-old victim, who had refused to sit down and watch while the teacher punished his 14-year old brother, had said, “I’ll be damned if I will—I will not see Marcus punished” (the Indiana Palladium, Lawrenceburg, Aug. 2, 1828).

The first British example we’ve seen is from a collection of historical whodunnits set in the courts of George II and George III:

“Why, look at the very position of the fellow as he lies on his bed there: I’ll be damned if it isn’t all sham!” From The Mysteries of the Court of London (Vol. I, 1849), by George William MacArthur Reynolds. The reference is to someone presumed to be feigning madness.

Finally, we should mention that we’ve discussed “damn” several times on the blog, including a 2021 post about how “damn” became a swear word, and a 2019 post on the shrinking of the adjective “damned” to “damn.”

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English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

Categorically speaking: in, into, by

Q: Are these sentences correct? (1) “My articles are organized into categories.” (2) “My articles are organized by category.” I’m sure the first is. I think the second is too, but I don’t know why “category” is singular, since I assume there are multiple categories.

A: We’d use “in” for your first example. We think it’s more idiomatic in a passive construction, though not necessarily more correct: “My articles are organized in categories.”

But we’d prefer “into” with an active construction: “I organized my articles into categories.” Why? Perhaps because “into” expresses movement or action, and has since Anglo-Saxon times.

As for your second example (“My articles are organized by category”), we’d leave it as is. Why “category” when there are likely multiple categories?

When the preposition “by” is used in the sense of traveling, paying, communicating, organizing, and so on, it’s generally followed by a mass (or non-count) noun, one that’s always singular in form and doesn’t have an indefinite article or a number as a modifier.

Here are a few examples: “Did you get there by train?” … “She paid by check” … “I’ll send them by email” … “He lined up the class by size.”

Of course nouns like those (“train,” “email,” “check,” and “size”) can be used in other situations as count nouns—nouns that can be singular or plural: “I sent you an email explaining that the two checks were in the mail.”

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