English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

If we had our druthers

Q: What does “if I had my druthers” mean and from where did the phrase originate?

A: The expression “if I had my druthers” means “if I had a choice” or “if I had a preference.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes “druthers” here as an informal plural noun meaning a choice or a preference.

American Heritage gives this example from the columnist George Will: “Given their druthers, these hell-for-leather free marketeers might sell the post office.”

The noun “druthers” actually began life as a verb in 19th-century America. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a US dialectal alteration of the verb phrase “would rather.”

The OED’s only two examples of the verb are in the writings of Mark Twain. Here’s the earliest, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876): “I’d druther they was devils a dern sight.”

The noun “druthers” showed up a couple of decades later. Oxford has this example from an 1895 issue of the American Dialect Society’s journal Dialect Notes:

“Bein’s I caint have my druthers an’ set still, I cal’late I’d better pearten up an’ go ‘long.”

The OED says the usage is also seen as “druther,” “ruther,” and “ruthers.” Here’s an example with “ruthers,” from William Alexander Percy’s 1941 autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee:

“ ‘Your ruthers is my ruthers’ (what you would rather is what I would rather). Certainly the most amiable and appeasing phrase in any language, the language used being not English but deep Southern.”

If we had our druther, ruther, druthers, or ruthers, we’d take a break now. And so we will. See you tomorrow.

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Turning the tables

Q: What do you think is the origin of the expression “turn the tables”? Does it have anything to do with a table supposedly moving around at a séance?

A: No, the verb phrase “turn the tables” has nothing to do with séances. It originated with the playing of board games in the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It means “to reverse one’s position relative to someone else,” the OED says, especially “by turning a position of disadvantage into one of advantage; to cause a complete reversal of the state of affairs.”

In its literal meaning, the phrase referred “to the position of the board in a board game being reversed, hence reversing the situation of each player in the game,” Oxford adds. But apparently it was used figuratively from the very beginning.

The expression first appeared in writing, the OED says, in The Widdowes Teares, a 1612 comedy by the poet and playwright George Chapman: “You doe well Sir to take your pleasure of me, (I may turne tables with you ere long).”

It showed up a few decades later in a sermon delivered by Bishop Robert Sanderson in 1648: “Whosoever thou art that dost another wrong, do but turn the tables: imagine thy neighbour were now playing thy game, and thou his.”

This more contemporary example is from Cynthia Freeland’s But Is It Art? (2001): “The images … celebrate the female artist’s ability to turn the tables on the men.”

Imagine that!

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A case in point

Q: I am gradually becoming obsessed with the phrase “a case in point.” Does anyone know its origin? It looks like a clumsy translation from another language (French, perhaps) but is it?

A: You’re onto something. The phrase at the heart of your obsession, “in point,” does indeed come from French—or, rather, Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French used by England’s Norman conquerors.

In the Anglo-Norman phrase en point, the word point refers to a state or condition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the word “point” showed up in English in the early 1200s with the sense of a condition, state, situation, or plight, though that meaning is now considered historic.

In the early 1600s, according to Oxford, “point” took on another sense—appropriate or pertinent—a sense that’s now chiefly seen in the expression “case in point,” meaning an example that illustrates the point.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the expression is from Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (1875) by William Stanley Jevons:

“The wampumpeag of the North American Indians is a case in point, as it certainly served as jewellery.”

The most recent citation is from the January 1996 issue of Scientific American:

Much of the ecological evidence about sex is open to sharply differing interpretations. A case in point concerns the ‘haplodipoid’ sex-determining system of ants, bees and wasps.”

And with that, we’ll buzz off.

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Bilingual education

Q: My Danish stepmother is completely bilingual, with one exception: she uses the phrase “not that I know to” instead of “not that I know of” when speaking English. It would be interesting to understand where this usage comes from.

A: There’s a verbal phrase in Danish, kende til, that means to “know about.”

But someone attempting a literal translation into English might render kende til as “know to.” That’s because the Danish verb kende means to “know” and the preposition til frequently means “to.”

Louise Møhl, a cultural officer with the Danish Consulate in New York, provided us with a couple of Danish-to-English examples of these terms used in the first-person singular:

Jeg kender ham fra mit arbejde. = “I know him from work.”

Det kender jeg ikke noget til. = “I don’t know anything about that.”

As for til, Ms. Møhl said, it “has many meanings in Danish depending on the situation.”

When it’s not part of the expression kende til, the preposition til can mean “to” (perhaps its most frequent sense), “of,” “for,” “about,” “toward,” “from,” or “at.”

Incidentally, the Danish til has a similar-sounding cousin in English, “till.” The Old Norse preposition til (“to”) is the ancestor of both the Danish til and the English prepositions “till” and “to.”

We’ve written on our blog about the English words “till” and “until” (you may be surprised to learn which came first).

Sorry that we can’t be more definite about why your Danish stepmother says “know to” instead of “know of,” but here’s a suggestion: ask her why she does it.

You might as well get it straight from the horse’s mouth. Or, as a Dane would put it, lige fra hestens mund.

Why a horse’s mouth? We had a brief posting back in 2006 that says there are two theories about the origin of the English expression, one involving horse racing and the other horse trading.

The most likely explanation is that it originated in the early 20th century in reference to inside information from a racing tipster that was supposedly as good as if it came straight from the horse itself.

We’ll end with an example from “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald,” a 1928 short story by one of our favorite writers, P. G. Wodehouse. The wooer (and eavesdropper) here is Archibald Mulliner:

“It might be an ignoble thing to eavesdrop, but it was apparent that Aurelia Cammarleigh was about to reveal her candid opinion of him: and the prospect of getting the true facts—straight, as it were, from the horse’s mouth—held him so fascinated that he could not move.”

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The rhubarb phenomenon

Q: Is there a term for the phenomenon of a word sounding completely nonsensical when you say it over and over again? That happens for me with the word “only.” I’d be interested if you folks have had the same experience.

A: Yes, we too have had this experience. After we repeatedly think, speak, or look at a word—say, “rhubarb”—it becomes gibberish.

This phenomenon isn’t new. James Boswell wrote about it in the 18th century, Edgar Allan Poe in the 19th, and James Thurber in the 20th.

In his memoir My Life and Hard Times (1933), Thurber recalls lying in bed, racking his brain in an attempt to remember the name Perth Amboy, the city in New Jersey:

“I fell to repeating the word ‘Jersey’ over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into.”

A common term for this experience is “semantic satiation,” a phrase used by the psychologist Leon Jakobovits James in his 1962 doctoral dissertation. Other terms are “semantic saturation” and “verbal satiation.” (We might add “the rhubarb phenomenon.”)  

In his paper,  “Effects of Repeated Stimulation on Cognitive Aspects of Behavior: Some Experiments on the Phenomenon of Semantic Satiation,” James describes experiments testing subjects’ responses to repeated words, numbers, concepts, and so on.

He concludes, among other things, that “Repeated presentation of verbal stimuli results in a decrease of their meaning.”

What this means is that with enough repetition, “rhubarb”  becomes a meaningless collection of letters or sounds.

In 2010, many years after writing his dissertation, James contributed a few comments to a discussion of semantic satiation on the website Language Hat.

James wrote that his dissertation “was the first objective demonstration of a measurement of the intensity of reduction of meaning with repetition.”

“I demonstrated that this meaning reduction was a general cognitive and perceptual and temporary process, e.g., it slowed down our computing time for simple arithmetic when numbers were repeated first,” he said.

He said the paper also showed “that this meaning reduction process occurs at the macro or societal level, e.g., reduction of popularity of hit songs as a function of the number of times they were played on the radio.”

“I note from a Google search that the phrase and idea of semantic satiation has been applied to new areas in the past forty years (e.g., advertising, music, neurosemantics, etc.),” he added. “Today I still think that semantic satiation operates at several levels: universal, general, specific, and particular.”

He predicted that research “in the next forty years will uncover many of these effects produced by cumulative repetition or exposure (words, topics, issues, objects, tastes, experiences, colors, etc.).”

“Further,” he said, “there will be connection made to personality traits which I discuss in my dissertation as ‘semantic satiability’—people who for instance like to hear the same song over and over again (movie, etc.), vs. people who vary their way home because they get bored, etc.”

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Like the back of one’s hand

Q: From a Canadian television commercial: “The monks of Oka, Quebec, knew how to make cheese like the back of their hand.” What do you think? It doesn’t sound right to me.

A: We agree that the Canadian commercial is oddly phrased. It’s odd for several reasons.

First, the expression “like the back of one’s hand” is more familiar when used in the singular—“like the back of my (or his or her) hand.”

The imagery is out of kilter in the plural “backs of their hands”—and even more out of it in the illogical mixing of singular and plural in “back of their hand,” the version on Canadian TV.

Second, a person generally knows something—not how to do something—“like the back of his hand.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the verb “know” in the expression refers to “a thing, place, or person.”

So we’d say, “He knows French like the back of his hand,” not “He knows how to speak French like the back of his hand.”

Finally, a literal-minded person might interpret the commercial to be saying the monks knew how to make cheese that resembled the backs of their hands. Or, as one viewer of the commercial commented online, “old, wrinkly, and smelly.”

The OED says that “to know (something) like the back of one’s hand” means “to be thoroughly familiar or conversant with.”

While the expression sounds venerable, Oxford has no published examples older than the mid-20th century. Here are the OED’s citations, all from mystery or suspense novels.

“I know him as well as I know the back of my hand.” (From Margaret Millar’s Wall of Eyes, 1943.) 

“I know that book like the back of my hand.” (From Michael Innes’s The Weight of Evidence, 1944.)  

“I know the district like the back of my hand.” (From Mary Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight, 1956.)

“I know that photograph like the back of my hand.” (From Catherine Aird’s Henrietta Who? 1968.)

We’ve spotted a few earlier examples, though.

For instance the expression appears twice in John Collis Snaith’s novel The Sailor, first published in 1916:

“So much had he knocked about the world that he knew men and cities like the back of his hand” … “his native city of Blackhampton, certain parts of which he knew like the back of his hand.”

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In a jiffy

Q: I was packing my latest manuscript in a Jiffy bag when I thought of a question for my go-to word guys. What is a jiffy?

A: It’s an instant or a moment, which doesn’t describe the amount of time we’ve taken to get to your question. Sorry, but our in-box has been overflowing lately.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “jiffy” as a colloquial noun of “origin unascertained,” and defines it as “a very short space of time.”

The OED says the word is seen “only in such phrases as in a jiffy,” but it later notes the use of “jiffy” in the names of padded bags and other products.

The first Oxford citation is from Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785), by Rudolf Erich Raspe: “In six jiffies I found myself and all my retinue … at the rock of Gibralter.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology speculates that the word might have been “spontaneously coined” by Raspe, a German librarian, writer, and scientist.

The full phrase “in a jiffy” was first recorded (with the spelling jeffy) in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796): “It will be done in a jeffy: it will be done in a short space of time, in an instant.”

In the 1950s, “Jiffy” showed up in trademarked names for a padded envelope, a book bag, and a peat pot for sowing seeds. The first Jiffy Lube opened in Ogden, Utah, in the 1970s, and franchises followed … in a jiffy.

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The tip of my fingers?

Q: I remember hearing the country song “The Tip of My Fingers” when I was a young’un in Upstate South Carolina 50 years ago. I’m old enough to know by now, but shouldn’t that be “Tips”? Thank y’all very much.

A: As we’ve written before on the blog, song writers are allowed a lot of leeway in the way they use English.

Bill Anderson wrote “The Tip of My Fingers” and released it as a single under that title in 1960. And we won’t fault him for it, even though most people would say “tips of my fingers.”

But the original title has apparently bothered some of the artists who’ve recorded the tune over the years.

It’s been recorded by Hank Snow, Eddy Arnold, Jean Shepard, and others—sometimes under the original title and sometimes as “The Tips of My Fingers.”

In fact, singers haven’t always pronounced the title the way it reads on the record label or album cover.

For instance, on the album Roy Clark Sings The Tip of My Fingers (1963), Clark very distinctly says “tips,” and so do his backup singers.

So you’re in good company if the original title bugs you.

Here’s an excerpt from Teresa Brewer’s 1966 recording of the song (she says “tip”):

I reached out my arms and I touched you
With soft words I whispered your name.
I held you right on the tip of my fingers
But that was as close as I came.

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A loaded question

Q: I recently came across this quote from the Mormon lawman Porter Rockwell: “I never shot at anybody, if I shoot they get shot! He’s still alive, ain’t he?” That got me to thinking. You shoot an arrow, not the bow, but you shoot a gun, not the bullet. A friend of mine says he shoots targets. I’m confused.

A: The verb “shoot” has a lot of flexibility. It can be used intransitively—that is, without a direct object. Example: “He likes to go into the woods and shoot.”

But “shoot” can also be used transitively—with a direct object. When we’re talking about weapons, the transitive verb “shoot” can mean to discharge, to let fly, or to hit.

Consequently, it can have a variety of objects. You can “shoot” (that is, discharge) a gun, bow, slingshot, or catapult. You can “shoot” (let fly) a bullet, arrow, spear, javelin, or similar projectile. And finally, you can “shoot” a target.

All of these senses of the verb are recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary and have been around for hundreds of years.

By the way, that last sense of the word—to “shoot” a target—implies that the target was hit. But “shoot at” means only to fire in a particular direction.

We’ll have something to say later about Orrin Porter Rockwell, a colorful and controversial Mormon figure from the Wild West.

But first let’s look at the life of “shoot,” a verb with an interesting history, and not just in weaponry.

Its ancestors were old Germanic words that meant to go swiftly or suddenly, to rush or fly—yes, like an arrow from a bow.

It was first recorded in Old English in the ninth century in reference to the shooting of arrows, according to citations in the OED.

But other Old English examples use the term in a wider sense that reflects its earlier Germanic roots—to dart swiftly from one place to another.

So at the root of the word is the sense of moving quickly, and this ancestry explains the many ways in which “shoot” is used today.

For example, meteors “shoot” across the night sky, rafters “shoot” the rapids, and a toboggan “shoots” down a slope. A racehorse “shoots” from the gate, then “shoots” ahead of the pack.

A golfer “shoots” a birdie,” while a basketball player “shoots” a basket. Grownups “shoot” pool or dice, and children “shoot” marbles. If the kids are growing fast, they’re said to “shoot” up.

Plants in spring send out new “shoots” (a noun usage). Rays of the sun “shoot” through the clouds, and on a more prosaic note, product sales “shoot” up.

An indiscreet person “shoots off” his mouth or “shoots” himself in the foot, while an ambitious colleague “shoots” for success.

To lock a door a night, we “shoot” a bolt into its fastening. And if we don’t look where we’re going, our feet “shoot” out from under us (after which we experience “shooting” pains).

With that, we’ve “shot our bolt.” In case you’re curious (even if you’re not), the “bolt” in this old proverb is a thousand-year-old word for a short, blunt arrow fired from a cross-bow.

In olden days, there was a similar expression, “a fool’s bolt is soon shot.” The lesson: conserve your ammunition.

In case any readers are wondering about that quote you mention, Porter Rockwell was, among other things, a gunfighter, a deputy US marshal, and a bodyguard to the Mormon leader Joseph Smith Jr.

Rockwell was arrested in St. Louis in March of 1843 in connection with an attempt to kill Lilburn Boggs, a former governor of Missouri, the year before. (In 1838, as governor, Boggs issued an executive order evicting Mormons from the state.)

A grand jury found that there wasn’t enough evidence for an indictment on the charge of attempted murder, but Rockwell was tried in December of 1843 for trying to escape.

He supposedly made his comments at that trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to five minutes in jail, according to Enemy of the Saints, a biography of Boggs by Robert Nelson.

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Earth angles

Q: I love your blog, but I just want to point out an easily fixed typo in your posting about why English is a Germanic language. In the seventh paragraph of your answer, you refer to “the earth’s population.” The word “Earth” requires capitalization.

A: We’re glad you like the blog, but this isn’t a mistake. We properly used “earth” as a common noun.

As The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) says, “In nontechnical contexts the word earth, in the sense of our planet, is usually lowercased when preceded by the or in such idioms as ‘down to earth’ or ‘move heaven or earth.’ ”

“When used as the proper name of our planet, especially in context with other planets,” the Chicago Manual adds, “it is capitalized and the is usually omitted.”  

Other standard references agree.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says the word is often capitalized when it stands alone and refers to “the third planet from the sun.” Otherwise, it’s lowercased.

So unless you’re using it in a strictly astronomical sense (as in “the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Earth”), the word is lowercased. In fact, it’s sometimes lowercased even when used in reference to the planet.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “The names of planets other than our own are invariably capitalized, but earth is more often than not lowercased.”

The usage guide goes on to say that the name is more likely to be capitalized when it appears with the names of the other planets, as in “the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Earth.”

Another guide, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.) says, “In reference to the planet we live on, earth is usually preceded by the and is not capitalized. The sun and the moon are treated the same way.”

Garner’s gives this example: “a full moon occurs when the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the earth.”

But “when Earth is referred to as a proper noun,” the usage guide says, “it is capitalized and usually stands alone.”

Garner’s gives this example from an article about the dwarf planet Quaoar: “It’s about one-tenth the size of Earth and orbits the sun every 288 years.”

The Old English word eorthe, which first showed up in in Beowulf around 725, could refer to the ground, the soil, or the earth, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. The modern spelling appeared in the last half of the 1500s.

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A matter of course

Q: In texting me, my daughter used the phrase “of course” (spelling it “of coarse,” naturally), which got me to thinking. How is it that we use “course” to refer to something in a positive manner (as in “of course”) as well as to a path, a route, or a plan—from a “concourse” to an “obstacle course” to a “course of study”?

A: The phrase “of course” means something akin to “naturally” or “it goes without saying.” When we say something occurred “of course,” we mean it was only to be expected, or that it was in the normal course of events.

And that last phrase, “in the normal course of events,” is a clue to the etymology of the phrase “of course.”

Our word “course” came into English in the late 13th century, and for several hundred years it was spelled without an “e” at the end, like the French word it came from (cours).

The French got it from Latin, in which cursus means a race, a journey, a march, or a direction. The Latin noun comes from the verb currere, to run.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that a wide range of English words is derived from currere, including “current,” “courier,” and “occur.”

In English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun “course” originally meant an onward movement in a particular path, or the action of running or moving onward.

Consequently, “course” has long been used to mean a customary or habitual succession of things, or a part of such a series.

It has also been used for hundreds of years to mean the place or time where the series has its “run,” as well as the natural order or the ordinary manner of proceeding.

This notion—of a habitual path or a prescribed series of things—explains a great many uses of “course” in English.

To mention a few, it explains why the parts of a meal are “courses,” why a flowing stream is a “watercourse,” why a normal event happens “in due course,” why an orderly ship maintains a certain “course,” why we let nature or the law “take its course,” and why colleges offer “courses” of study and doctors prescribe “courses” of treatment.

It also explains how “racecourse” and “golf course” got their names. And it explains why women in the 16th through the 19th centuries called their menstrual periods their “courses.”

The phrase we’re getting to, “of course,” came along in the mid-16th century, according to citations in the OED.

In the early 1540s it was used both as an adjective to mean “natural” or  “to be expected” (as in the phrase “a matter of course”) and as an adverb to mean “ordinarily” or “as an everyday occurrence” (as in “the cake was of course homemade”).

By the early 19th century, “of course” was being used to qualify entire sentences or clauses, according to OED citations.  And that’s how we generally use it today.

Oxford’s earliest example of this usage is from John Dunn Hunter’s Memoirs of a Captivity Among the Indians of North America (1823):

“She made some very particular inquiries about my people, which, of course, I was unable to answer.”

This later example is from a bit of dialogue in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist (1838): “ ‘You will tell her I am here?’ … ‘Of course.’ ”

We now take the phrase “of course” for granted, but it had some competition over the centuries.

It’s proved more durable than several variants with the same meaning—“upon course,” which was first recorded in this sense in 1619, “on course” (1677), and “in course” (1722).

In other words, its survival was not necessarily a matter of course.

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Yeah, no

Q: We North Queenslanders are considered rednecks even by Australian standards. I thought I’d pass on an example of English usage in this part of the world: Yeah, no, as in “Yeah, no, they should’ve won in the last quarter.”

A: We’ve written on the blog about “yeah,” but we haven’t looked into “yeah, no” until now.

Others, however, have studied this conversational response, which is used by both Americans and Australians.

In fact, Australians may use it, more—at least there’s been more written about “yeah, no” by language scholars in Australia.

A 2004 article in The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, quoted the Australian linguist Kate Burridge as saying, “It’s not going to disappear. It’s always hard to predict with language change, but it looks like its use is on the increase.”

The author of the Melbourne article, Bridie Smith, pointed out that English speakers aren’t alone in this usage, since “Germans use a similar ‘ja nein’ and the South Africans ‘ya nay.’ ”

“In Australia,” Smith wrote in 2004, “where the phrase has become entrenched in the past six years, ‘yeah no’ can mean anything from ‘yes, I see that, but can we go back to the earlier topic’ to an enthusiastic ‘yes, I can’t reinforce that point enough.’ ”

The meaning of “yeah, no” depends on its context, Smith says. She quotes Dr. Burridge, the linguist, as saying: “It can emphasise agreement, it can downplay disagreement or compliments, and it can soften refusals.”

Burridge and a colleague, Margaret Florey, published a paper in the Australian Journal of Linguistics in 2002 entitled “ ‘Yeah-no He’s a Good Kid’: A Discourse Analysis of Yeah-no in Australian English.”

An abstract of the paper said that as of 2002, “Yeah, no” was relatively new in Australian English and served many functions. It kept a conversation rolling, helped with “hedging and face-saving,” and indicated agreement or disagreement.

Since then, American linguists and language watchers have taken note of “yeah, no” in the US.

Linguists have discussed it on the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. And articles have been written by Stephen Dodson for Language Hat, by Mark Liberman for the Language Log, and by Ben Yagoda for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Even presidents of the United States aren’t immune. When a radio interviewer in 2011 asked Bill Clinton how he felt about being spoofed on TV comedy shows, Yagoda writes, “The former president replied, ‘Oh yeah, no I thought a lot of the Saturday Night Live guys were great.’ ” 

Liberman surveyed the speech databases in the Linguistic Data Consortium, and found that “in all the cases that I looked at, the yeah and the no seem be independently appropriate in the context of use, even if the sequence seems surprising when viewed in merely semantic terms.”

In one comment on the ADS list, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter quoted a former New York City police detective as saying on CNN: “Yeah, no, you’re right!”

Lighter added: “There it seems to mean, ‘Yes indeed, and no, I wouldn’t think of contradicting you.’ ” 

But it can also mean disagreement, as in this tweet a few months ago about horror movies: “yeah no i hate blood and guns and stuff like that.”

PS: Readers of the blog have reported sightings (or, rather, hearings) of the usage in New Zealand, in South African English as well as Afrikaans, and in Danish.

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Let’s rustle up an answer

Q: The other day, I asked my office manager  to order me new business cards. Her answer: “Sure, I’ll rustle up some for you.” So where in the world does “rustle up” come from?

A: The verb “rustle” dates back at least as far as the 14th century, and it may have its roots in the early days of Old English.

It originally meant—and still means—to move about with a rustling sound, or as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “to make a soft, muffled crackling sound when moving.”

The OED says the origin of the word is uncertain, but it’s probably imitative—that is, “rustle” probably imitates the sound it describes.

The dictionary suggests that it may possibly be related to a “small group of very poorly attested Old English words” that refer to making noises: hristan, for example, meant to make a noise, and hrisian meant to shake or rattle.

Over the years, the verb “rustle” took on many different meanings in connection with making noises while moving around. People as well as things noisily rustled “about,” “in,” “through,” “to,” “up,” and so on.

In the 19th century, however, “rustle” took on several colloquial senses in the United States, including the one you’re asking about. Here are the new meanings and their first citations in the OED:

● to stir or rouse oneself into action: “Get up, rouse and rustle about, and get away from these scores” (1835, The Partisan, a novel by William Gilmore Simms).

● to search for food, forage: “Cattle and horses rustled in the neighbouring cane-brake” (1835, The Rambler in North America, a travel book by Charles Joseph Latrobe).

● to acquire, gather, provide something: “He nailed my thumb in his jaws, and rostled up a handful of dirt & throwed it in my eyes” (1844, Spirit of the Times, a weekly newspaper in New York City).

● to move quickly: “ ‘Rustle the things off that table,’ means clear the table in a hurry” (1882, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine).

● to gather people or animals: “I just told Billy … that it wasn’t any use for me to take her through … and he could rustle up some one to finish my drive” (1883, Our Deseret Home, by W. M. Eagan).

● to round up and steal cattle, horses, etc.: “He and Turner … went to Coppinger’s pasture, intending to kill the negro Frank, and ‘rustle’ six head of fat cattle, then in Coppinger’s pasture” (1886, Texas Court of Appeals Reports).

The sense that you’ve asked about (to acquire, gather, provide something) is defined more fully in the OED:

“To acquire or gather, typically as a result of searching or employing effort or initiative, and in response to a particular need; to provide (a person) with something urgently required; to hunt out; (freq. in later use) to put together (a dish or meal). Now usu. with up.”

Now, it’s time for us to take a break and rustle up some grub!

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Death, the great intensifier

Q: I find the death imagery in a sentence like “I love her to death” to be inappropriate and grotesque. I’d be thrilled (though not to death) if you would write something about this on the blog.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t be thrilled by our answer. We don’t find the usage inappropriate or grotesque.

In fact, it has a long history, going back to the 1300s, though it’s often used negatively, not positively as in your example.

We’ve checked a half-dozen standard dictionaries and all of them list the use of “to death” in this sense as standard English for excessively or extremely.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “to death” (or “to dead”) has been used since the Middle Ages to intensify verbs of feeling or adjectives.

The OED defines the phrase in this sense as “to the last extremity, to the uttermost, to the point of physical or nervous exhaustion, beyond endurance.”

The dictionary’s earliest written example is from Cursor Mundi, a Middle English poem written sometime before 1400: “Herodias him hated to ded.”

And here’s an example from John Dryden’s 1672 play The Conquest of Granada: “I’m sad to death, that I must be your Foe.”

The common verbal phrase “to do something to death” showed up in Victorian times, according to published references in the OED.

Oxford’s earliest written example is from Recaptured Rhymes (1882), a collection of verse from the Saturday Review by the British writer Henry Duff Traill: “I am also called Played-out and Done-to-death, / And It-will-wash-no-more.”

The most recent citation is from an April 16, 1965, article in the New Statesman that describes a tune as “mercilessly done to death by countless performers.”

Although all the OED citations for the intensifier use it in a negative sense, we often see “to death” used positively and see nothing wrong with using the phrase for doing something intensely positive—like loving someone to death!

In case you’re wondering, the word “death” first showed up in Old English around 725 in Beowulf, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

It ultimately comes from reconstructed Proto-Germanic and Indo-European words for the act of dying.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Punctuation Usage

The singularity of Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parsing the Preamble

Q: I’m puzzled by this phrase from the Preamble: “in order to form a more perfect union.” What part of speech is “in order to”? It looks like a preposition. But how can the verb “form” be an object of a preposition? I struggle with this.

 A: You’ve raised an interesting Constitutional question. The short answer is that “in order to” is an idiomatic phrase that might be translated “so as to” and is followed by a verb.

As to what parts of speech are in play here, we think you can regard “in order to form” and similar constructions in two different ways:

(1) “In order to” is a compound preposition that has a bare infinitive (“form”) as its object.

(2) “In order” is a compound preposition that has a “to” infinitive (“to form”) as its object. The “to” here isn’t actually part of the infinitive, as we’ve written before on the blog.

In our opinion, arguing for one view over the other would be splitting hairs.

“In order” may not look like a preposition, but it functions like one, resembling “so as.” And as we’ll explain later, an infinitive can indeed be the object of a preposition.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language has an explanation that agrees with our option #2 above. Cambridge describes “in order” as a preposition followed by either a “to” infinitive or by a clause starting with “that.”

The “in order that” construction, according to Cambridge, “is somewhat more formal and considerably less frequent” than one with the “to” infinitive. 

And “in order that” requires the use of more words. As Cambridge notes, it often calls for “a modal auxiliary,” such as “might” or “can.”

Take a sentence like “I left work early in order that I might go to the gym.” It’s much wordier than “I left work early in order to go to the gym.” (In fact, as we’ve written before on the blog, you can often drop “in order” and be even less wordy!)

The Cambridge Grammar adds that the subjunctive mood is sometimes used with “in order that,” giving this example: “The administration had to show resolve in order that he not be considered a lame-duck president.” (Note the subjunctive “be.”)

But getting back to “in order to,” we were surprised to find only one standard dictionary that analyzes how the phrase functions as a part of speech.

The Collins English Dictionary calls “in order to” a preposition that is followed by an infinitive. Collins defines the phrase as meaning “so that it is possible to.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language (5th ed.) simply say the phrase means “for the purpose of.”

But that definition is problematic on a literal level, since you can’t swap one expression for the other.

“For the purpose of” is followed by a gerund, like “forming,” while “in order to” is followed by an infinitive, like “form.” (A gerund ends in “-ing” and acts like a noun.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says “in order to” is used “with infinitive expressing purpose.” It defines the phrase as meaning “so as to do or achieve (some end or outcome).”

The OED’s first example of the usage is from the 1609 Douay translation of the Bible: “These are they that speak to Pharao, king of Egypt, in order to bring out the children of Israel from Egypt.”

A less lofty example is this caption from a 1994 issue of Food and Wine magazine: “True risotto must be stirred continuously in order to develop its unique texture.”

You expressed some doubt as to whether a verb can be the object of a preposition.

As we wrote on the blog in 2010, an infinitive as well as a gerund can be a direct object. We’ve also written about bare versus “to” infinitives several times, including posts in 2009 and 2013

We’ll add here that it’s not unusual for an infinitive—bare or not—to be the object of a preposition. For example, in all of these sentences, infinitives (both bare and with “to”) are the objects of prepositions:

“He can do everything but cook” … “She had no choice except to lie” … “I’d rather starve instead of steal” …  “We have better things to do than to argue” …”They were about to leave” … “He opened his mouth as if to speak.” (When used in this way, “as if” has a prepositional function, according to Cambridge.)

Finally, a Constitutional footnote. In case you’re bothered by the Founders’ use of  “more perfect” in that passage from the Preamble, take a look at our post on the subject.

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On the lam

Q: Some time ago I wrote you to recommend an essential book for someone in your trade: How the Irish Invented Slang, by Daniel Cassidy. There you will find, among many hundred entries, his view of the derivation of “lam” from the Irish word leim. Alas, Danny has since died, and his extraordinary achievement has not been properly recognized. I feel sure that if you look through his book you will be inspired to extend at least his scholarly life.

A: You won’t like what we have to say. This book sounds like a lot of fun, but perhaps there’s more fun in it than truth.

Cassidy’s book, which won an American Book Award for nonfiction in 2007, maintains that American slang is teeming with words of Irish origin—“jazz,” “spiel,” “baloney,” “nincompoop,” “babe,” and “bunkum,” to mention only a few.

But many of his claims have been disputed by linguists and lexicographers because they’re based merely on phonetic similarities.

The critics include Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and dictionary editor who specializes in slang, and Mark Liberman, a linguist who has called Cassidy’s book an “exercise in creative etymology.”

Cassidy himself has acknowledged that he based his etymologies on phonetic similarities. A New York Times interviewer wrote in 2007 about the inspiration that led to the book:

 “Mr. Cassidy’s curiosity about the working-class Irish vernacular he grew up with kept growing. Some years back, leafing through a pocket Gaelic dictionary, he began looking for phonetic equivalents of the terms, which English dictionaries described as having ‘unknown origin.’ ”

 The article continues: “He began finding one word after another that seemed to derive from the strain of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known as Irish. The word ‘gimmick’ seemed to come from ‘camag,’ meaning trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick.”

 “Buddy,” as Cassidy told the interviewer, sounded like bodach (Irish for a strong, lusty youth); “geezer” resembled gaosmhar (wise person); “dude” was like duid (foolish-looking fellow), and so on. He thus compiled lists of American slang words that sounded as if they came from Irish, and based his book on them.

But in doing serious etymology, one has to do more than show that words in one language sound or look like those in another. A superficial resemblance might provide a starting point, but it shouldn’t be the conclusion.

A more authoritative approach would be to apply the academic standards that a lexicographer or a comparative linguist would use, supporting one’s case with documented evidence from written records. 

Let’s focus on the phrase you mention—“on the lam.”

Cassidy suggests an etymology of “lam” in a passage about an Irish-American gambler named Benny Binion: “Benny went on the lam (leim, jump), scramming to Vegas with two million dollars in the trunk of his maroon Cadillac.”

So Cassidy is proposing that “lam” in this sense is derived from the Irish leim. But other than that parenthetical note, he offers no evidence for the suggested etymology.

It’s true that leim (pronounced LAY-im) is Irish Gaelic for “jump” or “leap.” It’s similar to nouns with the same meaning in other Celtic languages (llam in Welsh, lam in Breton and Cornish, lheim in Manx Gaelic, leum in Scottish Gaelic), and it shows up in many Irish place names.

But we haven’t found a single other source that connects the Irish leim with the American slang term “lam,” meaning to run away. Not one.

If there were any truth in Cassidy’s assertion, etymologists and lexicographers would have picked up on it by now. 

Slang scholars still describe the origin of the “lam” in “on the lam” as unknown, and they would be only too happy to discover it.

Several theories have been proposed over the years: (1) that “lam” is short for “slam”; (2) that it’s from “lammas,” a mid-19th century British slang word meaning to run off; and (3) that it’s from the verb “lam” (to beat), used like “beat” in the older phrase “beat it.”

The last theory is the most commonly proposed—that the slang “lam” comes from the verb meaning to beat.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “lam” has had this meaning (to “beat soundly” or “thrash”) since Shakespeare’s day. The earliest citations in writing come from the 1590s.

In the late 19th century, the OED says, this verb “lam” acquired a new meaning in American slang—“to run off, to escape, to ‘beat it.’ ”

Oxford’s earliest citation for the slang verb is from Allan Pinkerton’s book Thirty Years a Detective (1886), in a reference to a pickpocket:

“After he has secured the wallet he will … utter the word ‘lam!’ This means to let the man go, and to get out of the way as soon as possible.”

The following year, the OED says, the word started appearing as a noun to mean “escape” or “flight.” Oxford’s earliest example here is from an 1897 issue of Appleton’s Popular Science Monthly: “To do a lam, meaning to run.”

Over the next few decades, according to slang dictionaries, to run or escape was to “lam,” “do a lam,” “make a lam,” “lam it,” “go on the lam,” “take a lam,” “take it on the lam,” and “be on the lam.”

Similarly, the OED says, a fugitive or somebody on the run was called a “lamster” (1904; also spelled “lamaster” and “lammister”).

It’s not hard to see how the “lam” that means to beat it might have descended from the “lam” that means to beat.

Since Old English, as the OED says, to “beat” has been “said of the action of the feet upon the ground in walking or running.”

This use of “beat,” according to Oxford, has given us phrases like “beat the streets,” “beat a path,” “beat a track,” and so on. In the 17th century, to “beat the hoof,” or “beat it on the hoof,” was to go on foot. 

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the phrase “beat it” (to clear out, go in a hurry), was first recorded in 1878, when it appeared in A. F. Mulford’s Fighting Indians in the 7th United States Cavalry:

“The Gatling guns sang rapidly for a few seconds, and how those reds, so boastful at their war dance the night before, did ‘beat it!’ ”

So the slang use of “beat it” was around before “lam” (to beat) acquired its extended slang meaning (to run or beat it).

But we haven’t discussed where the earlier “lam” came from. Etymologists believe it’s derived from the Old Norse lemja (to flog or to cripple by beating). However, an even earlier source has been suggested, one that’s older than writing.

The linguist Calvert Watkins, writing in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, identifies the source of “lam” and “lame” (both verb and adjective) as an Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as lem-, meaning “to break in pieces, broken, soft, with derivatives meaning ‘crippled.’ ”

This Indo-European root developed into prehistoric Proto-Germanic words that have been reconstructed as lamon (weak limbed, lame) and lamjan (to flog, beat, cripple), according to Watkins and to the lexicographer John Ayto in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Other authorities, including the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, say the Indo-European lem– also has descendants outside the Germanic languages, including an adjective in Old Irish and Middle Irish, lem (“foolish, insipid”).

The modern Irish equivalent, leamh, is similarly defined (“foolish, insipid, importunate”) in An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, by Alexander McBain. 

This is a different word entirely from the Irish leim (jump), which McBain says was leimm in Old Irish.

We mentioned above that leim can be found in many Irish place names.

To mention just a few, there are Limavady (the Irish name is Leim an Mhadaidh, or “leap of the dog”); Lemnaroy (Leim an Eich Ruaidh, “leap of the reddish horse”); and Leixlip (Leim an Bhradain, “leap of the salmon”).

This last one is an interesting case. Leixlip is on the river Liffey, which is rich in salmon. The town’s original name came from Old Norse, lax hlaup (“salmon leap”).

In the 1890s, when Leixlip adopted an Irish name, it chose Leim an Bhradain (“leap of the salmon”), a direct translation of the Old Norse. Of course, the Vikings who settled there in the Dark Ages may have used a Norse translation from Irish. Who knows?

Some etymological questions may never be settled for sure. That doesn’t mean scholarly methods can’t be used to make an educated guess. Still, uneducated guesses are made all the time because people are so eager to know.

Woody Allen once satirized this desperate need to know. In a humorous essay called “Slang Origins,” from his book Without Feathers (1972), he wrote:

“How many of you have ever wondered where certain slang expressions come from? Like ‘She’s the cat’s pajamas,’ or to ‘take it on the lam.’ Neither have I. And yet for those who are interested in this sort of thing I have provided a brief guide to a few of the more interesting origins. …

“ ‘Take it on the lam’ is English in origin. Years ago, in England, ‘lamming’ was a game played with dice and a large tube of ointment. Each player in turn threw dice and then skipped around the room until he hemorrhaged. If a person threw seven or under he would say the word ‘quintz’ and proceed to twirl in a frenzy. If he threw over seven, he was forced to give every player a portion of his feathers and was given a good ‘lamming.’ Three ‘lammings’ and a player was ‘kwirled’ or declared a moral bankrupt. Gradually any game with feathers was called ‘lamming’ and feathers became ‘lams.’ To ‘take it on the lam’ meant to put on feathers and later, to escape, although the transition is unclear.

“Incidentally, if two of the players disagreed on the rules, we might say they ‘got into a beef.’ This term goes back to the Renaissance when a man would court a woman by stroking the side of her head with a slab of meat. If she pulled away, it meant she was spoken for. If, however, she assisted by clamping the meat to her face and pushing it all over her head, it meant she would marry him. The meat was kept by the bride’s parents and worn as a hat on special occasions. If, however, the husband took another lover, the wife could end the marriage by running with the meat to the town square and yelling, ‘With thine own beef, I do reject thee. Aroo! Aroo!’ If a couple ‘took to the beef’ or ‘had a beef’ it meant they were quarreling.”

We think there’s a lesson here—and some lessons come with a laugh. The human mind abhors a vacuum. When the most advanced methods of scholarship can’t (or haven’t yet) come up with definitive answers, then answers will be invented. 

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Let’s play ball

Q: Given the start of the baseball season, it occurs to me that “play ball” is a rather interesting expression. Your thoughts?

A: Now that you mention it, the expression “play ball” is interesting. The “ball” is what’s being batted around, and “ball” here also happens to be the clipped name of the game.

In the US, “play ball” generally means “play baseball,” though the usage is often heard in connection with football, basketball, and other sports.

In fact, the phrase or various versions of it had been around for hundreds of years before any American stepped on the mound and threw the ball toward home plate.

In the early days, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression simply referred to a game played with a ball.

But you asked about baseball, so let’s consult Paul Dickson, who (in the words of a Washington Times book review) “may be baseball’s answer to Noah Webster or, at the very least, William Safire.”

The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd ed.) defines “play ball!” as “the command issued by the plate umpire to start a game or to resume action. It’s sometimes abbreviated to a simple order of ‘play!’ ”

Dickson quotes (from the Boston Globe on May 13, 1886) what may be the first use of the baseball phrase in newsprint:

“McKeever held a long discussion with Pitcher Harmon about signs. The crowd got impatient; one man yelled ‘Get a telephone!’ while the umpire ordered them to ‘play ball.’ ”

The phrase certainly caught on, showing up a few years later in James Maitland’s The American Slang Dictionary (1891): “Play ball (Am.), go on with what you are about.”

The expression appeared more colorfully in a poem, “The Umpire,” in the July 27, 1893, issue of the Atchison (Kan.) Daily Globe:

“With features rigid as a block of stone, / He cries, ‘Play ball!’ ”

But apart from its use by umpires, Dickson says, “play ball” has a special meaning to baseball fans. It’s the “emblematic phrase for the start of any baseball game, from Opening Day to the opener of the World Series.”

The dictionary credits the pitcher Cy Young with the first use of the term in this sense, in 1905. It adds this quotation by a former baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, some 80 years later:

“The best words—the most fun words—in our language are ‘play ball.’ Those words conjure up home runs and strikeouts, extra innings and double plays. … ‘Play ball’ is what baseball is all about—its call to arms—and there isn’t a baseball fan … who isn’t a little excited over the beginning of a new season.” (From USA Today, 1986.)

The OED says the word “ball” in “play ball” is a noun meaning “a game played with a ball (esp. thrown or pitched with the hand).”

Today in the US, as we’ve said, the phrase refers to baseball, but it predates baseball by several centuries.

The expression was first recorded in the Middle Ages as “play at the ball,” which was later clipped to “play at ball” and finally to “play ball.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a description of St. Cuthbert in a medieval manuscript (circa 1300):

“With younge children he pleide atthe bal.” (Here we’ve changed two Middle English characters to “y” and “th.”)

An abbreviated version of the phrase first appeared in Nicholas Breton’s poem A Floorish Upon Fancie (1577):

“And let him learne to daunce, to shoote, and play at ball, / And any other sporte, but put him to his booke withall.”

During the 17th century, both “play at the ball” and “play at ball” were used. The modern form, “play ball,” finally emerged in the mid-18th century.

The OED cites an example from John Brickell’s The Natural History of North Carolina (1737). In a passage describing Native American games, Brickell writes: “Their manner of playing Ball is after this manner.”

The expression “to play ball” acquired another meaning in the early 20th century—to act fairly or cooperate.

The OED’s first example is from a 1903 novel, Back to the Woods, by Hugh McHugh (pen name of George Hobart): “Well, if Bunch should refuse to play ball I could send the check back to Uncle Peter.”

But the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has a citation from a slightly earlier novel, Edward Waterman Townsend’s Chimmie Fadden & Mr. Paul (1902):

“He’ll give him de time of his life if he’ll sign up to play ball wit him whenever he’s wanted.”

Today, many of our most familiar expressions (or clichés, if you prefer), come from ball games of one kind or another. Here’s a sampling of figurative uses of sports terms, with their earliest recorded appearances, all from either the OED or Random House.

● “keep the ball rolling”—to maintain a momentum, 1770

● “keep (or have) one’s eye on the ball”—to be careful or alert, 1907

● “home run”—a great success, 1913

● “have something (or a lot) on the ball”—to be capable, 1936 (a reference to throwing a speedy or deceptive pitch, a sense first recorded in 1911)

● “carry the ball”—to assume responsibility, 1924

● “run with the ball” or “take the ball and run with it”—to take control, 1926

● “from out in left field”—from out of nowhere, 1930s (a subject we discuss on the blog)

● “on the ball”—accurate or alert, 1939

● “drop the ball”—to fail at something, 1940

● “curveball”—something tricky and unexpected, 1944

● “throw a curve”—to do something tricky and unexpected, 1953

● “that’s the way the ball bounces”—that’s life, 1952

● “ballpark”—approximate (adjective), 1957

● “there goes the ballgame”—it’s all over (1930)

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I got this

Q: My question is about the ubiquitous “I got this,” as in the title of Jennifer Hudson’s memoir. I thought this was a fairly recent usage, but I’ve heard it used on two different current TV shows set in the ’80s.  When did this expression come into the language?

A: Jennifer Hudson, a Grammy Award-winning singer and Academy Award-winning actress, uses those words in the title of a 2011 song as well as her 2012 memoir.

The construction “I got this” is often used (as Hudson uses it) in a slangy, idiomatic way to mean “I can take care of this” or “I have this under control.”

Strictly speaking, “I got this” is a past-tense construction (as in “I got a new car last spring”). The technically correct form in reference to the present would be either “I’ve got this” or “I have this.”

But let’s not get technical about idiomatic English. Baseball outfielders, for example, aren’t stopping to check their grammar as they run to catch a fly ball (“I got it!”).

We can’t find any scholarly discussion of the history of “I got this” used in the sense Jennifer Hudson is using it, so we can’t give you a lot of exact citations from the 1980s.

But we did find a few close examples in Google Book searches, including this  exchange from Nam, an oral history of the Vietnam War that was published in 1983:

“ ‘This one is mine.’

“ ‘Nah, I got this one. You got the last one.’ ”

Of course, there’s a difference between “I got this,” which refers to a general situation, and the more specific “I got this one,” which refers to a particular object. But they’re close.

We’ll end with a few lines from Hudson’s song:

(I got this)
Ain’t no stopping me, come on, follow me if you feel the need
(I got this)
Better believe I got this, believe I got this

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High on the hog

Q: During Pat’s last appearance on WNYC, she said living “high on the hog” refers to the choicest cuts of pork. I disagree. The sow has several pairs of teats starting at the chest area and continuing down the body. The teats at the top have the richest milk. The strongest piglets feed at the top, or high on the hog.

 A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but your explanation is one of several dubious “high on the hog” etymologies involving the suckling of piglets.

The most common is that the piglets who suckle on the top row of teats when the sow is lying on its side fare better, perhaps because the top row is easier to reach.

Gary Martin, writing on his Phrase Finder website, notes that this supposed etymology didn’t show up until the late 20th century, many years after “high on the hog” first appeared in print.

 (The earliest published references that we’ve been able to find linking a sow’s teats and the expression “high on the hog” are from the 1960s.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer, dates the idiomatic phrase to “live [or eat] high off [or on] the hog” to the late 19th century. (The first examples we could find were from the early 20th century.)

“It alludes to the choicest cuts of meat, which are found on a pig’s upper flanks,” Ammer writes in the American Heritage book of idioms.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “to live (also eat) high off (also (up) on) the hog” as “to live in an extravagant or luxurious style.” It describes the usage as “orig. and chiefly U.S.

The earliest citation in the OED is from the Nov. 28, 1919, issue of the Kansas City  Times: “ ‘Dese days I’se eatin’ furder up on de hog!’ ‘We’re all eating too high up on the hog,’ Mr. Clyne concluded.”

An article in the March 4, 1920, issue of the New York Times clearly indicates that the expression refers to the choice cuts of meat from a hog:

“Southern laborers who are ‘eating too high up on the hog’ (pork chops and ham) and American housewives who ‘eat too far back on the beef’ (porterhouse and round steak) are to blame for the continued high cost of living, the American Institute of Meat Packers announced today.”

Now, of course, some pricey restaurants serve such “low on the hog” delicacies as caramelized pork belly and grilled trotters.

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Just sayin’

Q: Do you have any comment as to why so many people add “Just sayin’ ” at the end of a comment, especially a nasty one? Is it just a little cutesy thing like kids’ saying “just kidding” after a snide remark?

 A: As you’ve noticed, the expression “Just sayin’ ” follows an irritating or annoying or otherwise unpleasant observation. The speaker seems to imply that simply adding “Just sayin’ ” makes everything all right.

Well, it doesn’t.

We briefly referred to this stand-alone expression in a post we wrote a year ago on a similar usage sometimes referred to as a “false front,” “wishwasher,” “but head,” or “lying qualifier.”

This is a qualifying statement that comes BEFORE an unwelcome remark. Examples are all too familiar: “Nothing personal, but …,”  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …,” “No offense, but….”

When someone opens a conversation that way, look out! What’s coming isn’t something you want to hear. The speaker is anticipating your response and trying to head it off at the beginning.

“Just sayin’ ” is the same kind of rhetorical device, but it comes at the other end, AFTER the bomb has landed. (We suggested in our post that it might be called “postcatalepsis.”)

An example would be “You really shouldn’t wear that color. It makes you look dead. Just sayin’.” The speaker seems to mean, “Don’t blame me—I’m merely stating the obvious.”

In 2009, a CNN news segment called “Just Sayin’ ” was widely criticized (notably by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show).

In the segment, the anchor Carol Costello inserted the expression into the network’s coverage of a news event or important issue.  An example: “Are we too wired? Just sayin’.”

(CNN likes contemporary slang so much that it also initiated segments called “Are you Kidding Me?” and “What the …?”)

How old is the stand-alone expression “Just sayin’ ” or “I’m just saying”? This is a hard question to research, since so many literal examples get in the way. 

As we recently noted in a posting to our blog, “Just sayin’ ” was spotted in an episode of the period drama Downton Abbey.

That was clearly an anachronism, since the expression would have been “out of place in 1916,” according to the linguist Ben Zimmer.

Another linguist, Mark Liberman, has written on the Language Log that “I haven’t seen any clear examples from before WWII.”

By now, “Just sayin’” isn’t fresh anymore, if it ever was. Our guess is that it will fade away.

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The next name I’m going to call

Q: On America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks announces the girls who are staying by saying, “The next name I’m going to call is … [name of model].”  Shouldn’t she then repeat the name? If you say you’re going to do something, in this case call a certain name, shouldn’t you then call the name?

A: You’re not the only person who’s bugged by this. We’ve noticed several other complaints online about the way Tyra Banks announces the names of the contestants who survive each elimination round of the reality television show.

Are the objections legitimate? Not in our opinion. We think a lot about English, but one can think too much about it.

Banks’s meaning is perfectly clear. No one would be confused. And you’d see many more complaints if she repeated the name of each model who’d escaped elimination.

Idiomatic English doesn’t have to make literal sense. It just has to make sense.

We’ve discussed idioms many times on the blog, including a post two years ago about these interesting peculiarities of language.

Your question reminds us of this famous, though mythological, exchange between George Burns and Gracie Allen at the end of their TV show in the 1950s:

George: “Say goodnight, Gracie.”

Gracie: “Goodnight, Gracie.”

It’s a funny bit, but Gracie never said it. Her actual reply: “Goodnight.”

In his 1988 book Gracie: A Love Story, Burns describes the longer response as a show-business myth.

The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro, speculates that the myth may have been reinforced by this actual exchange on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a TV series from the late 1960s and early ’70s

Dan Martin: “Say goodnight, Dick.”

Dick Rowan: “Goodnight, Dick.”

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Plumb loco

Q: Am I right in believing that the phrase “plumb loco” is derived from the plumb used to determine the depth of water and a true vertical line? In other words, someone who’s plumb loco would be askew.

A: You’re right that the adverb “plumb” used in this sense is related to the lead plumb bob that’s hung from a line to determine water depth or verticality. But the relationship isn’t quite as straight as a plumb line.

English adopted the noun “plumb” in the 14th century from Anglo-Norman and Old French, but the word is ultimately derived from plumbum, the Latin term for lead, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Interestingly, the word “plumber” is a relative. It originally referred to a worker in lead, but came to mean someone who installs water pipes, which were once made of lead.

Getting back to your question, the Oxford English Dictionary says the adverb “plumb,” meaning vertically, first showed up in English in the early 15th century.

In the early 16th century, the adverb took on the sense of “exactly in a particular direction, position, or alignment; directly, precisely,” according to the OED.

By the end of the century, the adverb was being used in the sense you’re asking about—as an intensifier meaning completely, absolutely, and quite.

The OED’s earliest citation for this usage (with “plumb” spelled “plum”) is from The Misfortunes of Arthur, a 1588 play by Thomas Hughes based on the Arthurian legend:

“The mounting minde that climes the hauty cliftes … Intoxicats the braine with guiddy drifts, Then rowles, and reeles, and falles at length plum ripe.”

Here’s an example, with the modern spelling, from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous: “You’ve turned up, plain, plumb providential for all concerned.”

Although the OED has many British examples of “plumb” used as an intensifier well into the 20th century, the dictionary describes the usage as “Now chiefly N. Amer. colloq.

Oxford doesn’t have an entry for “plumb loco,” but it includes the phrase in an 1887 citation for the adjective “loco,” from Outing, an American monthly magazine: “You won’t be able to do nuthin’ with ’em, sir; they’ll go plumb loco.”

The OED says English borrowed the adjective “loco” in the mid-19th century directly from Spanish. It means mad, insane, or crazy in both languages. The dictionary describes the term as “colloq. orig. U.S. regional (west.).”

Oxford traces the adjective to earlier nouns in Spanish and Portuguese meaning madness, but the editors say the etymology is “uncertain and disputed” beyond that.

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Cop talk

Q: In Lyndsay Faye’s novel The Gods of Gotham, the words “cop” and “copper” are said to be derived from copper stars worn by New York City policemen in the 1840s. I always thought “cop” comes from “constable on patrol.”

A: We haven’t read The Gods of Gotham, a historical thriller set in 1845—the year the New York City Police Department was founded. And we could find only snippets of it online.

So we can’t comment on what Faye has—or hasn’t—written about the etymology of “cop” and “copper.”

But we can say that the noun “cop,” for a police officer, isn’t an acronym. And it’s not about copper buttons or badges, either.

As we wrote on our blog back in 2006, “cop” is short for an earlier noun, “copper,” meaning a person who seizes or nabs.

Both this word “copper” and its predecessor, the verb “cop” (to nab or capture), are thought to be derived from an Old French verb, caper, from the Latin capere, meaning to seize or take.

We also wrote about “cop” in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. Here’s an excerpt:

“The most popular myth about the word is that it comes from the copper buttons on police uniforms. Another is that it comes from the copper badges worn by New York City police in the nineteenth century. Yet another suggests that ‘cop’ is an acronym for ‘constable on patrol’ or ‘chief of police’ or ‘custodian of the peace’ or some such phrase.

“In fact, cops were walking beats long before any of those phony acronyms arrived on the scene. And ‘cop’ has nothing to do with any metals, copper or otherwise, whether in buttons or badges. Metal buttons on police uniforms have tended to be brass, and relatively few badges have been copper.

“The best evidence, according to word detectives who have worked the case, is that the noun ‘cop’ comes from the verb ‘cop,’ which has meant to seize or nab since at least 1704. The verb in turn may be a variation of an even earlier one, ‘cap,’ which meant to arrest as far back as 1589 (think of the word ‘capture’).

“Etymologists say the noun ‘cop’ is short for ‘copper’ (one who cops criminals), which first appeared in an 1846 British court document. The clipped version, ‘cop,’ appeared thirteen years later in an American book about underworld slang.”

In the transcript of a May 11, 1846, criminal trial at the Old Bailey in London, a police sergeant testifies that “a woman screamed very load, ‘Jim, Jim, here comes the b—coppers,’ and at that moment the money was thrown out—I have heard the police called coppers before.”

As it turns out, the slang word “copper” apparently didn’t cross the Atlantic and appear in print in the US until 1859, 14 years after the establishment of the NYPD.

The earliest citations for “copper” and “cop” in the Oxford English Dictionary are from George Washington Matsell’s 1859 slang dictionary Vocabulum, or, The Rogue’s Lexicon.

We looked through the dictionary in Google Books and didn’t find separate entries for either “cop” or “copper.” But the two words showed up many times in the entries for other words. Here’s a typical example:

“COPPED. Arrested. ‘The knuck was copped to rights, a skin full of honey was found in his kick’s poke by the copper when he frisked him,’ [meaning that] the pickpocket was arrested, and when searched by the officer, a purse was found in his pantaloons pocket full of money.”

By the way, we’ve noticed from reviews of The Gods of Gotham that members of the NYPD are repeatedly referred to as “copper stars”—a usage that apparently didn’t exist at the time the book was set.

In searches of Google Books and Google News, we couldn’t find any 19th-century examples of the term being used for police officers.

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. A University of Iowa professor will join Pat to discuss how Watergate changed our language and our culture.

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The silo syndrome

Q: A recent article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle mentioned Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to “break down the silos” that have led to abuses in the New York State government. How is “silos” being used here?

A: Everyone, it seems, is blaming silos for management screw-ups these days, and we don’t mean the silos found on farms. In this case, “silo” is a business term that refers to a blinkered kind of management style.

Managers who work in a “silo” (or a “siloed” environment) operate in isolation, focusing strictly on their own narrow concerns and not sharing ideas with their peers.

Not many standard dictionaries have caught up with this use of “silo.” One of the few is the Compact Oxford English Dictionary Online, which defines the noun “silo” this way:

“A system, process, department, etc. that operates in isolation from others.” The example given: “It’s vital that team members step out of their silos and start working together.”

The dictionary also describes the use of “silo” as a modifier, using this example: “We have made significant strides in breaking down that silo mentality.”

Two very different articles that appeared early last month are excellent illustrations of how “silo” is being used these days.

An article in Billboard magazine, “7 Ways to Leverage Facebook,” contained this advice from Geoffrey Colon of Ogilvy & Mather:

“Whenever you can, always try to cross over to the physical realm. … Don’t silo yourself into building content just for Facebook. Use Facebook as a springboard to drive business results in the real world.”

And an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education includes this quote by Emilie M. Townes, the new dean of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School:

“At Yale, every professional school is in its own silo, but at Vanderbilt they’ve broken down the silos, and I have more conversation partners not only internal to the divinity school but throughout the university.”

As you might suspect, this is a relatively young usage. The earliest example we’ve been able to find in online databases was published 21 years ago.

Both the noun and the adjective appeared in a long article in the journal Training & Development on Aug. 1, 1992. A management consultant, Geary Rummler, is quoted as saying this:

“The classic way to picture an organization is to show many independent functions, usually a hierarchy of boxes or circles. … The problem is that with this view, management begins to evolve as a set of independent functions. … All that, of course, leads to the phenomenon that Douglas Aircraft company calls ‘functional silos.’”

Later, the piece refers to the “silo syndrome.” Rummler himself uses the words “turfdom” and “vertical mindset” to refer to this management style.

He adds that what Douglas Aircraft called “silos” are called “chimneys,” “towers,” or “foxholes” by some of his other client companies. As we know by now, “silos” is the term that’s survived.

We found a scattering of usages in 1994, then the term began appearing with greater frequency. By 2000 this use of “silo” had gone mainstream. An article in Time magazine in December of that year included this sentence:

“As a result, isolated in their intellectual silos, scientists and their technological sidekicks literally ‘reduced’ human knowledge to myriad, mutually incomprehensible pinpoints of niche expertise.”

Now it looks as if non-agricultural “silos” are here to stay.

Our noun “silo” (the farmyard kind) was first recorded in writing in 1835. It originally meant “a pit or underground chamber used for the storage of grain, roots, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Later in the 19th century, “silo” also became a verb meaning to store in a silo. And silos became the familiar cylindrical structures that are so much a part of rural landscapes.  Here are some illustrative OED citations:

1904: “The first silos were simply pits dug in the ground…. Since about 1875 silos of stone, brick and wood have come into use.” (From the Farmer’s Cyclopedia of  Agriculture by Earley V. Wilcox & Clarence B. Smith.)

1948: “The silos stood up tall and straight, grey against the dazzling sky. A line of wheat-laden vehicles moved slowly up towards the hopper.” (From the periodical Coast to Coast: Australian Stories.)

In the 1950s, “silo” acquired another (and less bucolic) meaning—the underground housing for a guided missile.

The OED’s earliest example is from a 1958 issue of the New York Times: “The system will be protected against neutralization in an enemy attack because the missiles will be installed in concrete-lined underground silos.”

English adopted “silo” from the Spanish silo in the 19th century. But there’s some disagreement about its earlier etymology.

The OED says the Spanish silo originally came from classical words meaning a pit for storing grain—sirus in Latin and siros in Greek.

But the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology doubts that origin, since “the change from r to l in Spanish is phonetically abnormal.”

Furthermore, Chambers says, the Greek siros was “a rare foreign term” peculiar to Asia Minor and “not likely to emerge in Castilian Spain.”

Instead, the dictionary says the Spanish silo is “probably of pre-Roman origin and from the same source as Basque zilo, zulo dugout, with the basic meaning of a cave or shelter for keeping grain.”

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The earliest Johnny-come-lately


Q: Do you guys have any idea who the “Johnny” is in “Johnny-come-lately”?

A: The phrase “Johnny-come-lately” originated as a 19th-century American expression for a newcomer or a novice. It’s now also used for an upstart, a late adherent to a trend or cause, and someone who’s late for an event.

There’s no particular significance in the use of the name “Johnny” here.

Since the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this familiar diminutive of “John” has been used “humorously or contemptuously” to mean “a fellow, chap.”

For example, the OED cites Allan Ramsay’s poem And I’ll Awa’ to Bonny Tweedside (1724), in which Edinburgh is described as a place “Where she that’s bonny / May catch a Johny.”

Over the years, both in the US and in the UK, people have used the name “Johnny” as a generic term for a guy. (We wrote blog postings in 2007 and 2009 about a similar usage, “Tom, Dick, and Harry.”)

This generic use of “Johnny” is found in many familiar phrases whose origins are explained in the OED.

For example, “Johnny Reb,” a Northern term for a Confederate soldier, emerged during the American Civil War.

And “Johnny-on-the-spot,” for someone who’s always ready and available when needed, was first recorded in an American novel, Artie (1896), by George Ade.

In Britain, “Johnny raw” and “Johnny Newcome” were early 19th-century phrases for a rookie, a newcomer, or a raw recruit. Those were at least the spiritual forerunners of the American phrase “Johnny-come-lately.”

OED citations indicate that “Johnny-come-lately” first appeared in The Adventures of Harry Franco (1839), a humorous novel by Charles Frederick Briggs, a journalist and former sailor.

Here’s the quotation from Briggs’s novel: “ ‘But it’s Johnny Comelately, aint it, you?’ said a young mizzen topman.”

(Briggs’s claim to fame is that he gave Edgar Allan Poe a job on his short-lived magazine, the Broadway Journal, in 1845.)

The phrase may have originated in America but it didn’t stay there.

One OED citation is from the Christchurch Press in New Zealand, which offered this definition for its readers in 1933: “Johnny-come-lately, nickname for a cowboy or any newly-joined hand or recent immigrant.”

Finally, this 1972 example is from the former BBC publication The Listener, in a reference to the state of Utah: “Here man himself is a Johnny-come-lately.”

[Update, Jan. 19, 2015. A reader asks how to form the plural of “Johnny-come-lately.” All the standard dictionaries we’ve checked say that both “Johnny-come-latelies” and “Johnnies-come-lately” are OK. We like “Johnny-come-latelies.”]

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An arm and a leg

Q: I just caught up with your Thanksgiving post on the names for turkey parts. How about something on the names for people parts? I was recently surprised to learn that the meanings of “arm” and “leg” in anatomy differ from common usage.

A: This was news to us too, but then we skipped anatomy class. You’re right, though. “Arm” and “leg” have special meanings in medicine.

In standard anatomical terminology, the word “arm” means what most of us think of as the upper arm—the part between the shoulder and the elbow.

And the word “leg” in anatomy means what most of us think of as the lower leg—between the knee and the ankle.

The limbs as a whole are called the “upper limb” and the “lower limb.”

We quizzed our own doctor about this as she was giving us our annual physicals the other day. She said physicians call the upper arm the “arm” or the “brachium”; the part below the elbow is the “forearm” or the “antebrachium.”

Why? Because a doctor is generally concerned with one part of a limb, not the limb as a whole. And the parts are distinct—different bones, different muscles, and so on.

Hence, different terminology. The words “arm” and “leg” as used in the general sense would be too broad for medical purposes.

Kenneth Saladin’s book Human Anatomy (2007) has this explanation:

“The upper limb is divided into brachium (arm proper), antebrachium (forearm), carpus (wrist), manus (hand), and digits (fingers); the lower limb is divided into thigh, crus (leg proper), tarsus (ankle), pes (foot), and digits (toes).”

Elsewhere, Saladin explains that the term “arm proper” means the upper arm, which “extends from shoulder to elbow,” while the “leg proper” is “below the knee.”

Another medical textbook, Grant’s Dissector (2012), by Patrick W. Tank, says, “The upper limb is divided into four regions: shoulder, arm (brachium), forearm (antebrachium), and hand (manus).”

Earlier, Tank writes: “The lower limb is divided into four parts: hip, thigh, leg, and foot. It is worth noting that the term leg refers only to the portion of the lower limb between the knee and the ankle, not to the entire lower limb.”

Tank is right—this IS worth noting, since in ordinary language the words “arm” and “leg” are interpreted less narrowly.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “arm” (the body part, that is) only in the usual sense: “The upper limb of the human body, from the shoulder to the hand.”

There’s no mention in the OED of a medical definition of “arm” that would differ from that one.

Oxford adds that “the part from the elbow to the hand” is known as “the fore-arm.” Elsewhere, it defines the “forearm” as “the part of the arm between the elbow and the wrist; sometimes the whole arm below the elbow.”

On the other hand (if that’s the appropriate expression), the OED’s definition of a person’s “leg” includes the ordinary sense of the word as well as a more restrictive sense.

Here’s the definition: “one of the two lower limbs of the human body; in narrower sense, the part of the limb between the knee and foot.”

It’s interesting to note that while people have “forearms,” they don’t have “forelegs,” a term used only of animals. The OED says a “foreleg” is “one of the front legs of a quadruped.”

We can’t end this without mentioning “an arm and a leg,” which Oxford describes as a colloquial expression meaning “an enormous amount of money, an exorbitant price; freq. in to cost an arm and a leg.”

The OED’s first citation is from Lady Sings the Blues, the 1956 autobiography of one of our favorite singers, Billie Holliday, written with William Dufty: “Finally she found someone who sold her some stuff for an arm and a leg.”

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Where is “put” in “stay put”?

Q: My daughter was in the Northeast during the recent snowstorm and I asked her if she was planning to stay put. That got me to thinking: where is put?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary describes “stay put” as a colloquialism that originated in the US in the mid-19th century.

The OED defines the verbal phrase as meaning “to remain where or as placed; to remain fixed or steady; also fig. (of persons, etc.).”

The earliest published reference in the dictionary is from the Sept. 23, 1843, issue of the New Mirror, a weekly journal in New York: “And now we have put her in black and white, where she will ‘stay put.’ ”

The usage apparently raised eyebrows in its early days. John Russell Bartlett, in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848), describes it as a “vulgar expression”—that is, a common one.

In Haunted Hearts, an 1864 novel by Maria Susanna Cummins, the expression refers to a thing: “This curl sticks right out straight; couldn’t you put this pin in for me, so that it would stay put?”

James Russell Lowell, uses it to refer to a person in his 1871 essay collection My Study Windows: “He has a prodigious talent, to use our Yankee phrase, of staying put.”

Where, you ask, is put?

The OED doesn’t explain the origin of the usage, and we couldn’t find an explanation in any of our usual language references.

But there may be a clue in Oxford’s definition of the phrase: “to remain where or as placed.”

If we had to guess, we’d say the verbal phrase originally meant something like “to stay where someone or something is put,” or “to stay where one puts oneself.”

However, an idiomatic expression like “stay put” doesn’t necessarily have to make sense, as we’ve mentioned several times on the blog, including in a posting a couple of years ago. In other words, there may be no “where” there.

The word “put,” by the way, is one of the commonest English verbs, but its source is uncertain, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto says it goes back to an Old English word, putian, “never actually recorded but inferred from the verbal noun putung ‘instigation,’ but where that comes from is not known.”

He speculates that putung “was presumably related to Old English potian ‘push, thrust,’ whose Middle English descendant pote formed the basis of Modern English potter.” (Think of that, next time you find yourself pottering in the garden.)

In case you’re curious, the golfing term “putt” as well as the track-and-field term “shot put” are descended from that same uncertain source.

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Rhetorical deviltry

Q: Do you know who said this: “God gave us the word and the Devil gave us religion”?

A: This fill-in-the-blank formula—“God gave us X and the Devil gave us Y”—dates back in one form or another at least as far as the 16th century.

The old saying “God sends meat and the Devil sends cooks” has appeared, with slight variations, since about 1542, according to Robert William Dent, a scholar of colloquial and proverbial language in literature.

And it’s been much quoted ever since, especially in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Sometimes the verb is “give” instead of “send,” and the object is “food” instead of “meat.”

(Dent, a UCLA English professor who died in 2005, dated the expression in a footnote to Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Tool, a 1994 study of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

Over the years, the expression has proved highly adaptable, inspiring other proverbs like “God sent the wheat and the Devil sent the bakers,” and “God sends corn and the Devil mars the sack.”

We found this passage, for example, in A Cordial for Low Spirits (1763), a collection of tracts by Thomas Gordon:

“It is a common saying, that God sends meat, but the Devil sends cooks; so I think one may say of the Dean that God gave him an understanding, but the Devil gave him a will.”

In 1796, an English pastor, the Rev. William Huntington, wrote this in a letter to his brother: “As soon as God sent me ten pounds, the devil sent one or other to rob me of twenty.”

The formula is a handy rhetorical device for any writer wishing to contrast something good with something not so good.

For instance, here’s a passage from the April 1869 issue of The Methodist Quarterly Review, published in New York:

“Mr. Froude tells us that God gave us the Gospel, but that the devil gave us theology.” (The italics are the author’s.)

The formula survived intact into the 20th century and beyond.

A classmate of Samuel Beckett’s wrote that the headmaster at their Dublin school used to say, “God sends me the boys but the Devil sends me their parents.”

And you can find dozens of variations on the Internet with “religion” in the final position:

“God gave us truth [the universe … spirituality … reason … the world … love] and the devil gave us religion.”

It’s sometimes embellished a bit: “God gave us truth; the devil organized it and called it religion.”

Deepak Chopra is often quoted at second hand as saying something similar. For a direct quote, here’s an excerpt from an interview with him published April 18, 1998, in the St. Petersburg Times:

 “I like to think of myself as seeking spirituality, which is the basis of religion. God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion. ’ ”

The original was a highly flexible old proverb and we haven’t seen the last of it.

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Blood and treasure

Q: I’m curious about the origin of the expression “blood and treasure,” as in “Was Vietnam worth the price in blood and treasure?”

A: We’ve seen the phrase “blood and treasure” a lot lately, but it’s an age-old poetic expression meaning “lives and money.” It’s generally been used in reference to the high price of war or conquest.

The expression seems to have been fairly common in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The earliest references we’ve been able to find appeared in the 1640s.

Passages from the proceedings of the House of Lords include “the Blood and Treasure that hath been spent” (1646) and, reversing the formula, “with great Expence both of their Treasure and Blood” (1643).

We found a petition to the British Parliament on behalf of the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk, dated 1647, that refers to “those our Native Liberties, which have now cost the Kingdom such vast Expence of Blood and Treasure.”

Sir Henry Vane used the expression in attacking Richard Cromwell in a speech before Parliament in 1659:

 “We have driven away the hereditary tyranny of the house of Stuart, at the expense of much blood and treasure, in hopes of enjoying hereditary liberty, after having shaken off the yoke of kingship.” (Vane was executed for treason the following year.)

The phrase crops up a lot in early 18th-century political pamphlets and essays, such as Robert Crosfeild’s The Government Unhing’d, a political treatise written in 1702 and published in 1703:

“In vain has the Nation spent so much Blood and Treasure, to preserve its Liberty, if Men have not the Freedom of Speech without Doors, as well as within.”

Daniel Defoe frequently used the expression. So did Jonathan Swift, who was so fond of it that he used it twice in a single sentence in this passage from his pamphlet The Publick Spirit of the Whigs, written in 1712:

“I cannot sufficiently commend our Ancestors for transmitting to us the Blessing of Liberty; yet having laid out their Blood and Treasure upon the Purchase, I do not see how they acted parsimoniously; because I can conceive nothing more generous than that of employing our Blood and Treasure for the Service of Others.”

In Swift’s other political writings, we find passages like these: “the Disposal of their Blood and Treasure” … “without whose blood and treasure” … “obtained by the Blood and Treasure of others”… “sacrificing so much Blood and Treasure” … “the blood and treasure of his fellow-subjects” … “prodigal of our Blood and Treasure” … “conquered … with so much Blood and Treasure” … “the loss of infinite blood and treasure,” “our best Blood and Treasure,” and others.

Possibly because of Swift’s influence, countless examples of the phrase appeared in books, newspapers, pamphlets, and journals of the 1720s, ’30s and ’40s.

In 1742, a speaker in the House of Commons referred to “Spain, which hath cost us much Blood and Treasure, and is like to cost us much more.”

And the 1778 issue of The Annual Register, a summary of the year’s events in Britain, referred to the Revolutionary War as “So great an exhausture of blood and treasure.”

Byron used the phrase in his poem The Age of Bronze (1823): “Blood and treasure boundlessly were spilt.”

At least two American presidents have used the expression at times of great political turmoil.

John Adams wrote on July 3, 1776: “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.”

And Abraham Lincoln said on Dec. 1, 1862, that the country’s essential nationhood “demands union and abhors separation. In fact, it would ere long force reunion, however much of blood and treasure the separation might have cost.”

In our own time, we’ve seen the phrase used in reference to the war in Afghanistan.

In a Pentagon press conference on Jan. 10, 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the phrase in response to a similar usage by a journalist.

The journalist asked Panetta: “How do you go to the American people and ask for yet another year, 18 months, or more of blood and treasure to pour into this war that kind of seems endless?”

Panetta’s reply: “Look, we have poured a lot of blood and treasure in this war over the last 10 years. But the fact is that we have also made a lot of progress as a result of the sacrifices that have been made.”

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Since Christ left Chicago

Q: As my retired physician father was perusing the ancient black bag he used to take on house calls, a doctor friend stopped by and said he hadn’t seen such medicines and paraphernalia “since Christ left Chicago.” I was wondering if you know the origin of that vivid expression.

A: The expression “since Christ left Chicago” is a variation on a theme. Other—and much more popular—versions include “since Christ was a corporal” and “since “Christ was a cowboy.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says the phrase “since Christ was a corporal” means “since time immemorial.”

We don’t see an entry for “since Christ left Chicago” in Random House or any of our other reference works, but we can safely assume from reading a few dozen examples online that it also means for a very long time or since ages ago.

The earliest published example of the “Chicago” version, as far as we can tell, appeared in Life magazine in June 1959.

An article on labor unrest quoted a dissident New York Teamster as calling the attorney Edward Bennett Williams “the biggest liar the world has ever seen. He ain’t told the truth since Christ left Chicago!”

More recently, the writer Nick Tosches has used the expression a couple of times.

He wrote in Spin magazine in 1988: “My brother asks me if Island is one of the dumb-ass companies that still sends me free records even though I haven’t reviewed a record since Christ left Chicago.”

And Tosches used it in his first novel, Cut Numbers (1988): “Someday, if they’re lucky, they’ll look up and see that co-op roof cavin’ in and they’ll realize they been carryin’ thirty-year paper to live in some shit-hole that’s been fallin’ apart since Christ left Chicago.”

The older version, “since Christ was a corporal,” was a favorite of John Dos Passos. Though many people have used the phrase since World War II, most of the earliest examples we’ve found, from 1921 to 1944, are from his works.

Dos Passos used it twice in his World War I novel Three Soldiers (1921), even putting it in the mouths of different characters.

In one section, a character remarks: “Ain’t had any pay since Christ was a corporal. I’ve forgotten what it looks like.” And later a soldier asks, “How long have you been here?” The reply: “Since Christ was a corporal.”

Dos Passos used the same expression in his play The Garbage Man (1926) and in his novel Adventures of a Young Man (1939).

It also turned up in State of the Nation, a book of reportage by Dos Passos that was excerpted in a 1944 issue of Life magazine.

In the book, he quotes an anonymous returning soldier as saying, “Ain’t seen a woman since Christ was a corporal.” (We can’t help wondering whether the reporter enlivened some of the quotes with words of his own.)

As Random House points out, variations on the “corporal” version exist too: “since George Washington was a ‘lance
jack’ ” (from Ira L. Reeves’s Bamboo Tales, 1900), and “since ‘Christ was a lance corporal,’ as the men said” (from Charles L. Clifford’s novel Too Many Boats, 1933).

As for the Wild West version, “since Christ was a cowboy,” the earliest example we’ve found is from a bit of dialogue in Leila Hadley’s travel book Give Me the World (1958), about a trip aboard a cargo ship:

“I haven’t felt such a wind since Christ was a cowboy. Must have been hitting fifty knots for a while back there.”

This “cowboy” version—sometimes the protagonist is “Jesus” instead of “Christ”—has appeared many times since then.

The word sleuth Barry Popik has found several examples in books and newspapers from 1973 to 2007, and notes on his Big Apple website that the phrase is especially popular in Texas.

But phrases like this have been around since Shakespeare’s time. Random House quotes Twelfth Night (circa 1595): “They haue beene grand Iury men, since before Noah was a Saylor.”

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Uppity language

Q: What’s up with “up”? Why is it used in so many phrases where it’s not necessary or doesn’t appear to add any information? Examples: “rise up” … “shut up” … “set up” … “clean up” … “give up” … and so on.

A: This is an interesting topic, and a much bigger one than you might think. In fact, you’ve opened (or “opened up”) a Pandora’s box here.

Let us say right away that we don’t agree that “up” is redundant when used in phrasal verbs like “shut up,” “clean up,” “give up,” and many others.

On the contrary, it often enhances verbs, not merely by adding emphasis but by contributing specific kinds of information. Telling someone to “shut” a door, for example, isn’t the same telling someone him to “shut up.”

As you probably know, “up” is an adverb as well as a preposition.

In phrasal verbs it’s an adverb, and it can have any number of functions.

The Oxford English Dictionary says it can mean “so as to raise a thing from the place in which it is lying, placed, or fixed.” This sense of “up” is illustrated in such familiar phrasal verbs as “take up,” “pick up,” “raise up,” and “lift up.”

Or it can add the sense of “from below the level of the earth, water, etc., to the surface,” as Oxford says. We see this sense of “up” in phrases like “dig up,” “grub up,” and “turn up” (as in turning earth with a spade).

“Up” can add the notion of “upon one’s feet from a recumbent or reclining posture; spec. out of bed,” the OED notes, or “so as to rise from a sitting, stooping, or kneeling posture and assume an erect attitude.”

This gives us such familiar phrases as “get up,” “sit up,” “rise up,” “stand up,” “help up,” and “leap up,” as well as the old expression “knock up,” meaning to wake someone by rapping on the door.

Figurative uses of the adverb are many and varied. For example, the OED says, “up” can mean “so as to sever or separate, esp. into many parts, fragments, or pieces.” We see this sense in “break up,” “cut up,” “chop up,” “tear up,” and so on.

And, Oxford says, “up” can imply “to or towards a state of completion or finality,” a sense that frequently serves “merely to emphasize the import of the verb.”

Consequently we have phrases like “eat up,” “sold up,” “done up,” and “swallow up.” (Certainly we could say simply that the whale swallowed Jonah, but how much more evocative to say it swallowed him up!)

In the sense of “denoting progress to or towards an end,” the OED says, we have phrase like “buy up,” “finish up,” “dry up,” “heal up,” “clear up,” “beat up,” “pay up,” “firm up,” and others.

Frequently, the OED says, “up” is used with verbs that have to do with “cleaning, putting in order, or fixing in place.”

Thus we have “clean up,” “polish up,” “brush up,” “do up,” “fix up,” “dress up,” “fit up,” “make up,” “rig up,” “trip up,” and a verb we’ve written about on our blog, “redd up.”

When used with some verbs, “up” can mean “by way of summation or enumeration,” the OED says. We see this in phrases like “add up,” “count up,” “reckon up,” “total up,” “sum up,” and “weigh up.”

In addition, “up” can mean “into a close or compact form or condition; so as to be confined or secured.” This usage is found in “truss up,” “bind up,” “bundle up,” “fold up,” “tie up,” “gird up,” “huddle up,” and “draw up.”

Yet another sense, “into a closed or enclosed state; so as to be shut or restrained,” is evident in phrase like “close up,” “shut up,” “dam up,” “pen up,” “pent up,” “nail up,” “seal up,” and so on.

“Up” can also mean “so as to bring together,” as the OED notes. We see this in “knit up,” “gather up,” “stitch up,” and others. And it can imply “toward,” as in “come up,” “bring up,” and “ride up.”

It can also mean something like “to completion,” as “fill up,” “top up,” “cloud up,” and other phrases.

In a post earlier this year, we wrote that there are many idiomatic phrases in which an uppity stickler might say the adverb is unnecessary: “face up,” “meet up,” “divide up,” “hurry up,” and others.

But as we said then, “There’s a fine line between an emphatic use and a redundancy.” And sometimes an apparent redundancy adds just the right emphasis.

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An etymological valentine

Q: I wished a colleague happy Valentine’s Day earlier in the month and was told there is no apostrophe plus “s” in the name of the holiday. There is, isn’t there?

A: Yes, there is an apostrophe + “s” in “Valentine’s Day.” The longer form of the name for the holiday is “St. Valentine’s Day.”

And in case you’re wondering, the word “Valentine’s” in the name of the holiday is a possessive proper noun, while the word “valentines” (for the cards we get on Feb. 14) is a plural common noun.

“Valentine’s Day” has the possessive apostrophe because it’s a saint’s day. In Latin, Valentinus was the name of two early Italian saints, both of whom are commemorated on Feb. 14.

Published references in the Oxford English Dictionary indicate that the phrase “Valentine’s Day” was first recorded in about 1381 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English poem The Parlement of Foules:

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day / Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” (In Middle English, possessive apostrophes were not used.)

Chaucer’s lines would be translated this way in modern English: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird comes here to choose his mate.” (The title means a parliament or assembly of fowls—that is, birds.)

As a common noun, “valentine” was first used to mean a lover, sweetheart, or special friend. This sense of the word was first recorded in writing in 1477, according to OED citations.

In February of that year, a young woman named Margery Brews wrote two love letters to her husband-to-be, John Paston, calling him “Voluntyn” (Valentine).

As rendered into modern English, one of the letters begins “Right reverend and well-beloved Valentine” and ends “By your Valentine.” (We’re quoting from The Paston Letters, edited by Norman Davis, 1963.)

In the mid-1500s, the OED says, the noun “valentine” was first used to mean “a folded paper inscribed with the name of a person to be drawn as a valentine.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century, adds Oxford, that “valentine” came to have its modern meaning: “a written or printed letter or missive, a card of dainty design with verses or other words, esp. of an amorous or sentimental nature, sent on St. Valentine’s day.”

Here’s the OED’s first citation, from Mary Russell Mitford’s book Our Village (1824), a collection of sketches: “A fine sheet of flourishing writing, something between a valentine and a sampler.”

This later example is from Albert R. Smith’s The Adventures of Mr. Ledbury and his Friend Jack Johnson (1844): “He had that morning received … a valentine, in a lady’s hand-writing, and perfectly anonymous.”

What could be more intriguing than that?

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Etymology Usage

What do you call a monthly anniversary?

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 11, 2020.]

Q: Is there a word like “anniversary” for a monthly event? Say, the second monthly whatever of the day I was hired.

A: As a matter of fact, there is. The monthly equivalent of the word “anniversary” is “mensiversary,” a word you can find in at least one standard dictionary.

The British dictionary Macmillan defines “mensiversary” as “a monthly recurring date of a past event, especially one of historical, national, or personal importance; a celebration commemorating such a date.”

So far, Macmillan is the only standard dictionary to recognize the word, though for at least 200 years people have been suggesting “mensiversary” to fill the gap.

Macmillan doesn’t give an etymology for the word. But it was probably formed by analogy with “anniversary,” using “mens-” (from the Latin mensis, for month) in place of “ann-” (from annus, for year).

“Anniversary,” comes from the Latin anniversarius, which means returning yearly. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the Latin word is composed of annus (year) plus versus (turned, or a turning) plus the suffix arius (connected with, pertaining to).

In English, the noun “anniversary” refers to the yearly occurrence of the date of a past event—say a wedding or 9/11 or the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

As for “mensiversary,” it does indeed exist, but not many people would recognize it as the monthly version of “anniversary.” Now that Macmillan has accepted the noun, perhaps other standard dictionaries will too.

“Mensiversary” also shows up in some Internet dictionaries—that is, in collections of words proposed and defined by Internet users. But it doesn’t appear yet in the OED, which is an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence of use.

The earliest reference we’ve found is from a letter written in 1805 by Sir James Mackintosh: “I always observe its mensiversary in my fancy.”

And we found other passing references to the word in books and journals from nearly every decade since then. So evidence of the word is available if the OED wants to make it “official.”

It appears that some adventurous writers in the past thought that they were making the word up.

In his book Prisoner of War: Or, Five Months Among the Yankees (1865), a Confederate rifleman named Anthony M. Keiley recorded this journal entry for July 9, 1864:

“Today is the first mensiversary of my imprisonment. Any super-fastidious reader who objects to my word-coinage, is hereby informed, that he is at perfect liberty to draw his pencil through the obnoxious polysyllable and substitute therefor any word, or form of words, that will better please him, but I hold it, nevertheless, to be a perfectly defensible creation.”

We think it’s defensible too. There are a a few adjectives that mean monthly, but they’re now obsolete and have been dropped from dictionaries.

One such word is “monthish,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as meaning “of or relating to a month; monthly.”

Two more are “mensal” and “mensual,” but they’re no longer used to mean monthly, either, probably because “monthly” does the job much better. Besides, most people would probably associate them, and perhaps “mensiversary” too, with “menses” (menstruation), and “menstrual” cycles.

[Note: Since this post was originally published, a few of our readers obliged with their own coinages for a monthly equivalent of an anniversary:  “luniversary,” “monthiversary,” and  “monthaversary.”

Here’s one comment: “For what it’s worth, we very commonly used the term ‘monthiversary’ at the life insurance company where I worked for many years.  In the administration of a policy, many transactions occur on the policy anniversary, and many occur monthly (for example, crediting interest, deducting charges).  Formally, you can refer to ‘the same date each month’ or words to that effect, but internally the common expression in the industry is ‘monthiversary.’ It really serves a need.”]

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