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English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

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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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

By PATRICIA T. O’CONNER

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.”

Read the rest of the review on Grammarphobia.com. And buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.

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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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