English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Pronunciation Slang Usage Word origin

In search of the wild kudo

[NOTE: This post was updated on Aug. 25, 2020.]

Q: What is the source of the word “kudos”? Is there such a thing as a “kudo” in the wild?

A: The word “kudo” arose as a mistake, and the majority opinion is that it’s still a mistake.

The correct word, “kudos,” is a singular noun and takes a singular verb, say most usage guides, including the new fourth edition of Pat’s book Woe Is I. “Show me one kudo and I’ll eat it,” she says.

That’s the short answer, the one to follow when your English should be at its best. But English is a living language, and the singular “kudo” and the plural “kudos” are out there kicking up their heels, never mind the word mavens.

Where did “kudo” come from? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a back formation resulting from the erroneous belief that “kudos” is plural. (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

Pronunciation may have played a part here. Originally “kudos”—like its singular Greek cousins “chaos,” “pathos,” and “bathos”—was pronounced as if the second syllable were “-oss” (rhymes with “loss”). A later pronunciation, “-oze” (rhymes with “doze”), probably influenced the perception that the word was a plural.

Now for some etymology. “Kudos” comes from the ancient Greek word κῦδος (kydos), a singular noun meaning praise or renown. And it was a relative latecomer to English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the Greek term “was dragged into English as British university slang in the 19th century.” The first published reference for “kudos” in the OED dates from 1831, when it meant glory or fame.

Although “kudos” was officially singular, it was often used in a general way without a direct or indirect article, which may have blurred its sense of singularity.

In a typical early citation in the OED, for instance, Charles Darwin writes in an 1859 letter that the geologist Charles Lyell read about half the manuscript of On the Origin of Species “and gives me very great kudos.”

In its earliest uses, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “kudos” referred to the prestige or glory of having done something noteworthy. But by the 1920s, it had developed a second sense, praise for an accomplishment.

And it was during the ’20s, the usage guide says, that “the ‘praise’ sense of kudos came to be understood as a plural count noun, much like awards or honors. Time magazine, according to M-W, may have helped popularize the usage.

Here’s a 1927 example from Time that suggests plurality: “They were the recipients of honorary degrees—kudos conferred because of their wealth, position, or service to humanity.”

And the usage guide also cites a 1941 citation from the magazine that’s clearly plural: “There is no other weekly newspaper which in one short year has achieved so many kudos.”

Once “kudos” was seen in Time and other publications as a plural, M-W’s usage guide says, “it was inevitable that somebody would prune the s from the end and create a singular.”

The OED’s earliest sighting of “kudo” shorn of its “s” dates from a book of slang: “Kudo, good standing with the management” (Jack Smiley’s Hash House Lingo, 1941).

Oxford also cites a 1950 letter from Fred Allen to Groucho Marx, in which Allen hyperbolically describes approval for a TV show expressed by customers at the Stage Delicatessen in New York: “A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.”

Merriam-Webster’s includes quite a few examples of the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos.” Here are a couple from mainstream publications:

Saturday Review (1971): “All these kudos spread around the country.”

Women’s Wear Daily (1978): “She added a kudo for HUD’s Patricia Harris.”

OK, the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are the result of mistakes. But a lot of legitimate words began life in error. Are “kudo” and “kudos” becoming legit as they spread like kudzu?

Merriam-Webster’s thinks so—sort of. The usage guides says the two usages “are by now well established,” though “they have not yet penetrated the highest range of scholarly writing or literature.”

Other usage commentators aren’t so open minded. In its entry for “kudos,” Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that “in standard usage it has no plural nor is it used with the indefinite article a.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s, says “the final -s is sometimes misinterpreted as marking a plural.” But “kudo as a singular,” he writes, is not “desirable or elegant.”

“No other word of Greek origin,” Butterfield adds, “has suffered such an undignified fate.”

Lexicographers are also skeptical for the most part. Of the ten standard dictionaries we usually consul, only three (two of them published by the same company) accept the singular “kudo.”

Reflecting the majority opinion is Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries online), which says this in its entry for “kudos”:

“Despite appearances, it is not a plural form. This means that there is no singular form kudo and that the use of kudos as a plural … is incorrect.” Lexico provides an incorrect example (“he received many kudos”) and a corrected one (“he received much kudos”).

The three that accept the singular word “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabrided, and (which is based on the former Random House Unabridged)., for instance, accepts word in two senses: (1) meaning “honor; glory; acclaim,” as in “No greater kudo could have been bestowed”; and (2) meaning “a statement of praise or approval; accolade; compliment,” as in “one kudo after another.”

For now, we still don’t recommend the usage.

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Relatively speaking

(An updated and expanded post about “cousin,” “niece,” and “nephew” appeared on Nov. 9, 2018.)

Q: When I became an uncle for the third time, I had a nephew in addition to two nieces. It was then that I realized I had no way of saying “I have three …” There is also no word for both aunts and uncles. Any reason for this? Does it reflect a special relationship or a neglected one? Do other languages also have this gap?

A: H-m-m. We wish we had an answer.

We can’t say why, but English seems to be missing the words that would denote certain forms of kinship: one word that would mean both niece and nephew, and another that would mean both aunt and uncle.

If any other language has a singular word that refers to both a niece and a nephew, we’re unfamiliar with it. However, other languages do use the masculine plural for a group of both nieces and nephews.

In Spanish, for example, the singulars are sobrino (nephew) and sobrina (niece), but sobrinos can be used for a group of nieces and nephews.

Today, English speakers use “nephews” and “nieces” to mean the sons and daughters of our siblings. But in olden times, these words were also used to designate grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were supposed to be chaste).

Both “nephew” and “niece” originated in Middle English in the early 1300s, derived from the Latin words nepos (grandson, descendant, or prodigal) and neptis (granddaughter or female descendant).

These words and their counterparts in many other languages are traceable ultimately to an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as nepto, meaning grandson or nephew (the feminine form was nepti). This root is also the ancestor of our word “nepotism.”

Three now obscure English nouns, “neve,” “nepos,” and “nepote,” were also once used to mean nephew or grandson. Maybe we could revive one of them to mean both nephew and niece. Well, it’s only a suggestion.

As for “aunt,” meaning the sister of a parent or the wife of an uncle, the word entered English in the 1200s by way of the Old French ante, which came from the Latin amita (father’s sister).

“Uncle,” meaning the brother of a parent or the husband of an aunt, came into English at around the same time from the Old French uncle and oncle, and ultimately from the Latin avunculus (mother’s brother).

By the way, people often ask why we have an adjective meaning uncle-like (“avuncular”) but none for aunt-like. We posted an item about this auntless issue on the blog a while back. And we posted an entry last month about the history and pronunciation of “aunt.”

(Updated, Sept. 29, 2017.)

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

Is there a cat in the corner?

Q: What is the origin of the expression “catty-corner” and does it have anything to do with cats?

A: The phrase, originally seen as “catty-cornered” or “cater-cornered” in 19th-century America, has no relationship at all to cats.

Although the “catty” version appeared first in print, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the “cater” version is closer to the phrase’s etymological roots.

The OED traces both of them back to a 16th-century verb, “cater,” meaning “to place or set rhomboidally; to cut, move, go, etc., diagonally.” So to move in a “cater-cornered” way is to go diagonally from corner to corner.

The English verb came from the French quatre (four). Since the early 1500s, the word “cater” has also meant the number four in games of dice or cards, though this usage is not common today.

The dictionary’s first citation for the verb “cater” is from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Conrad Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry: “The trees are set checkerwise, and so catred, as looke which way ye wyl, they lye leuel [level].”

And this OED citation,  written four centuries later, describes the motion of a wagon at a level railroad crossing: “ ‘Cater’ across the rails ever so cleverly, you cannot escape jolt and jar” (from an 1873 travel memoir, Silverland, by the British writer George Alfred Lawrence).

As for “catty-cornered,” the phrase has been spelled a number of ways over the years: “catacornered,” “katterkorner’d,” “cat-a-cornered,” etc. Since the early 20th century, it has often been seen without the “-ed” ending.

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) has two examples in one sentence: “Lee Chongs’s grocery was on its catty-corner right and Dora’s Bear Flag Restaurant was on its catty-corner left.”

The feline-sounding version of the expression probably began with a mispronunciation of the relatively rare word “cater.” Through a process that language types call folk etymology, a cat ended up in the corner.

Both “cater-corner” and “catty-corner” are still used today and can be found in contemporary dictionaries. But a latecomer, “kitty-corner,” which first showed up at the end of the 19th century, is the most popular one these days, according to Google.

And in some versions, the “corner” element disappears, as in the mid-19th-century “catawampous” or “catawampus.” The OED calls  this “a humorous formation” that meant not only ferocious (perhaps derived from “catamount,” the mountain lion) but also askew or awry.

Slang dictionaries also have the spelling “catter-wompus” (1851) for the askew or diagonal sense of the word, followed by “cattywampus” in the first decade of the 1900s.

And naturally there’s a “kitty” version too. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples of “kittywampus” dating from the 1940s.

[Note: This post was updated on March 22, 2020.]

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Sympathy strike

Q: An FAQ on says “sympathy” is compassion for another person while “empathy” is imagining oneself in another person’s position. That’s backward from how I understand the two words. Who’s right?

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re with here. The new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage nicely differentiates the two terms, so we’ll pass along the definitions:

Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it. Sympathy is compassion for or commiseration with another.”

“Sympathy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered English from Late Latin (sympathia), but comes ultimately from the classical Greek συμπάθεια (sympatheia), or “fellow feeling.” The roots literally mean “together” + “feeling.”

The word was first recorded in English in the mid-16th century, and its earliest meanings had to do with affinity, conformity, harmony, and the like. It came to mean feelings of compassion or commiseration in 1600, the OED citations suggest.

The noun has cousins in French (sympathie), Italian (simpatia), Spanish (simpatia), and Portuguese (sympathia).

“Empathy” is the English version of a German word, einfühlung (“in” + “feeling”), which the Germans adapted in 1903 from the Hellenistic Greek word for “passion” or “physical affection,” ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), also literally “in” + “feeling.” (In modern Greek, the word has the opposite meaning—hatred, malice, and so on.)

The OED defines “empathy,” which entered English in 1909, as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.”

In the 1940s the word acquired a meaning in the field of psychology, the OED says: “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives these examples of the two words at work: (1) “I have a lot of sympathy for her; she had to bring up the children on her own.” (2) “She had great empathy with people.”

Again, sorry to disappoint you. We sympathize with you over the disappointment, and we empathize with what you’re feeling.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Vice isn’t nice!

Q: At my place of employment, management has circulated a memo requiring employees to use the word “vice” instead of “versus.” So a company document might read: “Consider performing maintenance vice replacing the faulty part.” I would appreciate any insight you can provide.

A: Your bosses are recommending a term that’s not common, except perhaps in the military. This is the use of the preposition “vice,” a Latin borrowing, to mean “instead of” or “in place of.” 

(Think of the related term “vice versa,” which is also from Latin and means “conversely,” or “in reversed order.”)

This “vice” can be pronounced as one syllable (rhyming with “nice”) or as two (VYE-see), according to standard dictionaries.

A Google search finds that your bosses aren’t alone in using “vice” instead of “versus,” though this is certainly not common in ordinary English. These days, the “instead of” sense of the word is more common in prefixes and adjectival nouns in titles.

For example, we use it (pronounced as a single syllable) in terms like “vice president” and “vice consul,” where it means someone who represents or serves in place of a superior. A  “viceroy,” to use another example, rules a province or country as the representative of his sovereign.

The preposition “vice” as used by your bosses first showed up in written English in a military usage in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the OED citation: “6th reg. of foot: Capt. Mathew Derenzy to be Major, vice John Forrest; by purchase.” (From a 1770 issue of the Scots Magazine.)

[Note: The military use is still alive. Two readers of the blog report that “vice” is used for “in place of” in armed-forces documents.]

Later OED citations include uses in sports, diplomacy, and music. Here’s one from a book Pat is currently reading:

“He was gardener and out-door man, vice Upton, resigned.” (From William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, 1849.) 

As a noun, of course, “vice” can mean a lot of nasty things: depravity, corruption, evil, and so on. The OED says the noun, first recorded in English in 1297, is from a different Latin source: vitium (“fault, defect, failing, etc.”).  

But getting back to your company’s memo, we see nothing wrong with “versus,” a preposition meaning “against” that’s been in steady since the 15th century. Like the prepositional “vice” and its derivatives, “versus” is from Latin, in which it means “against.”

As you’re probably aware, “versus” may have inspired a popular colloquial usage: the word “verse” as a verb meaning to compete against. We recently wrote on the blog about  this use of “verse.”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2016.]

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Herbal remedies

Q: I can’t help responding to your blog posting regarding “a herb” vs. “an herb.” Any word that starts with a vowel has “an” in front of it. “Herb” does not start with a vowel, no matter how the word is pronounced. No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense. A vowel is a vowel and that’s that. A herb is a herb too! Thanks much for listening (I hope!).

A: Sorry to disappoint you. When using an indefinite article (that is, “a” or “an”) before a word, the determinant is the SOUND the word begins with, not the letter of the alphabet.

Check any reference source you want and you’ll learn this. The word’s spelling is irrelevant.

If the word begins with a vowel SOUND, the article is “an” (as in “an apple,” “an hour,” “an honor,” “an herb,” “an umbrella”).

If the word begins with a consonant SOUND, the article is “a” (as in “a hotel,” “a house,” “a utopia,” “a unit,” “a university,” “a use,” “a European,” “a one-time offer,” “a once-over”).

In American English, the “h” in “herb” is not sounded; it is silent, so it’s preceded by “an.” In British English, the “h” in “herb” is sounded, so it’s preceded by “a.”

You say, “No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense.” Of course they do! All words beginning with a silent “h” are preceded by “an.” Are you telling me you actually say “a honorary degree from an university”?

What I’m telling you is common knowledge. Check any dictionary or usage guide.

I’ll quote The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.): “The form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound, regardless of its spelling (a frog, a university). The form an is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an orange, an hour).”

And this is from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Robert H. Burchfield (who uses “AmE” for American English, “BrE” for British English): “AmE herb, being pronounced with silent h, is always preceded by an, but the same word in BrE, being pronounced with an aspirated h, by a.”

I can cite many, many more authorities if you’re still unconvinced.

American Heritage has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. I quoted it in that earlier post, but it bears repeating:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

In case you’re wondering, the “h”-less American “herb” is the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the word was usually spelled “erbe.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the h was mute until the 19th cent., and is still so treated by many.”

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Bigger than the both of us

Q: I pricked up my ears when I heard Pat say “the both of us” on WNYC. I have always thought that one says either “the two of us” or “both of us.” I grew up in Norway and was taught British English. I also had an English grandmother who would never have said “the both of us.” Please let me know your thoughts.

A: “The both of” is an extremely common idiom, especially in the United States. But it’s not unheard-of in Britain and Ireland.

When the usage showed up in the mid-19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the first two examples were from Irish writers

In fact, the phrase “the both” was first used to mean “the two” in the 1500s, according to the OED, though the usage is now considered colloquial or regional.

Speakers in Ireland (and, in some of the following cases, Wales and elsewhere) often insert the definite article (“the”) in contexts where it’s not commonly found in standard British English.

Examples: “the both of” … “the half of” … “the whooping cough [mumps, etc.]” … “in the hospital” … “the cold [heat, etc.]” … “on the bus [plane, etc.]” instead of “by bus [plane, etc.]” … “in the summer [winter, etc.],” and others.

Some of these are also found in certain dialects in England as well. This information comes from The Grammar of Irish English, by Markku Filppula.

Americans are familiar with every one of these constructions. We commonly say “the both of us” (especially in the expression “bigger than the both of us”), “you don’t know the half of it,” “he has the measles [flu, etc.],” “she’s in the hospital,” “he can’t take the cold [heat, etc.],” “we go there in the summer.”

The use of the definite article is a complex subject, and in practice very idiomatic. Of the above-mentioned uses, only “the both” and “the half” would not be appropriate in formal written English in the US, though they’re acceptable in speech and informal writing. All the rest are considered standard in American English.

(We’ve revised our opinion on this use of “the half” and now consider it standard English. We discuss our change of heart in an April 21, 2011, posting on the blog.)

As for the usage experts, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage isn’t worried about “the both of us [you, etc.].” The conclusion: “There is no reason you should avoid it if it is your normal idiom.”

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage includes some British examples: “In spoken English, the use of both preceded by the is not uncommon: Good Morning from the both of us – BBC Radio 4, 1977. It is more frequently encountered in regional speech, as, for example, the both of you heard on The Archers (BBC Radio 4, 1976). The both should not be used in formal prose.”

If you’re interested in reading more, a blog item a while back on UK-vs.-US English touches on the subject of the use (or non-use) of articles .

Was it OK for Pat to use “the both of us” on the air? Well, she does misspeak once in a while during her impromptu exchanges in the broadcast booth. But not in this case.

There’s nothing wrong with using this idiomatic expression in conversation, even on public radio. However, we wouldn’t use it in formal writing.

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‘Anyways,’ said the damsel

Q: I grew up in the Midwest (Chicago, Catholic school) and never added an “s” to “anyway.” I live now in New York (Manhattan) and hear “anyways” all the time. I also hear it on TV. Pat has said on the air that she grew up in the Midwest. Did she say “anyway” or “anyways”?

A: Growing up in Iowa, Pat occasionally heard people say “anyways,” but that wasn’t the usual practice. Mostly it was “anyway.”

The 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult label “anyways” as informal, dialectal, colloquial, or nonstandard. In other words, you wouldn’t use it when your language should be at its best.

Nevertheless, “anyways” is heard across the US, according to citations in the Dictionary of American Regional English, which notes that it first showed up in English in the early 13th century and was in standard literary use into the early 19th century.

In fact, the term was originally spelled with an “s” (actually two of them) when it appeared in Middle English in the early 13th century, meaning “in any manner” or “by any means,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s first citation (with “anyways” spelled “eanies-weis”) is from a manuscript about the legendary life of St. Margaret the Maiden and Martyr:

“Ȝef ich mahte eanies-weis makien ham to fallen” (“if I might in any-ways make them fall”). From Seinte Marherete þe Meiden ant Martyr, edited in 1934 by Frances May Mack for the Early English Text Society.

The usage was standard for centuries, as in this expanded citation from the Anglican Communion’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer: “Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are any ways afflicted, or distressed in mind, body, or estate.”

Today, however, the OED describes this use of “anyways” for “anyway” as colloquial and chiefly North American.

Similarly, the dictionary says the use of “anyways” as a sentence adverb (one that modifies an entire sentence or clause) is colloquial and chiefly North American, though the earliest two Oxford examples are from British sources.

The OED cites this example from the 1865 Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend: “ ‘Anyways,’ said the damsel, ‘I am glad punishment followed, and I say so.’ ” We’ve expanded the citation, one of five appearances of “anyways” in the book.

Would we use “anyways”? No way.

[Note: This post was updated on June 24, 2020.]

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On heroes, edible and otherwise

Q: Am I wrong to be irritated at the overuse of the term “hero”? I think of a hero as someone who does something heroic – say, running into a burning building to rescue a child. Instead, I’ve seen newspapers call Super Bowl champions “heroes.” If we cheapen the term, what do we use for true heroism?

A: We think you’re right. In fact, here’s what Pat says on the subject in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

hero. There was a time when this word was reserved for people who were … well … heroic. People who performed great acts of physical, moral, or spiritual courage, often risking their lives or livelihoods. But lately, hero has lost its luster. It’s applied indiscriminately to professional athletes, lottery winners, and kids who clean up at spelling bees. There’s no other word quite like hero, so let’s not bestow it too freely. It would be a pity to lose it. Sergeant York was a hero.

[Note: This passage was updated to reflect the entry in the 4th edition of Woe Is I, published in 2019.]

So here we’re on your side, though we suspect it’s the losing side.

We might add, however, that the word “hero” has long been used to describe heroic acts that aren’t quite as dramatic as running into a burning building to rescue a child. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, or standing up for what you believe in, can also be heroic.

In Homer’s day, the Greek word heros referred to a man “of superhuman strength, courage, ability favoured by the gods,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word had that sense when it entered English in the 14th century, but by the 16th century it came to mean an illustrious warrior, one who does brave or noble martial deeds.

In the mid-17th century, however, the term was already being used more loosely to describe not only a brave warrior but a man who exhibits firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul “in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise,” according to the OED.

A 1661 citation, for example, refers to Galileo and other astronomers as “illustrious Heroes.”

More recently, of course, the usage has become even looser. A 1955 citation refers to “an Italian hero sandwich,” which the OED describes as “U.S. slang, a very large sandwich.” Some might consider eating one a heroic act.

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Why we suck

Q: I often notice the word “suck” used when I think it’s inappropriate. The comedian Denis Leary, for example, has a book called Why We Suck. And a kid may tell a teacher, “I think Catcher in the Rye sucks.” This makes me cringe. My understanding is that “suck” here refers to oral sex. Am I being priggish?

A: The verb “suck” is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, and it’s perfectly acceptable in most of its senses.

“Suck” has been in the language since around the year 825, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original meaning: “To draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum.”

All the other meanings (to suck something or someone dry of money, for example) stem from this one. [Note: A later post on the uses of “suck” appeared on the blog in 2017.]

The OED also lists the oral-sex definition, labeling it “coarse slang,” and dates that usage from 1928. However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two citations from the 17th century, including this one:

“O that I were a flea upon thy lip, / There would I sucke for euer, and not skip … / Or if thou thinkst I there too high am plast, / Ile be content to sucke below thy waste” (from The Schoole of Complement, a 1631 play by the English dramatist James Shirley).

Separately the OED lists “contemptible or disgusting” as slang meanings of the word (as in “he sucks” or “it sucks”), and dates that usage from 1971.

Is this negative sense of the word derived from the oral-sex usage? The OED doesn’t indicate that one sense comes from the other. But we assume that the two senses are related.

Are you being priggish? Perhaps. Most dictionaries label the negative usage as slang or informal, though Merriam-Webster says it’s sometimes vulgar.

[Note: This post was updated on April 25, 2020.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A way with words

Q: My friends and I had an ugly fight about the phrase “under way,” as in, “The campaign is under way.” What is the origin of the term? Please answer swiftly as I expect reprisals from my new enemies.

A: The phrase originated in the 18th century as a nautical term to describe a vessel that has begun moving through the water, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the first published reference in the OED, from A Voyage to the South-seas (1743), by John Bulkeley and John Cummins: “To prevent which, we do agree, that when Under-way they shall not separate.”

All of the 18th century citations in the OED use the phrase in a nautical sense, but by the early 19th century the term was being used more generally to mean in progress or in the course of.

The first citation for this sense is from Byron’s satirical poem The Vision of Judgment (1822): “And Michael rose ere he could get a word / Of all his founder’d verses under way.”

Fifteen years later, the historian Thomas Carlyle used the term loosely in The French Revolution: “A courier is, this night, getting under way for Necker” (Jacques Necker was a banker).

Getting back to the seafaring origins of the phrase, it turns out that the word “way” has been used as a nautical term for the progress of a ship or boat through the water since the mid-1600s.

The first published citation in the OED for this usage is from Sir William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes (1663): “Those who withstand The Tide of Flood … Fall back when they in vain would onward row: We strength and way preserve by lying still.”

And here’s a citation from Samuel Sturmy in a 1669 reference for mariners: “If you sail against a Current, if it be swifter than the Ship’s way, you fall a Stern.”

This sense of the word “way,” according to the OED, may have been derived from “under way,” an expression adapted from the Dutch word onderweg (also onderwegen), meaning on the way or under way.

The chronology doesn’t seem right, however, since published citations for “under way” are all more recent than those for “way” in the nautical sense. But “under way” might have been in use for years without making it into print.

By the way (so to speak!), “under way” is often written “under weigh.” As the OED explains, this originated as a misspelling through an “erroneous association” with the phrase “to weigh anchor.”

What began as a mistake is now accepted by lexicographers as a variant spelling.

The confusion is understandable, since “to weigh anchor” is to heave up the anchor before sailing. And now it’s time for us to weigh anchor and get under way with another question from our in-box.

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Graduate degrees

Q: Shouldn’t the graduates of a coed institution be “alumnae,” not “alumni”? My understanding is that “alumni” is the plural of “alumnus,” and “alumnae” pertains to both male and female graduates. Thanks for your help.

A: A group of alumnae is not a mixed group. Here’s the deal with all those alums:

“Alumnus”: singular, for a male graduate

“Alumna”: singular, for a female graduate

“Alumni”: plural, for either male graduates or males and females together

“Alumnae”: plural, for female graduates only

The term “alums,” which I used above, dodges the gender issue (as does the singular “alum”).

The short form “alum” is considered “informal” by The America Heritage Dictionary of English Usage (4th ed.), but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it without comment.

Interestingly, both the short and long forms entered English in the 17th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the long one in 1645 and the short one in 1683 (spelled “alumn”).

But the short version seems to have fallen into disuse, according to the OED citations, and didn’t show up in print again until the early 20th century.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Slang Spelling Usage Word origin

Phoo, pfui, and phooey

Q: I recently saw “phewey” used on Twitter to imply “oh, darn!” I don’t think it’s a word. When my daughter says “phew,” she’s relieved that something has ended or never happened. Am I right that the Twitter posting person (who is NOT a twit) should have used “fooey” or “phooey”?

A: The word the twitterer should have used is “phooey.” The spelling “phewey” definitely doesn’t fill the bill. “Phew” would rhyme with “few” instead of “foo.”

Believe it or not, “phooey” has a respectable lineage as an English interjection, and its beginnings may go back to the 1600s.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression “phoo” was first recorded in 1672, and defines it as “expressing contemptuous rejection, cursory dismissal (of a proposition, idea, etc.), disagreement, or reproach.”

The first person to use it in writing, as far as we know, was George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who along with several collaborators wrote a satirical play called The Rehearsal, staged in 1671 and published in 1672. The quote: “Phoo! that is to raise the character of Drawcansir.”

The word has continued to appear in fictional dialogue ever since. Here’s Oliver Goldsmith, in his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): “‘Phoo, Charles,’ interrupted she, ‘all that is very true.’ ” And here’s Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park (1814): “Phoo! Phoo! Do not be so shamefaced.”

The expression was also used to mean something like “darn!” as in this quotation from Maria Edgeworth’s novel Castle Rackrent (1800): “Phoo, I’ve cut myself with this razor.”

In the mid-19th century, some writers began using a similar word, “pfui,” adopted from a German word (pfui) that means the same thing: “an emphatic expression of contempt, disgust, or cursory dismissal,” according to the OED.

Here’s William Makepeace Thackeray, writing in the Cornhill Magazine in 1864: “Pfui! For a month before my lord’s arrival I had been knocking at all doors to see if I could find my poor wandering lady behind them.”

Both “phoo” and “pfui” continued to be used through 20th century. The most recent citations for both in the OED are from the 1990s.

The spelling “phooey” first showed up in 1919 in a caption appearing in the Sandusky (Ohio) Star-Journal: “Phooey! That’s old stuff – she told me pers’n’ly that all of them ‘sweet patootie’ letters was forged.” Was this just a new spelling of the old “pfui”? We can’t tell for sure.

The lyricist Lorenz Hart was apparently fond of the word. He used it in the song “A Melican Man” in 1926: “Give Chinee man this chop suey / He’ll refuse it and say ‘Phooey’!” The following year, in the song “Whoopsie,” he used it to mean “mad” or “crazy”: “When ev’ry thing’s gaflooey / And life is simply phooey…”

All of these words (the English “phoo,” “phooey,” and “pfui,” as well as the German pfui) are “imitative,” the OED says. They imitate the action of dismissively puffing or blowing through the lips.

We can’t vouch for their ultimate derivations or even say for sure that the English versions are essentially the same word. The OED has separate entries for each, merely directing the reader to “compare” them.

There may not be a paper trail here, but our hunch is that they’re the same animal with different spots.

By the way, spellings vary widely with many such imitative words. If you’re interested, we ran a blog entry last year about a few other words that mimic interjections.

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An exception proves the rule?

Q: Can you help me understand how an exception can prove a rule? I’ve often heard it said that this expression made sense at one time when the word “prove” meant to test rather than to confirm absolutely. Is that correct?

A: The old saying “the exception that proves the rule” does seem nonsensical. If there’s an exception, then it should disprove the rule, right? Many word lovers have turned themselves inside out in an attempt to explain this seeming contradiction.

But the word “proves” isn’t the key to the problem. (Contrary to statements in several reference books, “proves” here does indeed mean proves, not tests.) The key is the word “exception,” which English adopted from French in the 14th century.

When the word (spelled excepcioun) showed up in Chaucer’s writings in 1385, it meant a person or thing or case that’s allowed to vary from a rule that would otherwise apply.

That sense of the word led to the Medieval Latin legal doctrine exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis (exception proves the rule in cases not excepted), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the 17th century, the Latin expression was being quoted in English as “the exception proves the rule” or variations on this. And the exception, the OED tells us, was something that “comes within the terms of a rule, but to which the rule is not applicable.”

If all students in a school are required to attend gym class, for example, that’s the rule. If a kid with a sprained ankle is excused from gym, then the exception made for him proves that there’s a rule for everybody else.

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Q: Could you tell me where “quid,” the British slang term for pound sterling, comes from? I’ve read online that a paper mill in the town of Quidhampton or the Latin expression quid pro quo may be the source of the term.

A: Lexicographers aren’t certain how we got the word “quid,” a British monetary term that originally referred to a gold sovereign or guinea, and later meant one pound sterling.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that perhaps it comes from the Latin word quid (in this case meaning “what”), “reinterpreted to refer to (monetary) means or wherewithal.” If so, then your comment about quid pro quo isn’t far wrong.

The OEDs first recorded reference to the word comes from a pornographic tract by the pseudonymous Peter Aretine, Strange Newes from Bartholomew-Fair (1661): “The fool lost his purse, but how he knew not; for the reckoning being suddainly brought in, his Quids were vanisht.”

As for pounds, guineas, and sovereigns, here’s how they accumulated.

The “pound” (punda in Old English) was originally so called because it was worth a pound weight of silver, and was valued at 20 shillings.

The “guinea” was an English gold coin, made between 1663 and 1813, originally worth 20 shillings. It was so called because it was made of gold from Guinea.

The first version of the gold “sovereign” was coined in the 1500s and 1600s; a later gold sovereign worth one pound or 20 shillings was minted beginning in 1817.

Why a sovereign? Because it was imprinted with the image of the reigning monarch.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why “one-off” is one of a kind

Q: The term “one-off” is often used to denote something that’s one of a kind, but it seems to me that it should be called a “one of.” That’s what it’s describing – something unique. What’s your opinion?

A: The phrase “one-off” (it’s used as both an adjective and a noun) originated in Britain in the 1930s and appears to be gaining popularity here. It refers to something that is one of a kind or is occurring or being produced only once.

Why “off” rather than “of”? Because it was common practice in Britain when the expression originated to use the word “off” with a preceding numeral to describe the number of units of an item being produced or manufactured (“600 off,” or “12 dozen off,” or the like). Picture something coming off a conveyor belt or an assembly line.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “one-off” as both an adjective (meaning “made or done as the only one of its kind; unique, not repeated”), and as a noun for such a product.

The OEDs first published reference is to the adjective, which appeared in an industrial trade journal in 1934: “A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time.”

Like you, were not used to the phrase yet, but we imagine we’ll get accustomed to it if it persists in American usage.

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Are we seeing “more” more?

Q: I’ve noticed that newscasters are increasingly using “more” and “most” instead of comparatives and superlatives, as in “more ugly” or “most ugly” instead of “uglier” or “ugliest.” I anticipate that before long we’ll be hearing “more big” or “most big” instead of “bigger” or “biggest.” Would you speculate about this?

A: I don’t see any evidence that the adverbs “more” and “most” are replacing the “er” and “est” word endings.

Comparatives like “uglier” (instead of “more ugly”) and superlatives like “ugliest” (instead of “most ugly”) are incredibly handy language tools.

They’re so handy that the “er” and “est” suffixes aren’t likely to be threatened by an increase in the use of “more” and “most.”

If newscasters are indeed resorting to “more” and “most” instead of using comparatives and superlatives, it may be because they’re not sure how to pronounce the “er” and “est” versions.

But relax – those versions are here to stay.

Here’s a little history.

We’ve been using the “er” and “est” suffixes to make comparisons since the earliest days of English, and it’s a practice handed down from ancient Indo-European.

The Old English endings were originally spelled differently than they are today: ra for the comparative, and ost (sometimes est) for the superlative.

Taking the word “old” as an example, the Old English forms were eald (“old”), yldra (“older”), yldest (“oldest”). And taking “hard” as another, the forms were heard (“hard”), heardra (“harder”), heardost (“hardest”).

Which brings us to another set of Old English words: micel (meaning “great” or “big”), mara (“more”), and maest (“most”).

While “more” and “most” (or their ancestors) were around since the earliest days of English, it wasn’t until the early 1200s that we began using them as adverbs to modify adjectives and other adverbs in order to form comparatives and superlatives – that is, to do the job of the suffixes “er” and “est.”

For a few centuries, usage was all over the place. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for even one-syllable words to be used with “more” and “most,” according to The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. The authors cite the frequent use of phrases like “more near,” “more fast,” “most poor,” and “most foul.”

And multi-syllable words were used with “er” and “est,” like “eminenter,” “impudentest,” and “beautifullest.” Pyles and Algeo say there were even “a good many instances of double comparison, like more fitter, more better, more fairer, most worst, most stillest, and (probably the best-known example ) most unkindest.”

How about today, though? Is there a hard-and-fast rule about when to use “more” and when to use “er”? Not exactly, but there are common conventions.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of “more” is “the normal mode of forming the comparative” with “most adjectives and adverbs of more than one syllable, and with all those of more than two syllables.” A few single-syllable words (like “real,” “right,” “wrong,” and “just”) also normally form comparatives this way instead of with “er” suffixes, according to the OED.

Sometimes, however, “more” is used with one-syllable and two-syllable words that normally would end in “er,” like “busy,” “slow,” “true” and so on. Why? Here’s how the OED explains it:

“This form is often now used either for special emphasis or clearness, or to preserve a balance of phrase with other comparatives with ‘more,’ or to modify the whole predicate rather than the single adjective or adverb, especially when followed by than.”

So, we might choose “much more humble” instead of “much humbler.” Or we might say “so-and-so’s voice was more quiet but no less threatening.” Or “that’s more true than false.” Or even “his feet are more big than ungainly.”

So far, we’ve talked about “more” as an adverb modifying an adjective or another adverb to form a comparative (as in “more determined,” “more bitterly,” “more correctly,” “a more just society,” and so on). But it has other uses too:

(1) As a pronoun (as in “I want more,” “more of an athlete,” “there’s more where that came from,” “what’s more,” and so on).

(2) As an adjective (as in “more’s the pity,” “the more fool you,” “more pizzazz,” “more calories,” etc.).

And here’s a little sidelight: Until the early 1600s, “more” was often contrasted with “mo,” another Old English hand-me-down. “More” was used with quantities of one thing, while “mo” (or “moe”) was used with plural nouns.

In The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the lexicographer R.W. Burchfield notes that “the more/mo distinction dropped out during the 17th century and survives only in some regional forms of English.” He points out the two versions in Shakespeare, from The Tempest (“is there more toil?”), and The Winter’s Tale (“let’s first see moe ballads”).

I could go on with the history of “most,” but I think you’ve had enough. No more!

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin

Two index fingers pointing

Q: Can you write about “such that”? I assume you’ve seen this recent-seeming locution (at least to me) used in the following way: “She knew the English language very well, such that she wrote a whole book about it.”

A: Writers often use “such,” followed by a clause starting with “that,” to say something about one thing by referring to something else. As in, “His height was such that he had to have his clothes custom-made.”

Sentences like this may sound a bit redundant to the modern ear. Why not “He was so tall that he had to have his clothes custom-made”?

This “such that” construction, according to the grammarian George O. Curme, is evidence of an “older English fondness for double expression,” with “such and that pointing as with two index fingers to the following explanatory clause.”

The word “such” in sentences like these can have either of two meanings:

(1) “of such a kind” (adjective), as in “Her illness was such that she couldn’t work.”

(2) “in such a way” (adverb), as in “She trembled such that she couldn’t work.”

The adjectival construction has been widely used for the last thousand years, right up to the present day. Examples date back to around 1100, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. We’ve found them in the 1200s, 1300s, and 1400s, but in most of these the only recognizable words are “such that,” so we won’t bother to quote them!

Here’s a citation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV (1597): “Yea, but our valuation shall be such / That every slight and false-derived cause, / Yea, every idle, nice and wanton reason / Shall the king taste of this action.”

But the adverbial construction has been rarer, and some now consider it incorrect. In the sentence you cite – “She knew the English language very well, such that she wrote a whole book about it” – the “such that” construction is being used in an adverbial way.

In this case, “such that” answers the question “How well did she know English?” The sentence is definitely awkward. Better: “She knew the English language so well that she wrote a book about it.” Whether this “such that” usage is grammatically acceptable is a matter of opinion.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accepts the adverbial “such that,” meaning in such a way, giving as an example “related such that each excludes the other.”

But the usage panel of The American-Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) rejects this sentence: “The products are packaged such that users can pick the components they need and add capabilities over time.”

Perhaps “in such a way that” would be less jarring to modern ears.

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Cotton picking

Q: My nickname is Cotton and my gamertag on Xbox Live is Qutun. I chose that handle after reading that qutun is the Arabic word for cotton. But someone who studied Arabic told me recently that qutun does not mean cotton. I have also heard that the word “cotton” is a verb, yet I doubt that anyone uses it that way today. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

A: Ultimately, the English word “cotton” comes from the Arabic qutun (also spelled qutn in our alphabet). A press official at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington confirmed to us that qutun is indeed Arabic for cotton.

The original word passed from the Middle East to Spain, and from Spanish to other European languages. English got it in the late 13th century from the Old French coton. This is the rough history of the English word, as described in several etymology books as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, says several other words of Arabic origin (“amber,” “camphor,” “lute,” “mattress,” “cipher,” “orange,” “saffron,” “sugar,” “syrup,” “zenith,” and others) entered English during the same period, “most of them having to do in one way or another with science or commerce.”

As for the verb “cotton,” meaning to take a liking, it’s still being used today. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which describes it as an informal usage, gives this example: “a dog that didn’t cotton to strangers.”

This figurative meaning, which dates from the 1600s, is derived from an older sense of the verb “cotton” in textile finishing. In the 1400s, to “cotton” meant to form a nap (like the pile on a fabric).

Here’s an OED citation from 1488: “viii elne of cotonyt quhit clath” (“eight ells of cottoned white cloth”). An “ell” was roughly four feet; if a fabric “cottoned” properly, it was successfully finished.

We hope you find this answer properly cottoned.

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Take a listen, please!

Q: On CNN, all the anchors use the expression “take a listen” instead of just “listen” or “listen to this.” Does that sound as caustic to you as it does to me?

A: We don’t know about caustic, but it certainly sounds condescending and lame. It’s no doubt the speaker’s way of avoiding “Listen to this.” Let us quote from the entry for this “infantile phrase” in The Dimwit’s Dictionary (2d ed.), by Robert Hartwell Fiske:

“As inane as it is insulting, have (take) a listen obviously says nothing that listen alone does not. Journalists and media personalities who use this offensive phrase ought to be silenced; businesspeople, dismissed; public officials, pilloried.”

Well, we don’t think it’s as bad as all that, but the phrase is certainly overworked. We just googled “take a listen” and got several million hits (and a great many of them are complaints about the usage).

The expression hasn’t made it yet into modern dictionaries, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Cambridge Dictionaries Online include examples of somewhat similar usages.

Here’s the American Heritage example: “Would you like to give the CD a listen before buying it?”

And this is the example from Cambridge Dictionaries: “Have a listen to this!”

The word “listen,” by the way, has been used as a noun for about 250 years in expressions like “to be on the listen” or “to have a proper listen.”

In fact, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “listen” as a noun dates from the 1300s. In an apparent reference to becoming deaf or hard of hearing, the writer wonders if someone “has losed the lysten.”

The OED’s  modern examples of the noun usage, in which the word means an act of listening, begin with this citation from the December 1788 issue of The American Museum, a literary journal published in Philadelphia:

“Every time the door opens, or a foot is on the stairs, you are on the listen.” (The article, “To the Bachelor,” is signed by “Aspasia,” possibly the pen name of Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson, a Philadelphia writer and intellectual.)

Later OED examples include these: “She was often on the watch, and always on the listen” (1884); “constantly on the listen” (1935); “take a listen” and “have a proper listen” (both 1968); “I had a long listen” (1970); and “Give it a listen” (1971).

[Note: This post was updated on June 18, 2020.]

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What’s buttery about butterflies?

Q: I’ve read that the large-winged insect we see every summer was originally called a “flutterby,” but a tongue-tied VIP in England could only say “butterfly” and that name caught on. This makes sense to me since butterflies do more fluttering than buttering. Do you agree?

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but “butterfly” is as old as English words come. In written use it goes back to about the year 700, when Anglo-Saxons were speaking Old English.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Epinal Glossary, a list of terms in Latin and Old English: “Papilo, buturfliogae” (butur- was the compound form of buter or buture, Old English for “butter,” while fleoge and flyge were terms for a winged insect).

The OED says the reason for the name is unclear, but it “may arise from the pale yellow appearance of the wings of certain European butterflies (perhaps specifically the brimstone butterfly), or from a supposed tendency to feed on or hover over butter or buttermilk, or from a folk belief that butterflies (or even witches in the form of butterflies) steal butter.”

The dictionary notes similar words in other Germanic languages. A popular name for the insect in 16th-century Dutch, for example, was botervlieg, while popular names in Middle High German were bitterflivge and brutflevg. The insect is normally called vlinder in Dutch and schmetterling in German.

The OED also cites several Dutch and German regional terms that reflect the folk belief in butterfly thievery and witchery: botterheks (“butter witch”) in Dutch as well as butterhexe (“butter witch”) and “milchdieb (“milk thief”) in German.

The dictionary notes the use in Dutch of “boterschijte, lit. ‘butter shit,’ which has led to the (improbable) suggestion that the insect was so called on account of the (supposed) appearance of its excrement.”

In fact, butterflies don’t produce excrement, according to A World for Butterflies. However, the website and book by Phil Schappert note that caterpillars do poop and at least one of them has yellow excrement.

The word “butterfly,” according to the OED, has been in use steadily in various spellings since it first appeared in Old English. It can be found in the works of major English writers through the ages: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and so on.

The earliest Oxford citation with the modern spelling is from the early 17th century: “As Butterflies quicken with heat, which were benummed with cold” (from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Naturall Historie, 1626).

As for “flutterby,” there’s a lot of etymological nonsense about it on the Internet, but we can’t find a single published reference for the word in the OED.

The closest thing is this citation from 2000 in the dictionary’s entry for “pillock,” an obscure North English term for penis: “Why did the butterfly flutter by? Because she saw the caterpillar wave his pillock at her.”

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A pantleg to stand on

Q: Is the phrase “crease in the pant’s leg” correct or should it be “crease in the pants’ leg”? Thanks a bunch.

A: No apostrophe is needed. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the word “pant” can be an adjective meaning “of or relating to pants,” and it uses the example “pant leg.” So I would suggest “crease in the pant leg.”

Or “pantleg,” if you prefer. While the term often appears as two words, as in M-W, and has also appeared in the past with a hyphen, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the noun as one solid word.

The OED says “pantleg” originated in the US and is still “chiefly” North American. The dictionary gives examples dating from 1859.

As for “pants,” etymologists trace it back to San Pantaleone, the patron saint of Venice.  Because of his identification with the city, Venetians came to be known as pantaloni and a stock character in commedia dell’arte was Pantalone, a rich old miser.

This character typically wore “spectacles, slippers, and tight trousers that were a combination of breeches and stockings,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In the 17th century, the OED says, the French linked the character with a style of trousers that came to be known as “pantaloons” in English.

The word “pantaloons” was eventually shorted to “pants” in the US. Oxford’s earliest example for the new usage is from an 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger:  “In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

In the OED’s  citations for the short form used as an attributive noun (that is, as an adjective), it’s singular, as in “pantcoat,” “pantdress,” “pantskirt,” “pantsuit,” and “pant-look”), dating from the 1960s and later. (Hmm, I wonder if the appearance of all those “pant” words had something to do with the rise of feminism.)

Like most changes in our changeable language, the evolution of “pantaloons” to “pants” did not occur without opposition. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for one, described the upstart as “a word not made for gentlemen, but for ‘gents.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Are we losing “-ed” adjectives?

Q: Have you noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective? I see lots of signs that say “ice tea” and people talk about “mix tapes.”

A: No, we haven’t noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective, though some words that began life with the suffix are often seen without it.

For example, the use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, while “damn” used in this sense didn’t appear until the late 18th century and is now much more popular.

The loss of the “-ed” ending here is is no surprise. The fact is that “-ed” can be awkward to pronounce before a consonant. This can sometimes lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

As for the chilled tea served over ice, both “iced tea” and “ice tea” showed up in the 19th century (the version with “d” in 1839 and one without it in 1842, according to citations in theOxford English Dictionary). You can find both versions in standard dictionaries now, though the suffixed one is far more popular.

A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, shows that “iced tea” is five times as popular as “ice tea.” And the longer version is even more popular in a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books up until 2008. 

In short, the “-ed” adjective is alive and well in writing, though it’s often dropped in speech. We’re used to hearing things like “corn beef,” “mash potatoes,” “grill cheese,” “chop liver,” and “whip cream,” but people generally preserve the “-ed” endings in writing these noun phrases.

As for the compilation of music from multiple sources, it’s usually “mixtape” now, though it was “mix tape” when it showed up in writing in the 1980s and has sometimes been “mix-tape,” according to our searches of newspaper databases. It has seldom been written as “mixed tape.” The word “mix” in the compound “mixtape” is an attributive noun—one used adjectivally.

[Note: This post was updated on July 12, 2019.]

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Heavens to Betsy!

Q: I saw the expression “Heavens to Betsy” in the paper the other day and it reminded me of my late, dearly beloved mother, who used to use it at least once a week. Where does the expression come from, and who was Betsy?

A: Word sleuths have long asked themselves the same questions about “Heavens to Betsy,” an exclamation of surprise, shock, or fear.

All they’ve been able to learn is that the expression can be traced to 19th-century America. But “Betsy” herself remains stubbornly anonymous. As the Oxford English Dictionary comments: “The origin of the exclamation Heavens to Betsy is unknown.”

The earliest published reference found so far, according to the OED, comes from an 1857 issue of Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine: “ ‘Heavens to Betsy!’ he exclaims, clapping his hand to his throat, ‘I’ve cut my head off!’ ”

Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Dictionary of Quotations, found this hyphenated example in an an 1878 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “Heavens-to-Betsy! You don’t think I ever see a copper o’ her cash, do ye?”

And the OED has this one from a short-story collection by Rose Terry Cooke, Huckleberries Gathered From New England Hills (1892): “’Heavens to Betsey!’ gasped Josiah.” (“Betsy,” as you can see, is spelled there with a second “e.”)

The OED says the word “heaven,” used chiefly in the plural, has appeared since the 1500s in “exclamations expressing surprise, horror, excitement, etc.” It’s frequently accompanied by an intensifying adjective, Oxford adds, as in “good heavens,” “gracious heavens,” “great heavens,” “merciful heavens,” and so on.

In later use, the dictionary says, “extended forms” have included “Heaven and earth,” “Heavens above,” “Heavens alive,” and “Heavens to Betsy,” which it says originated and is chiefly heard in the US.

Some people have suggested that the exclamation was inspired by the Minna Irving poem “Betsy’s Battle Flag” (about Betsy Ross) or the nickname of Davy Crockett’s rifle, Old Betsy, but language authorities have debunked these ideas.

In a posting to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, the etymologist Gerald Cohen has suggested that Betsy Ross may indeed have inspired the expression even if the Irving poem didn’t. He adds that “Heavens to Betsy” may be an elliptical way of saying “may the heavens be gracious to Betsy.”

As for any more definitive explanation, we can’t offer one. This is one of the many language mysteries that we simply have to live with.

It’s even possible that the expression referred to nobody in particular, and that “Betsy” was used simply because it was a familiar feminine name. The generic use of names isn’t uncommon in such expressions, as we’ve written in posts about “Tom, Dick, and Harry”  and “Johnny-come-lately.”

The lexicographer Charles Earle Funk, in his appropriately titled book Heavens to Betsy!, says he spent “an inordinate amount of time” on this problem before deciding that it’s “completely unsolvable.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 23, 2018.]

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Nerds of America

[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 24, 2020.]

Q: I was listening to a discussion on WNYC about the word “nerd” and began thinking of when I first heard the term. I’m a baby boomer and don’t remember encountering it in grammar school, high school, or college. I believe I first heard the word on the TV show Happy Days. Did I miss something or did “nerd” originate on the sitcom?

A: You must have had your mind on other things. Happy Days was on the air from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, but the word “nerd” (sometimes spelled “nurd” in its early days) originated in the United States in the early ’50s.

That’s about the only thing certain about “nerd.” Its origin has been much disputed and we may never know the real story.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “nerd” as a “mildly derogatory” slang term for “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person” or one “who is boringly conventional or studious.” The word nowadays also has a more specific meaning, the dictionary adds: “a person who pursues an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication.”

The first published citation for “nerd” in the OED is from an article in Newsweek (Oct. 8, 1951): “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”

[Update: The Newsweek quotation suggests that the word was already attracting notice, at least in Detroit. In fact, the author and Yale Law School librarian Fred Shapiro spotted this slightly earlier example in the Detroit Free Press: “If the person in question (formerly known as a square) is really impossible, he’s probably a ‘nerd’ ” (Oct. 7, 1951).]

The OED mentions one plausible origin and several others that are more doubtful.

The plausible one suggests that “nerd” was inspired by a fictional character of the same name in a Dr. Seuss book, If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. The Nerd in the children’s book, according to the OED, was “depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression.” That sounds pretty nerdlike.

Less likely, the OED says, are suggestions that “nerd” is an alteration of “turd” or that it is back-slang for “drunk” (which contains the letters n-u-r-d) or that it is derived from the name of the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s dummy Mortimer Snerd.

Here are some “nerd”-related word formations, from Green’s Dictionary of Slang and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang: the adjectives “nerdy” (1960s) and “nerdly” (1990s) are self-explanatory; the verb “to nerd” (1980s) means to study, but “to nerd around” (1970s) is to goof off; a “nerd magnet” (1980s) is a woman who attracts nerds; a “nerd pack” (1980s) is a pocket protector for holding pens.

We don’t recall hearing “nerd” during our school careers, either (Stewart, class of ’63; Pat, ’71). But we remember the type—the guys who spent all their spare time in the library or lab, didn’t party or do drugs, studied like fiends, got great grades, and went on to become zillionaires in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. We think they got the last laugh.

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Do you pronounce ‘t’ in ‘often’?

Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” How “correct” is the second pronunciation? That depends on the dictionary you consult.

Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats the version with the audible “t” as a variant that occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some. [Update, May 25, 2018: The online edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has dropped that label and now has the word “nonstandard” before the second pronunciation.]

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today.

Even a word like “oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.

[Note: This post was updated on May 25, 2018.]

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Why do New Yorkers stand “on line”?

Q: I clearly have too much time on my hands, but I was wondering if it’s correct English for New Yorkers to stand “on line” instead of “in line.”

A: It’s an accepted idiom in New York City to stand “on line,” though it sounds odd to people from other parts of the country.

Somebody from Atlanta or Chicago or Omaha or Phoenix gets “in line” and then stands “in line”; somebody from New York gets “on line” and then stands “on line.” (Same idiom whether you’re getting in/on line or standing in/on it.) Similarly, New York shopkeepers and such will always say “next on line!” instead of “next in line!”

This is a good example of a regionalism. In Des Moines, where Pat comes from, you get black coffee when you ask for “regular” coffee. In New York, “regular” coffee means coffee with milk. It’s a big country.

Interestingly, New Yorkers aren’t the only folks to stand on line. The Dialect Survey, which maps North American speech patterns, found that the idiom was most prevalent in the New York metropolitan area, but that it occurred in pockets around the country, especially in the East.

Our old employer, the New York Times, frowns on the usage. Here’s what the Times stylebook has to say on the subject: “Few besides New Yorkers stand or wait on line. In most of the English-speaking world, people stand in line. Use that wording.”

Well, is “on line” proper English? When you’re in New York, it is (unless you work for the Times). Just relax and “enjoy” (another New Yorkism!).

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Stormy weather

[An updated and expanded post about “nor’easter” appeared on the blog on March 2, 2015.]

Q: Where does the word “nor’easter” come from? Is it short for “northeastern”? I live in Brooklyn and we recently experienced a nor’easter.

A: The word “nor’easter” is a contraction of “northeaster,” which is a noun meaning a strong northeast wind or a storm with heavy winds from the northeast.

The prevailing opinion among American broadcast and print journalists, who choose the contraction “nor’easter” by a wide margin over the longer version (just check Google), seems to be that “nor’easter” represents a regional New England pronunciation. This seems to be a myth, however. Many linguists and a great many coastal New Englanders insist that no such pronunciation existed in the region, and that locals have always pronounced the word without dropping the “th.”

According to the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, “nor’easter” is a “literary affectation.”

The earliest published reference to “nor’easter” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1837 translation of an Aristophanes comedy, The Knights: “Slack your sheet! A strong nor’-easter’s groaning.” The English poet Alfred Austin (he was poet laureate from 1892 to 1913) used both “nor’-easters” and “sou’-westers” in his writing, according to the OED.

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A tough row to hoe

Q: I’m always hearing people say “a tough ROAD to hoe.” Hoeing a road is probably illegal, and using that expression should be illegal too. What are your thoughts?

A: We don’t know if hoeing a road is illegal, but an asphalt road must be a mighty tough road to hoe. The correct expression is, of course, “a tough row to hoe,” and it refers to hoeing rows on a farm. To have a “tough” or “hard” or “long” or “difficult” row to hoe means to have a daunting task to perform.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the correct expression is of American origin and dates back to the early 19th century. The first OED citation is from the March 24, 1810, issue of the New-York Spectator:

“True, we have a hard row to hoe—’tis plaguy unlucky the feds have taken him up.”

And here’s an example from An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, an 1835 book by the frontiersman Davy Crockett: “I know it was a hard row to hoe.”

Interestingly, the “road” version of the expression showed up soon after Crockett’s book. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Dec. 3, 1842, issue of the Daily Atlas (Boston).

A farmer, describing his long journey to take wheat to market, writes: “ ‘Truly you have a hard road to hoe,’ you will say; ‘why don’t you sell your wheat nearer home?’ ”

We sympathize with you, but we think substituting “road” for “row” in the expression is a misdemeanor and doesn’t deserve hard time. Definitely no more than an hour on a road crew!

A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 19, 2017.]

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The great divide

Read Pat’s review in the New York Times today of two new language books.


Speech Crimes


Get a few language types together, and before long someone will bring up the great divide between the preservers and the observers of English, the “prescriptivists” and the “descriptivists” — those who’d rap your knuckles for using “snuck” versus those who might cite Anglo-Saxon cognates in its defense.

The truth is that the divide isn’t nearly as great as it’s made out to be. Most grammarians, lexicographers, usage experts and linguists are somewhere in between: English is always changing, but that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Ben Yagoda, the author of “When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It,” is with the right-thinking folks in the middle. His book, an ode to the parts of speech, isn’t about the rights or wrongs of English. It’s about the wonder of it all: the beauty, the joy, the fun of a language enriched by poets like Lily Tomlin, Fats Waller and Dizzy Dean (to whom we owe “slud,” as in “Rizzuto slud into second”).

If you’re old enough to have learned the parts of speech in school, you probably think of them as written in stone. Not so. The nine categories are arbitrary and shifting. Nouns get verbed, adjectives get nouned, prepositions can moonlight as almost anything.

Yagoda, who teaches English at the University of Delaware, agrees that the categories are artificial, but he’s smitten with them anyway. Each member of the “baseball-team-sized list” (adj., adv., art., conj., int., n., prep., pron. and v.) gets its own chapter. Don’t overlook the surprisingly entertaining one on conjunctions — yes, conjunctions — with its riffs on the ampersand (“the more ampersands in the credits, the crummier the movie”) and the art of “ ‘but’ management.” No word is too humble for Yagoda, who can get lexically aroused by the likes of “a” and “the.”

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Tom, Dick, and Harry

Q: I heard you suggest on WNYC that no one knows the origin of the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” I do! It’s from a Thomas Hardy novel, Far From the Madding Crowd.

A: Thanks for your comments, but I’m afraid the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry” predates Thomas Hardy. His novel Far From the Madding Crowd was published in 1874, but the earliest published reference to the generic male trio occurred more than 200 years earlier.

Pairs of common male names, particularly Jack and Tom, Dick and Tom, or Tom and Tib, were often used generically in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II has a reference to “Tom, Dicke, and Francis.”

The earliest citation for “Tom, Dick, and Harry” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1734: “Farewell, Tom, Dick, and Harry, Farewell, Moll, Nell, and Sue.” (It appears to be from a song lyric.) The OED and A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by Eric Partridge have half a dozen other references that predate the Hardy novel.

But a reader of the blog has found an even earlier citation for “Tom, Dick, and Harry” than the one in the OED. The English theologian John Owen used the expression in 1657, according to God’s Statesman, a 1971 biography of Owen by Peter Toon. [Note: This update was added in 2009.]

Owen told a governing body at Oxford University that “our critical situation and our common interests were discussed out of journals and newspapers by every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

Interestingly, the reference in Far From the Madding Crowd is to “Dick, Tom and Harry,” not to “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” But we won’t hold that against Hardy!

[Note: On Feb. 27, 2016, a reader named John (who has both a father and an uncle named John) wrote to say that when he was born, Uncle John told his mother: “Don’t name him John. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named John.”]

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Do you champ or chomp at the bit?

Q: It seems as if “champ at the bit” has suddenly morphed into “chomp at the bit.” Why this shift? Has the new form become standard?

A: The traditional expression is “champ at the bit,” which means to show impatience. But a growing number of people are choosing “chomp at the bit.” I just did a Google search for both phrases. The results: 942 hits for “champ” and 14,900 for “chomp.” Like it or not, the “chomps” are making a chump of me. (I will resist making puns about Noam Chomsky!)

I still recommend using “champ at the bit,” especially when one’s language should be at its best, but I suspect that “chomp at the bit” will eventually become standard American English. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language lists only “champ at the bit.” But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary now includes both expressions without qualification.

The word “champ” has meant bite, as in a horse’s biting impatiently at a bit, since at least 1577, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “chomp” has been a variant of “champ” since at least 1645, though the early references deal with chomping on food rather than at metal bits.

I can’t tell you why people began substituting “chomp” for “champ” in the first place. A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)

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Growing pains

Q: Please pass judgment on the use (or rather abuse) of the word “grow” in a phrase like “grow a business.” Is this a legitimate use of the verb “to grow,” according to formal standards of usage (if indeed such standards continue to exist at all)? Of course one can grow flowers (transitive) or grow tall (intransitive), but my ear is thrown by the idea that one can grow a business.

A: The transitive use of “grow,” as in “grow crops,” is well established, as you point out. The Oxford English Dictionary lists published citations dating back to 1774. (A transitive verb needs an object to make sense: He grows dahlias. Intransitive verbs make sense without one: The dahlias grow.)

But this newer transitive use of “grow” applied to nonliving things (as in “grow the economy”) seems to have emerged during the 1992 presidential election, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.). Many (though not all) language authorities frown on a usage like “grow our business,” including 80 percent of American Heritage’s Usage Panel.

Nevertheless, the dictionary’s editors say in a note, “these usages have become very common and are likely to see continued use in business contexts.”

Another widely used dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), is more accepting. It recognizes without comment the use of grow in the sense to promote the development of and gives as an example start a business and grow it successfully. So in the view of the M-W editors, this usage is now standard English. 

Speaking for myself, I hope this remains corporate jargon and doesn’t become more widely used. Even worse, though, is the phrase “grow down,” as in “I promise to grow down the deficit.” Anyone capable of speaking in such a way should grow up.

[Note: This entry was reviewed and updated on Aug. 4, 2014.]

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“Woe is I” vs. “Woe is me”

Q: I love your book, but I have a question about the title. How come it’s Woe Is I and not Woe Is Me or Woe Am I? Is there a reason?

A: I chose the title Woe Is I to poke fun at hypercorrectness—that is, incorrectness used in the mistaken belief that one is being  ultra-correct. (A good example is a sentence like “Give your seat to whomever needs one.”)

In the case of the book’s title, the butt of the joke is the old rule of English grammar (now considered excessively formal) that required the nominative case after the verb “to be.” (Example: using “It is I” instead of “It is me” or “It’s me.”) I wanted to show how ridiculous we sound when we go overboard in the name of correctness.

As I wrote in the preface to the second edition, “the expression ‘Woe is me’ has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit—or an author trying to make a point—would use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ here.”

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