Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The lying origins of ‘belie’

Q: I see usages like “His age belies his strength” when I think it should be “His strength belies his age.” But I’m a bit confused about this. What do you think?

A: The verb “belie” usually means to give a false impression (“His amiable smile belies his toughness”) or to prove false (“The fingerprints belie her claim to have been elsewhere”). All ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include those two senses, though some add a slight variation or two.

So in answer to your question, one could say either “His strength belies [gives a false impression of] his age” or “His age belies [gives a false impression of] his strength.”

Of course “belie” can be misused. As Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) points out, it’s sometimes thought to mean disclose or reveal, “a sense almost antithetical” to giving a false impression. The usage guide gives this example of the misuse: a “soft drawl belied his Southern roots.”

As for its etymology, “belie” dates from Anglo-Saxon days, when it meant “to deceive (a person) by lying” or “to tell lies about, to slander or libel (a person),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In Old English, the verb was written as beleogan, formed of the prefix be- (about) plus leogan (to lie or deceive). The earliest example in the OED, dating from the late 9th or early 10th century, uses belogene, the past participle:

“forþon þe we men syndon & beoþ ful oft belogene fram oþrum mannum” (“because we are men we are often belied [deceived] by other men”). From Bishop Wærferð of Worcester’s Old English translation of the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, written in Latin over the late 6th and early 7th centuries.

In early Middle English, the verb (written as biliȝhe, beleiȝe, bilye, etc.) meant “to tell lies about; esp. to slander or libel, to calumniate,” the OED says. Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation:

“Þe treowe is ofte mis trouwed & þe sakelese biloȝen … for wane of witnesse” (“the faithful are often mistrusted and the innocent belied [lied about] … for want of witness”). From Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoresses), a guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts; the OED dates this one from the early 1200s or perhaps late 1100s.

In the 14th century, the expression “belie the truth” came to mean “misrepresent or pervert the truth,” as in this Oxford example: “Þei lede lordes with lesynges and bilyeth treuthe” (“they lead lords with lies and belie the truth”). From Piers Plowman (1378), by William Langland.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels all these early senses of “belie” as obsolete or rare.

Over the next few centuries, the lying sense of “belie” lessened and the verb took on its modern meanings of to give a false impression and to prove something false.

Here’s an early Oxford example of the false-impression sense: “It is a straunge thing how men bely themselues: euery one speakes well, and meanes naughtily” (from “Of Alehouses,” a 1600 essay by William Cornwallis, an English courtier and member of Parliament).

And this is an expanded OED example of the other sense, to prove something false: “A Neat, spruce, affecting Courtier, one that weares clothes well, and … cares not what Ladies fauor he belies” (from Ben Jonson’s description of Fastidius Briske, in the cast of characters of his satire Every Man Out of His Humor, 1600).

Finally, here are some modern examples from Merriam-Webster, a standard dictionary:

“Her gentleness belies her strength.”

“His manner and appearance belie his age.”

“The evidence belies their claims of innocence.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

No pants, let alone a jacket

Q: An article in the San Francisco Chronicle about takeout meals says, “now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on a jacket, let alone pants.” Shouldn’t “jacket” and “pants” be flipped?

A: Yes, we’d flip “jacket” and “pants” in that passage from the Chronicle (Feb. 16, 2021): “now you can dig into the restaurant’s eight-course tasting menu without having to put on pants, let alone a jacket.”

The phrase “let alone” is used here to emphasize something by contrasting it with something less likely. If you don’t have to wear pants, you’re less likely to dress up in a jacket.

Lexico, an online dictionary using the resources of Oxford University Press, says the usage indicates “that something is far less likely or suitable than something else already mentioned.” It gives this example: “he was incapable of leading a bowling team, let alone a country.”

Another online dictionary, Longman, says the phrase is “used after a negative statement to say that the next thing you mention is even more unlikely.” It cites this example: “The baby can’t even sit up yet, let alone walk!”

The phrase is usually used as a conjunction in “sentences with a negative construction or negative overtones,” where “its sense is close to ‘much less,’ ”  according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

Merriam-Webster cites a November 1914 letter in which Robert Frost says “I don’t feel justified in worrying, let alone complaining.”

You might also think of “let alone” as contrasting something relatively simple with something more difficult: “We can’t afford to rent, let alone buy” … “I wouldn’t trust him to drive a car, let alone pilot a plane” … “the disease can’t be treated, let alone cured.”

All ten standard dictionaries that we regularly consult say “let alone” is generally used negatively, or cite negative examples of the usage.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the phrase “used colloquially with the sense ‘not to mention,’ ” is from the early 19th century:

“I didn’t hide, nor wouldn’t from any man living, let alone any woman.” From Tales of a Fashionable Life (1812), by Maria Edgeworth.

[Note: A 2012 post discusses the occasional use of the variant “leave alone” in British English, though it says “let alone” is the usual usage in both the US and the UK.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Are ‘vote’ and ‘veto’ related?

Q: The words “vote” and “veto” seem so similar, yet opposite. One involves the making of choices, the other the blocking of choices. Do these words have a common origin?

A: Despite their resemblance, “vote” and “veto” are not related etymologically, and they aren’t really opposites. They’re descended from different Latin verbs meaning, respectively, to vow (vovere) and to forbid (vetare).

We’ll start with “vote,” the older of the two words.

It first entered English as a noun in the 15th century, borrowed directly from votum, a Latin noun derived from the verb vovere. The classical Latin noun meant a vow or offering to a god, but in post-classical times it came to mean a choice or a decision.

In English, the noun “vote” has had its choosing or deciding senses from the start. (At various times in the past, both noun and verb have also had meanings related to vowing or pledging, but those are now obsolete.)

The earliest recorded meaning of the noun “vote,” dating from the mid-1400s, was a “formal statement of opinion by a member of a deliberative body on a matter under discussion,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s oldest citation, in Scots English, is from The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland (1458): “haifande wotis in the deliverance of causis” (“having votes in the deciding of causes”).

All the other meanings of the noun “vote”—a collective choice, an individual’s selection of a candidate, a decision by ballot or show of hands, and so on—developed steadily from the late 1400s onward.

The verb “vote” in the political sense emerged a century after the noun, and it also appeared first in Scots English. Here’s the OED definition: “to give or register a vote; to exercise the right of suffrage; to express a choice or preference by ballot or other approved means.” And this is the dictionary’s earliest example:

“swa that monsieur Desse … with the rest off capitainis and gentilmen woittit ilk ane for ther awyn part” (“so that Monsieur Dessé … with the other captains and gentlemen voted every one according to their duty”). From a Feb. 20, 1549, letter by the Scottish clergyman Alexander Gordon to Scotland’s Queen Dowager, Mary of Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.

(A final note on “vote” before we move on to “veto.” The defunct “vow” senses of “vote” have been replaced by the word “vow.” But old senses related to prayers and vows live on in the related words “devote,” “devotion,” “devoted,” and “devout.” The “de-” is not a negative prefix but means “from.”)

The word “veto,” meanwhile, still echoes what it meant to the Romans. In classical Latin, veto meant “I forbid”; it was the first-person singular present form of the verb vetare (to forbid). As the OED explains, veto was “the word by which the Roman tribunes of the people opposed measures of the Senate or actions of the magistrates.”

The Latin expression veto was borrowed directly into English as the noun “veto” in the 17th century. And the noun’s original English meaning hasn’t changed. This is the OED definition:

“A prohibition having as its object or result the prevention of an act; an instance of rejecting, banning, or blocking an action, proposal, etc. Also: the power to prevent or check action in this way.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from William Mure’s True Crucifixe (1629): “Hee who doth exalt Himselfe to raigne … Dare gainst this Law most impudently stand, And God’s great Veto boldly counter-mand.”

A more specific meaning of the noun soon emerged, and it too is still alive today—the rejection of a legislative or other political measure, as in a presidential “veto.”

The noun in this sense was first recorded in a sermon by a Church of England clergyman, Anthony Farindon, sometime before 1658: “There is a Law staring in our face, like a Tribune with his Veto, to forbid us.”

As for the verb “veto,” it was formed within English in the 18th century, simply by the conversion of the noun into a verb. It’s defined in the OED as “to put a veto on (a legislative or political measure); to stop or block by exercising a veto.”

Oxford’s earliest example: “Letters for degrees (including D.D. for Potter) read in Convocation, but vetoed by the Proctors because they had not been previously acquainted with the contents.” We’ve expanded the citation, from a 1706 letter by the antiquary and diarist Thomas Hearne.

Although “vote” and “veto” aren’t etymologically related, over time they’ve become political bedfellows.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Lie and lay: the flip side

Q: My English teacher in the ’60s taught me the difference between “I lie” and “I lay.” It now makes my blood curdle to hear people refer to “a lay down” or “the lay of the land.”

A: We’ve written several times on the blog about the verbs “lie” and “lay,” including a post in 2011. However, the nouns “lie” and “lay” are a different species altogether. In the usages you mention, they’re interchangeable.

Both “lie of the land” and “lay of the land” are correct noun phrases meaning how something lies or is laid. And both a “lay-down” and a “lie-down” are correct as nouns meaning a nap or a rest.

You don’t have to take our word for this. The Oxford English Dictionary says those expressions—both versions of them—represent legitimate uses of the nouns “lie” and “lay.”

We’ll discuss the longer expression first. “Lay of the land,” as we briefly mentioned in a 2006 post, is the more common version in American English, “lie of the land” in British English.

All five of the standard American dictionaries we regularly consult include “lay of the land”; two of them also list “lie of the land,” labeling it a British variant. The five standard British dictionaries we use all include both versions, with four of them labeling “lay of the land” an American usage.

In either form, this is a centuries-old idiom that can refer to the topography of a landscape (the literal sense) or to a condition or state of affairs (the figurative sense).

The “lie” in this expression, the OED says, means the “manner of lying; direction or position in which something lies; direction and amount of slope or inclination.” Used figuratively, the dictionary says, it means “the state, position, or aspect (of affairs, etc.).”

And the “lay” in the expression is defined as “the way, position, or direction in which something is laid or lies (esp. said of country),” or the “disposition or arrangement with respect to something.”

The dictionary’s earliest recorded example, from the late 17th century, shows the “lie” version (spelled “lye” here): “Nott to alter the proper lye of the Land.” (Minutes of a meeting in Hartford on April 4, 1697, allowing a “Sider house” to continue operating on town property as long as the land was not further altered. From the Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.)

The expression doesn’t appear again until the mid-19th century—this time with “lay”—in a work of Henry David Thoreau: “I did not know the exact route myself, but steered by the lay of the land.” (From “The Allagash and East Branch,” an essay probably written before January 1858 and published posthumously in 1864 as part of The Maine Woods.)

In subsequent uses, both versions appear, according to OED citations:

“Washington, from the lie of the land, can hardly have been said to be centrical at any time” (a comment on the nation’s capital in Anthony Trollope’s North America, 1862).

“The frequent lay of the land in the tea districts … is alternate stretches of low land suitable for rice, and high land fitted for tea” (The Tea Industry in India, by an English planter, Samuel Baildon, 1882).

“The corn rows follow the lay of the land on the contour and the land is strip-farmed” (The Baltimore Sun, Sept. 8, 1943).

“To show the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details” (The Story of Art, a history by Ernst Hans Gombrich, 1950).

Similarly, both “lay-down” and “lie-down” are legitimate nouns. The OED defines a “lay-down” as “an act of lying down, a rest,” and the equivalent of a “lie-down,” which in turn is defined as “a rest (on a bed, etc.).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a “lie” version, from the mid-19th century: “I should be very glad of a lie down but cannot” (from a letter written Oct. 13, 1840,  by Harriett Mozley and published in Newman Family Letters, 1962, edited by Dorothea Mozley).

The earliest “lay” example is from the late 19th century: “Nothing but ‘dub’ fights by novices, with now and then a deliberate ‘lay down’ ” (National Police Gazette, May 26, 1897).

Here are examples of each, used in the sense of a brief nap:

“Yes, Aggie, you go an’ ’ave a lie-down, see, and you’ll be all right” (Four One-Act Plays, by St. John Ervine, 1928).

“What you want is a nice lay-down and a cupper tea” (Busman’s Honeymoon, a 1937 mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Ask, and it shall be given

Q: I wish you’d talk about the current trend to say “ask forgiveness” instead of “ask for forgiveness.” Is the shorter version acceptable these days?

A: Yes, it’s acceptable and it has been for hundreds of years. Phrases like “ask forgiveness” and “ask mercy” and “ask leave” (with no intervening preposition) have been around since at least the 1300s.

Here’s an early “mercy” example from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Thai ask mercy, bot nocht at ȝow” (“They ask mercy but not of thou”). From The Bruce, 1375, a narrative poem by the Scottish writer John Barbour.

And here’s an early “forgiveness” citation in the OED: “A man schuld all anely ask him forgifnes wham he trespast to.” From Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which the British Library dates at the last quarter of the 14th or first quarter of the 15th century.

The preposition is often unnecessary, especially when “ask” is used in the sense of “request” or “seek.”

Examples: “I’m asking permission” … “Ask him the time” … “He asked the child’s name” … “Let’s ask the price” … “Did you ask the way?” … “Don’t ask the reason” … “I didn’t ask why” … “Never ask her age” … “Can I ask the score?” and many others.

Sometimes the use of a preposition (like “for” or “about”) between “ask” and the object is optional and the choice is up to you. In some cases, though a preposition is always used, as in “We asked after his mother’s health” and “When you arrive, ask for the manager” and “Don’t ask about that.”

Most of this stuff is idiomatic, and there are few hard-and-fast rules. But as the OED says, the use of a preposition here is “more usual when the thing requested is concrete” rather than abstract.

So one would “ask for” a loan or a refrigerator. But one could either “ask” or “ask for” forgiveness; both usages were common in a recent search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Sex under the arches

Q: I’m curious about the origin of “fornication.” How did we get from arches and vaults to sex between people not married to each other?

A: In ancient Rome, prostitutes used to hang out in vaulted cellars such as those formed by the arches underneath circuses (arenas for sports and other spectacles).

Not surprisingly, fornix, the Latin word for an arch or a vault, came to mean a brothel, and fornicis, its genitive form, begot fornicari, to fornicate, and fornicatio, fornication.

As W. C. Firebaugh explains in notes to his 1922 translation of the Satyricon of Petronius, “The arches under the circus were a favorite location for prostitutes,” who “were always ready at hand to satisfy the inclinations which the spectacles aroused.”

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology adds that “brothels in ancient Rome were often located in underground basements” and “prostitutes solicited their business under the arches of certain buildings.”

John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, says early Christian writers identified “vaulted underground dwellings” with prostitution “and employed the term [fornix] with the specific meaning ‘brothel.’ ”

Interestingly, fornix is probably derived from fornus, furnus, or fornax, Latin for oven and a source of “furnace,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Ultimately, the dictionary says, the usage comes from gwher-, a reconstructed prehistoric root meaning to heat or warm.

Standard dictionaries define the noun “fornication” as consensual sexual intercourse between two people who aren’t married to each other.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for the noun is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem that the dictionary dates at sometime before 1300:

“Þis sin has branches fele … fornicacion es an” (“this sin [adultery] has many branches … fornication is one”).

The verb “fornicate” showed up in writing in the 16th century, with an early spelling of the infinitive.The first Oxford citation is from a 16th-century English-Latin dictionary:

“Fornicaten, or commit fornication or lechery, fornicor” (from Abcedarium Anglico Latinum, 1552, by Richard Huloet). Fornicari, source of “fornicate,” is the present active infinitive of fornicor.

The earliest example we’ve seen for the verb with its modern spelling is from the Douay–Rheims Bible of 1582: “Neither let vs fornicate, as certaine of them did fornicate, and there fel in one day three and twentie thousand” (1 Corinthians 10:8).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Girl Scout kapers

Q: I’m a life Girl Scout who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s. I always assumed that the term “kaper” in Girl Scout language was somehow related to “KP” because of the echo and the meaning. But when I Google it now all I get is that it’s a job, not necessarily one involving meals. Can you tell me more?

A: In Girl Scout terminology, a “kaper” is now simply a chore or job, and a “kaper chart” is a list of chores. But as you suspect, the usage probably comes from “KP,” short for “kitchen police,” and the earliest examples we’ve seen involve food preparation and cleanup.

We haven’t found the Girl Scout terms in any standard, etymological, or slang dictionary, but our searches of old newspaper and book databases indicate that the usage showed up in the US during the 1940s. Here are two early examples:

“Girls of Troop No. 1 have made plans for the meeting of June 4th, when Bennett Intermediate Troop will be their guests for the day. Last Monday they planned their menu, and at the next meeting at 10 A. M. on May 28, a ‘Kaper chart’ will be made for dividing the duties.” (From The Adams County News in Aurora, CO, May 29, 1945.)

“The girls have practiced the accepted method of making bed rolls, planning menus and purchasing food. Mrs. Thomas has arranged for a Kaper chart which gives each girl her share of fire building, cooking and cleaning up.” (From an article about a Girl Scout camping trip, in a suburban New York paper, The Bronxville Reporter, May 8, 1947.)

Today, as you’ve noticed, Girl Scouts use the terms “kaper” and “kaper chart” in reference to any chores or jobs, food-related or otherwise. Here, for example, is a description and an image from the website of the Girl Scouts of Southwest Indiana:

“A ‘kaper chart’ is a Girl Scout tradition for dividing up troop responsibilities. A kaper is a job or chore that must be done. A kaper chart indicates all the jobs available and who is responsible for each one.”page1image3956056992

As for “kitchen police,” the term first appeared in the US Army in the 19th century, when it referred to enlisted men “detailed to help the cook, wash dishes, etc.,” according the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED citation is from Fighting Indians in the 7th United States Cavalry: Custer’s Favorite Regiment (1879), by Ami Frank Mulford:

“The sawmill men would go to the Government mill and saw lumber to be used in the different buildings, the Quartermaster’s men would report at the store-houses, the Stable Police to the stables, Kitchen Police to the kitchens and mess room.”

The dictionary’s first citation for the shorter version, “KP,” is from World War I: “K.P., Kitchen Police. A mild form of punishment.” (Army and Navy Information: Uniforms, Organization, Arms and Equipment of the Warring Powers, 1917, by Maj. De Witt Clinton Falls, National Guard, New York. Falls, an author and artist, rose through the ranks from a private to a brigadier general.)

We’ll end with an OED citation, which we’ve expanded, from Three Soldiers, a 1921 novel about World War I by John Dos Passos:

The men, holding their oval mess kits in front of them, filed by the great tin buckets at the door, out of which meat and potatoes were splashed into each plate by a sweating K.P. in blue denims.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Rock around o’clock

Q: The word o’clock is an oddball. Are there any more words in English where a contraction is at the beginning?

A: Yes, o’clock is an odd contraction, but it’s not unique.

Most of the contractions we use in contemporary English were formed by combining two words, with the final word shortened and the missing part replaced by an apostrophe, as in I’ll (I + will), they’re (they + are), and don’t (do + not).

The contraction o’clock is an exception, since the beginning word is the one that’s shortened. The o’ here is a shortening of the preposition of, and o’clock was originally of clock, meaning “of or according to the clock.”

In addition to o’clock, the element o’ appears in some Anglicized Irish surnames (O’Brien, O’Connell, O’Neil, etc.), where it stands for “descendant of.”

And sometimes the first part of an expression is contracted in colloquial writing, as with y’all (you + all), c’mon (come + on), and s’pose (for suppose).

In the past, it was more common to shorten the first part of a contraction or even both parts, as in ha’n’t (have + not), sha’n’t (shall + not), ’tis (it + is), ’twere (it + were), and ’twill (it + will).

And here are a couple of archaic three-word contractions—’twon’t (it + will + not) and ’twouldn’t (it + would + not)—along with one that’s still seen today,  ne’er-do-well (never + do + well).

Some single words were often contracted in older English. In addition to ne’er for never, there was o’er for over and e’er for ever. And some single words are still contracted: forecastle is often written as fo’c’sle or fo’c’s’le, and boatswain as bos’n, bo’s’n, or bo’sun, though bosun is more common. And, as you know, madam is often contracted as ma’am.

Technically, the shortened part of a contraction is a “clitic”; it’s unstressed and normally occurs only in combination with another term. A contracted part at the beginning (like the o’ in o’clock) is a “proclitic” and one at the end (like the ’re in they’re) is an “enclitic.”

Some words that are now considered short forms of longer ones began life as contractions, with the first part replaced by an apostrophe: ’copter (from helicopter), ’cello (from violoncello), and ’gator (from alligator). Eventually the apostrophes dropped away.

Others words showed up first as shortenings (not contractions), but were later occasionally written with apostrophes: flu (from influenza), phone (from telephone), and quake (from earthquake).

Getting back to o’clock, the usage first appeared in the form of clok in the early 15th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a 1419 proclamation by King Henry V, ordering reinforcements rushed to the British Army in Normandy during the Hundred Years War with France:

“let hem arraye and make hem redy in þe best wyse þat þey can or may, in alle hast, and come to Seint Dunstanes in þe Est, a Monday þat next comeþ, at eyghte of clok.” Cited in A Book of London English, 1384–1425, edited by Raymond Wilson Chambers and Marjorie Daunt (1931).

The term was also written variously as off clok, of clokke, of clocke, of clock, and oclock (as well as a kloke, a clocke, etc.) until the modern spelling emerged in the early 17th century:

“Well, ’tis nine o’clock, ’tis time to ring curfew” (from The Merry Devill of Edmonton, 1608, an anonymous Elizabethan comedy that was once attributed to Shakespeare).

As for the use of O’ in Anglicized Irish names, the OED describes it as “a prefix in Irish patronymic surnames” that indicates “descent from an ancient Irish family.” A patronymic is a name derived from a father or paternal ancestor.

The dictionary says the usage is derived from ó, Irish for a grandson or descendant, and the “apostrophe probably derives from the Irish length-mark” over ó. The mark, a síneadh fada, indicates a long vowel. So O’Brien is an Anglicized version of the modern Irish Ó Briain and the classical Irish Ua Briain.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Suffrage, then and now

Q: I was surprised by the use of “woman suffrage” rather than “women’s suffrage” in a history textbook. The term seems odd to me. Is “woman suffrage” just a less popular variant?

A: Both forms of the expression are common, “woman suffrage” and “women’s suffrage.” While publishers’ preferences may vary, one is no more “correct” than the other.

In the first version, “woman suffrage,” the noun “woman” is used attributively (that is, adjectivally, as in “man cave”). In the second, “women’s suffrage,” the genitive “women’s” is used to indicate “for whom”—suffrage for women.

While “woman suffrage” has been more common historically, a recent Ngram comparison shows that the two are now almost equal in popularity.

Now for a little history. “Suffrage” in these expressions means the right to vote in political elections. But the word didn’t always have that meaning.

When “suffrage” entered English in the 1300s it had religious meanings associated with the medieval Christian church. Used in the plural, “suffrages” were prayers, petitions, commemorations, pleas for intercession, and so on, often addressed to a particular saint.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, these prayers or petitions were “typically said at the end of one of the daily offices, or incorporated into a book of hours.”

The earliest known use is from Ancrene Riwle (“rule for anchoresses”), an anonymous Middle English guide for monastic women. The work survives in several manuscripts, some dating to the early 1200s; this OED citation is from a copy made in the late 1300s:

“On niȝth oiþer in þe Mornynge after þe suffrages seiþ þe commendacioun” (“Either at night or in the morning after the suffrages say the commendation”).

The word was borrowed into English partly from French and partly from Latin, and in those languages it had several meanings, according to the OED.

In Middle French, suffrage or soufrage meant “prayer, intercession, especially for the souls of the dead,” as well as a vote, an act of voting, and “help, support, assistance.”

In classical Latin, suffragium meant a “vote cast in an assembly, expression of approval, action of voting, right of voting, decision reached by voting, favourable influence, help.” Later, in post-classical Latin, it also came to mean “prayer, intercession.”

Though “suffrage” was exclusively a religious term in medieval Britain, it widened in the 16th century to include senses related to voting.

As a political term “suffrage” originally meant “the collective vote of a group of people, esp. that of a nation’s citizens eligible to vote in a political election,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s earliest recorded use is from a letter written by the diplomat Sir Thomas Elyot in 1531: “either by the acte of the senate, or by the peoples suffrage.”

A few years later, “suffrage” was being used to mean “the action or an act of casting a vote or votes; election by voting.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a treatise by John Aylmer, Bishop of London, in 1559: “to be chosen by lotte, or suffrage.”

The modern meaning of “suffrage” emerged later in the same century. The OED defines it as “the right, privilege, or responsibility of voting in political elections.”

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Some … were onely admitted into the Citie without suffrage, and for honours sake called Citizens.” (From The Counsellor, a 1598 translation of a political work written in Latin by a Polish bishop, Wawrzyniec Goślicki.)

The OED’s most recent citation is from the South African newspaper Business Day (March 3, 2016): “The women of Saudi Arabia voted for the first time, making the Vatican City the last state on earth in which women do not enjoy any form of suffrage.” [Note: The writer overlooks countries that do not allow elections at all.]

That brings us to the phrases “woman suffrage” and “women’s suffrage,” both dating from the 19th century and defined in the OED as “the right of women to vote in political elections.”

First on the scene was “woman suffrage,” according to OED citations. The earliest example is from a British newspaper:

“Give us the ‘People’s Charter,’ and then if found necessary he would be quite willing to go into the question of Woman Suffrage” (The Northern Star, Leeds, Oct. 24, 1846). The People’s Charter, cornerstone of the Chartist movement, was a manifesto aimed at giving working-class men the right to vote and to stand for election whether they owned property or not.

The first sighting of “women’s suffrage” is from another British newspaper: “A branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage” (The Times, London, May 11, 1868).

Now for a trick question: Which nation, the US or the UK, was first to give women the right to vote?

“In the United Kingdom,” the OED says, “the Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the franchise to women aged 30 and over who met certain property ownership qualifications, and all men over 21 regardless of property ownership. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act conferred voting rights on all women on equal terms to men.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, “sex-based restriction of voting rights was prohibited in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th amendment to the constitution.”

So Britain first gave women limited voting rights, but the US first gave them full voting rights.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Writing

When ‘next’ is really ‘last’

Q: Seen in the NY Times the other day: “And then there are the voice-overs, each more overwrought than the next.” Isn’t it supposed to be “each more overwrought than the last”? I see this a lot these days.

A: Yes, we’ve noticed this usage too. That dance critic, in reviewing a Netflix series about a fictional ballet school, should have written “than the last,” not “than the next.” She meant that each successive voice-over was more overwrought than the previous one, but she ended up saying the opposite.

Of course, no reader would misunderstand her. Our minds tend to make allowances for small lapses in logic, especially with a familiar idiomatic usage like “each more [better, larger, etc.] than the last.” When someone mistakenly uses “next” instead of “last,” we may not even notice the error, simply because our brains have translated and moved on.

This particular lapse is fairly common, not just in ordinary speech but in writing that’s been edited for publication. Here’s an example from speech: “The wild card is that every day is crazier than the next, and there is no roadmap here” (a banking executive on CNBC, March 17, 2020).

And here’s one from a scientific paper on reproductive patterns of steelhead trout: “For males and females, we found that each subsequent age class is both longer and heavier than the next.” (Graphs and tables show the opposite). From “Life History Variation Is Maintained by Fitness Trade-offs and Negative Frequency-Dependent Selection,” by Mark R. Christie et al., in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, April 24, 2018.

Several years ago a contributor to the Language Log reduced this problem to a formula: “Each one was more [adjective] than the next.” As he explained, “The speaker means that the phenomenon was growing, but is saying that it was decreasing” (Feb. 24, 2011).

Of course this formula isn’t always wrong. A literal interpretation can be the right one if the phenomenon is lessening instead of growing. Here’s an example from a book: “the first time you taste a new gourmet entrée will always be slightly better than the next time” (The 8-Hour Diet, 2013, by Peter Moore and David Zinczenko).

And the formula can be correct if “next” doesn’t mean following in sequence, but instead describes a hypothetical someone who’s typical or average: “Harvard Business School kind of opened my eyes that no one’s really smarter than the next person” (Jon Peloton quoted in Time, May 26, 2020) … “I like data as much as, or probably more than, the next guy” (Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times, Sept. 7, 2020).

Used in that sense, “the next man” means “the average man” or “a typical person,” or “anybody else,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. This usage, which originated in the US in the mid-19th century, is found “only in comparisons,” the OED adds, and occurs “frequently in the formula as —— as the next man (also person, etc.) according to context.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Congregate or congregant care?

Q: Is health-care housing where lots of people live in close proximity “congregant” or “congregate” living? I see both terms used interchangeably, even within the same publication.

A: “Congregate” is overwhelmingly more popular than “congregant” as an adjective to describe group services or facilities for people, especially the elderly, who need supportive care. And it’s the only one of the two usages included in the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

American Heritage, for example, defines “congregate” as a verb meaning “to bring or come together in a group,” and as an adjective meaning “involving a group: congregate living facilities for senior citizens.” It defines “congregant” solely as a noun for “one who congregates, especially a member of a group of people gathered for religious worship.”

Collins, Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Webster’s New World have similar definitions. Lexico has similar definitions in its American English version but doesn’t include “congregate” as an adjective in its British version. Cambridge, Longman, and Macmillan don’t have either the noun “congregant” or the adjective “congregate.”

In the News on the Web corpus, a database from articles in newspapers and magazines on the Internet, the “congregate” usage is significantly more popular than the one with “congregant.”

Here are the results of some recent searches: “congregate living,” 820 examples; “congregant living,” 35; “congregate care,” 579; “congregant care,” 18; “congregate housing,” 95; “congregant housing,” 0.

In searches with Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, “congregant living” barely registered, while “congregant care” and “congregant housing” didn’t show up at all.

As for the etymology, both “congregate” and “congregant” are derived from congregare, classical Latin for to collect together into a flock or company, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Congregate,” the oldest of the two English words, showed up around 1400 as a verb meaning to collect or gather things together. In the 1500s, it took on the modern sense of to gather together into a group of people.

The adjective, which is derived from congregatus, past participle of congregare, appeared soon after the verb in this OED citation: “These men somme tyme congregate schalle goe furthe” (from an early 15th-century translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a 14th-century Latin work of history and theology).

The latecomer, “congregant,” is derived from congregantem, present participle of congregare. It showed up in the late 19th century as a noun that Oxford defines as “one of those who congregate anywhere; a member of a congregation; esp. a member of a Jewish congregation.”

We’ve expanded the dictionary’s first example: “The Bevis Marks synagogue, the only building of genuine historical interest in England which the Jews can boast, is at the present moment threatened with destruction at the hands of a portion of its own governing body, to the dismay of the majority of its congregants and of the community in general” (The Pall Mall Gazette, London, March 24, 1886).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t have an entry for “congregant” used as an adjective. As far as we can tell from a cursory search, the usage showed up in the 20th century, perhaps originally as an eggcorn, a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

Here’s an example from a few decades ago: “Joan is a young woman who does considerable work with older people and serves on the board of a congregant housing facility for the elderly” (from Ministry of the Laity, 1986, by James Desmond Anderson and Ezra Earl Jones).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Can ‘were’ mean ‘would be’?

Q: I’m curious about W. Somerset Maugham’s use of “were” for “would be” in this passage: “I am eager to know if you still devote upon the ungrateful arts talents which were more profitably employed upon haberdashery.” I find the usage neat, though I suspect that it’s now an archaism.

A: The use of “were” in place of “would be” (as in “He were better dead” instead of “He would be better dead”) was outdated even in Maugham’s youth, when he wrote that sentence.

This “were” is a subjunctive form of the verb “be,” but it’s a particular subjunctive use that’s found only in older writing that would now be considered mannered and formal. (Some subjunctive uses of “were” are alive and well, as we’ve written previously.)

The passage you’re asking about is from The Magician, a Maugham novel written in 1907 and set in fin-de-siècle Paris. Fifty years later, in his Fragment of an Autobiography, he called the writing “turgid” and said he “must have been impressed by the écriture artiste [artistic writing] of the French writers of the time” and had “unwisely sought to imitate them.”

[By the way, as one reader has observed, the “were” in the passage could correctly be read as the simple past tense (not the subjunctive) if the artist being addressed had ever been a haberdasher. But that’s not the case (we read a good part of the novel to make sure). The speaker, a nasty and pompous man, uses “were” subjunctively to say haberdashery would have been a better career choice.]

As we said, even when Maugham wrote the novel that use of “were” was excessively formal. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Henry W. Fowler mentions the construction only briefly, and as something to avoid.

He cites these examples (the recommended uses in brackets are his): “it were [would be] better to leave the sculpture galleries empty” … “It were [would be] futile to attempt to deprive it of its real meaning.”

Fowler says there’s “nothing incorrect” in those examples, but the subjunctive uses “diffuse an atmosphere of dullness & formalism over the writing.”

The subject is treated even more briefly in the second edition (1965) of Fowler’s work, and is dropped altogether from the third (1996) and fourth (2015). Modern comprehensive grammars of English don’t mention it either. So we can safely call it archaic.

Here are some random examples from writings of the past:

“It were lost sorrow to wail one that’s lost.” (Shakespeare, King Richard III, circa 1593.)

“It were much better for your Lordship not to have vowed at all, then [than] not to perform after you have vowed.” (Miracles Not Ceas’d, a religious tract written anonymously by Sir Kenelm Digby, 1663.)

“From one worthy action, it were credulity, not charity, to conclude a person to be free from all vice.” (Hugh Blair, a minister and professor of rhetoric at the University of Edinburgh. From the 5th edition of his Sermons, 1780.)

“ ‘It were different,’ continued the father, after a pause, and in a more resolute tone, ‘if I had some independence, however small, to count on.’ ” (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, My Novel: Or, Varieties in English Life, 1853.)

Fowler included the use of “were” for “would be” among subjunctive “survivals,” forms that are no longer “alive” or natural in speech, and added this comment:

“Subjunctives met with today, outside the few truly living uses, are either deliberate revivals by poets for legitimate enough archaic effect, or antiquated survivals as in pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness, or new arrivals possible only in an age to which the grammar of the subjunctive is not natural but artificial.” (We added the italics for emphasis. The subjunctives recognized as “living” in Fowler’s time are still alive today.)

[Note: This post was updated on March 5, 2021.]

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Whoa!

Q: When did people start using “woah” instead of “whoa”? Is this just a misspelling or is there more to it?

A: The usual spelling now is “whoa,” but several of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult accept “woah” as a variant or less common version. In fact, the word has been spelled all sorts of ways since it showed up in English in the 15th century as a variant of an older interjection, “ho.”

Three of the standard dictionaries (Collins, Dictionary.com, and Lexico) list “woah” as a variant spelling of “whoa.” Meriam-Webster, which doesn’t as of now include “woah” as a variant, has an interesting “Words We’re Watching” article entitled “Is it time to accept ‘woah’ as an acceptable spelling of ‘whoa’?”

M-W’s answer: “Woah is not yet in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as an official spelling variant of whoa, but its usage has increased dramatically in the current century. ‘Whoa’ is still much more common however, so only time will tell if this spelling variant is accepted.”

Our own search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares words and phrases in digitized books, shows that as of 2019 “whoa” was overwhelmingly more popular than “woah.”

Both spellings have the same pronunciation (rhymes with “woe”), though sometimes the “h” is aspirated at the beginning of the word. The length and emphasis of the pronunciation varies, depending on the way the word is used—to express surprise, wonder, interest, a call to halt, and so on.

How do the lexicographers at a dictionary decide on an acceptable spelling?

As Merriam-Webster explains, “The spelling variants we include in our dictionaries are, like the words and their definitions, based on evidence, and primarily on evidence as found in published, edited text. It’s not that the language as it’s used outside of published, edited text is less effective in communicating; it’s that looking at the language as it’s used in published, edited text provides a scope for our work that is both useful to our readers and possible for our lexicographers.”

“We can’t scan the Facebook threads of millions of speakers of English for variant spellings,” the dictionary adds, “and most of you likely care more about whether a particular spelling has met the editorial standards of the likes of Forbes and The Atlantic than those of your cousin Steve. Is a particular spelling regarded as an error by the people whose jobs it is to consider such things? That’s the question we answer.”

As for the etymology, when the word “ho,” ancestor of “whoa,” showed up in the early 14th century, it was “an exclamation expressing, according to intonation, surprise, admiration, exultation (often ironical), triumph, taunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The earliest OED citation, dated at sometime before 1325, is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem: “ ‘Ho!’ all þan cun þai cri, ‘Qua herd euer sua gret ferli’ ” (“ ‘Ho!’ all then could cry, ‘Who ever heard of so great a wonder’ ”).

By the late 14th century, the interjection “ho” was being used as “a call to stop or to cease what one is doing.” Here’s the earliest OED citation: “Of golde he shulde such plente [plenty] / Receive, till he saide ho.” From Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession,” 1390), a long poem by John Gower.

And by the early 15th century, “ho” was also “an exclamation to attract attention.” The first OED citation is from “London Lickpenny” (circa 1430), a poem by John Lydgate: “Then hyed I me to Belyngsgate; / And one cryed, ‘hoo! go we hence!’ ”

In the early 19th century, “ho” was first used in writing as “a call to an animal to stop or stand still.” The earliest Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is from An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), by Noah Webster: “HO, exclam. A word used by teamsters, to stop their teams. … This word is pronounced also whō, or hwō.”

The OED says “whoa” emerged as a “variant of ho.” When “whoa” showed up in Middle English (originally spelled “whoo”), it was a command to either a person or an animal to stop.

In the earliest OED example, recorded around 1467, King Edward IV halts a joust in London when it becomes too violent: “Then the Kyng perceyvyng the cruell assaile, cast his staff, and with high voice, cried, Whoo!” (cited in Excerpta Historica, 1831, by Samuel Bentley).

Over the next few hundred years, according to Oxford citations, the word was spelled “whoo,” “who,” “whoe,” and “whoh” before “whoa” appeared at the beginning of the 19th century: “I could na bide it,—groaned so desperately.—Whoa! whoa! whoa! Jolly” (from an anonymous novel, The Knight and Mason, 1801).

By the end of the 19th century, the OED notes, “whoa” was being “used as a general interjection to command attention or express that one is surprised, impressed, interested, etc.” The dictionary’s first citation is from the lyrics of “Georgia Rabbit,” an anonymous Southern country song:

Georgia Rabbit, whoa, whoa!
Georgia Rabbit, whoa!
Stole my lover, whoa! whoa!
Stole my lover, whoa!

Gwine to git nudder one, whoa, whoa!
Gwine to git nudder one, whoa!
Jes’ like t’udder one, whoa, whoa!
Jes’ like t’udder one, whoa!

As for the “woah” spelling, it’s been around since at least the 18th century, according to OED citations. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is said to describe a 1762 incident in Bristol, England, in which a demon purportedly used the term when asked if it were a witch:

“Mrs. Elmes and the children heard it cry out, ‘Jee, woah,’ as waggoners used to say in driving horses.” From A Narrative of Some Extraordinary Things That Happened to Mr. Richard Giles’s Children (1800), by Henry Durbin. The event is also described in a Jan. 23, 1762, entry in The Diary of William Dyer: Bristol in 1762, edited by Jonathan Barry in 2012 for the Bristol Record Society.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

On and off the grid

Q: I’m curious about the deep root of the word “grid.” Could it come from an old Egyptian language? The reason I’m asking is that I saw grid-like hieroglyphs during a visit to the Ra-Mosa tomb at Luxor.

A: The English word “grid” is a short form of “gridiron,” which was originally a medieval instrument of torture. The etymology is uncertain beyond there, but one theory is that “grid” may ultimately come from a prehistoric Indo-European root that could also have given English the words “crate,” “grate,” “griddle,” “grill,” and “hurdle.”

We’ve seen no evidence that the English word is related to a term in Old Egyptian, which is derived from the reconstructed prehistoric language Proto-Afro-Asiatic. However, some linguists have written of similarities between Proto-Afro-Asiatic and Proto-Indo-European, so an ancient connection is not inconceivable.

When the noun “grid” showed up in English in the early 19th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant “an arrangement of parallel bars with openings between them; a grating.” The OED says “grid” is a back-formation from “gridiron.” A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an old one.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “grid” is from instructions on how to melt glass in a furnace: “A is the pot, resting upon the arched grid b a, built of fire-bricks, whose apertures are wide enough to let the flames rise freely, and strike the bottom and sides of the vessel.” From A Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines, 1839, by Andrew Ure.

The older noun “gridiron” (spelled gredire in Middle English) originally referred to a frame of iron bars that held a person over a fire. The earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a 13th-century description of the torture of Saint Lawrence, the Archdeacon of Rome, who was beaten with iron scourges and burned to death on a gridiron, according to this medieval account:

“Strong fuyr he lieth maken and gret: and a gredire þar-on sette, bene holie Man, seint laurence” (“A strong, great fire lies made, and there on a gridiron sits the good holy man Saint Lawrence”). From a manuscript, written around 1290, in The South English Legendary, a Middle English collection of lives, or stories, of saints and other church figures.

In the 14th century, according to OED citations, “gridiron” came to mean “a cooking utensil formed of parallel bars of iron or other metal in a frame, usually supported on short legs, and used for broiling flesh or fish over a fire.”

The dictionary’s first example of the cooking sense of the word (with “gridiron” written as gredyrne) is from a biblical passage on building an altar for burnt offerings: “Thow shalt make … a brasun gredyrne in the manere of a nett” (Wycliffe Bible of 1382, Exodus 27:4). A later Wycliffe version uses gridele, an early spelling of “griddle,” while more recent bibles generally use “grate” or “grating.”

The OED says the term “gridiron” has been used figuratively since the early 15th century for various “objects resembling or likened to a gridiron,” such as the grid-like pattern of streets in a city, tracks in a railroad terminal, or yard lines on an American football field.

The earliest football example we’ve found in searches of old newspaper databases is from an article about a Princeton-Yale game:

“Unlike former Princeton teams, the present one is without a star performer, that hero of the gridiron who is always likely to make a Lamar run or kick a goal from the forty-five yard line as Moffat did five years since.” From the Evening Herald (Shenandoah, Pa.), Nov. 26, 1891.

The OED’s earliest example appeared a little later, in a British article describing football in the US: “The ground here is marked out by white lines … thus giving it the appearance of a gigantic gridiron—which, indeed, is the technical name applied to an American football field.” From the Daily News (London), Dec. 10, 1896.

The words “grid” and “gridiron,” as well as “crate,” “grate,” “griddle,” and “hurdle,” may ultimately come from the Proto-Indo-European root kert- (to turn, entwine), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. A “hurdle” was originally a wickerwork frame used as a temporary fence for farm animals.

Finally, the expression “off the grid” (not connected to an electrical grid or other utilities) showed up in the late 20th century, initially in the adjectival and adverbial form “off-grid,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for the full expression used in this sense is from Clicking: 16 Trends to Future Fit Your Life, Your work, and Your Business (1996), by Faith Popcorn and Lys Marigold:

“Mainly right-wing survivalists … basically want to be left alone to live ‘off the grid.’ Or to become nonexistent, as far as the government is concerned.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

To welsh on a bet

Q: Where does “welsh on a bet” come from? A friend of mine says distrust of the Welsh by the English, but I’m skeptical. This seems too easy.

A: The use of “welsh,” meaning to renege on a bet, is of uncertain origin, but it may indeed have originated as a slur against the Welsh, the people of Wales. Four of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult consider the term offensive to one degree or another.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the usage is perhaps “on account of alleged dishonesty of Welsh people.” The OED notes that the verb “welsh” showed up in the mid-19th century shortly after two similar derogatory terms, the noun “welsher” and the gerund “welshing.”

The dictionary cites this passage from a Nov. 5, 1859, article in the Morning Chronicle (London): “The phrase ‘Welshing book-maker’ seems to owe its origin to a nursery rhyme, commencing with ‘Taffy was a Welshman, &c.,’ and, as we understand, means a dishonest betting man on the turf.”

As far as we know, the earliest example of the nursery rhyme is in Nancy Cock’s Pretty Song Book for All Little Misses and Masters, circa 1780.  Here are the opening lines:

“Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, / Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef.” The name “Taffy” may come from “Dafydd,” a Welsh name related to “David,” and the Taff, the river in Cardiff.

The OED defines the verb “welsh” as “to renege on payment of money owed to (a person) as winnings on a bet.” The word is spelled “welch” in the dictionary’s earliest citation: “The plaintiff denied that he had ever … ‘welched’ a man named Williams at Worcester in 1854” (Racing Times, Jan. 16, 1860).

Oxford defines the noun “welsher” as “a bookmaker at a race meeting who takes money for a bet, but absconds or refuses to pay after a loss.” The dictionary’s first example of the noun is also from the Racing Times (Oct. 19, 1852):

“One of the above fraternity [namely, betting impostors] was observed following his calling, by a former victim. … The ‘Welsher’ sneaked off to another corner of the field.”

And this is the dictionary’s earliest citation for the use of “welshing” to mean reneging on a debt: “The subterfuge and welching of the betting enclosure” (from the Era, a London weekly, June 11, 1854).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Who was that masked-up man?

Q: Our governor in Michigan uses the phrase “mask up” a lot, but it sounds off to me. What do you think about it?

A: In our opinion, “mask up” was an inevitable usage. To “mask up” is to put on a mask, just as to “suit up” is to put on a uniform, to “saddle up” is to put a saddle on a horse, and to “lawyer up” is to put a lawyer on the case.

Several phrasal verbs formed with “up” imply preparing for something, with “up” used emphatically to imply that the preparation is necessary or important.

With people arming themselves against Covid-19, “mask up” was bound to emerge. In addition, many states, counties, and cities have joined the “Mask Up” campaign launched last summer by the American Medical Association. That and other influences have made the phrase fairly common.

So far, not one of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult has an entry for “mask up.” However, Merriam-Webster’s entry for the verb “mask,” in the sense of “to put on a mask” or “to cover the face with a mask,” says it’s “often used with up.”

The British publisher Macmillan has no entry for “mask up” in its standard dictionary either. But last July it added one to its crowdsourced Open Dictionary with this definition:  “to wear a mask or face covering.” The example given: “That’s why we are asking all Hoosiers to mask up—and speak up about how wearing your mask can save lives” (from an announcement by Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana, July 1, 2020).

When “mask up” was featured last summer as a “Word of the Day” on Macmillan’s blog, this explanation was given:

“The phrasal verb mask up is formed from the verb ‘mask’ and the adverb ‘up.’ ” The blog continued: “Although mask up isn’t new, you may have seen it around quite a bit recently. Mask up, like suit up or gown up, implies preparation for some particular activity, the ‘up’ part occurring in many phrasal verbs that indicate getting ready for something.”

Another British dictionary, Collins, says that “mask up” was submitted last September as a “new word suggestion” and that the term’s approval for the dictionary is “pending investigation.”

Later we’ll discuss some of the other phrasal verbs formed with “up,” but first a little more about “mask,” a word that probably comes from Arabic. Here’s the story.

In English, the verb “mask” was derived from the noun, both of which first appeared in English in the early 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun was borrowed into English from the French masque (a face covering), which in turn came from the Italian maschera (a mask), though the OED says any “further etymology [is] uncertain.”

However, Oxford and other sources suggest two possibilities for the origin of maschera in Italian. The less likely is that it came from the post-classical Latin masca (a specter or evil spirit), but that word too is of unknown ancestry.

A more probable source, and one that’s widely accepted, is the Arabic noun maskhara (a buffoon, joke, masquerade, or object of ridicule), derived from the verb sakhira (to ridicule or mock). In fact, many etymologists believe that maskhara is also the ultimate source of “masquerade” and “mascara” (the cosmetic).

Today the noun “mask” means a face covering, and that’s what it principally meant when it came into English in the early 1500s. But around the same time, a variant of the word was also used for a courtly entertainment in which masked participants danced and so forth. Early on, different spellings emerged for the two senses—“mask” for the first and “masque” for the second.

This is the earliest entry for the face-covering sense of “mask” in the OED: “The vices that they brought [from Asia] to Rome. … The patritiens [patricians] bearyng Measques, the Plebeyens usynge smelles [aromatic scents], and the emperours to weare purple.” John Bourchier’s translation from the Spanish of The Golden Boke of Marcus Aurelius, by Antonio de Guevara, translated sometime before Bourchier’s death in 1533.

Here’s how the OED defines the original meaning of the noun: “A covering worn on or held in front of the face for disguise, esp. one made of velvet, silk, etc., and concealing the whole face or the upper part of it (except the eyes), worn at balls and masques.”

The verb “mask” came into English around the same time. Originally, in the 1520s, it meant to take part in a masque or masquerade, and later in the 1500s, to be disguised or to wear a mask.

These are the dictionary’s earliest citations for the verb meaning “to cover (the face or head) with a mask; to disguise with a mask,” both from Shakespeare:

“Where now I haue no one to blush with me … To maske their browes and hide their infamie” (Lucrece, 1594) … “The Trompet soundes, be maskt, the maskers come” (Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1598).

Over the centuries, both the noun and the verb have had dozens of meanings, literal and figurative. We’ll skip to the protective senses that concern us today.

The OED’s definition of the noun “mask” in this sense is “a covering worn over the mouth and nose in order to reduce the transmission of infectious agents, or to prevent the inhalation of pollutants and other harmful substances.”

The dictionary’s earliest example: “It is absolutely necessary for important operations … to use a mask, which will filter the expired air” (a paper by Dr. Henry Lewis Wagner, presented before the Medical Society of California, April 19, 1900).

This later Oxford citation looks more familiar: “Jefferson and colleagues … advise public health measures like frequent handwashing, quarantining infected people, and wearing masks and gowns” (HealthFacts, the monthly newsletter of the Center for Medical Consumers, Feb. 5, 2006).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, hasn’t yet caught up to the verb “mask” as found today—to use a protective cover for breathing. Standard dictionaries, however, are on the case.

For instance, Merriam-Webster defines this use of “mask” as “to put on a mask” or “to cover the face with a mask” and gives this example: “As workplaces reopen, employees must mask and wash hands frequently.”

As we mentioned earlier, M-W also says the verb is “often used with up.” It gives this example: “On a recent weekend, we masked up and went for a bicycle ride in Tokyo” (New York Times, June 7, 2020).

We can’t tell you when “mask up,” meaning to put on a protective breathing mask for medical reasons, first appeared. But we did find this late 20th-century example:

“In the 80’s, we made dentists aware of the need to glove and mask up for protection from AIDS and hepatitis B” (from an interview with a marketer of health-care products, New York Times, June 30, 1996).

Finally, a few other phrasal verbs that use “up,” along with definitions and the earliest OED citations:

“Saddle up,” meaning “to put a saddle on (a horse or other animal),” or “get in the saddle”; later (like “mount up”) it acquired an extended sense, to get ready or get going. Earliest use: “He sadled vp his horse, and roade in post away” (Tragicall Tales, 1587, G. Turberville’s translations of Italian poems).

“Suit up,” meaning to dress in or provide someone with “a set of clothes or garment (such as a spacesuit, wetsuit, etc.) designed or required for a particular activity or occupation”; or to dress smartly or in a suit. Earliest use: “Last year the team looked like a bunch of rag muffins and the University and students should see to it that the Baker team is suited up in the right manner this year” (from a Kansas newspaper, the Lawrence Daily Journal-World, Feb. 28, 1912).

“Gown up,” meaning “to put on a surgical gown, esp. before taking part in an operation.” Earliest use: “My staff recognize my work even if they don’t actually see my face. But, of course, they did see it, before I gowned up” (P. D. James’s novel A Taste for Death, 1986).

“Lawyer up,” meaning “to request a lawyer when being questioned by the police” or, more generally, “to hire a lawyer.” Earliest use: “What really spooks the … detectives on ‘N.Y.P.D. Blue’ is the prospect of a suspect ‘lawyering up’ ” (New York Times, Feb. 23, 1995).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

The first wordsmith in chief

[Note: In observance of Presidents’ Day, we’re reprinting a post from Feb. 18, 2019.]

Q: I’ve read that Thomas Jefferson, our third president, liked to coin new words. He thought neologisms kept a language fresh. For Presidents’ Day, please write about some POTUS contributions to the English language.

A: Yes, Thomas Jefferson coined scores of new words, including “neologize.” He commented on the practice in an Aug. 15, 1820, letter to John Adams: “I am a friend to neology. It is the only way to give to a language copiousness and euphony.”

And Jefferson wasn’t the only wordsmith in chief. We can thank US presidents for coining or popularizing many of our most common words and phrases. George Washington was particularly inventive, so let’s focus today on his many neologisms.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites dozens of the first US president’s lexical firsts. Here are some of them:

  • “average” (verb): “A fat wether—it being imagind … would average the above weight” (from a note in Washington’s diary about a 103-pound castrated ram, February 1769).
  • “baking” (adjective): “The ground, by the heavy rains … and baking Winds since, had got immensely hard” (from a diary entry, May 9, 1786).
  • “commitment”: “If Mr Gouv’r Morris was employed in this business, it would be a commitment for his employment as Minister” (diary, Oct. 8, 1789).
  • “district court”: “The District Court is held in it [Salisbury, N.C.]” (diary, May 30, 1791).
  • “facilitated” (adjective): “It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions” (from a speech, Sept. 17, 1796).
  • “fox hunt” (verb): “Rid up to Toulston in order to fox hunt it” (diary, Jan. 24, 1768).
  • “heat” (sexual excitement in dogs): “Musick was also in heat & servd promiscuously by all the Dogs” (diary, June 22, 1768).
  • “indoors”: “There are many sorts of in-doors work, which can be executed in Hail, Rain, or Snow, as well as in sunshine” (from a letter to James Anderson, manager of the farms at Mount Vernon, Dec. 10, 1799).
  • “logged” (adjective): “A Logged dwelling house with a punchion Roof” (dairy, Sept. 20, 1784).
  • “out-of-the-way”: “They have built three forts here, and one of them … erected in my opinion in a very out-of-the-way place” (from a letter to Robert Dinwiddie, Governor of Virginia, Oct. 10, 1756).
  • “paroled” (adjective): “I cannot consent to send them to New York, as with an old Balance and those who have gone in with paroled officers, the enemy already owe us 900 Men” (from a letter to Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, Oct. 13, 1782).
  • “off-duty”: “The General earnestly expects every Officer and Soldier of this Army will shew the utmost alertness, as well upon duty, as off duty” (from orders issued on March 9, 1776, during the final days of the British siege of Boston).
  • “rehire” (noun): “Nor ought there to be any transfer of the lease, or re-hire of the Negros without your consent first had & obtained in writing” (from a letter written June 10, 1793, to his niece Frances Bassett Washington, offering advice on renting out an estate of hers).
  • “rent” (verb): “The Plantation on which Mr. Simpson lives rented well—viz. for 500 Bushels of Wheat” (diary, Sept. 15, 1784).
  • “riverside” (adjective): “Has 2 Pecks of sd. Earth and 1 of Riverside Sand” (diary, April 14, 1760).
  • “tow path”: “A tow path on the Maryland side” (diary, June 2, 1788).

Happy birthday, George.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

When maitre d’s are possessive

Q: I have an arcane punctuation question for you. Would the singular possessive of maître d’  be maître d’s or maître d’’s? And if there are several maître d’s, would the plural possessive be maître d’s’ or maybe maîtres d’s?

A: We’ll begin with the usual singular and plural forms of the contracted noun and its fuller version (in contemporary English the circumflexes are optional and italics aren’t used).

  • Singular: “maitre d’ ” … “maitre d’hotel”
  • Plural: “maitre d’s” … “maitres d’hotel”

Those are the recommended singulars and plurals given in all 10 of the standard American and British dictionaries we usually consult.

In the plural of the contracted form, “s” is simply added to the end of the singular. In the plural of the longer form, the noun “maitre,” not the adjectival “d’hotel,” gets the plural inflection (“s”), which is the usual rule for forming the plurals of English compounds. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 7.7) illustrates with the examples “fathers-in-law,” “chefs d’oeuvre,” “coups d’etat,” and “masters of arts.”

Dictionaries do not provide the possessive forms of nouns. Here are the possessive forms we recommend for the singular nouns, and the reasons why:

  • Singular possessive: “maitre d’s” … “maitre d’hotel’s”

In the shorter noun, there’s no double apostrophe (’’); a single apostrophe serves both to contract the term and to form its possessive. This is consistent with the usual rule for not using two identical punctuation marks together; one can do double duty if needed, as when an abbreviation like “etc.” falls at the end of a sentence.

In the longer noun, the final element gets the possessive inflection (apostrophe + “s”), which is the usual rule for forming the possessives of English compounds. The Chicago Manual (section 7.24), gives the example “my daughter-in-law’s address.”

Finally, these are the possessive forms we recommend for the plurals, and our reasons why:

  • Plural possessive: “maitre d’s” …  “maitres d’hotel’s”

In the shorter noun, we see no reason to add another apostrophe to the plural (“maitre d’s”) and create a monster (“maitre d’s’ ”). We adhere to that well-known edict of copy editors everywhere: Don’t follow a rule if it leads you off a cliff. We advise letting the first apostrophe + “s” do double duty, as both the plural and the possessive inflection. Another choice is to use “of” with the plural, making it attributive rather than possessive—as in “He designs the uniforms of maitre d’s” (rather than “He designs maitre d’s uniforms”). Here’s the Chicago Manual again: “If ambiguity threatens, use of to avoid the possessive” (7.20).

In the longer noun, the final element of the compound gets the possessive inflection, which is the usual rule for forming the possessives of English compounds whether they’re singular or plural. Again we’ll cite the Chicago Manual (section 7.24): “In compound nouns and compound phrases, the final element takes the possessive form, even in the plural.” Its examples include “parents-in-law’s message” (section 5.20) and “my sons-in-laws’ addresses” (7.24).

One more point about punctuation before we move on. When the singular “maitre d’ ” comes at the end of a sentence or clause, the period or other mark goes outside the apostrophe: “The restaurant has a new maître d’.” The apostrophe is considered part of the word, and no other mark should come between them (Chicago Manual, 6.118).

Why all this effort to answer a few simple punctuation questions? Well, “maitre d’ ” is an abnormality in English, a noun ending in an apostrophe. Naturally, that apostrophe makes the plural and the possessive abnormal too. Now let’s move on to some etymology.

The word “maitre d’ ” was formed in the US in the early 20th century as a contracted version of “maitre d’hotel,” which had come into English in the 16th century. We’ll begin with the original.

In French, maître d’hôtel dates back to the 13th century and literally means “master of the house.” It originally was used for the major-domo, overseer, or head steward at a mansion or townhouse, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (This was a time when the noun hôtel meant a large private home or a nobleman’s residence.)

When this term was borrowed into English in the 16th century, it meant what it did in French, the OED says: “a major-domo, a steward, a butler.” Here’s the OED’s earliest citation for its use in written English:

“Tannagel, the maistre d’hostell with vij [seven] persons.” From a letter written in 1540 and cited in Original Letters, Illustrative of English History: 3rd Series (1846), edited by Sir Henry Ellis, then head librarian at the British Museum.

This sense of “maitre d’hotel,” as a butler or chief servant in an affluent home, persisted even into the 20th century. Here’s an OED citation from Rebecca West’s novel The Thinking Reed (1936): “She [a woman of great wealth] had sent both the chef and the maître d’hôtel off on a holiday.”

The more familiar, commercial senses of “maitre d’hotel”—defined in the OED as “a hotel manager” but now usually “the manager of a hotel dining room” or a headwaiter—emerged in both French and in English. The dictionary’s earliest English example is from the 19th century:

“A venerable maître d’hôtel in black cutting up neatly the dishes on a trencher at the side-table, and several waiters attending.” From William Makepeace Thackeray’s article “Memorials of Gormandising,” published in the June 1841 issue of Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country. (We’ve expanded the passage, in which Thackeray describes a sumptuous dinner for 10, priced at 15 pence a head.)

The contracted “maitre d’,” which is used only for a headwaiter or the head of a dining room, was formed in the US in the early 20th century but soon spread to Britain. The apostrophe is a sign of contraction showing that part of the original was omitted.

(As the OED notes, a contraction also appeared in French in 1975, maître d’hô. There, the first apostrophe shows the contraction of de, and no second apostrophe is added to show the omission of tel.)

The earliest examples of “maitre d’ ” that we’ve found in our searches of old newspaper databases are from the 1930s.

Here’s the oldest: “The sophomores, in signing the Winton for the Case Mid-year Hop, had to do some tall talking because the maitre d’ there remembered the famous all-Case bun-throwing banquet last spring and wanted a breakage deposit.” From the Campus Gossip column in a student newspaper, Case Tech, Cleveland, Jan. 22, 1930.

And here’s a second example from the ’30s, found in an ad announcing a California restaurant opening: “The Maitre d’ Greets You.” From the Coronado Citizen, Nov. 3, 1938.

The OED’s earliest citation is from the 1940s, in an article about a Hollywood restaurant: “Marcel, a plump and smiling Frenchman, is Earl-Carol’s maitre d’. … Marcel guesses he is the only combination psychoanalyst and maitre d’ in the business” (Oakland Tribune, Feb. 24, 1942).

And this British citation from the OED shows the plural form that’s still recommended today: “Maître d’s give her their best tables” (Sunday Express Magazine, Jan. 18, 1987).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When ‘repulsive’ wasn’t disgusting

Q: It seems to me that words weaken over time, though I’ve found an example where the trajectory is opposite. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen uses “repulsive” to mean off-putting while it’s now a real nose-wrinkler: “She had not spirits to notice her in more than a few repulsive looks.” Is this an isolated case? And would a linguist use such terms as “weaken” and “strengthen” here?

A: Interestingly, “repulsive” had a positive medical sense when it first showed up in the early 15th century. It was originally a noun and an adjective for a medicine believed to repel noxious humors infecting a body organ. That sense of the word exists now only in historical references.

The term was borrowed into Middle English from two adjectives meaning able to repel: repulsif (Middle French) and repulsivus (medieval Latin). But the ultimate source is the classical Latin verb repellere (to repel or drive back).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original sense of “repulsive” as “repercussive,” a now-historical noun or adjective for a medical treatment “that drives a morbid humour, fluid, etc., back to its source or away or inwards from a swollen or diseased part; that suppresses an infection, swelling, eruption, etc.”

The earliest examples for “repulsive” in the OED are from Grande Chirurgie (circa 1425), a translation of a 14th-century Latin treatise on surgery by the French physician Guy de Chauliac.

In one citation, a “repulsyue” ingredient is included in a medicine said to resist humors infecting a kidney. In another, the recommended treatment is for medicines that draw fluids toward a body part, “and nouȝt repulsyues [nought repulsives].” The repulsives, as we’ve said, were thought to draw fluids away.

In the 16th century, the adjective “repulsive” came to describe the repelling or resisting of something or someone. The first Oxford example describes a bay tree’s supposed ability to repel lightning:

“The Baye tree is sildome harmed with the lightning … for so much as it hath thys repulsiue vertue of the lightning through the inner cause” (from A Contemplation of Mysteries, circa 1574, by Thomas Hill).

And here’s an example, which we’ve expanded, of someone who uses “denial, coldness of manner, etc.” to repel or resist someone else:

“Be not discouraged that my daughter heere, / Like a well fortified and loftie tower, / Is so repulsiue and vnapt to yeelde” (from The Blinde Begger of Alexandria, a 1598 comedy by the Elizabethan dramatist and poet George Chapman).

As you’ve noticed, Jane Austen uses that sense of “repulsive” in her novels. In Emma, for example, Frank Churchill uses it in the repelling sense after Emma speaks of Jane Fairfax’s reserve:

“It is a most repulsive quality, indeed,” said he. “Oftentimes very convenient, no doubt, but never pleasing. There is safety in reserve, but no attraction. One cannot love a reserved person.” Frank, as the reader later learns, is secretly engaged to Miss Fairfax.

The usual modern sense of the adjective “repulsive,” which the OED defines as “arousing intense distaste; disgusting, loathsome,” appeared in the early 1790s—two decades before Austen began publishing her novels.

The first OED example for the loathsome sense of “repulsive” is from The Siege of Belgrade (1791), an anonymous historical novel:

“As for Prince Czerskalkoi, though she found him repulsive to her nature, she yet could not wish him so great an evil, as that of being united to a wife who could not love him.” We’ve expanded the citation. The book is signed “The Translator,” and described as “An Historical Novel Translated From a German Manuscript.”

The older repelling or resisting sense of “repulsive” still shows up once in a while. The OED’s latest example is from 2008, but we’ll cite this one from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925): “There was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women.”

As for your question about terminology, yes, a linguist might refer to the loss or reduction of meaning in a word or phrase as “semantic weakening.” Other terms for such a semantic change include “semantic bleaching,” “semantic loss,” and “semantic reduction.”

And words do often strengthen over time. For example, the negative sense increased as the Old English læwede (lay, not in holy orders) became the Middle English læwed (unlearned), and the Modern English “lewd.”

However, linguists don’t see semantic change as simply the strengthening or weakening of a term’s meaning. Here are a few other ways in which the meaning of a word may change:

Narrowing—as with Old English mæte (anything edible), which eventually became the Modern English “meat.”

Widening—from the Old English haligdæg (a consecrated holy day) to the Modern English “holiday.”

Positive to negative—from the early Middle English aȝhefull (inspiring awe) to the Modern English “awful.”

Negative to positive—from the Old English prættig (crafty, sly) to the Modern English “pretty.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Ding-dong, ‘the which’ is dead

Q: I’m puzzled by “the which” in this comment about love in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann: “It was, he said, the most unstable, the most unreliable of man’s instincts, the most prone of its very essence to error and fatal perversion. In the which there was nothing that should cause surprise.”

A: What’s puzzling to us is that an archaic English expression would be used in Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter’s 1927 translation of the novel, which was originally published in German in 1924.

John E. Woods, whose 1995 translation is in our library, used one sentence instead two: “Of all our natural instincts, he said, it was the most unstable and exposed, fundamentally prone to confusion and perversion—and no one should be surprised at that.”

In older English, “the which” was sometimes used in place of “which” alone, a usage dating from the early 1300s. Essentially, for a few hundred years “the which” competed with “which” as a relative pronoun and a relative adjective.

Relatives relate to and add information about a preceding sentence or clause. Some modern examples: “His firing was announced Thursday, which we all expected” (relative pronoun) … “His firing was announced Thursday, by which time he’d already left” (relative adjective). In centuries past, a writer might have used “the” before “which.”

Your second sentence, “In the which there was nothing that should cause surprise,” amounts to a relative clause. Here the relative pronoun “the which” refers to the preceding sentence—that love is unreliable, prone to error, and so on. A contemporary author might write “In which there was nothing surprising,” or simply “Which was no surprise.”

Linguists say “the which” was common in the early Modern English period (late 1400s to late 1600s) but had fallen out of use by the late 1700s. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it’s archaic.

The OED’s earliest uses of “the which” in writing, as both a relative pronoun and a relative adjective, are from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem believed written sometime before 1325. At the time, “the which” was written a variety of ways: “Þe quilk,” þe whilk,” “Þe whiche,” etc.

Here’s the first citation for the relative pronoun: “How god bigan þe law hym gyfe Þe quilk the Iuus in suld life” (“How God began to give him [Moses] the law the which the Jews should live by”).

And here’s the first citation for the relative adjective: “þe first law was cald ‘of kinde,’ þat es to say, kindly to do all þat him was bidden to. Þe toþer has ‘possitiue’ to name, þe whilk lawe was for-bed Adam, Forto ete þat fruit” (“The first law was called ‘of nature,’ that is to say, naturally to do all that he was bidden to. The other was named ‘positive,’ the which law forbade Adam to eat of that fruit”).

Uses of “the which” were uncommon after the late 18th century, as we said above, but they occasionally appeared afterward, mostly in poetic or historical writing. Here are a couple of late OED citations:

Relative adjective: “Begun April 4th, 1820—completed July 16th, 1820—finished copying August 16th-17th, 1820; the which copying makes ten times the toil of composing.” From a notation Byron made, probably later that year, on the manuscript of his play Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (published in 1821). We’ve expanded the citation.

Relative pronoun: “He holp [helped] the King to break down our castles, for the which I hate him.” From Tennyson’s Becket, a historical drama written in the 1870s and published in 1884. It’s set in the 12th century and deliberately uses archaic language.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Standing room at the Globe

Q: Did floor-standers attending Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe refer to themselves as “plebes”? Is that a word Shakespeare wrote down anywhere?

A: We’ve seen no evidence that standees at the Globe were referred to as “plebes,” either by themselves or others. And as far as we know, Shakespeare never used the word “plebes” in his plays or sonnets.

Standees at Elizabethan theaters were known as “groundlings,” a word that we’ll discuss later in this post.

Shakespeare did use the shorter term “plebs” once in Titus Andronicus, a play set in the latter days of the Roman Empire. In Act IV, scene III of the tragedy, written in the late 1580s or early 1590s, Clown uses the term in speaking to Titus:

“I am going with my pigeons to the tribunal plebs.” The reference is to the tribunus plebis (Tribune of the Plebs, or People), a Roman body open to plebeians, or common people, as opposed to patricians.

In addition to “plebs,” the more familiar term “plebeians” appears in Titus Andronicus and three other Shakespeare plays: King Henry V (circa 1599), Coriolanus (c. 1605), and Antony and Cleopatra. (c. 1607). But all those appearances specifically refer to common people in Roman times, not those in Elizabethan England.

However, the word “plebs” (it rhymes with “webs”) took on a wider sense around this time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “The ordinary people, the populace; (derogatory) the mob.” And it’s possible that standees at the Globe may have been referred to that way, though we haven’t seen any written evidence to support this.

The OED’s earliest example for this more general sense is from a poem about the death of a Lord Chancellor: “Plebs. / The common people they did throng in flocks, / Dewing their bosomes with their yernfull teares, / Their sighs were such as would haue rent the rocks.” From “A Maidens Dreame. Vpon the Death of the Right Honorable Sir Christopher Hatton Knight” (1591), by Robert Greene.

As for the Globe, standees in the “pit” or “yard” of the theater, the area surrounding the stage, were referred to as “groundlings,” since they stood on the ground instead of sitting in the galleries.

Shakespeare uses the term in the 1604 second quarto of Hamlet. In his advice to the Players, Hamlet says, “O it offends mee to the soule, to heare a robustious perwig-pated fellowe tere a passion to totters, to very rags, to spleet the eares of the groundlings.”

Thomas Platter, a Swiss physician who visited London in 1599, saw plays at several theaters. In his diary, Platter says that “daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.”

“The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view,” Platter goes on. “There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. Thus anyone who remains on the level standing pays only one English penny: but if he wants to sit, he is let in at a farther door, and there he gives another penny. If he desires to sit on a cushion in the most comfortable place of all, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen then he gives yet another English penny at another door.”

In Thomas Platter’s Travels in England 1599, Clare Williams’s 1937 translation of the diary’s German text, Platter writes that during his London visit he attended a performance of a play about Julius Caesar at an unnamed theater:

“On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over, they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.”

Some scholars say Platter probably saw Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar at the Globe, while others say he may have seen another play about Caesar at the Rose. Both theaters had thatched roofs and were across the Thames from the City of London.

Getting back to etymology, the first of these words for a commoner to show up in English was the noun “plebeian,” which was originally used in translating the classical Latin plebeius, a member of the plebs or common people in ancient Rome. The first OED citation is from a translation of the Latin in Livy’s History of Rome:

“Na plebeane will tak þe dochter [daughter] of ane patriciane but [without] hir consent.” From Ab Urbe Condita Libri (Books From the Founding of the City), Book IV, Chapter 2, a 1533 translation by John Bellenden, edited by William Alexander Craigie in 1903.

In a couple of decades, according to OED citations, “plebeian” took on a more general sense: “A person not of noble or privileged rank; one of the ordinary people, a commoner. Now usually derogatory: a person of low social status, a common or vulgar person.” We’ve expanded the earliest OED citation:

“it is grit abusione to them to gloir in there nobil blude, for i trou that gif ane cirurgyen vald drau part of there blude in ane bassyn it vald hef  na bettir cullour nor the blude of ane plebien or of ane mecanik craftis man” (“it is a great abuse for them to glory in their noble blood, for I believe that if any surgeon will draw part of their blood in a basin, it will have no better color than the blood of any plebeian or any manual worker”). From The Complaynt of Scotland, an anonymous political tract written around 1550 and edited by Alasdair McIntosh Stewart in 1979.

As for “plebe,” it meant one of the ordinary people of ancient Rome when it first appeared in English in the 16th century. So “plebes” and “plebs” had the same classical meaning at first.

The earliest OED citation for “plebe” refers to the patricians’ policy of excluding plebeians from power in Rome: “The patricij many yeares excluding the plebes from bearing rule, vntill at last all magistrates were made common betweene them” (De Republica Anglorum: The Maner of Gouernement or Policie of the Realme of England, 1583, by Thomas Smith).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the modern sense of “plebe” as a new cadet at a military academy showed up in the US in the early 19th century: “My drill master, a young stripling, told me I was not so ‘gross’ as most other pleibs, the name of all new cadets” (from the Military and Naval Magazine of the United States, October 1833).

The first Oxford example using the normal spelling is from the June 1834 issue of the same magazine: “I was reckoned, already, as one of a class of cadets. To be sure, it was the ‘plebe class’; but what of this?”

Finally, Shakespeare would have referred to the Globe as a “theater,” not a “theatre.” Here’s the Duke of York in Richard II: “As in a Theater the eies of men, / After a well-graced Actor leaues the stage, / Are ydly bent on him that enters next” (Act V, Scene 2, First Quarto, 1597).

The spelling “theater” was dropped in Britain between 1720 and 1750, the OED says. Today “theatre” is the only spelling recognized in Britain. In the US, “theater” is the traditional spelling but “theatre” is now equally acceptable, as we say in a 2012 post.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Thank you, Mr. Collins

Q: In reading Pomfret Towers, inspired by Pat’s Christmas essay on Angela Thirkell, I encountered this passage: “She wrote a handsome Collins to Lady Pomfret in which she expressed the hope that everyone was well.” Huh? The only “Collins” I know of is the one that’s imbibed.

A: The “Collins” in that sentence is a thank-you note, an older British usage inspired by Jane Austen’s obsequious clergyman William Collins. It was a familiar term when Thirkell wrote the novel Pomfret Towers (1938), but it fell out of use in the latter half of the 20th century.

Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “A letter of thanks for entertainment or hospitality, sent by a departed guest; a ‘bread-and-butter’ letter.” In an etymology note, the OED says the usage comes from “the name of a character, William Collins, in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.”

In the 1813 novel, Mr. Collins, an insufferable snob who panders to his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, expects to inherit the estate of his cousins the Bennets. While visiting them, he condescendingly proposes marriage to Elizabeth (as a favor to the family!) and is refused, only to propose successfully to Charlotte Lucas two days later. As he’s leaving, he pompously conveys his gratitude to his hosts and says he’ll soon be sending formal thanks in a letter.

In Chapter 23 Austen writes, “The promised letter of thanks from Mr. Collins arrived on Tuesday, addressed to their father, and written with all the solemnity of gratitude which a twelvemonth’s abode in the family might have prompted.”

Austen herself didn’t call such a letter a “Collins.” The term wasn’t recorded, as far as we know, until the early 1900s.

The OED’s earliest example is from the Aug. 27, 1904, issue of Chambers’s Journal. We’ll expand the quotation here to provide some background. In a column entitled “Talks With Girls: Letter-Writing and Some Letter-Writers,” Katherine Burrill gives the following advice, using characters from Pride and Prejudice as models:

“When writing to the ‘best Dear’ do not let your pens run away with you; do not, like Mr Bingley, allow your ideas to ‘flow so rapidly’ that you have ‘not time to express them;’ the lamentable result being that the ‘letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.’ On the other hand, avoid Mr D’Arcy’s words of four syllables; no wonder his letters were long! The Rev. William Collins’ letters have become proverbial. When we do not call a letter of thanks for a visit ‘a board and lodging,’ we call it a ‘Collins.’ His letters are monuments of politeness and civility. Give poor dull Collins his due; if obsequious, he was nevertheless civil.”

The OED’s next example is from Lucy H. M. Soulsby’s Brondesbury Papers (1905): “Write your ‘Collins’ after every visit (if only for a night) next morning at latest.” (Miss Soulsby was headmistress at Brondesbury Manor House, a school for girls. We can assume that she considered “Collins” the proper term for well-brought-up young ladies to use.)

We found a couple of examples that illustrate the use of “Collins” as well as other terms for a thank-you note:

“A ‘bread-and-butter’ letter—the English call it a Collins, after the respectable gentleman so named in one of Jane Austen’s novels. There was no reason for her hesitation in opening it. A bread-and-butter—some say board-and-lodging—letter.” From In Cure of Her Soul, a 1906 novel by Frederic Jesup Stimson, an American writer and legal scholar.

And in Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April, Mr. Wilkins thanks his hostess in person, then reminds Mrs. Fisher, another guest, “that she and his wife must now jointly write Lady Caroline the customary letter of thanks for hospitality. ‘A Collins,’ said Mr. Wilkins, who knew what was necessary in literature. ‘I prefer the name Collins for such a letter to either that of Board and Lodging or Bread and Butter. Let us call it a Collins.’ ”

As we said above, the usage wasn’t very long-lived. The OED’s most recent citation is from 1940. The latest we’ve seen is from 1984, when the word was part of a clue in an Australian crossword puzzle.

As for those other terms, they both date from the late 19th century. Though the “board-and-lodging” version has fallen by the wayside, “bread-and-butter” is still used today.

Thee OED has no entry for the first version, but it defines a “bread-and-butter letter” as an “originally U.S.” phrase meaning “a letter sent to thank a person for his or her hospitality.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the December 1891 issue of The Chautauquan: “There is seldom more for a visitor to do than to arrange the flowers for the hostess, to send her a ‘bread and butter’ letter when one has left her house, and a present on Christmas.”

We’ve also found examples in newspapers of the 1890s for “bread-and-butter note.” In the following decade, the message was sometimes called simply “a bread and butter.”

As for the “board-and-lodging” version, we’ve found uses from around the same time. Here’s an example, in a dialog between cousins:

“ ‘I suppose you saw Mr. Hodder safely off these hills?’ ‘Yes; has he not written what my mother profanely calls his board-and-lodging letter yet?’ ” From A Family Likeness (1892), a novel by Bithia Mary Croker.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When doom is impending

Q: I read your write-up on the negative sense of “precipitous” with interest, since I’ve been wondering if “impending” has a similar negative meaning. My feeling is that “impending,” unlike “precipitous,” is not necessarily negative.

A: “Impending” isn’t quite as negative as “precipitous,” but it’s often used negatively, as in “impending doom.” Two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult say “impending” is usually negative, and the other eight usually illustrate the use of the adjective with negative examples.

Both Longman and Macmillan say “impending” describes “an event or situation, especially an unpleasant one,” that will happen soon. A third dictionary, Lexico, says it describes a forthcoming “event regarded as threatening or significant.”

Merriam-Webster, whose entry is typical of others, defines it neutrally as “occurring or likely to occur soon,” but of these five examples, three are negative: “impending trials” … “impending motherhood” … “impending earthquakes and volcanic eruptions” …  “impending disaster” … “impending sales.”

The negative sense of “impending,” like that of “precipitous,” comes from its etymological roots. The adjective is derived from the verb “impend,” which English borrowed from impendere, classical Latin for (among other things) to hang over or threaten.

Although the English verb is sometimes used literally to mean “hang over,” it was first used figuratively to mean “hang threateningly or hover (over) as about to fall,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ll expand here, uses the present participle form of the verb:

“You are found foul and guilty by a jury / Made of your fathers’ curses, which have brought / Vengeance impending on you.” From The Old Law, or A New Way to Please, a play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, with a possible contribution by Philip Massinger. It was first published in 1656, but is believed to have been written several decades earlier.

Later in the 17th century, the verb took on a wider sense that the OED defines as “to be about to happen; to be imminent or near at hand.” However, the happenings in most of the dictionary’s examples are negative, including the first, which uses the present participle:

“Giving them notice of any accident or distemper impending” (from A New Voyage Into the Northern Countries, a 1674 translation of a French travel book by Pierre Martin de La Martinière).

And here’s an expanded OED citation from The Rape of the Lock (1714), a mock-heroic poem by Alexander Pope: “I saw, alas! some dread Event impend, / Ere to the main this morning sun descend.”

The dictionary’s only positive example for the verb, which we’ve also expanded, is from The Pleasures of Imagination (1744), a three-book poem by the English writer and physician Mark Akenside: “Now the same glad task / Impends; now urging our ambitious toil.”

The adjective “impending” (technically, a participial adjective) showed up in the late 17th century. The earliest OED example, expanded here, is from a report by the Lord Privy Seal to King Charles II on the state of his government and kingdom:

“as the only Remedy for growing Evils, and to prevent Impending Mischiefs, another Parliament was called and sat for the same Year.” From The Account of Arthur, Earl of Anglesey, Lord Privy Seal, to Your Most Excellent Majesty, of the True State of Your Majesty’s Government and Kingdoms. The report, written in 1682, was published in 1694.

The adjective has usually appeared in negative phrases since then, especially up until the 20th century. We found this positive example in The Pastor’s Wife, a 1914 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim: “Robert went away after an early breakfast to his fields to see the improvement forty-eight hours’ soaking must have made, and obviously did not mind her impending departure in the least.”

Bryan A. Garner, writing in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), notes that “it is not uncommon for writers to use impending for pending, perhaps because they think the extra syllable adds gravitas. Whatever the reason, the slipshod extension threatens to deprive us of a useful word, as impending loses its connotations of danger or evil.”

Although it’s legitimate to use “impending” in positive or neutral phrases (as in “impending marriage” or “impending holiday” or “impending bonus”), searches of newspaper and book databases indicate that the negative sense of “impending” is still the dominant one.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Ketchup’ or ‘catsup’?

Q: I recently saw Mr. Burns’s “ketchup”/“catsup” dilemma on The Simpsons. Which is the preferred spelling?

A: Both spellings, “ketchup” and “catsup,” have been around for hundreds of years, but “ketchup” is king. It’s been vastly more popular than “catsup” since the mid-20th century.

Neither spelling can be considered more “correct,” however, since both originated as attempts to transliterate a Chinese word into the English alphabet.

The “k” spelling was first on the scene, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was first recorded in the 1680s and was originally written as “ketchup,” just as it is today. Various “c” versions began appearing in the late 1690s, and the spelling “catsup” came along in the mid-1700s.

For many years, the “k” and “c” spellings were about equally common, with first one then the other more popular. But in contemporary usage, “ketchup” has clearly outdistanced “catsup.”

As the OED explains: “Perhaps as a result of influence from major commercial brands of sauce, ketchup seems to have become the dominant term from around the middle of the 20th cent., although catsup is still well attested in North America.”

That’s confirmed by a comparison of the terms on Google’s Ngram viewer. As of 2019, “ketchup” was more than 10 times as popular as “catsup.”

All 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult, both British and American, give “ketchup” as the principal spelling and “catsup” as a variant. Usage labels in many of the dictionaries indicate that the lesser-used “catsup” is now found only in North America.

As for the pronunciation, “ketchup” is KECH-up or KACH-up, while “catsup” is KAT-sup, KACH-up, or KECH-up.

What’s interesting about the history of “ketchup” (we’ll use that spelling) is that it wasn’t always tomato-y, and many of its older incarnations wouldn’t be too appetizing on fries. Here’s some etymology.

The noun “ketchup” comes from Hokkien, a family of dialects of Min Chinese, which is spoken in southeastern China. The Chinese ancestors of “ketchup” are rendered in the OED as kê-chiap (in the Zhangzhou dialect), kôe-tsap (Quanzhou dialect), and kôe-chiap (Amoy dialect). These compounds, the dictionary says, are derived from kôe (kind of fish) and chiap (juice, sauce), and the original Chinese term meant “brine of pickled fish or shellfish.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that although the source is Chinese, “ketchup” may have come into English through Malay, a language with many Hokkien loan words. (In fact, many Malaysians speak Hokkien.) The OED also says it may have come into English “perhaps partly via Malay kecap, kicap” (soy sauce).

As Oxford explains, in the 17th century this sauce was “encountered by British travellers, traders, and colonists in southeast Asia and introduced to Britain by them.” In English, the dictionary says, “ketchup” originally meant “a type of piquant sauce produced in southeast Asia, probably made from fermented soybeans or fish.”

Once the recipe arrived in England it naturally began to change, and so did the meaning of “ketchup.” In the 18th century it came to mean a variation of the original Asian sauce.

The dictionary says it was “typically made from the juice or pulp of a fruit, vegetable, or other foodstuff, combined with vinegar or wine and spices, and used as an ingredient or condiment (frequently with modifying word indicating the main ingredient).”

For instance, Oxford has mentions of “walnut ketchup” (first recorded in 1769), “oyster ketchup” (1787), “mushroom ketchup” (1788), “tomato ketchup” (1801), and even the American concoctions “plum catsup” and “cucumber catsup” (both 1861).

Today, as we all know, “ketchup” generally means “tomato ketchup.” As the OED says, from the late 19th century onward “tomato ketchup became the most popular form,” and now “ketchup” is usually “a thick red sauce made chiefly from tomatoes, vinegar, and sugar, and used as a condiment or relish.”

[Update, Jan. 23, 2021: An American reader who just returned from a year in the UK writes to say that the British don’t automatically associate ketchup with tomatoes. “Every time I asked in a store for ketchup I was asked by the clerk whether I wanted tomato ketchup or another type.”]

Here are the OED’s earliest sightings of the word as spelled with a “k” (the first one also has the earliest use we’ve found for “soy” meaning soy sauce):

“Your Soys, your Ketchups and Caveares, your Cantharides, and your Whites of Eggs, are not to be compared to our rude Indian.” From The Natural History of Coffee, Thee, Chocolate, Tobacco (1682), by John Chamberlayne. “Cantharides” refers to a dried beetle, also known as Spanish Fly, that was used in various remedies and as an aphrodisiac.

“Take some Mutton or Beef gravy, and shred into it a Shalot or two, and a little Pepper, half a spoonful of Ketchup, or if you have no Ketchup, then put in one Anchovy.” From The Young Cooks Monitor (1683), by an author identified only as “M.H.” That use of an anchovy as a substitute tells us what ketchup tasted like in the 17th century! M.H. mentions “ketchup” five times in recipes for stewing pigeons and roasting hare, chicken, and lamb.

Though most of the OED’s “k” versions of the word are spelled “ketchup,” the dictionary also has infrequent citations for other spellings, including “Katchop” (1728), “Kitchup” (1731), and “katchup” (1914).

Here are Oxford’s earliest uses of the word spelled with a “c”:

“By Artificial Sauces we imitate the natural foetid and sub-acid Slime of the Stomach, as in Catchup mango Plumbs, Mushrooms, and some Indian Liquors or Sauces of Garlic.” From The Preternatural State of Animal Humours Described by Their Sensible Qualities (1696), by John Floyer.

“Catchup, a high East-India Sauce.” A definition from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699), by “B. E.”

“And, for our home-bred British Chear, Botargo, Catsup, and Caveer.” From the comic poem “A Panegyrick on the Dean,” written by Jonathan Swift in 1730 and published in 1735. Here “chear” (for cheer) means food and drink, “botargo” is the dried roe of tuna or mullet, and “caveer” is caviar.

In closing, we’ll share an early 18th-century recipe we came across in writing this post. It comes from A Generous Discovery of Many Curious and Useful Medicines and Preparations (1725), by “Mrs. Hey.”

To make a KETCHUP for Sauce.

Take one Hundred Walnuts just before they begin to be fit for pickling, bruise them well, and put them into a Pot, with a Quart of the best White Wine Vinegar, and a good handful of Salt, let them stand about twenty four Hours, and then press out the Liquor, and Bottle it for use.

LET it stand 3 or 4 Months before it be used, and when you use it shake the Bottle, and one Spoonful or two will not only thicken, but add a most grateful Flavour to the Sauce; and is not at all inferior to the Foreign Ketchup of seven Shillings a Pint, made of we know not what.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

Prior analytics

Q: Has the use of “prior” as an adverb gained acceptance? I am seeing it more and more, as in this example from a book on chess: “Why did I play in the Los Angeles Open a month later? I’d said I would, a year prior.”

A: That use of “prior” by itself as an adverb is not recognized in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

The dictionaries consider “prior” an adverbial usage only as part of the preposition “prior to,” as in “He made the will prior to his marriage.” In that sentence, “prior to” introduces a prepositional phrase (“prior to his marriage”) that modifies the verb “made.”

As we wrote on our blog in 2007, “prior to” is a preposition that can function as either an adjective or an adverb. We used these examples: “Construction prior to [adjective] 1900 is reviewed prior to [adverb] demolition.” In either case, “previous to” or “before” could be substituted for “prior to.”

So the adverbial use you mention, “I’d said I would, a year prior,” would be more acceptable in this form: “I’d said I would, a year prior to that.”

We’ll have more about “prior to” a bit later. As for “prior,” it’s sometimes used as a noun—meaning a religious official or as short for “prior conviction” or “prior arrest.” But in the sense you’re asking about, it’s defined in standard dictionaries as an adjective (not an adverb).

A usage note in American Heritage has this to say about the use of “prior” as an adjective:

“Though prior usually modifies a noun that comes after it, as in prior approval, it sometimes modifies a noun for a unit of time which precedes it, as in five years prior. These constructions are marginally acceptable when the combination serves as the object of a preposition, as in A gallon of gasoline was $4.29, up 10 cents from the week prior. In our 2014 survey, 51 percent of the Panelists accepted the sentence, with many commenting that they would prefer from the prior week or from the week before.”

The usage note goes on to add this about “prior” as an adverb: “The construction is even less acceptable when it acts as an adverbial modifier: only 29 percent of the Panel approved My cellphone was stolen. I had just bought it two days prior.

Getting back to “prior to,” American Heritage and Merriam-Webster define the phrase as a preposition synonymous with “before.” M-W says this in a note:  “Sometimes termed pompous or affected, prior to is a synonym of before that most often appears in rather formal contexts, such as the annual reports of corporations.” (Longman’s labels the “prior to” usage “formal.”)

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language includes “prior” in a class of words that are prepositions when their complements are preceded by “to,” as in “prior to this.” Other such prepositions, according to the Cambridge Grammar, include “according,” “subsequent,” “pursuant,” “preparatory,” “next,” “previous,” “owing,” “contrary,” and several more. “For the most part,” the book says, “the to phrase complement is obligatory when these items are prepositions.”

As for its etymology, “prior” was adopted in the early 17th century from the classical Latin prior. To the Romans, the OED says, prior meant “in front, previous, former, earlier, elder, superior, more important.”

In English, Oxford says, “prior” was first used as an adjective, meaning “that precedes in time or order; earlier, former, anterior, antecedent.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from 1607: “Learned Magitian, skild in hidden Artes, / As well in prior as posterior parts” (The Diuils [Devil’s] Charter, a play by Barnabe Barnes).

In examples like that, the adjective “prior” is attributive—that is, it appears before the noun. But it can also be predicative (appearing after the noun) and in those cases it’s chiefly used “with to,” Oxford says.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest such use: “I & my predicessouris [predecessors] be indouttitlie [undoubtedly] prior to thame in richt & place of dignitie” (The Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, 1641).

The adverbial use of “prior to” appeared later in the same century and means “previously to, before, in advance of,” Oxford says. This is the dictionary’s earliest example:

“It was clear, that there was a former Trade, and correspondence betwixt them, prior to the Sons Infeftment.” (From Observations, 1675, Sir George Mackenzie’s commentaries on various Scottish parliamentary acts. “Infeftment” is a term in Scots law, similar to “enfeoffment” in English law, having to do with the investing of a feudal estate or fee.)

In our opinion, both “prior” alone and “prior to” have a lofty, formal sound, and for ordinary use there are better terms, both adjectives and adverbs: “previous,” “previously,” “before,” “earlier,” “in advance,” “preceding,” and so on. Usually, nothing is lost in translation.

However, Merriam-Webster compares the adjectives “prior” and “previous” and detects a slight difference: “previous and prior imply existing or occurring earlier, but prior often adds an implication of greater importance,” and it contrasts the uses with these examples: “a child from a previous marriage” versus “a prior obligation.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

To “the,” or not to “the”

Q: I was reading The Magician’s Nephew, a 1955 Narnia novel by C. S. Lewis, and I saw this sentence: “ ‘That was the secret of secrets,’ said the Queen Jadis.” Why does the writer put a “the” before “Queen Jadis”?

A: The definite article “the” was once common before a high title preceding a personal name, as in “the Queen Jadis,” but the usage isn’t seen much now.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the 12th to the 20th century of “the” used before “higher titles of rank identified by a following personal name.” The dictionary’s examples include “the Emperor Napoleon,” “the Grand Duke Michael,” and “the Empress Josephine.”

Today, the dictionary says, “except in formal use, the is not now usual with higher titles when followed by the personal name, as King George, Prince Edward, Duke Humphrey, Earl Grey, Earl Simon, etc.”

However, the old convention survives with other kinds of titles, like those identified by a following place name or title of office (OED examples include “the Duchess of Windsor,” “the Lord Privy Seal,”  “the Queen of the Netherlands”), and courtesy titles (“the Right Honourable,” “the Honourable,” “the Reverend”).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the definite article used in front of a high title (with “the” written as þe in early Middle English), is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written sometime before 1200:

“Þe abbed an horse leop; & æfter Uortiger rad & sone gon of-ærne þe eorl Uortigerne” (“The abbot leaped upon his horse and rode after Vortigern, and soon began to overtake the earl Vortiger”). Vortigern was a fifth-century king of the Britons, according to some medieval accounts.

We’ve found quite a few examples of the usage in Shakespeare, such as this remark by Polonius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “You go to seek the Lord Hamlet; there he is” (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2, circa 1600).

In the OED’s latest example, the usage is clearly formal: “Her Majesty’s Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms under the command of the Lord Denham” (from the Nov. 5, 1981, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several posts about the definite article, including one in 2008 about its idiomatic use, one in 2009 about its pronunciation (THEE vs. THUH), and one in 2018 about its use with a foreign article.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check outour books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

When ‘damn’ became a swear word

Q: What is the origin of the expression “don’t give a damn”? Was it ever expletive free?

A: Let’s begin with “damn.” When the word showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, “damn” was a verb meaning to condemn. It wasn’t until the 16th century that “damn” was used profanely.

English borrowed the term from Old French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin damnāre or dampnāre, meaning to damage or condemn. (In fact, “condemn” ultimately comes from the same Latin source as “damn.”)

In Middle English, according to Oxford English Dictionary citations, “damn” had three related meanings: (1) to doom to eternal punishment; (2) to pronounce a sentence; (3) to denounce or deplore.

Here’s an OED example for sense #1 from a homily dated at around 1325: “Sain Jon hafd gret pite / That slic a child suld dampned be” (“John the Baptist had great pity / That such a child should be damned”). Collected in English Metrical Homilies (1862), edited by John Small.

We’ve expanded this OED’s citation for sense #2: “For, sir, hit is no maystrie for a lord / To dampne a man with-oute answere of word” (“For, sire, it is no triumph for a lord / To condemn a man without answering a word”). The Legend of Good Women, circa 1385, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

And here’s an example for #3: “For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, / Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales, circa 1386, by Chaucer).

The OED says the verb “damn” began to be “used profanely” in the late 16th century “in imprecations and exclamations, expressing emphatic objurgation or reprehension of a person or thing, or sometimes merely an outburst of irritation or impatience.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an anonymous religious tract attacking critics of the Anglican hierarchy: “Hang a spawne? drowne it; alls one, damne it!” From Pappe With Hatchet (1589), believed written by John Lyly or Thomas Nashe.

In the early 17th century, according to OED citations, “damn” showed up as a noun used “as a profane imprecation”—that is, a curse.

The earliest example is from Monsieur Thomas, a comedy by the English playwright John Fletcher, believed written between 1610 and 1616: “Rack a maids tender eares, with dam’s and divels?”

And here’s an early 18th-century example in the OED: “What! he no hear you swear, curse, speak the great Damn.” From The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe.

But by the mid-18th century—and here’s where your question comes in—the profane sense of “damn” began weakening as it was “used vaguely (in unconventional speech) in phrases not worth a damn, not to care a damn, not to give a damn,” the OED says.

The earliest such phrase, according to the dictionary, is of the “not to care a damn” variety. Here’s the first known use:

“Not that I care three dams what figure I may cut.” From Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762), a novel in the form of letters purportedly written by a Chinese traveler and offering an outsider’s views of Britain.

In searches of old newspaper databases, the earliest example we’ve found for “not give a damn” is from a late 18th-century American newspaper:

“Burk … exclaimed, that he believed it was true, and if so that he would not give a damn for the Federal villains in this country.” From the Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, July 6, 1798.

As for “not worth a damn,” the earliest use we know of is cited in Green’s Dictionary of Slang: “To play second fiddle to Brougham … would not be worth a dam.” From a letter written by the English politician Thomas Creevey on Oct. 18, 1812.

Interestingly, the noun “curse” was once used in similar constructions. Here are the earliest known appearances—at least in Modern English—of the corresponding “curse” expressions, all cited in the OED:

“I do not conceive that any thing can happen … which you would give a curse to know” (in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 20, 1763).

“For, as to wives, a Grand Signor Need never care one curse about them!” (Thomas Moore’s Intercepted Letters, 1813).

“The Chapter on Naval Inventions is not worth a curse” (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1826).

Oxford says the use of “curse” in such expressions “possibly comes down from the Middle English not worth a kerse, kers, cres” (those are medieval spellings of “curse”). The Middle English usage dates from the late 1300s, according to Oxford citations.

But if there is a link between “not worth a curse” and the medieval “not worth a kerse,” it’s not traceable. As the dictionary adds, “historical connection between the two is not evidenced, there being an interval of more than 300 years between the examples of the Middle English and the modern phrase.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Writing

Getting our ducks in a row

Q: What’s the history behind the expression “to get one’s ducks in a row”? And did anyone ever get ducks to line up?

A: We’ll answer your second question first. Yes, a mother duck does somehow manage to get her ducklings to line up in a row and follow her. Did this inspire the usage? Well, it’s one of several theories, but we haven’t found much evidence to support any of them.

As far as we can tell, the expression “to get [put, have, etc.] one’s ducks in a row,” meaning to be well prepared or organized for something, first appeared in late 19th-century American usage.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from a 19th-century African-American newspaper in Detroit: “In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong” (the Plaindealer, Nov. 15, 1889).

The next example is a newspaper headline in South Carolina: “His Ducks in a Row” (Watchman and Southron, Sumter, July 22, 1891). The article describes “the extensive and handsome improvements” made by a businessman to increase “his space as well as his usefulness and activity” for “the accommodation of those who desire to be well served.”

A few months later, this headline appeared on an advertisement for a clothing sale: “Getting Our Ducks in a Row” (The Evening Visitor, Raleigh, NC, Nov. 20, 1891). After a list of items in the sale (“Ladies all wool vests, white, 50c,” “Men’s heavy undershirts, 17c,” etc.), the ad says these are “only a few stray shots and will be followed by the heavy sharp shooting and cannonading in quick succession.”

The use of firearm metaphors here raises the possibility that the usage may have originated as a figurative reference to the “duck shoot” attraction at fairgrounds, carnivals, and amusement parks, where visitors fire at a row of mechanical ducks. However, that’s pretty speculative. We haven’t seen any other etymological evidence to support the “duck shoot” theory.

We’ve also seen little or no evidence for two other theories about the source of the expression: (1) a row of real ducklings following their mom, or (2) duckpin bowling, a sport with pins that are smaller and squatter than those in the more common ten-pin bowling.

In fact, duckpin bowling first appeared in the early 1890s, after the expression showed up in Detroit. And we’ve seen no evidence that references in 19th-century books and newspapers to a row of real ducks inspired the figurative usage.

However the expression originated, it reminds us of Make Way for Ducklings (1941), Robert McCloskey’s book for children, which helped popularize the image of a mother duck leading a row of ducklings.

We’ll end, however, with an example from an earlier children’s book, Goodrich’s Fifth School Reader (1857), by Samuel Griswold Goodrich. Here a mom is teaching her ducklings how to walk in a straight line to a pond:

“Yes,” said the ducklings, waddling on. “That’s better,” said their mother;

“But well-bred ducks walk in a row, straight, one behind the other.”

“Yes,” said the little ducks again, all waddling in a row.

“Now to the pond,” said old Dame Duck—splash, splash, and in they go.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
comic fiction English English language fiction humor

A mystery and a love story about words

Read Pat’s review today in the New York Times Book Review of The Liar’s Dictionary, Eley Williams’s comic novel about love and lexicography.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check outour books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Time and again

Q: I have long been familiar with the expression “time and time again,” but in the last week I have heard it truncated to “time and again.” What’s going on here? Is the latter simply a shortened form with the same meaning, or is it meant to convey something different?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but “time and again” isn’t a truncated version of “time and time again.” The longer expression is an inflated version of the shorter one.

The expression appears to have originated in early 19th-century America. The earliest examples we’ve found in historical databases are from newspapers published in Virginia and Massachusetts.

The oldest mention we’ve seen is from a criticism of England’s Prince Regent (and later King George IV), credited to the Boston Patriot, and reprinted in the Richmond (Va.) Enquirer, April 28, 1812:

“This right illustrious personage is adding with careless prodigality to the vast circle of misery and ruin, by incurring obligations which he has no means of discharging, by rioting on the wealth of industry and labor, and calling time and again on the honest farmer and the plodding mechanic to pay for his thoughtless riots and unbounded profusion.”

And this sighting appeared a few years later: “The government has time and again been called upon, to adopt measures to render our commerce secure, and to prevent the violation of our neutrality.” From the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Sept. 7, 1818.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, also has the shorter “time and again” version:

“Application was made, time and again, relative to the College, and no change could be obtained, when it was necessary” (from a Nov. 24, 1820, speech at an 1820-21 constitutional convention in Massachusetts).

The next citation in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, appeared a decade later (note the plural): “It has been recommended, times and again, not to give horses grain unbroken on this account” (New England Farmer, Feb. 23, 1831).

The first Oxford example for the longer version showed up in print four years later, and we haven’t found any earlier ones: “We know that this has been reported of it time and time again” (Baltimore Southern Pioneer and Richmond Gospel Visiter, March 28, 1835).

The shorter version is not only earlier, but it’s apparently more popular. “Time and again” has been the more common form since the usage first appeared in the early 19th century, according to a search in Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

The OED’s most recent citation is for the original version: “Time and again she had to make difficult decisions about disputed words and phrasing.” From “Towards a Scholarly Edition of Samuel Beckett’s Watt,” an essay by Chris Ackerley in Textual Scholarship and the Material Book (2009), edited by Wim van Mierlo.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Word origin

The “bert” in Albert, Herbert, Robert, etc.

Q: As a Robert, I’m curious about the “bert” in names like mine—say, Albert, Herbert, Hubert, Gilbert, Norbert, and, for that matter, Bertram.

A: The common theme in names like these, an element inherited from old Germanic languages, is “bright” or “shining.”

Going back even further, to the days before written language, the “bert” element in such names has been traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as bherəg.

As an adjective bherəg meant “bright” or “white” and as a verb it meant “shine,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Ultimately, the “bert” in these names has the same source as the English words “bright” (beorht in Old English) and “birch” (birce in Old English, so named because it was a white tree).

The Old English beorht, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has cousins not only in Old High German (beraht) but also in Old Saxon and Middle High German (berht), Old Icelandic (bjartr), Old Swedish (barter), Old Danish (bert, bier), and Gothic (bairhts).

All are from “the same Indo-European base as Welsh berth (‘fair, beautiful, bright’),” the OED says.

The Old English beorht and Old High German beraht were used in personal masculine and feminine names, according to American Heritage, where they were often reduced to berht or bert.

Here are some these names and their meanings:

Robert, from Hrodebert (“bright fame”); Albert, from Adalbert (“bright noble”); Bertha, from Beratha (“the bright one”); Gilbert, from Giselberht (“bright hostage” or “bright pledge”); and Herbert, from Heriberht (“bright army”).

Also Cuthbert, which was formed in Old English as Cuthbeorht  (“brightly known”); Hubert (“bright mind”); Norbert (“bright north”); Bertram and Bertrand (“bright shield”); and Bertold (“bright ruler”).

Finally, here’s a little more about your own name, Robert.

Although it’s “ultimately of Germanic origin,” the OED says, it “was common in medieval France and subsequently in Britain.” The name wasn’t unknown in England before the Norman Conquest, but it became more popular afterward.

In 10th-century Britain, Oxford says, the name appeared occasionally in Latin and English documents, but it was used more frequently from the 11th century onward and was “at first apparently borne by people of continental, especially Norman, descent.”

In Old English, according to the dictionary, spellings included Rodbert, Rodbeard, Hrodberd, Rotbeard, Rotbert, Robert, and Roberd. Among the spellings in Middle English were Robart, Robert, Robertt, Roberte, Roberd, and Robard.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Punctuation Usage Word origin Writing

From A to &, et cetera

Q: What is the story of “&” and why is it replacing “and”?

A: The “&” character, or ampersand, is seen a lot these days in texting, email, and online writing, but the use of a special character for “and” isn’t a new phenomenon. English writers have been doing this since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage borrowed from the ancient Romans.

In his book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (2013), Keith Houston writes that the Romans had two special characters for representing et, the Latin word for “and.” They used either ⁊, a symbol in a shorthand system known as notae Tironianae, or the ancestor of the ampersand, a symbol combining the e and t of et.

The Tironian system is said to have been developed by Tiro, a slave and secretary of the Roman statesman and scholar Cicero in the first century BC. After being freed, Tiro adopted Cicero’s praenomen and nomen, and called himself Marcus Tullius Tiro.

Houston says the earliest known recorded version of the ampersand was an et ligature, or compound character, scrawled on a wall in Pompeii by an unknown graffiti artist and preserved under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

He cites the research of Jan Tschichold, author of Formenwandlungen der &-Zeichen (1953), which was translated from German to English in 1957 as The Ampersand: Its Origin and Development. An illustration that Houston based on Tschichold’s work shows the evolution of the ampersand over the years.

(Image #1 is from Pompeii, while the modern-looking #13 is from the Merovingian Latin of the eighth century.)

In Shady Characters, Houston describes how the ampersand competed with the Tironian ⁊ in the Middle Ages. “From its ignoble beginnings a century after Tiro’s scholarly et, the ampersand assumed its now-familiar shape with remarkable speed even as its rival remained immutable,” he writes.

“Whatever its origins, the scrappy ampersand would go on to usurp the Tironian et in a quite definitive manner,” he says, adding, “Tiro’s et showed the way but the ampersand was the real destination.”

Today, Houston writes, the Tironian character “survives in the wild only in Irish Gaelic, where it serves as an ‘and’ sign on old mailboxes and modern road signs,” while the ampersand “ultimately earned a permanent place in type cases and on keyboards.” (We added the links.)

Although the ampersand was common in medieval Latin manuscripts, including works written in Latin by Anglo-Saxon scholars, it took quite a while for the character to replace the Tironian et in English. In most of the Old English and Middle English manuscripts we’ve examined, the Tironian symbol is the usual short form for the various early versions of “and” (end, ond, ænd, ande, and so on).

A good example is the original manuscript of Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725. The anonymous author uses ond for “and” only a few times, but the Tironian symbol appears scores of times. However, modern transcriptions of the Old English in Beowulf often replace the “⁊” with ond or “&.” When the Tironian character does appear, it’s often written as the numeral “7.”

Here are the last few lines of the poem with the Tironian characters (or notes) intact: “cwædon þæt he wære wyruldcyning, / manna mildust ⁊ monðwærust / eodum liðost, ⁊ lofgeornost” (“Of all the world’s kings, they said, / he was the kindest and the gentlest of men, / the most gracious to his people and the most worthy of fame”).

Although you can find dozens of ampersands in transcriptions of Old English and Middle English manuscripts, an analysis of the original documents shows that most of the “&” characters were originally Tironian notes.

Dictionaries routinely transcribe the Tironian note as an ampersand in their citations from Old and Middle English. As the Oxford English Dictionary, the most influential and comprehensive etymological dictionary, says in an explanatory note, “In this dictionary the Old and Middle English Tironian note is usually printed as &.”

However, the ampersand does show up at times in early English. For example, it’s included in an Anglo-Saxon alphabet dating from the late 10th or early 11th century. A scribe added the alphabet to an early 9th-century copy of a Latin letter by the scholar, cleric, and poet Alcuin of York (British Library, Harley 208, fol. 87v).

The alphabet is in the upper margin of the image. It includes the 23 letters of the classical Latin alphabet (with a backward “b”) followed by the ampersand, the Tironian et, and four Anglo-Saxon runes: the wynn (ᚹ), the thorn (þ), the aesc (ᚫ), and an odd-looking eth (ð) that resembles a “y.” At the end of the alphabet, the scribe added the first words of the Lord’s Prayer in Latin (pater noster). The British Library’s digital viewer lets readers examine the image in more detail.

At the end of Harley 208, which includes copies of 91 letters by Alcuin and one by Charlemagne, the scribe wrote a line in Old English, “hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge (“Listen, for I have heard many old sagas”), which is reminiscent of line 869 in Beowulf: “eal fela eald gesegena” (“all the many old sagas”). Is the scribe suggesting that the letters are ancient tales?

A similar alphabet appears in Byrhtferð’s Enchiridion, or handbook (1011), a wide-ranging compilation of information on such subjects as astronomy, mathematics, logic, grammar, and rhetoric. However, the alphabet in the Enchiridion (Ashmole Ms. 328, Bodleian Library, Oxford), differs somewhat from the one above—the æsc rune is replaced by an ae ligature at the end.

We’ve seen several other Old English alphabets arranged in similar order. In most of them, an ampersand follows the letter “z.”  Fred C. Robinson, a Yale philologist and Old English scholar, has said the “earliest of the abecedaria is probably” the one in Harley 208 (“Syntactical Glosses in Latin Manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon Provenance,” published in Speculum, A Journal of Medieval Studies, July 1973). An “abecedarium” (plural “abecedaria”) is an alphabet written in order.

We haven’t seen any examples of the ampersand used in Old English other than in alphabets. The earliest examples we’ve found for the ampersand in actual text are in Middle English. Here’s an example from The Knight’s Tale of the Hengwrt Chaucer, circa 1400, one of the earliest manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales:

The middle line in the image reads: “hir mercy & hir grace” (“her mercy & her grace”). Here’s an expanded version of the passage: “and but i have hir mercy & hir grace, / that i may seen hire atte leeste weye / i nam but deed; ther nis namoore to seye” (“And unless I have her mercy & her grace, / So I can at least see her some way, / I am as good as dead; there is no more to say”).

Middle English writers also used the ampersand in the term “&c,” short for “et cetera.” In a 1418 will, for example, “&c” was used to avoid repeating a name: “quirtayns [curtains] of worsted … in warde of Anneys Elyngton, and … a gowne of grene frese, in ward, &c” (from The Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, edited by Frederick James Furnivall, 1882).

Although literary writers didn’t ordinarily use a symbol for “and” in early Modern English, the ampersand showed up every once in a while. For example, the character slipped into this passage from The Shepheardes Calender (1579), Edmund Spenser’s first major poem: “The blossome, which my braunch of youth did beare, / With breathed sighes is blowne away, & blasted.”

And in the 1603 First Quarto of Hamlet, Shakespeare has Hamlet telling Horatio, “O the King doth wake to night, & takes his rouse [a full cup of wine, beer, etc.].” But “and” replaces the ampersand, and the “O” disappears, in the Second Quarto (1604) and the First Folio (1623).

As for today, we see nothing wrong with using an ampersand in casual writing (we often use “Pat & Stewart” to sign our emails), but we’d recommend “and” for formal writing and noteworthy informal writing.

Nevertheless, formal use of the ampersand is common today in company names, such as AT&T, Marks & Spencer, and Ben & Jerry’s. And some authors, notably H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), have used them regularly in formal writing.

Finally, we should mention that the term “ampersand” is relatively new. Although the “&” character dates back to classical times, the noun “ampersand” didn’t show up in writing until the 18th century.

The earliest OED example for “ampersand” with its modern spelling is from a travel book written in the late 18th century. Here’s an expanded version:

“At length, having tried all the historians from great A, to ampersand, he perceives there is no escaping from the puzzle, but by selecting his own facts, forming his own conclusions, and putting a little trust in his own reason and judgment” (from Gleanings Through Wales, Holland and Westphalia, 1795, by S. J. Pratt).

The expression “from A to ampersand” (meaning from the beginning to the end, or in every particular) is an old way of saying “from A to Z.” It was especially popular in the 19th century.

As we’ve noted, the ampersand followed the letter “z” in some old abecedaria, a practice going back to Anglo-Saxon days. And when children were taught that alphabet in the late Middle Ages, they would recite the letters from “A” to “&.”

In Promptorium Parvolorum (“Storehouse for Children”), a Middle English-to-Latin dictionary written around 1440, English letters that are words by themselves, including the ampersand, are treated specially in reciting the alphabet, according to The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories (1991), edited by Frederick C. Mish.

As Mish explains, when a single letter formed a word or syllable—like “I” (the personal pronoun) or the first “i” in “iris”—it was recited as “I per se, I.”  In other words, “I by itself, I.”

“The per se spellings were used especially for the letters that were themselves words,” Mish writes. “Because the alphabet was augmented by the sign &, which followed z, there were four of these: A per se, A; I per se, I; O per se, O, and & per se, and.”

Since he “&” character was spoken as “and,” children reciting the alphabet would refer to it as “and per se, and.” That expression, Mish says, became “in slightly altered and contracted form, the standard name for the character &.” In other words, “ampersand” originated as a corruption of “and per se, and.”

The two earliest citations for “ampersand” in the OED spell it “ampuse and” (1777) and “appersiand” (1785). Various other spellings continued to appear in the 1800s—“ampus-and” (1859), “Amperzand” (1869)—before the modern version became established.

We’ll end with “The Ampersand Sonnet,” the calligrapher A. J. Fairbank’s take on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 66. In this version of the sonnet, each “and” in Shakespeare’s original is replaced by a different style of ampersand:

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Dapping in Vietnam

Q: I’m writing a piece about the origins of the fist bump in sports. The conventional wisdom is that it evolved from the dap, the elaborate greeting used by black soldiers during the Vietnam War. While doing research, I found an old story by Stewart Kellerman that may be the first written use of the term. Do you know of an earlier one?

A: As far as we can tell, the use of “dap” for the black power greeting in Vietnam did indeed show up in print for the first time in Stewart’s article, written when he was a war correspondent for United Press International. It appeared in the April 25, 1971, issue of the Pittsburgh Press and other newspapers.

In the article, “Soul Session in Vietnam,” which we’ve reproduced on our blog, Stewart writes of being invited to spend an evening with a group of militant black soldiers in an all-black hooch, or barracks. A cardboard sign taped to a wall read: “Off limits / No rabbits allowed / This area for blacks and blacks only.”

During a rap session, the GIs told Stewart that “dap” came from dep, Vietnamese for beautiful. As far as we know, that’s the earliest written indication of the term’s etymology, though a few other suggestions have appeared since then. Here’s an excerpt from the article in which both “dap” and “dapping” are used:

The blacks arrived in groups of two or three during the night. When each got there he went around the hooch doing the dap (from “dep,” the Vietnamese word for beautiful) with all the others. The intricate dap is made up of dozens of steps ranging from tapping fists to slapping chests.

Blacks say the dap is mainly used to say hello, show friendship and express brotherhood. However, some of the most commonly used gestures (the dap varies from region to region) are symbols for cutting the throats of MPs and shooting  them in the head.

Spec. 4 Gary Terrell, 23, of Birmingham, Ala., said his superiors have tried to get him to cut his hair, take off his power band and stop dapping with the brothers.

“I tell them no,” he said. “You ain’t gonna take my soul away from me, you dig. So what happens? I got every rotten job the rabbits can think of.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage as “U.S slang (originally and chiefly in African-American usage),” and defines it as a “special handshake, typically involving slapping palms, bumping fists, or snapping fingers; chiefly as a mass noun in some dap or to give (a person) dap. Also give (a person) daps.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says “dap” is of uncertain origin, but may have come from the noun “tap” or “perhaps (as suggested in Green’s Dictionary of Slang)” from the verb “dab” (to pat or tap).

The earliest Oxford citation for the term is from the publication of Stewart’s article in the May 15, 1971, issue of the Afro-American (Baltimore), a few weeks after it originally appeared: “Blacks say the dap is mainly used to say hello, show friendship and express brotherhood.”

Green’s Dictionary defines “dap” as an African-American noun or verb for “a ritualistic handshake, differing from area to area, involving much slapping of palms, snapping of fingers, etc.”

The first Green’s example is from an entry in Black Jargon in White America (1972), by David Claerbaut: “dap n. a rather sophisticated or complicated hand greeting used by many black people.”

The American Heritage Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines the term as “any of various elaborate handshakes used esp. by young black men to express solidarity or enthusiasm.” It cites the same dictionary of black jargon mentioned in Green’s.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Categories
English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Why ‘hoodwink’ means to deceive

Q: I was reading a Trollope novel (Lady Anna, 1871) and found this passage: “The Earl, however, was but a young man, likely to be taken by mere beauty; and it might be that the girl had been clever enough to hoodwink him.” Can “hoodwink” be that old? And how did it come to mean deceive?

A: The verb “hoodwink” is a lot older than that. It first appeared in the 16th century but has roots in the Old English words for “hood” and “wink,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In Anglo-Saxon days, a hood (or hod) referred to a head covering, while wincian meant to close one’s eyes.

The OED’s earliest written example for “hood” is from the Epinal Glossary, which dates from some time before 700. An entry in the glossary gives the Latin and Old English words for a head covering: “Capitium, hood.”

The first Oxford citation for wincian, which we’ve expanded here, is from Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory:

“Ac se þe agimeleasaþ ðæt he ðence, ærðæmðe he do, se stæpð forð mid ðam fotum & wincaþ mid ðæm eagum” (“But he who fails to think before acting, steps forth with his feet and winketh with [closes] his eyes”).

When the verb “hoodwink” showed up in 16th-century writing, it was used literally and meant to “cover the eyes with a hood or other covering so as to prevent vision; to blindfold,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is from an anonymous treatise on Roman Catholic masses celebrated privately: “Will you enforce women to hoodwink themselves in the church?” (from An Apologie of Priuate Masse, 1562).

In the early 17th century, “hoodwink” took on its modern figurative sense, which Oxford defines as to “blindfold mentally; to prevent (any one) from seeing the truth or fact; to ‘throw dust in the eyes’ of, deceive, humbug.”

The earliest example refers to people who deceive themselves: “Let not the faithlesse therefore hood-winck them-selues in the knowledge of nature” (from John Healey’s 1610 translation of Augustine’s The City of God, a fifth-century work entitled De Civitate Dei Contra Paganos in Latin).

Finally, here’s an OED example, which we’ve expanded, from An Essay on Waters (1756), by Charles Lucas, an Irish apothecary, physician, and politician:

“The public, though a many-headed monster, is as easily hood-winked, as if it had but one head or one eye. The multitude is as often, as sensibly, affected by artful falsehoods, as by plane truths, and frequently more so.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check outour books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

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

One of the only

Q: Are you as upset as I am over the growing use of the meaningless phrase “one of the only”? I keep seeing it used by journalists and other professional writers! Do you know how it started? I’m guessing it was coined by an advertising copywriter trying to impart exclusivity to his client’s pedestrian product.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but we see nothing wrong with “one of the only” followed by a plural noun. It’s not unusual and it’s not new either, since it’s more than 400 years old.

Perhaps you object because you think “the only” implies just one, but that’s not the case. In some constructions, “only” is used legitimately in a plural sense to mean very few.

For instance, if “only three people” know a secret, they’re “the only three people” who know it. And if Jack is among them, then he’s “one of the only three people” who know it. Nothing wrong there, either grammatically or logically.

Merriam-Webster Online, in its entry for “one of the only,” says it’s an idiom meaning “one of very few” or “one in a small class or category.”

The dictionary gives two examples: “That was one of the only times I ever saw my father cry” and “This is one of the only places in the world where the plant is found.”

M-W is the only standard dictionary with a separate entry for the phrase “one of the only.” But others include the plural sense of “only” in their definitions of the adjective (we’ve underlined the plural senses):

Cambridge: “We use only as an adjective to mean that there is just one or very few of something” … Dictionary.com: “being the single one or the relatively few of the kind” … Lexico: “Alone of its or their kind” … Webster’s New World: “alone of its or their kind; by itself or by themselves” … Macmillan: “used for showing that there are no other things or people of the same kind as the one or ones that you are mentioning” … Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “being one or more of which there exist no others of the same class or kind.”

As we mentioned, “one of the only” isn’t a recent construction. The earliest example we’ve found is from a book on exploration published in 1599:

“From thence passing many dayes trauell, I came vnto a prouince [province] called Casan, which is for good commodities, one of the onely prouinces vnder the Sunne.” From The Principal Nauigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. (The passage translates the Latin account of a Franciscan friar’s travels to the East. The friar, Odoric of Pordenone, dictated the memoir on his deathbed in 1330.)

And this example was recorded a few years later: “he was one of the only men that sought the ouerthrow of their Dominion.” From The Historie of Iustine (1606), George Wilkins’s translation of the Latin original by the Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus.

In old book and newspaper databases, we’ve found many other examples from every century since then. Here’s a smattering of examples, and as you’ll notice, “one of the only” is often followed by a number plus a plural noun:

“one of the onely three supposed to haue preached” (1633); “one of the only three honest, valuable men in England” (1770); “a piece of Roman architecture; one of the only pure pieces perhaps in England” (1772); “one of the only two genera which constitute this order” (1819); “one of the only four surviving patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence” (1820); “one of the only two candidates that have ever been seriously thought of” (1824); “one of the only two ships” (1825); “one of the only two persons on board” (1827); “one of the only three brethren who could preach to the natives” (1832).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no separate entry for “one of the only.” But the phrase appears in a few of the dictionary’s citations for other words and phrases.

This one is found in an OED entry for the noun “Clarisse,” the name of an order of nuns: “One of the only two nunneries of the Clarisses in Scotland existed at Aberdour” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1879).

And the dictionary’s entry for “static” has this: “J. H. de Magellan, writing in 1779, said that he had seen a static barometer started by Sisson (one of the only two such instruments in Europe at the time).” From English Barometers 1680-1860 (2nd ed., 1977), by Nicholas Goodison.

In short, “one of the only” has been an established usage for centuries, in literary and scientific writing as well as everyday English.

No one, as far as we can tell, objects to the phrase without “the,” as in “one of only three dissenting voices” or “one of only four survivors.” But judging from comments on the Internet, many people are bothered by the phrase with the article, whether or not a number follows, as in “one of the only three dissenting voices” or “one of the only survivors.”

However, we see nothing wrong, grammatically or logically, with those constructions. If a litter of puppies includes two girls and eight boys, there’s nothing illogical in the sentence “We reserved one of the only two females.” In other words, “Of the only two females, we reserved one.”

Of course, without “the,” that sentence would still make sense (“We reserved one of only two females”). But “the” doesn’t make it wrong or illogical. In fact, we think “the only two” is more emphatic than “only two.” The presence of the article emphasizes the smallness (or fewness) of the number of girls in the litter.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.