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

Yeah, no

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s rustle up an answer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Death, the great intensifier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Punctuation Usage

The singularity of Mother’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parsing the Preamble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the lam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s play ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

● “home run”—a great success, 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

● “curveball”—something tricky and unexpected, 1944

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

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

● “ballpark”—approximate (adjective), 1957

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

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I got this

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ ‘This one is mine.’

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

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

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

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

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High on the hog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Just sayin’

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

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

Well, it doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How old is the stand-alone expression “Just sayin’ ” or “I’m just saying”? (It sometimes appears with “only” instead of “just.”)

Well, it’s a difficult question to research, since so many literal examples get in the way. But the usage we’re talking about has a German cousin dating from at least as far back as the 19th century. And a longer version was known a century ago in Irish English. 

The Oxford English Dictionary says that “just saying” and “only saying” originated as clipped versions of fuller phrases that are used in the same way: “I was just saying,” “I am only saying,” etc.

The dictionary says these expressionsboth the originals and the shorter “just saying, only saying”are “used to indicate that a previous statement or assertion is not intended to be combative or provoking, or should not be taken too personally or seriously.”

It suggests a comparison with the German ich sag’ ja nur  (“I’m just sayin’ ”), which it dates from the “late 19th cent. or earlier.”

The dictionary’s first English example is from Juno and the Paycock (1925), by the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey: “Sure, I know—I was only sayin’.”

And this “just” version is also found in dialogue: “I’m not knocking. I’m just saying” (Tucker’s People, a 1943 novel by Ira Wolfert).

But the clipped versions are more recent. We’ve mentioned a few examples from the early 2000s. Oxford’s earliest is a quotation in an Illinois newspaper: “It’d be a hard pill for Boehner to swallow. … Just sayin’ ” (The Pantagraph, Bloomington, June 30, 2013.)

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

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

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

[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 12, 2022.]

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The next name I’m going to call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George: “Say goodnight, Gracie.”

Gracie: “Goodnight, Gracie.”

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

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

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

Dan Martin: “Say goodnight, Dick.”

Dick Rowan: “Goodnight, Dick.”

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Plumb loco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cop talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

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

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The silo syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The earliest Johnny-come-lately


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An arm and a leg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where is “put” in “stay put”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where, you ask, is put?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Religion Usage

Rhetorical deviltry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage

Blood and treasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Since Christ left Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uppity language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An etymological valentine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could be more intriguing than that?

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Etymology Usage

What do you call a monthly anniversary?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On holy days and holidays

Q: Happy holidays! Apropos of the holiday season, when did “holiday” become a word and when did it lose its holiness? I assume it was originally “holy day,” but I’ve never looked into it.

A: The word “holiday” was first recorded in English around the year 950, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but it looked a lot different back then.

In Old English, it was written haligdæg or hali-dægh (literally “holy day’). And later, in Middle English, the first vowel was also an “a”: halidei, halidai , halliday, haliday, etc.

A bit later in the Middle English period (12th to 15th centuries) the “a” became an “o,” and eventually the usual forms of the word became “holy day,” “holy-day,” or “holiday” (a spelling first recorded in 1460).

The different forms of the word—that is, whether it was written as one word or two—had something to do with its different meanings.

Originally, the word meant a consecrated day or a religious festival. But in the 1400s, it acquired another, more secular meaning.

The OED defines this sense of the word as “a day on which ordinary occupations (of an individual or a community) are suspended; a day of exemption or cessation from work; a day of festivity, recreation, or amusement.”

That’s how the single word “holiday” came to include the secular side of life and became identified with vacations. But the two–word versions (“holy day,” “holy-day”) retained the original meaning—a day set aside for religious observance.

Today we still recognize these different senses and spellings.

Now here’s an aside. In the Middle English period, people sometimes observed holy days by eating a large flatfish called butte. Thus this fish became known as “halibut” (“hali” for holy and “but” for flatfish).

And happy holidays to you!

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Is government the issue?

Q: I’m a reporter in the Midwest. The other day I did a story about local people in the military. I wanted to say the term “GI” is short for “government issue,” but the copy editor insisted it’s an abbreviation of “galvanized iron.” In the end, we took it out. Who’s right?

A: Both of you, depending on how the abbreviation is used. Here’s the story.

In the early 20th century, “GI” was a semiofficial US Army abbreviation for “galvanized iron.”

The term, dating back to 1907, was used in military inventories to describe iron cans, buckets, and so on, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

By 1917, however, “GI” began to take on a wider meaning.

In World War I, it was used to refer to all things Army, so military bricks became GI bricks and military Christmases became GI Christmases. Before long, we had GI soap and GI shoes and, eventually, plain old GIs.

A lot of people apparently felt this new usage needed a new family tree. So in the minds of many, “galvanized iron” became “government issue” or “general issue.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “GI” can be an abbreviation for all three, depending on how it’s used:

It stands for “galvanized iron” when used in a phrase like “GI can” (an iron trash can or a World War I German artillery shell). It’s short for “government issue” or “general issue” when referring to American soldiers or things associated with them.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) also list all three as as the longer forms of “GI.”

The entry for “GI” in American Heritage sums up the etymology this way: “From abbreviation of galvanized iron (applied to trash cans, etc.), later reinterpreted as government issue.”

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 11, 2018.]

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Why is ‘she’ the cat’s mother?

[Note: This post was updated on April 28, 2020.]

Q: You must be catted out by now, but I have one more feline inquiry. My mother would not allow us children to refer to her in the third person while she was in front of us. Any infraction of this rule would cause her immediate response: “Don’t call me ‘she’!  ‘She’ is the cat’s mother!” What the heck does this mean?

A: Well, we’ve answered two catty questions lately—one in March and one in April—so why not one more?

There was a time when a child could get a scolding for using the word “she” instead of a name, especially if the “she” (often an older person, like one’s mother) was present.

And the scolding might have consisted of  “Who’s ‘she’—the cat’s mother?”

We can see why “she” is sometimes rude. And we can see why “she” might be equated with “the cat’s mother.”

After all, a cat’s mother is probably some nameless, unknown feline. But people have names—“Mom,” for example.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the catchphrase “Who’s she—the cat’s mother?” (or some variation thereof) is “said to one (esp. a child) who uses the pronoun of the third person singular impolitely or with inadequate reference.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from the May 25, 1878, issue of the journal Notes and Queries. We’ll expand the quotation here:

“I cannot find any mention of this saying … in books of proverbial expressions, but it is one with which I have been acquainted from my youth. … For example, a little girl runs in to her mother, and says excitedly, ‘O mamma, we met her just as we were coming home from our walk, and she was so glad to see us!’ Upon which the mamma says, ‘Who is “she”? the cat’s mother?’ ” Thus, adds the writer, Cuthbert Bede, the expression is used “to enjoin perspicuity of speech and precision  in reference.”

In our own searches, we found an earlier example, from a burlesque play in which the characters are people, fairies, and cats. Here’s the exchange:

Prince Lardi-Dardi: Who’s she? … Miss McTabby: His nurse would tell him, ‘she’ is the cat’s mother; / A lesson learnt by every little baby” (The White Cat! by Francis Cowley Burnand, first produced Dec. 26, 1870).

We’ve also found a few examples, from the late 1870s and afterwards, of “the cat’s grandmother” and “the cat’s aunt” used in the same way—as a retort to someone who uses “she” in uncertain reference.

Here are some later examples of the reprimand, cited in the the OED:

“Don’t call your mamma ‘she.’ ‘She’ is a cat” (from The Beth Book, by Frances Macfall, writing as Sarah Grand, 1897).

“ ‘Who’s She?’ demanded Nurse. ‘She’s the cat’s
mother’ ” (from Compton Mackenzie’s novel Sinister Street, 1913).

“To one who keeps saying ‘she’ in an impolite manner the reproof is: ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’ ” (from The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, by Iona and Peter Opie, 1959).

“Who’s she? The cat’s grandmother?” (from Nanny Says, by Sir Hugh Casson and Joyce Grenfell, 1972).

“ ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’ Lindy said, not looking up from the magazine” (from Helen Cross’s My Summer of Love, a novel set in Yorkshire in the 1980s and published in 2001).

Despite that 21st-century example, we suspect that this nostalgic old expression is one more nicety of language that’s gradually fading away.

[Note: A reader wrote us on Dec. 2, 2015, to say the “cat’s mother” reprimand is alive and well in his family. “My wife is using it on our child as her Mom did unto her,” he said. “In our household, it is being handed down to the next generation as I type.”]

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A gazeeka box and a green-fedora guy

Q: I’m reading Gypsy Rose Lee’s The G-String Murders. She uses the phrase “a green-fedora guy.” Do you have any idea what that means? And if you want to tackle “gazeeka box,” that would be interesting, too. She peppers this book with quite a bit of showbiz jargon.

A: In The G-String Murders, a 1941 mystery, there are two references to green fedoras.

In describing a guy named Moey, an “ex-racketeer” who runs the concession at the burlesque house where the novel is set, the author writes:

“He wore a white wash coat when he was working, dazzling checks when the show was over. Strictly a green-fedora guy, but he gave us a ten per cent discount on our cokes, so he was popular enough backstage.”

Later in the book, Moey reappears in his street clothes (a suit with “green and yellow threads running through the material”) and begins opening a package: “He pushed his green fedora back on his head and went to work with the scissors.”

None of our slang references (not even the aptly named Green’s Dictionary of Slang) give us a clue to what a “green-fedora guy” might be.

Our guess is that the reference is literal, and Gypsy Rose Lee meant that Moey always wore a green fedora (and perhaps that his taste was a bit over the top).

Green fedoras were more common in those days—now we see them chiefly on St. Patrick’s Day.

A 1934 song called “I’m Wearin’ My Green Fedora,” by Al Sherman, Al Lewis, and Joseph Meyer, was featured in several cartoons of the 1930s.

A line from refrain: “I’M WEARIN’ MY GREEN FEDORA, FEDORA, not Alice, not Annie, Not Daisy but FEDORA.” And the finale: “That’s why I’M WEARIN’ MY GREEN FEDORA, FEDORA, FEDORA, FEDORA is the girl I love!” (Thanks to the Levy Collection at the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, for providing us with the sheet music.)

The song was a takeoff on the comic routines of Joe Penner, a popular stage, radio, and film actor of the ’30s whose trademark was a fedora perched on the back of his head.

And here’s an interesting aside. While the song appears to pun on the phrase “for Dora,” in fact the word “fedora” was originally a woman’s name. The term for the hat was inspired by a French play entitled Fédora, written by Victorien Sardou in 1882. Its heroine is a Russian princess named Fédora (the Russian feminine of Fedor), who wears a soft-brimmed hat with a crease in the crown.

When you finish The G-String Murders, you might want to check out Lady of Burlesque, a 1943 film made from it (Barbara Stanwyck is the Gypsy Rose Lee character).

You also asked about “gazeeka box,” a term that turns up many times in The G-String Murders. The gazeeka box in the novel is a coffin-like prop used in the burlesque house. (Naturally, a body is discovered in it!)

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang describes “gazeeka box” (origin unknown) as a burlesque term for “a stage prop used in comedy acts which takes the form of a large box from which beautiful girls emerge, supposedly endlessly.”

Random House’s first citation for the use of the term is from Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1941 novel. But the term is much older. It’s mentioned, for instance, in Archibald Haddon’s book Green Room Gossip (1922).

In at least one old burlesque sketch we found online, the showgirls who magically emerge from the gazeeka box are called “gazeekas.”

But gazeeka boxes, with their false backs, could also be used to make a showgirl magically disappear.

And they weren’t always coffin-like, as in Gypsy Rose Lee’s novel. They were generally upright, like phone booths.

And with that, we’ll make our exit.

[Note: This post was updated on March 5, 2015.]

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In stir on the Jersey Shore

Q: Why have I never found anybody from outside New Jersey who knows what “in stir” means? We of NJ have a soft spot for those in the slammer or merely busted, like Snooki and Ronnie on “Jersey Shore.”

A: As we’re sure you realize, New Jersey doesn’t have a monopoly on “in stir” or “in the stir.”

In fact, it doesn’t even come from New Jersey. The phrase was first recorded in England, and has been used with or without the article “the” since the late 1800s. Here’s the story.

The word “stir” has been used as a noun for a prison since the mid-19th century, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. That much we can be sure about.

The word was sometimes spelled “stur” and originated in the Romany words sturiben (a prison) and staripen (to imprison), Cassell’s says.

A 19th-century source, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, first published in London in 1889, says “stir” comes from staripen, adding that “stardo in gypsy means ‘imprisoned.’ ”

This dictionary, edited by Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland, calls “stir” an abbreviation of a longer slang word for a prison, spelled  “sturbin” in the US and “sturiben” in Britain.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, seems to disagree, saying the origin of the slang term “stir” is unknown. The OED doesn’t say why it rejects the Romany origin.

But the modern verb “stir,” from the Old English verb styrian, has also had negative meanings over the years: to make a disturbance, to cause trouble, to revolt, to provoke, and so on.

Such activities could of course land a person in jail (or “in chokey,” as P. G. Wodehouse liked to say).

But those old meanings are now rare or obscure for the most part, except in the sense of “stir things up,” which isn’t always a bad thing to do.

In the journal Modern Language Notes in 1934, J. Louis Kuethe argued in favor of the Romany etymology.

Staripen, steripen, and stiraben have all been given as spellings of the Romani word for ’prison,’ ” he writes. “When these variations are taken into account, the Gypsy origin of stir is quite acceptable phonetically.”

Since the slang term originated in the mid-19th century, Kuethe says, “it seems much more plausible that the word should have originated from a contemporary  source such as the Romani, rather than from the Old English styr which disappeared centuries ago.”

Wherever it came from, everyone agrees that the word first showed up in print in 1851.

That’s the year of the OED’s first citation, which comes from a collection of articles and interviews by Henry Mayhew entitled London Labour and the London Poor.

The quotation: “I was in Brummagem, and was seven days in the new ‘stir’ (prison).” The term “Brummagem” was a local nickname for the English city of Birmingham.

Soon, however, the phrase “in stir” (without the article) was the usual slang term for “in prison.”

This OED citation is from A Child of the Jago, Arthur Morrison’s 1896 novel about the slums of London: “A man has time to think things out, in stir.”

And as we all know, someone sitting in prison is likely to go “stir crazy,” a term the OED traces back to 1908.

[Updated May 5, 2017.]

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Scot, Scotch, or Scottish?

Q: In your remarks about the verdict “not proven” in Scotland, you refer to “Scottish law.” I hate to contradict you, but the proper expression is “Scots Law.” And as an aside, I wonder if you realize that in Scotland’s courts, the word “proven” has a long-O sound, as in “woven.” My father was a judge in Scotland, and I had to listen to the long O since I was … oh, 36 months old! Even today, after 40 years in Canada, I still can’t get used to the PROO-ven pronunciation.

A: Thanks for your interesting comment. We could plead “not proven,” and argue that we were simply referring in a general way to the laws in Scotland. But why quibble? We’ve updated the blog item to add a reference to Scots Law.

This also gives us a chance to write about the three adjectives “Scot,” “Scotch,” and “Scottish.”

In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the adjective was Scyttisc or Scottisc. In Middle English, about 1100 to 1500, it was written all sorts of ways (Scottysc, Scottisc, Scottissh, etc.), often depending on where you lived.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, it was pronounced like “Scottish” (with various spellings) in the south of England, and “Scottis” in the north as well as in Scotland.

Writers in England began contracting “Scottish” to “Scotch” in the late 16th century, while writers in Scotland began shortening “Scottis” to “Scots” in the early 18th century.

But language is a messy business, and some Scottish writers, notably Robert Burns (1759-96) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), regularly used “Scotch” as an adjective.

By the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, there was “uncertainty among the educated classes in Scotland concerning the relative ‘correctness’ of the three competing terms”—“Scots,” “Scottish,” and “Scotch.”

And by the mid-19th century, there was “a growing tendency among educated speakers to favour the more formal Scottish or (less frequently) the more traditional Scots over what was perceived as the more vulgar Scotch,” the OED says.

In England, “Scotch” was the “the prevailing form” from the late 17th century until the 19th century, according the OED, though “Scottish” was used in more formal writing.

“By the beginning of the 20th cent.,” Oxford notes, “disapproval of Scotch by educated Scots was so great that its use had become something of a shibboleth (much to the bafflement of speakers outside Scotland for whom this was the usual word).”

And “during the 20th cent. educated usage in England gradually began to adapt in deference to the perceived Scottish preferences.”

Nevertheless, the adjective “Scotch” survives in a few phrases like “Scotch whisky,” “Scotch broth,” and “Scotch barley.” Although “Scotch pine” has survived in the US, the tree is “Scots pine” in the UK, where it’s the national tree of Scotland.

So which adjective should a writer use today? A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) suggests that “forms involving Scotch are best avoided in reference to people; designations formed with Scots are most common (Scot, Scotsman, or Scotswoman), but those involving the full form Scottish are sometimes found in more formal contexts.”

The dictionary notes that “Scotch-Irish is the most commonly used term for the descendants of Scots who migrated to North America, but lately Scots-Irish has begun to gain currency among those who know that Scotch is considered offensive in Scotland.”

“There is, however, no sure rule for referring to things,” the AH usage note concludes, “since the history of variation in the use of these words has left many expressions in which the choice is fixed, such as Scotch broth, Scotch whisky, Scottish rite, and Scots Guards.

So if in doubt, look it up in the dictionary!

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 3, 2021, and May 19, 2022.]

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Collective bargaining

Q: Please tell me which verb is correct in this sentence: “Ninety percent of the team is/are men.” The plural “are” sounds correct, but “team” is singular.

A: Our choice is “Ninety percent of the team are men.” Here’s why.

“Percent” is used with both singular and plural verbs. It usually takes a plural verb when followed by “of” plus a plural noun, and takes a singular verb when followed by “of” plus a singular noun.

Example: “Sixty percent of the cookies were eaten, but only twenty percent of the milk was drunk.”

With your sentence, the question is whether the noun “team” should be treated as singular or plural. This isn’t a black-and-white question!

“Team” is a collective noun: a singular noun that stands for a number of people or things that form a group.

A collective noun takes either a singular or a plural verb, depending on whether you’re talking about the group as a unit (singular) or the individuals (plural).

In this case, the tip-off that we’re talking about individuals is the word “men,” a plural noun.

So we’re talking here about the players who make up the team, not the group as a single unit. This calls for a plural verb: “Ninety percent of the team are men.”

A similar case can be made for the noun “band.” Like “team,” it’s a singular collective noun. But we would say, “Fifty percent of the band are vocalists.”

The singular verb “is” would be dissonant here because the plural “vocalists” indicates that we’re talking about the members of the band, not the group as a whole.

On the other hand, if we’re talking about the group as a single unit, we use a singular verb: “The team [or band] is playing in Pittsburgh.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has a good explanation of all this. It says in part that collective nouns “have had the characteristics of being used with both singular and plural verbs since Middle English.”

Most of the time, nouns and their verbs agree in number: singular nouns with singular verbs, and plurals with plurals. This is what grammarians mean when they talk about “agreement.” But with collective nouns, what’s at work is “notional agreement.”

As Merriam-Webster’s says, the principle of notional agreement “is simple: when the group is considered as a unit, the singular verb is used; when it is thought of as a collection of individuals, the plural verb is used.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written blog items on other collective words, including “couple,” “majority,” and “none.”

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Bye, baby bunting

Q: I’m curious about the term “baby bunting” in this nursery rhyme: “Bye, baby bunting,  / Father’s gone a-hunting,  / Mother’s gone a-milking, / Sister’s gone a-silking, / Brother’s gone to buy a skin  / To wrap the baby bunting in.” Any idea of the origin?

A: “Bunting” has been a term of endearment since at least as far back as the 1660s. The origins of the word are unknown but it’s had a long association with plumpness, with bottoms, and with “butt” (both the noun and the verb).

In Scottish, according to the OED, the term buntin means short and thick, or plump. A similar term in Welsh, bontin, means the rump.

And in Scottish as well as in dialectal English, both “bunt” and “bun” have been used to refer to the tail of a rabbit or hare.

The verb “bunt” was used in the 1800s to mean the same as “butt” – to strike, knock, or push. (Yes, this is where the baseball term “bunt” comes from, circa 1889.)

And in a 19th-century Sussex dialect, to “bunt” was to rock a cradle with one’s foot (by pushing or “butting” it).

The adjective “bunting” has been used to mean plump, swelling, or filled out since the 1500s.

John Jamieson, in An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808-25), defined buntin as “short and thick; as a buntin brat, a plump child.”

In the phrase “baby bunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the meaning (if there be any at all) may possibly be” as in Jamieson’s definition.

At bottom, if you’ll pardon the expression, the phrase in the nursery rhyme seems to be an affectionate reference to an infant’s plumpness or to its rosy rump.

The earliest version of the nursery rhyme dates from the 1780s, and the longer version you quote has been traced to 1805.

Surprisingly, the OED has no reference to the garment known as a “bunting” – an infant’s cuddly, cocoon-like, hooded outerwear. This sense of the word dates from 1922, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The name of the garment, according to our old Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary  (the unabridged second edition), is a reference to the “baby bunting” in the nursery rhyme.

In case you’re wondering, the noun “bunting” has been used for another kind of cloth – the open-weave kind used to make flags – as well as for a family of birds (possibly because of their plumpness.)

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Black (or African) American?

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “Black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “Black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most Black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a Black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a Black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “colored,” “Negro,” “Black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “colored,” which was accepted by both Whites and Blacks. But “colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “Black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “Black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “Black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, Blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction – race versus ethnic group – is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition was published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Sept. 5, 2021: American Heritage dropped the usage note from later editions. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “Black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines. Furthermore, the capitalization of “Black” has now become widely established.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

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Honey, I sunk the boat

[Note: A later post on this subject appeared on May 24, 2019. And an updated post about “shrink,” “shrank,” and “shrunk” was published on Jan. 2, 2020.]

Q: I’ve noticed that even the best-edited publications sometimes use “sunk” instead of “sank” for the past tense of “sink.” This leaves me with a sinking feeling. What can we do about the loss of a perfectly good four-letter word that can be spoken in any company?

A: Both “sank” and “sunk” are accepted for the past tense of “sink” in American English. The two are listed, in that order, as equal variants in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).

So it’s correct to say either “the boat sank” or “the boat sunk.” The past participle is “sunk,” as in “the boat has sunk” or “the boat was sunk.”

In case you’re wondering, the same is true for “shrink.” The same three American dictionaries  allow either “shrank” or “shrunk” in the past tense.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “shrunk” is “undoubtedly standard” in the past tense, though the preference in written usage seems to be for “shrank.”

In 1995, William Safire drew catcalls from the “Gotcha!” gang for using “shrunk” in the past tense in the New York Times. Why did he do it? Here’s how he explained it:

“Because Walt Disney got to me, I guess: the 1989 movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids did to ‘shrank’ what Winston cigarettes did to ‘as’: pushed usage in the direction of what people were casually saying rather than what they were carefully writing.”

But back to “sunk,” which has bounced back and forth in acceptability over the centuries. Arguments over it are nothing new. For instance, we found a spirited defense of “sunk” in the past tense in an 1895 issue of the journal The Writer.

In the history of English, the use of “sunk” in the past tense has been “extremely common,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, the OED cites Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as giving the past tense as “I sunk, anciently sank.”

Johnson himself used “sunk” as the past tense, as in this citation from his treatise Taxation No Tyranny (1775): “The constitution sunk at once into a chaos.”

But Johnson was right: “anciently,” to use his word, the accepted past tense was indeed “sank.”

The verb was sincan in Old English, with the past tense sanc and the past participle suncon or suncen.

The old past tense seems to have been preserved into Middle English, the form of the language spoken between 1100 and 1500.

Here’s an example from Arthur and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wawain on the helme him smot, / The ax sank depe, god it wot.”

But in modern English, both “sank” and “sunk” have appeared as past tenses, and “sunk” may even have been preferred in literary usage. Here’s Dickens, for example: “ ‘Cold punch,’ murmured Mr. Pickwick, as he sunk to sleep again” (The Pickwick Papers, 1836).

The usage can be found in the Bible (1611): “The stone sunke into his forehead.” And here it is in Sir William Jones’s poem Seven Fountains (1767): “The light bark, and all the airy crew, / Sunk like a mist beneath the briny dew.”

“Sunk” was used by Addison and Steele in the Spectator in the 18th century, and by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th.

In fact, Scott’s novels are full of “sunk,” as in this passage from The Heart of Midlothian (1818): “Jeanie sunk down on a chair, with clasped hands, and gasped in agony.”

Today, the British prefer to reserve “sunk” for the past participle and use “sank” for the past tense, so the preferred progression in contemporary British English is “sink/sank/sunk.”

The lexicographer Robert Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), sums up the state of things in British English. The past tense, he writes, “is now overwhelmingly sank rather than sunk.” And today the preferred past participle is “sunk,” not the old “sunken.”

It seems that in American usage, too, most people prefer “sank” as the past tense, even though dictionaries allow “sunk.” As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectal as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

Some commentators have suggested that the return of the “sink/sank/sunk” progression (along with a distaste for “sunk” as a past tense) may have been influenced by the similar irregular verbs “drink/drank/drunk,” “swim/swam/swum,” “ring/rang/rung,” and others.

This common pattern, by the way, probably inspired “brang” and “flang” as illegitimate past tenses of “bring” and “fling.”

And it probably also brought about “snuck,” the much-reviled past tense of “sneak,” which dictionaries now accept as standard English and which we’ve written about before on the blog.

To recap, these days it’s no crime (at least in American English) to say “the boat sunk in a storm” or “my  jeans shrunk in the dryer.”

But the grammar police will still fine you for using a past participle when the simple past tense is appropriate, as in “The bell rung” or “I drunk the milk” or “She sung off key.”

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Opposition research

Q: You wrote in 2008 and 2007 about words that have totally opposing – or at least wildly differing – meanings. For example, “sanction “and “cleave.” By what etymological process do these words develop? Perhaps the language deities have a sense of humor.

A: These two-faced words are usually called “contronyms,” though they are sometimes referred to as “auto-antonyms,” “self-antonyms,” or “Janus words” (after the god with two faces).

In addition to “sanction” (to approve or penalize) and “cleave” (to cling or part), some others are “screen” (to view or hide from view), “bolt” (to flee or fix in place), and “weather” (to stand up to stress or be eroded by stress).

Each of these words (and there are many more) developed its opposing meanings for different reasons.

In the case of “cleave,” it comes from two distinct verbs with different roots in Old English. The one (cleofian or clifian) meant “cling” or “stick,” and the other (cleofan) meant “split” or “divide.”

The two eventually merged in spelling and pronunciation, and the differing meanings were preserved.

In the case of “sanction,” the verb originally meant to ratify or confirm by enactment. A little later this came to mean to permit; still later it grew to mean to enforce by imposing penalties.

The verb followed the much earlier noun, which first meant a law or decree and later meant a penalty.

Etymologically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it may be an adaptation of the Latin sanctionem (“action of ordaining as inviolable under a penalty, also a decree or ordinance”).

In the 17th century, the noun “sanction” was “extended to include the provision of rewards for obedience, along with punishments for disobedience, to a law,” the OED says.

So in looser senses it grew to mean encouragement or support on the one hand, and coercive measures on the other.

Such are the ways of language!

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