English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Why a ‘beef’ is a complaint 

Q: How did the word “beef” come to mean a complaint?

A: The use of “beef” in the sense of a complaint or a grievance first appeared in American English as a verb in the late 19th century and as a noun at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, the source of the usage dates back to the early 18th century when to cry “beef” in British criminal slang meant to raise an alarm, with “beef” used as rhyming slang for “thief.”

The British lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, traces the usage back to an anonymous 18th-century British dictionary of underworld slang:

“BEEF, to alarm, as To cry Beef upon us; they have discover’d us, and are in Pursuit of us” (A New Canting Dictionary, 1725). The term “cant” refers to the slang used by London’s criminals to conceal illicit activities.

In the early 19th century, “beef” came to be a short, rhyming way of saying “stop thief,” as in this example cited in Green’s:

“BEEF: stop thief! to beef a person, is to raise a hue and cry after him, in order to get him stopped” (A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, 1812, by James Hardy Vaux).

Two decades later, the expressions “stop thief” and “hot beef” were apparently confused by a police officer in this Green’s citation about the arrest of a street urchin in London:

“The policeman would not swear that the boy did not cry ‘Hot beef’ and that he might not have mistaken it for a cry of ‘Stop thief’ ” (The Morning Post, Oct. 4, 1832).

The policeman arrested the boy for shouting “stop thief” as a joke. However, the boy was released by a magistrate after testifying that he had been selling roast beef on the street and shouted “hot beef” to attract customers.

Reports of the incident in several newspapers led to the use of “hot beef” as rhyming slang for “stop thief”—on the street as well as at the theater. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is theatrical:

“There is a regular run over the stage crying ‘Hot beef! hot beef!’ (instead of ‘Stop thief!’).” From London Labour and the London Poor (1861), by Henry Mayhew.

The slang use of “beef” and “hot beef” for “stop thief” apparently paved the way for the usage you ask about—“beef” in the sense of a complaint or a grievance.

The earliest OED citation for “beef” as a verb meaning to complain is from The (New York) World, May 13, 1888: “He’ll beef an’ kick like a steer an’ let on he won’t never wear ’em.”

The first OED example for the noun is from Fables in Slang (1900) by the American humorist George Ade: “He made a Horrible Beef because he couldn’t get Loaf Sugar for his Coffee.”

The OED says Middle English borrowed the word “beef” from the Old French boef. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval romance about the life of Alexander the Great:

“To mete was greithed beef and motoun, / Bredes, briddes, and venysoun” (“To feed [them] were prepared beef and mutton, roast meats, birds, and venison”).

By the way, we published a post in 2007 on how English originally got many of its meat terms. Here’s an excerpt:

Many of our words for barnyard animals are of Anglo-Saxon origin: “calf,” “cow,” “ox,” “pig,” “hog,” “swine,” and “sheep.” But many of the words for the meat that comes from those animals are of French Norman origin: “veal,” “beef,” “pork,” and “mutton.”

No big surprise here, of course, since Anglo-Saxon peasants raised farm animals for the Norman aristocracy that ruled them. In Ivanhoe, set in the 12th century, Sir Walter Scott’s Saxons see livestock in light of farming and husbandry while his Normans see it as something to go on a platter.

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How ‘chintz’ became ‘chintzy’

Q: I assume “chintzy” (gaudy, cheap, trashy) is derived from “chintz” (the multicolored cotton fabric). But chintz isn’t necessarily gaudy, cheap, or trashy. How did “chintzy” get its negative sense?

A: You’re right that the adjective “chintzy” comes from the name of the usually glazed printed cotton fabric known as “chintz,” which isn’t particularly inexpensive or garish.

The adjective got its negative sense in the mid-19th century when British textile factories were making cheap imitations of the original handmade chintz from India.

English borrowed the noun “chintz” in the early 17th century from Hindi, where छींट (chint) referred to the fabric. The Indian term comes from चित्र (chitra), Sanskrit for spotted or variegated.

The earliest English example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a list of trade goods in a collection of stories by sailors about their travels:

“Callicoes white and coloured” and “Pintados [floral cottons], Chints and Chadors.” From Purchas His Pilgrimage (1614), stories collected by the Anglican clergyman Samuel Purchas.

(Interestingly, the mention of “Cublai Can” and his palace at “Xamdu” in a 1625 edition of Purchas His Pilgrimage inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” according to the website of the British Library.)

The next OED citation for “chintz” is from an entry for Sept. 5, 1663, in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Bought my wife a Chinke; that is, a paynted Indian Callico for to line her new Study.”

The first Oxford example with the modern “chintz” spelling appeared about a century later: “Japan wares, calicoes, chintz, muslins, silks” (from The History of America, 1783, by the Scottish historian William Robertson).

The adjective “chintzy” began appearing in the 19th century, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED defines it as “decorated or covered with chintz; suggestive of a pattern in chintz.” And in extended use, the dictionary says, it means “suburban, unfashionable, petit-bourgeois, cheap; mean, stingy.”

The earliest Oxford citation for “chintzy” is from a Sept. 18, 1851, letter by George Eliot, pen name of Mary Ann Evans, to her half-sister Fanny Evans Houghton.

In this expanded version of the citation, Eliot is apparently using “chintzy” in the extended sense of unfashionable when she asks Fanny to choose a fabric for her:

“I should like a muslin with a more prevailing hue. The quality of the spotted one is the best, but the effect is chintzy and would be unbecoming. The one with the reddish flowers would have a better effect but the quality is not so good. I am sure you can judge what I want. If among the new ones, Bailey has a muslin with flounces, having a certain tone of colour not yellow or pink—in fact such an one as I know you would like—pray choose. I want poor old Mrs. West to make it while I am here, so I shall be glad to have it soon. Do not be anxious about it as it can be exchanged if unsuitable.”

So how did “chintzy,” an adjective derived from “chintz,” a luxurious hand-painted or hand-printed fabric from India, get this negative sense?

Sarah Fee, editor of Cloth That Changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz (2020), says “chintzy” appeared at a time when “Britain’s factories had flooded world markets with cheap imitations of chintz.”

Fee, a senior curator of fashion and textiles at the Royal Ontario Museum, says the industrial imitations made the fabric “widely available to the masses, disassociating any original connotation of luxury.”

She made her comments on websites of the BBC and ROM. Here’s  an image from the BBC page of a palampore (a wall or bed hanging) made in southeast India for the Western market, around 1720-1740:

Finally, we should mention that “cheetah,” the name of the large, spotted cat, comes from चीता (cita), Hindi for the cat, and चित्र (citra), Sanskrit for spotted or variegated.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Is this ‘which’ dead?

Q: I’m curious about this use of “which” in a US Supreme Court opinion from April 30, 1934: “Upon the submission of the cause the appellant made a motion to amend its assignments of error, which motion is now granted.”  I assume “which” is used here to avoid ambiguity. Why isn’t it used that way now?

A: Yes, the relative adjective “which” is being used in that opinion (Dayton Power & Light Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of Ohio) to avoid ambiguity. Although the usage isn’t seen much these days, it does show up at times.

This more recent example is from an April 7, 2020, resolution by the Louisville, CO, City Council on holding electronic hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic under rules set by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment:

“Whereas, also on March 25, 2020, the CDPHE issued an Amended Public Health Order 20-24 Implementing Stay at Home Requirements, which Order has since been updated twice.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “which” here is a “relative adjective, introducing a clause and modifying a noun referring to (and esp.) summing up the details of the antecedent in the preceding clause or sentence.”

The usage dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, when “which” (spelled huælchuelchwilc, etc.) was originally part of a prepositional phase that modified a noun.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a forged writ composed in the 12th century that purports to be King Edward the Confessor’s recognition of gifts by Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Lady Godgifu (Godiva) to build a monastery in Coventry in the 11th century:

“For uræ Drihten on larspelle þuss cweþ, Gestrynaþ eow sylfum mid ælmesdædum madme hord on heofonan and wunnunge mid ænglum. For hwilcæ neodlicum þingan icc cyþe eow eallum þæt icc ann mid fulre unne þæt þa ilce gyfe þæt Leofric eorl 7 Godgyfu habbað gegiuen Criste.”

(“For our Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Enrich yourselves with almsgiving, gain a treasure in heaven and a home with the angels.’ For which matter, it is necessary that I make known to you all that I confirm with full consent the gift that Earl Leofric and Godiva have given to Christ in the same way.”)

The OED’s first citation for “which” used similarly by itself, as in your example, is from Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession, circa 1390), a Middle English poem by John Gower. Here’s an expanded version:

“So sit it wel to taken hiede / And forto loke on every side, / Er that thou falle in homicide, / Which Senne is now so general, / That it welnyh stant overal, / In holi cherche and elles where.”

(“So it is well to take heed / And to look on every side, / Ere that you descend to homicide, / Which sin is now so general, / That it well nigh stands over all, / In holy church and elsewhere.”)

We don’t know why this usage is seen less often now, but English speakers have other ways to clarify a sentence like the one you cite.

Here, for example, is a somewhat less lawyerly phrasing of that Supreme Court opinion: “The motion of the appellant to amend its assignments of error is now granted.”

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On ‘cul de sac’ and ‘dead end’

Q: I’m curious if/when “dead end” replaced “cul de sac” as a street with an entrance but no outlet. Is this traditionally an American usage?

A: No, “dead end” is not an Americanized version of “cul-de-sac.” In the US as well as the UK, either term can refer to a street that’s closed at one end.

When the two expressions first appeared in English, “dead end” was a plumbing term for the closed end of a pipe, while “cul-de-sac” was an anatomical term for a pouch branching off a hollow organ like an intestine. Each term later developed the sense of a street with no outlet.

English borrowed the oldest of the two terms, “cul de sac,” from French, where it meant “bottom of a sack” literally and “street without exit” figuratively.

The English usage first appeared in an 18th-century medical treatise, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In this passage, it describes an abnormal pouch, or diverticulum, near where the colon joins the abdominal wall:

“An Infundibuliform [funnel-shaped] Cul de Sac or Thimble-like cavity” (from “Miscellaneous Remarks on the Intestines,” by Alexander Monro, in Medical Essays and Observations, 1738).

In the early 19th century, the term took on the sense of “a street, lane, or passage closed at one end, a blind alley; a place having no outlet except by the entrance,” the OED says.

However, the earliest OED example uses the term figuratively in describing the difficulty of sending a diplomatic letter by courier from Palermo:

“This is such a cul de sac that it would (be) ridiculous to attempt sending you any news. Perhaps, indeed, from Malta you might receive it as fresh from hence as any other place” (from a letter written May 10, 1800, by Sir Arthur Paget to Sir Charles Whitworth, and published in The Paget Papers, 1896, edited by Sir Augustus Paget).

The first Oxford citation for the street sense is from an April 19, 1828, entry in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott (1941), edited by John Guthrie Tate: “Coming home, an Irish coachman drove us into a cul de sac, near Battersea Bridge.”

(Although cul de sac can still mean a dead-end street in French, the more common terms are impasse and voie sans issue.)

The expression “dead end” showed up two decades later, in the mid-19th century. The OED defines it as “a closed end of a water-pipe, passage, etc., through which there is no way.”

The earliest examples we’ve found are in an 1851 report to the General Board of Health in London on the sewers, drains, and water supples of Halifax in Yorkshire.

The term is used here in a description of a drain: “No. 6 a branches from No. 6 at the upper end of the bridge, and passes by the churchyard, where it terminates in a dead end.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries “dead end” developed several figurative senses, such as a policy, plan, or road that leads nowhere.

The earliest figurative example we’ve seen is from an anonymous 1874 pamphlet, “A Voice From the Signal Box: or Railway Accidents and Their Causes,” by “a Signalman.”

The author suggests that the trains of engine drivers who ignore signals at dangerous junctions should be forced “into a dead end, blocked up with ballast, and interlocked with the main line signals.”

The earliest roadway example we’ve found refers to the end of a road: “Franklin street from Washington avenue south to dead end” (from a March 27, 1901, Philadelphia ordinance to repave several roads).

Finally, “dead end” here refers to an entire road: “Cannon Street is a dead end—it don’t lead nowhere” (from “An Eddy of War,” a short story by Charles Vickers and Ernest Swinton in Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1907).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Writing

On jays and jaywalkers

Q: I assume the “jay” in “jaywalk” is derived from the bird so named, though I have never seen a jay cross a street, properly or otherwise. How did “jay” plus “walk” come to mean crossing a street unlawfully?

A: The “jay” of “jaywalk” can be traced to the common name of the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius), but the word “jay” itself was originally a surname when it appeared in Middle English in the late 12th century.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the English surname, which ultimately comes from gaius, Late Latin for a jay, is “probably echoic of the bird’s harsh warning cry and supposedly influenced by Latin Gaius, a common Roman proper name.”

The English surname is spelled “iai” in the earliest example we’ve found: “Peter le iai.” From an 1195 entry in the Exchequer’s Pipe Rolls, or financial records, for Cambridgeshire;  cited in A Dictionary of English Surnames (3d ed., 1991), by P. H. Reaney and R. M. Wilson.

(The letter “j” didn’t become established in English until the 17th century, though it had been used earlier in place of “i” at the end of a numeral.)

In early 14th-century writing, the Middle English term was used for the Eurasian jay, a noisy and colorful bird common in Britain. The bird’s genus name (Garrulus) is Latin for garrulous; its species name (glandarius) refers to the acorns eaten or buried by the jay.

The OED’s earliest avian citation for “jay,” which we’ve expanded, is from the Harley Lyrics, a collection of religious and secular lyrics dated sometime before 1350. In this passage a jolly woman is compared to the garrulous jay:

“heo is dereworþe in day / graciouse stout ant gay / ientil iolyf so þe iay” (“She is precious in the day / gracious stately and gay / gentle jolly as the jay”).

Over the next few centuries, the use of the term “jay” widened to include many other noisy and colorful birds, such as the grey jay, green jay, Canada jay, blue jay, and so on.

Meanwhile, the OED says, figurative uses came along, and the term took on such senses as “an impertinent chatterer,” “a showy or flashy woman,” “a person absurdly dressed,” and “a stupid or silly person.”

The sense of stupid or silly, the dictionary adds, ultimately led to the use of “jay” in “jaywalker,” originally a rustic who didn’t know the proper way to cross a street. However, it took four centuries for that usage to arrive.

The first Oxford citation for “jay” used to mean a silly or stupid person is from A Goodly Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell (1523), a poem by John Skelton. In this excerpt, it refers to people who complain about things they can’t change:

“For the gyse [guise, or fashion] now adays / Of sum iangelyng iays [jangling, or babbling, jays] / Is to discommende / What they cannot amende.”

In the late 19th century, the noun “jay” came to mean “a stupid, gullible, or contemptible fellow; (also) a rustic; greenhorn” in the US, according to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Jonathan Lighter.

The first Random House citation is a pun on the name of the financier Jay Gould, who tried to corner the market in gold: “They said he was a Jay. If he was such a Jay how did he get all the Gould?” (From Stump Speaker, 1884, by Hughey Dougherty.)

In the early 20th century, the terms “jay driver” and “jay walker” appeared in reference to people who drove on the wrong side of a street or walked on the wrong side of a sidewalk, according to a standard dictionary, Merriam-Webster.

M-W cites examples from Midwestern newspapers for both usages. Here’s an example from an article, headlined “The Jay Driver,” in the Junction City (KS) Union, June 28, 1905:

“Stop at the corner of any well traveled street in the business part of the city and see how many know how to drive—that is to keep to the right hand side of the street—and you will be astonished at the number who don’t know that this is the right way to do or who are careless in regard to the matter.”

And here’s a pedestrian example from an article, entitled “Now the ‘Jay Walker,’ ” in the Kansas City (MO) Star, Oct. 20, 1905: “Much annoyance would be obviated if people when meeting others going in the opposite direction would keep to the right and avoid collisions and being called a ‘jay walker.’ ”

Merriam-Webster adds that it’s “unclear why jaywalker shifted its meaning and survived for more than a hundred years now, while jay-driver languishes in obscurity.”

The OED says “jaywalker” now means “a pedestrian who crosses a street without regard to traffic regulations.” The dictionary’s first citation for this sense, which we’ve expanded, is from the June 1917 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

“The Bostonian, supposedly sesquipedalian of speech, has reduced ‘a pedestrian who crosses streets in disregard of traffic signals’ to the compact jaywalker.”

However, we’ve found this earlier example for “jaywalking” used similarly in the Abilene (TX) Daily Reporter, July 13, 1914:

“Down in Ft. Worth the city authorities have been working on a new traffic law for some time and have at last concluded their labors and on next Saturday the new law will become effective. What is known as jaywalking, crossing streets anywhere, will be prohibited.”

As for the verb “jaywalk,” the earliest example we’ve seen for it used in the sense of crossing a street improperly is from the Dec. 25, 1913, issue of Motor World, a trade magazine:

“Efforts to regulate the pedestrian in Peoria, Ill.—one of the first efforts of the sort in this country—failed miserably. When last week the wise and solemn city fathers considered a new ordinance, which, among other things, provided that ‘any pedestrian crossing street intersections at other than right angles to the sidewalks’ would be declared violating the law, they promptly eliminated the provision. The Peoria pedestrian, therefore, is free to ‘jaywalk’ to his heart’s content.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Every man and every woman

Q: When you use “every” multiple times in a sentence, do the subjects still take a singular verb? For example, “Every man and every woman is/are entitled to fair pay.” The singular seems right, but can you help me understand why?

A: You can use either a singular or a plural verb when “every” appears one or more times in a compound subject joined by “and,” but the singular usage is more common.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “When every modifies two or more nouns joined by and, there is mixed usage, at least, in part, because of the rule that compound subjects joined by and are both grammatically and notionally plural.”

However, “every,” the usage guide adds, “tends to emphasize each noun separately,” and “our evidence shows that the singular verb is more common.”

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, agrees that when “every modifies two or more nouns joined by and, the verb should, technically, be plural, according to the notion that compound subjects conjoined by and are plural.”

But “the more common pattern is for the verb to be singular,” Fowler’s says. “The principle at work presumably is that the verb agrees in number with the last stated subject.”

An example from Fowler’s: “Every shot, every colour, every prop, and every costume tells its own story” (Oxford English Corpus, 2001).

We’ll add that a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books, indicates that the singular usage is much more common.

(Ngram Viewer doesn’t compare phrases longer than five words, so one “every” modifies two nouns in our searches: “every man and woman is” versus “every man and woman are.”)

As for the history of the usage, Merriam-Webster’s says “the possibility of nouns joined by and being considered individually and thus taking a singular verb has been recognized as early as Lowth 1762.”

We found this passage in A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), by Robert Lowth: “But sometimes, after an enumeration of particulars thus connected, the Verb follows in the Singular Number; and is understood as applied to each of the preceding terms.”

The use of singular verbs with “every” compounds was well established long before Lowth’s grammar book. Here’s an example from the late 17th century:

“So every man and every woman is to seek God for themselves; for he hath promised to be found of them that seek, him in uprightness of heart” (Truth Held Forth and Maintained According to the Testimony of the Holy Prophets, Christ and His Apostles Recorded in the Holy Scriptures, 1695, by Thomas Mall).

And here’s a much earlier plural example from a treatise by an English Roman Catholic priest who became an anti-Catholic writer:

“By popish doctrine every man and every woman of lawfull yeeres, are bound vnder paine of damnation, to the said confession” (from Thomas Bels Motiues Concerning Romish Faith and Religion, 1593, by Thomas Bell).

We’ll end with recent examples of the singular and plural usages from the Irish novelist John Banville and the Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan:

“As Nietzsche said, every man and every woman is an artist when he or she sleeps—we make up worlds” (Banville, speaking at the Dalkey Book Festival, June 18, 2022).

“Every man and every woman are their own Rosebud, and the web can’t hide it” (O’Hagan, writing in The Guardian, June 17, 2017).

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A double-edged sword

Q: How did the expression “double-edged sword” come to mean something that has both positive and negative results?

A: The expression ultimately comes from the use of “two-edged sword” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin versions of the Bible to mean something very sharp, like a weapon or piercing words.

Here are a few examples we’ve found for “two-edged sword” in Hebrew (חרב פיפיות), Greek (μαχαιρας διστομου), and Latin (gladio ancipiti) from the Old and New Testaments:

• “רוממות אל בגרונם וחרב פיפיות בידם” (“Praise of God in their mouths and a two-edged sword in their hand”). From the 10th-century Aleppo Codex of the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 149:6 (thought to have originated around 1000 BCE).

• “υστερον μεντοι πικροτερον χολης ευρησεις και ηκονημενον μαλλον μαχαιρας διστομου” (“Later however you will find her [an immoral woman] more bitter than gall and sharper than a two-edged sword”). From the Septuagint, Proverbs 5:4, believed translated in the second century BCE.

• “vivus est enim Dei sermo et efficax et penetrabilior omni gladio ancipiti” (“for the word of God is living and powerful and more penetrating than any two-edged sword”). From the Vulgate, Epistle to the Hebrews 4:12, dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries of the Common Era.

(The medieval Jewish scholar Rashi [1040-1105] interprets Psalm 149:6 figuratively in the first example above: “With paeans to God in their throats, and these same are like two-edged swords in their hands.” Rashi’s Commentary on the Psalms, 2004, translated by Mayer I. Gruber.)

Why is the expression “two-edged sword” used in the Bible to describe the word of God? Perhaps because the Hebrew noun for “edge” here, פה, can also mean “mouth,” among other things.

The plural of פה is פיות (“edges” or “mouths”) and the construct state, or genitive, is פיפיות (“of edges” or “of mouths”). So חרב פיפיות (“a sword of edges,” usually translated as “two-edged sword”) could also mean “a sword of mouths”—that is, a source of sharp words.

Similarly, when the phrase “two-edged sword” first appeared in English, it was used to describe the word of God. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Hebrews 4:12 in William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the New Testament:

“For the worde of god is quycke and myghty in operacion and sharper then eny two edged swearde.”

As far as we can tell, the sense of “two-edged sword” as something with both good and bad consequences appeared a few decades later.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an English translation of a Latin sermon about the Apocalypse by the Swiss pastor, reformer, and theologian Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75):

“For a sharpe two edged sworde commeth out of the Lordes mouth. This swearde is the worde of God … And it is two edged, sharpe and pearsing, as well as in the heart of the Godly unto saluation, as well as in the heartes of the wycked to payne and condemnation.” (From A Hundred Sermons Vpo[n] the Apocalips of Iesu Christe, 1561, John Daus’s translation of Bullinger’s sermons.)

Getting back to “double-edged sword,” the usual wording now, the expression is used literally for an actual weapon in the earliest example we’ve found:

“And in their mouths let be the actes of God the mighty Lord / And in their hands let them beare a double edged sword” (Psalms 149:6, The Whole Books of Psalmes, 1581, by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins, and others).

The first example we’ve found with the phrase used figuratively in its good-bad sense is from a sermon that says the Gospel has both “the power of God to salvation” and “the power of God to confusion”:

“It is a double-edged Sword, and giues, vel vitamvel vinditam, either instruction, or destruction” (from A Divine Herball Together With a Forrest of Thornes in Five Sermons, 1616, by the English clergyman Thomas Adams).

As for the ultimate origin of the “good/bad” sense of “double-edged sword,” suggests that it “seems to be based on an idea that a sword with two edges poses a danger of bouncing back and cutting its own wielder.” However, we’ve seen no evidence to support this idea.

We’ve also seen no evidence that the English expression is ultimately derived from the Arabic term for a two-edged sword, سلاح ذو حدين, as suggested by the collaborative dictionary Wiktionary.

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why ‘beggar’ isn’t spelled ‘begger’

Q: Is there any particular reason that “beggar” is spelled with an “-ar” suffix instead of an “-er” or an “-or”?

A: The word “beggar” used to be spelled with an “-er” suffix. That was the usual spelling for centuries after the word was first recorded in Middle English in the late 12th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary says, “the spelling in -ar has been occasional from 14th cent.,” but the “-er” suffix was still “the usual form in 15-17th cent., as an ordinary agent-noun.”

An agent noun, one denoting the performer of an action (like “painter” or “actor”), usually ends in “-er” or “-or,” but the suffix “-ar” may appear in words influenced by their Latin or French forms.

As the OED explains, English agent nouns with an “-ar” suffix generally “show a remodelling or replacement of an earlier form in -er from Old French -ier, either after Latin (compare e.g. bursar n.medlar n., or mortar n.1), or after a corresponding French form in –aire (compare e.g. vicar n. and vicary n.1).”

Interestingly, the earliest Oxford example for the usage doesn’t end in “-er,” “-ar,” or “-or.” In the citation, a beggares is a woman who begs:

“Hit is beggares rihte uorte beren bagge on bac” (“It is right [for the] beggaress to carry a bag on [her] back”). From Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200.

The dictionary’s next example ends in an “-ere” suffix: “Þu wenest I beo a beggere” (“You think I am a beggar”). From King Horn, an anonymous Middle English romance written sometime before 1300.

And here’s an “-er” example from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “nedi and begger there shal not be among ȝow” (“there shall not be a needy man or a beggar among you”). Deuteronomy 15:4.

The earliest OED citation with the modern spelling “beggar” appeared in the late 14th century: “And now me bus [I must], as a beggar, my bred for to thigge [beg].” From an anonymous Middle English translation, dated sometime before 1400, of the Italian writer Guido delle Colonna’s Latin Historia Destructionis Troiae.

Despite that early appearance of “beggar,” the old form “begger” continued to be seen for hundreds of years.

Oxford has this biblical example, which we’ve expanded, from the King James Version of 1611: “And there was a certaine begger named Lazarus, which was layde at his gate full of sores” (Luke 16:20).

And here’s an expanded OED citation from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, believed written around the same time: “They will not giue a doit [a trivial sum] to relieue a lame Begger.” The reference is to an old Dutch copper coin, the duit.

Similar nouns ending in “-ar” today, besides “beggar,” “bursar,” and “vicar,” include “scholar,” “registrar,” “liar,” “burglar,” and “friar.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

How special is ‘especially’?

Q: The adjective “special” becomes “especially” when used as an adverb. Why isn’t it “specially”? Have any other words had a similar historical development?

A: Both “special” and “especial” have been adjectives in English for hundreds of years. Likewise, “specially” and “especially” have been adverbs nearly as long.

The words are ultimately derived from specialis, a Latin adjective referring to a particular species or something special as opposed to general, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

English borrowed “special” from Anglo-Norman, where speciall had the original Latin meaning of something specific. It borrowed “especial” from Old French, where the word had developed a secondary sense of preeminent or important.

In English, “special” is generally preferred in uses related to the original Latin sense, while “especial” is mainly used in the secondary Old French sense.

As the OED explains, “the two forms especial and special differ materially in use; the latter (owing perhaps to its closer relation to the Latin etymon) is preferred in applications arising proximately from the primary sense, while the former is chiefly confined to the derivative sense. The distinction is still more marked in the adverbs especiallyspecially.”

When the adjective “special,” the oldest of the English terms, appeared in writing in the late 12th century, it meant “having a close or exclusive connection with a specified person, thing, or set; own, particular, individual,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:

“Nule ich naut þet ani seo ow bute leaue habbe of ouwer special meister” (“I do not want anyone to see you unless he has leave of your special master”).

When “especial” showed up in the late 14th century, the OED says, it meant “pre-eminent, exceptionally distinguished,” and now chiefly refers to “feelings, qualities, or attributes.”

The first Oxford example is from Chaucer’s “Tale of Melibeus” in The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386). In this passage, Prudence, the wife of Melibeus, advises him on how to deal with his enemies:

“First schul ye clepe to youre counseil a fewe of youre frendes that ben especial” (“First you shall call to your council a few of your friends that are especial [particularly esteemed]”).

When “specially,” the first of the adverbs, appeared in Middle English, it meant “for a special purpose,” according to the OED. The first Oxford citation is from The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history, written sometime before 1300.

In this passage, the King of Germany appeals to King John of England to accept being overruled by the Pope in a dispute over the choice for a new Archbishop of Canterbury:

“Þe king of alimayne sende specialliche inou to king Ion þat he wiþdrowe him of is wou” (“The king of Germany sent [a message] especially to King John to forget his wound”).

When the adverb “especially” showed up a century later, the OED says, it meant “in an especial manner; principally, chiefly.” The earliest example, which we’ve expanded here, is from The Chester Whitsun Plays, circa 1400:

“Sybbell, I praye thee especiallye, / By signe thou woulde me certiffye, / What tyme that lorde so royallye, / To raigne he shal begyne” (“Sibyl, I pray to thee especially to tell me with a sign what time the lord so royally shall begin to reign”).

Getting back to your question, English is a Germanic language that has many borrowings from non-Germanic languages. The major source of these loanwords is Latin, either directly or indirectly by way of French.

And as we’ve noted above, the two etymological sources of “special,” “especial,” “specially,” and “especially” are Latin and French. In other words, they evolved much like many other English words.

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

Steal a march

Q: I was wondering how the expression “steal a march” came to mean get an advantage over somebody.

A: When the verb “steal” first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times it had the word’s usual modern meaning—to take something dishonestly, especially in secret.

That sense of acting secretly led to the use of the expression “steal a march” in the 18th century to mean get a secret advantage over a rival. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original sense of the verb as “to take away dishonestly (portable property, cattle, etc., belonging to another); esp. to do this secretly or unobserved by the owner or the person in charge.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the Benedictine Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham’s loose Old English translation, circa 1000, of Genesis in the Latin Vulgate:

“þæt feoh, pe we fundon on ure saccum, we læddon to þe of Chanaan lande. wenst þu, þæt we þines hlafordes gold oððe his seolfor stælon” (“That money, which we found in our sack, we brought to thee out of the land of Canaan. Think thou that we should steal thy lord’s gold or his silver?”). Genesis 44:8.

The verb “steal” has had many related meanings over the years, as in to steal happiness (circa 1374), steal a kiss (1390), steal writing (1544), steal a heart (1587), and steal a glance (1794).

The expression “steal a march” was originally used in a military sense, meaning to “succeed in moving troops without the knowledge of the enemy,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a letter dated March 27, 1716, by the Town Council of Edinburgh in praise of the Duke of Argyll, commander of British forces in Scotland during the Jacobite uprising of 1715:

“We saw him with incredible celerity steal a march for our preservation; And when, by his surprising Expedition he had chas’d the enemy from our gates.”

The OED says the expression soon came to be used more generally to mean “to get a secret advantage over a rival or opponent.” In this example, which we’ve also expanded, it refers to one theater company’s getting an advantage over another:

“After we had stolen some few Days March upon them, the forces of Betterton came up with us in terrible order.” (From An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, 1740, by Cibber, an actor and theater manager, as was Thomas Betterton.)

The dictionary’s next example is from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), by Tobias Smollett. In this expanded citation from the novel, the husband-hunting Tabitha Bramble tries to get a jump on her niece Lydia Melford:

“You must know, she yesterday wanted to steal a march of poor Liddy, and went to breakfast in the Room without any other companion than her dog, in expectation of meeting with the Baronet.”

We’ll end with an example from “The Oblong Box” (1844), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe: “He evidently intended to steal a march upon me, and smuggle a fine picture to New York, under my very nose.”

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

Bobby pins, bobby socks, and bobbies

Q: What is the origin of the “bobby” in “bobby pins”? Is it related to the one in “bobby socks” or the “bobby” walking a beat in London?

A: The “bobby” in “bobby pins” and “bobby socks” (or “sox”) is believed to come from the use of “bob” and “bobbed” in reference to something shortened.

“Bobby pins” originally referred to sprung pins used with bobbed hair, while “bobby socks” referred to ankle socks, presumably because they were a shortened, or bobbed, version of knee socks.

The slang term for a police officer is understood to come from the given name of Robert Peel, who was England’s Home Secretary when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed in the early 19th century. In fact, bobbies are also called “peelers.”

As for the etymology, the noun “bob” first appeared in Middle English when it meant a bunch of leaves, flowers, fruit, and so on, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a chivalric romance written in the late 1300s:

“Bot in his on honde he hade a holyn bobbe, Þat is grattest in grene when greuez ar bare” (“But in one hand he held a bunch of holly, that is greatest in green when groves are bare”).

That early sense of “bob” evolved over the centuries to mean, among other things, bobbed hair.

In the 17th century, the OED says, it referred to “a knot or bunch of hair such as that in which women sometimes do up their back hair.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation refers to a wig with “the side or bottom locks turned up into Bobs or Knots, tied up with Ribbons” (from The Academy of Armory, 1688, by Randle Holme).

In the 18th century, “bob” came to mean “a horse’s tail docked short; a short knob-like tail.” The first Oxford example refers to “a high bob unusual in Horses” (The London Gazette, Dec. 1, 1711).

A century later, the OED says, the verb “bob” took on the sense of “to dock, cut short (a horse’s tail, etc.).” The dictionary cites this 1822 example describing feral horses:

“Two of them must have been in Hands [domesticated], as their tails were Bobed short” (from The Journal of Jacob Fowler, edited by Elliott Coues and published in 1898).

In the early 20th century, the noun “bob” took on the modern sense of “a style of cutting women’s hair short and even all round,” as well as “hair cut in this way,” the OED says.

The OED’s earliest citation is from The Silver Spoon (1926), one of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte novels: “Her hair, again in its more natural ‘bob’, gleamed lustrously under the light.”

Getting back to your question, Oxford defines a “bobby pin” as “a kind of sprung hair-pin or small clip, originally for use with bobbed hair.” It says the etymology is uncertain, but points readers to the verb for docking a horse’s tail.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a newspaper in Nyack, NY: “Her locks have just reached that trying length that require the existence of a ‘bobby pin’ ” (Rockland County Evening Journal, Oct. 2, 1928).

The OED’s first citation is from a novel published a few years later: “She wondered whether she had lost all the bobby-pins from her marcelled hair” (If I Have Four Apples, 1936, by Josephine Lawrence).

As for “bobby socks,” the OED defines them as “socks reaching just above the ankle, esp. those worn by girls in their teens.” It describes the etymology as uncertain, but again points readers to the verb for docking a horse’s tail.

The earliest example we’ve found is from a California newspaper: “Any bobby socks around school all week?” (from “The Hatchet,” a column about La Habra Grammar Schools in La Habra Star, May 29, 1929).

Oxford’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, describes the scene at a Frank Sinatra concert: “In CBS’s Manhattan playhouse, at the Paramount, at the Lucky Strike Hit Parade, hundreds of little long-haired, round-faced girls in bobby socks sat transfixed” (Time magazine, July 26, 1943).

Finally, we come to the constabulary “bobby.” Oxford defines it as “a slang nickname for a policeman” that’s “probably in allusion to the name of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Robert Peel, who was Home Secretary when the new Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1828.”

The dictionary’s first example, which we’ve expanded, is from testimony in a burglary case tried June 10, 1844, at the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court:

“I heard her say something, but could not understand what it was exactly—I could not understand whether it was ‘a crush’ or ‘a bobby’—I cannot swear that I heard any words of that kind—I heard her say something—it was a signal to let them know a policeman was coming” (from Old Bailey Proceedings Online).

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English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

‘Pit road’ or ‘pit row’?

Q: Lately I have noticed some news items using the term “pit road.” Even Nascar uses it on Twitter. I’m in my 80s and have always thought the area where race cars are serviced at the track is called “pit row.” Am I wrong?

A: As far as we can tell, the motor-racing terms “pit road” and “pit row” showed up in writing around the same time in the early 1960s.

The earliest example we’ve found for “pit road” is from a report that appeared June 3, 1963, in The San Bernardino Sun in California about a race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina:

“The crowd of 55,000 already was on its feet as [Junior] Johnson came out of the third turn to complete the 397th lap. Suddenly, his racer swerved noticeably and lost its speed. The left rear tire was in shreds as he came into the pit road, where his alert crew put on a new one.”

And the earliest written example we’ve seen for “pit row” is from the July 3, 1964, issue of the same newspaper:

“ ‘He was the greatest.’ That was the accolade heard most along pit row yesterday as Daytona International Speedway prepared to run its Firecracker 400 stock car race—one of the favorite events of Glenn (Fireball) Roberts. Roberts, of Daytona Beach, died in a Charlotte [NC] hospital early yesterday of complications from burns he received in a three-car pile-up there May 24.”

The two terms may have appeared earlier in motor-sports magazines, but we couldn’t find any older examples in the racing magazine archives we were able to search.

As for present usage, “pit road” is more popular than “pit row,” according to a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks terms in digitized books.

The gap is even wider in searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present. The results: “pit road,” 2,976 hits, versus “pit row,” 166.

However, the Ngram and NOW corpus results may be a bit off because some streets, especially in rural areas, have names like “Sand Pit Road” and “Gravel Pit Road.”

Interestingly, we couldn’t find either “pit road” or “pit row” in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, doesn’t have an entry for “pit row” either, and its first definition of “pit road” is “any of the network of passages in a coal mine.”

The OED adds a second sense of “pit road” as a variant of “pit lane,” the usual racing term in the UK for “a side road parallel to a course which leads into and out of the pits.”

The earliest written example we’ve seen for “pit lane” is from an article in the April 2, 1956, issue of Sports Illustrated about a race at the Sebring International Raceway in Florida:

“After five laps, the [Mike] Hawthorn Jaguar came roaring back up the pit lane.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Writing

Rhetorically speaking

Q: My wife (not a native English speaker) gets irked when I (native Canadian English speaker) start a question with “Why don’t you.” She finds it rude, a way of saying she isn’t doing something she should be. Am I being rude?

A: No, you’re not being rude. English speakers often use the idiomatic “Why don’t you” to introduce a proposal or a helpful suggestion in the form of a rhetorical question.

It’s not a criticism, but might sound that way to someone who hasn’t heard it from childhood.

The two of us, a married couple, often use it ourselves:  “Why don’t you look under the bed or in the closet?” … “Why don’t you pick up the dry-cleaning on your way?”

This device is also used with “I” or “we,” as in “Why don’t I lift that for you?” … “Why don’t we order pizza and watch a movie?” The same suggestions might be made with “Let me” instead of “Why don’t I” and “Let’s”  instead of “Why don’t we.”

Again, these are rhetorical questions, not real questions. They’re ways of suggesting or proposing something in an indirect way.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “Why don’t you” as an idiom that’s “used to make a suggestion.” The dictionary illustrates with “Why don’t you come with us?”

In explaining this usage, the Oxford English Dictionary says the adverb “why” is used “with the negative form of the simple present tense in formulating a positive suggestion, as ‘why don’t I (we, etc.) …?’ ”

We’ve found examples dating from the early 17th century, before the contraction “don’t” became common and the idiom was “why do you not.”

This passage, for instance, is from a moral dialogue published in 1608: “Why do you not now take your plesure & ease, and feast, and be merrie with your friends? This you may do now, nothing hindreth you” (A Warning for Worldlings, by Jeremy Corderoy).

Contracted “don’t” examples of the expression date from the 1660s onward. The earliest we’ve found are from Restoration comedies.

In John Tatham’s Knavery in All Trades, or, The Coffee-House (1664), a wife suggests to her husband, “Why don’t you come to bed?”

And in another 1664 comedy, one lady advises another about a young lord she might seduce: “Why don’t you try Lonzartes?” (Pandora, by Sir William Killigrew).

The usage has been fairly common ever since. The OED’s most recent example is from a British thriller set in the 1930s: “Why don’t I stop by her compartment … and see how she is?” (Richard Doyle’s Havana Special, 1982).

Your wife is correct in thinking that some rhetorical questions beginning with “Why don’t you” are not meant to be kindly or helpful. “Why don’t you get lost?” is another way of saying, “Get lost!” The same is true of “Why don’t you mind your own business?” and “Why don’t you shut up?”

Context is everything!

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

‘Which, yeah. Whatever.’

Q: Have you noticed that “which” is now being used as a conjunction, as in “The Fed raised interest rates again, which I’m not sure if it’s a good idea”? And no, I don’t mean “which I’m not sure is a good idea,” a usage you referred to in a recent post.

A: The use of “which” as a conjunction has been around a lot longer than you think, but only one of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult has an entry for it.

Merriam-Webster says the conjunction is “an introductory particle” used “before a word or phrase that is a reaction to or commentary on the previous clause.” The usage is labeled “informal” (used in speech and casual writing, though not nonstandard).

M-W has an example similar to yours: “This morning we have the monthly jobs report, which who knows if it will meet or beat expectations.”

In that example, “which” precedes a clause. In M-W’s other two examples, it precedes a word or a phrase that stands in for a clause:

“I have a very big reputation in Vancouver for being a sore loser, which, fair enough.”

“The remains had initially been misidentified as those of an ‘enormous, possibly human-eating eagle,’ which … yikes.”

The dictionary says the first known use of “which” in this sense dates back to 1723. It doesn’t cite a source, but M-W may be referring to “Mary the Cook-Maid’s Letter to Dr. Sheridan,” a 1723 poem by Jonathan Swift. Here’s an excerpt:

And now, whereby I find you would fain make an excuse.
Because my master one day, in anger, call’d you goose:
Which, and I am sure I have been his servant four years since October,
And he never call’d me worse than sweetheart, drunk or sober.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, says this “which” is “used in anacoluthic [syntactically inconsistent] sentences as a connective or introductory particle with no antecedent.”

The OED describes the usage as “chiefly English regional, U.S. regional, and nonstandard.” As for us, we’d consider the usage nonstandard until a few other standard dictionaries join M-W and accept it as informal.

Oxford dates this iffy usage from the early 15th century, much earlier than Merriam-Webster’s first dating of “which” used as a conjunction.

The first OED citation is from The History of the Holy Grail (circa 1410), by the English poet Henry Lovelich. In this passage, the blind Mordreins asks Josephes to advise him where to retire:

“I wolde that ȝe wolden Conseillen Me Where I myht ben In place preve, Awey from this peple here that scholen ben trowbled In diuers Manere, whiche that were gret Noysaunce to Me Amonges hem thanne forto be.”

(“I would that ye would counsel me where I might be in a place of privacy, away from these people here that shall be troubled in diverse manner, which that were a great annoyance to me among them for to be.”)

The most recent Oxford citation is from The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a 1999 novel by Salman Rushdie:

“If this is your wish Mr. Standish which I’m offering no opinion then so be it, it’s your call. You change your mind you come and see me.”

In a related entry, the OED discusses a similar, more recent colloquial use of “which” to introduce “a comment, exclamation, etc., in response or reaction to a preceding statement.”

The Oxford citations for this usage resemble some of the M-W examples mentioned earlier.

The earliest OED citation  is from an Aug. 23, 2004, entry on The Food Whore, a now-defunct website: “He wasn’t happy with me. Which, yeah. Whatever.”

The most recent example is a July 31, 2021, comment on Twitter:  “People always talk about how attractive Charlotte is (which, fair point) but Nancy … sigh.”

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

Was ‘it don’t’ once good English?

Q: I just finished Little Women, where the use of “don’t” for “does not” is the rule, even in the mouths of educated people. Any comment?

A: In the original text of Little Women, which Louisa May Alcott published in two parts (1868 and 1869), “does not” is contracted as “don’t” as well as “doesn’t,” but “don’t” is used more often, as in this comment from Jo to Mrs. March: “It was an abominable thing, and she don’t deserve to be forgiven.”

As it turns out, “don’t” was the usual contraction of “does not” for more than two centuries, but Little Women was written when the usage was shifting, and many a “don’t” was changed to “doesn’t” in later editions.

As Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary explains in a usage note, “Don’t is the earliest attested contraction of does not and until about 1900 was the standard spoken form in the U.S. (it survived as spoken standard longer in British English).”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage adds that the use of “don’t” for “does not” had “unimpeachable status” from the 17th century through the 19th.

However, we should point out that some prominent 19th-century writers were hesitant to use “don’t” as an all-purpose contraction, as we’ll show later.

The M-W usage guide’s earliest written example of “don’t” used as a contraction of “does not” is from Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676), a Restoration comedy by George Etherege:

Old Bellair: No matter for that; go, bid her dance no more, it don’t become her, it don’t become her. Tell her I say so.”

But we’ve found several earlier appearances, including this one from a sermon by William Bridge, an independent minister in England:

“If there be a stamp set upon silver, or gold, the mettal remains as it was before: But if a stamp be set upon brasse, it don’t make it silver” (The Works  of William Bridge, Sometime Fellow of Emanuel Colledge in Cambridge; Now Preacher of the Word of God at Yarmouth, 1649).

We’ve seen quite a few examples from the 18th and 19th centuries in which respected writers use “don’t” as a contraction of “does not,” including these:

“I hope so too, but if it don’t, it must be the Lords doing, and it will be marvellous in our Eyes” (A Dialogue Between a Dissenter and the Observator, 1703, by Daniel Defoe).

“Well then, said the Gentleman, I can’t answer for her Negligence, if she don’t; but she will send a Letter to you, Mrs. Jervis” (Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, 1740, by Samuel Richardson).

“But never mind;—‘God save the king!’ and kings! / For if he don’t, I doubt if men will longer—” (Don Juan, Canto VIII, 1823, by Lord Byron).

“ ‘You needn’t be afraid of him, Jack.’ And the Colonel gave a look, as much as to say, ‘Indeed, he don’t look as if I need’ ” (The History of Henry Esmond, 1852, by William Makepeace Thackeray).

“I like to hear you speak well of your commanding officer; I daresay he don’t deserve it, but still it does you credit” (W. S. Gilbert’s libretto of HMS Pinafore, 1878).

However, some writers were apparently hesitant to use “don’t” as a contraction of “do not.” In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Jane Austen occasionally contracts “do not” as “don’t” in dialogue, but never contracts “does not.”

As for “doesn’t,” M-W Usage says the contraction first appeared in print in the early 19th century, and cites this example from The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), a verse satire by Thomas Moore:

“ ‘This must be the music,’ said he, ‘of the spears, / For I’m curst if each note of it doesn’t run thro’ one!’ ” (The passage refers to the piercing notes of opera music.)

We’ve found several earlier examples, though, including this one from The Dramatic History of Master Edward (1743), by George Alexander Stevens: “Yes; but who reads them for you? your landlord, doesn’t he?”

Although Merriam-Webster online says “don’t” was the standard spoken contraction of “does not” until the 20th century, some well-known 19th-century writers did indeed use “doesn’t” in dialogue. Here are a few examples:

“If you don’t rejoice at it, if it doesn’t make you happy, if you don’t encourage me, I shall break my heart” (Barchester Towers, 1857, by Anthony Trollope).

“ ‘Mr. Dick is a sort of distant connexion of mine—it doesn’t matter how; I needn’t enter into that” (David Copperfield, 1850, by Charles Dickens).

“It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth,” Jo says about selling her hair for $25 (Little Women, First Part, 1868).

In the second half of the 19th century, some language writers, especially in the US, began attacking the use of “don’t” as a contraction of “does not” and favoring “doesn’t” instead, according to the linguist Karl W. Dykema.

Dykema cites many of these criticisms in his paper “An Example of Prescriptive Linguistic Change: ‘Don’t’ to ‘Doesn’t’ ” (The English Journal, September 1947). Here are a few:

“I am piteously entreated, by more than one correspondent, to say that ‘he don’t’ is bad English, and therefore I say it. But ‘he don’t’ for ‘he doesn’t’ is, I suspect, an example rather of phonetic degradation than of ignorance or defiance of grammar” (Everyday English, 1880, by Richard Grant White).

Don’t. Everybody knows that don’t is a contraction of do not, and that doesn’t is a contraction of does not; and yet nearly everybody is guilty of using don’t when he should use doesn’t” (The Verbalist, 1881, by Alfred Ayers).

Don’t for doesn’t, or does not. Even so scholarly a divine as the Rev. Dr. Bellows, of New York, employs the vulgarism four times in an article in the ‘Independent’ ” (Words: Their Use and Abuse, 1892, by William Mathews).

Dykema blames prescriptivist American grammarians of the late 19th century for the loss of “don’t” as an all-purpose negative contraction:

“The moral, I hope, is clear: We have through enormous effort accomplished something utterly useless. We have cast out from the standard language a construction which fulfilled the primary function of language—communication—with efficiency and propriety.”

Finally, why did “don’t” become a contraction for “does not” in the first place? The story begins in the 17th century, at a time when all forms of the verb “do” were unsettled, to say the least.

For one thing, “does” and “doth”—both spelled in a variety of ways—were competing for prominence, as M-W Usage points out.

For another, some writers used the bare (or uninflected) “do” as the third person singular. The usage guide cites Samuel Pepys, writing in 1664: “the Duke of York do give himself up to business,” and “it seems he [the king] do not.”

M-W suggests that the use of the uninflected “do” for “does,” as in the Pepys citations, may have influenced the use of “don’t” as a contracted “does not.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

When usage goes out the window*

Q: How did “defenestrate,” a word for throwing someone out the window, become a word for forcing someone out of a job?

A: Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult define “defenestrate” literally as to throw someone out a window and figuratively as to remove someone from a position of authority.

The figurative use of a word for throwing someone out a window isn’t all that surprising. We throw people under the bus and to the wolves, we throw our hats in the ring, throw good money after bad, and throw monkey wrenches into the machinery.

The literal usage, which comes from fenestra, Latin for “window,” first appeared in the early 17th century as a noun, “defenestration,” and an adjective, “defenestrated,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

As the OED explains, the usage can be traced to “an incident in which, on the 23rd of May 1618, a group of Protestant Bohemian protestors threw two Catholic imperial officials and their secretary out of a window in Prague Castle, thus helping to precipitate the Thirty Years’ War.”

As it turned out, the two imperial regents, Jaroslav Martinic and Vilém Slavata, as well as their secretary, Philip Fabricius, survived. Martinic later said they fell 30 cubits (45 feet) into a dry moat.

The OED’s earliest citation for “defenestration” was recorded the following year. The noun appears in notes recorded at a meeting in London on Sept. 10, 1619, at which officials discussed a letter about the Prague incident that had been written to King James I of England on June 16, 1618:

“the Bohemians wrote a letter unto his Matie wherein they gave him an accompte [account] … of the defenestration of the Counsailours” (from Letters and Other Documents Illustrating the Relations Between England and Germany, 1868, by Samuel R. Gardiner).

The first OED citation for the adjective “defenestrated” is from a letter written about the incident by Sir Henry Wotton on Nov. 22, 1620, referring to “two of the defenestrated men” (The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, 1907, by L. P. Smith).

However, we’ve found a slightly earlier example in a margin note on a Nov. 18, 1620, letter Wotton wrote on the same subject: “Both defenestrated at Prague, and their messenger, a kind of notary, likewise banished.”

When the verb showed up in the early 20th century in an article about Bohemia, it apparently referred to the incident in Prague and other defenestrations:

“You may still see the windows through which were thrown town councillors and others, ‘defenestrated’ with truly Slav impartiality” (“Bohemia—a New Country for the Artist,” by Val C. Princep, The Magazine of Art, January 1904).

The OED says the verb soon took on a colloquial sense: “to dismiss, discard, or dispose of (a person or thing); esp. to remove (a person) from a position of power or authority.”

The first example for this figurative usage comes from a medical journal and refers to spurning vaccination: “This does not mean the whole theory of vaccines must be defenestrated” (Medicine and Surgery, December 1917).

In the next citation, a group of Italian workers oust their bosses: “They defenestrate the manager, expropriate the owners, and go on producing the goods just the same” (The Freeman, April 14, 1920).

And we found this more recent example about British politics: “The defenestration of Boris Johnson had little to do with morality. At its core, it was about revenge” (National Review, July 13, 2022).

Although the usage is generally figurative these days, it’s still sometimes used literally, as in this headline: “Putin Critic Tycoon Pavel Antov Defenestrated in New Delhi” (Jewish Press, Dec. 27, 2022). Antov died after a suspicious fall from a third-floor window of a luxury hotel.

A final note: One of the dictionaries we consult, Collins, includes this definition of “defenestrate” in computing: “to stop using the Windows operating system.”

* We borrowed the title of this post from a Feb. 11, 2019, headline by our friend Merrill Perlman in her Language Corner column in the Columbia Journalism Review

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

A riot in the garden

Q: I asked ChatGPT to create a Midjourney prompt for an image with many flowers. The prompt, or text phrase, asked for “a riot of flowers.” When did a “riot” come to mean many things as well as a violent disturbance?

A: The noun “riot” has meant an extraordinary profusion, often of brilliant colors, for more than three centuries.

That sense of the term, first recorded in the early 18th century, refers to “an impressively large or varied display of something, esp. a vivid display of colour,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise on art that discusses the story of Hercules at the crossroads as a possible subject for a painting:

“Such a Confusion, Oppugnancy [conflict], and Riot of Colours, as wou’d to any judicious Eye appear absolutely intolerable” (from A Notion of the Historical Draught or Tablature of the Judgment of Hercules, 1713, by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury).

The next OED citation, also expanded, is from an essay that compares the “ghost-like” white (or opium) poppy to the “fuller-blooded” red poppy:

“A riot of scarlet on gold, the red poppy of our native fields tosses heavy tresses with gipsy abandon” (from “White Poppy,” in Pagan Papers, 1894, an essay collection by Kenneth Grahame).

When “riot’ first appeared in early Middle English in the 12th century, it meant “waywardness” or “contrariness,” a sense that’s now obsolete or rare, the OED says.

The first Oxford example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200. This passage describes someone who’s guilty of the sin of contumacy, or stubborness:

“fet hwa se is anewil i þing þet ha haueð undernume to donne, beo hit god, beo hit uuel, þet na wisure read ne mei bringen hire ut of hire riote” (“she is so obstinate at whatever thing she has undertaken to do—be it good, be it evil—that no wiser counsel can bring her out of her riot [waywardness].”

In the early 14th century, the OED says, “riot” came to mean “an instance or course of riotous living; esp. an act of noisy, wanton revelry; a riotous or unruly feast or revel.”

The first Oxford example is from The Seven Sages of Rome (circa 1330), a Middle English collection of stories concerning Florentin, son of the Roman Emperor Diocletian:

“He scholde nowt in Rome bilaue, For Burgeis, maiden, oþer knaue Miȝte him in som riot sette Þat al his lore he scholde lette” (“He should not stay in Rome because a burgher, maiden or other knave might lead him into some riot that should make him forsake all his learning”).

In the early 15th century, according to OED citations, “riot” took on its usual modern sense of “a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd; an outbreak of violent civil disorder or lawlessness.”

The first Oxford example for this use of “riot,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 1433 entry in the Rolls of Parliament during the reign of King Henry VI:

“in eschuyng of Riotes, Excesses, mysgovernances and disobeissances ayenst the Kynges astate.” (Two earlier Oxford examples for this usage have a somewhat different meaning.)

Oxford explains that the sense of “riot” as an impressive display was “originally an extended use” of the riotous living usage, but it’s “now often interpreted in the light of” the violent disturbance sense.

In other words, an expression like “a riot of colors” now suggests the wildness of both—riotous living as well as riotous violence.

Finally, here’s a recent example of the usage from a headline in Sky & Telescope magazine about the James Webb Space Telescope (Nov. 18, 2022):


And this is the image:

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

What is ‘which’ doing here?

Q: I’m puzzled by this use of “which” on Yahoo Finance: “Oceana Group has seen a flattish net income growth over the past five years, which is not saying much.” Is “which” correct? If so, what is it doing here?

A: The word “which” here is a relative pronoun that introduces a clause referring to an earlier statement. The usage dates back to the 14th century and is standard English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “which” here is “introducing a clause describing or stating something additional about the antecedent.”

The OED adds that the sense of the main clause is “complete without the relative clause,” so “which” is “sometimes equivalent to ‘and he, she, it, they, etc.’ ”

The earliest Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is from a Middle English translation of a Middle French treatise on morality:

“He [þe messagyer of dyaþe] ansuereþ, he ne may naȝt zigge bote yef þer by heȝliche clom. Huych y-graunted, þus he begynþ. Ich am drede and beþenchinge of dyaþe.”

(“He [the messenger of death] answers, he may not say anything until he climbs higher. Which is granted. Thus he begins: ‘I am dread and a reminder of death’ ”).

The passage, written in a Kentish dialect of Middle English, is from Ayenbyte of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), 1340, by Dan Michel of Northgate, a Benedictine monk. (“Dan” was an honorific for a monk in medieval England.)

Here’s one of many examples we’ve found in Shakespeare: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven” (All’s Well That Ends Well, written in the late 1500s or early 1600s).

And the OED cites this modern modern example from James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance: “While I was talking I looked him in the eyes, which was surprisingly easy to do.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include this sense of “which.” Here, for example, is an excerpt from an American Heritage usage note:

“The relative pronoun which can sometimes refer to a clause or sentence, as opposed to a noun phrase: She ignored him, which proved to be unwiseThey swept the council elections, which could never have happened under the old rules.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that some language writers once criticized the usage, arguing that “which” should refer to a specific antecedent. But M-W adds that “almost all modern commentators find it acceptable.”

In fact, as shown in one of the examples above, this “which” sometimes introduces a new sentence rather than a clause.

Here’s Pat’s nontechnical explanation of the usage in Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English:

Which Craft

Sometimes we start a statement with which to make a comment on the previous sentence. Which is perfectly all right, if the ideas are connected.

Orson saw himself as larger than life. Which was true, after he gained all that weight.

But which is often used in casual conversation to introduce an afterthought that comes out of nowhere.

He was a great Othello. Which reminds me, where’s that twenty dollars you borrowed?

Conversation is one thing and written English is another. When you write a sentence starting with which, make sure there’s a connection. Which is a rule that bears repeating!

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Writing

You’re doing what?

Q: TV and movie characters are turning the question on its head. “Why is the sky blue?” is now “The sky is blue, why?” My theory is that this linguistic atrocity began with Friends. Your thoughts?

A: The usual way to ask a question in English is to put the wh- word (“why,” “what,” “when,” “where,” etc.) or another interrogative at the beginning: “Why is the sky blue?”

However, the interrogative is sometimes put at or near the end of a sentence or clause to express surprise, ask for clarification, quiz someone, or refer to more than one interrogative. Here are examples:

(1) “You said what?” (2) “They’re coming from exactly where?” (3) “The first quarto of Hamlet was published when?” (4) “Who did what to whom?” All of these uses are standard English.

The words “what” in #1 and #4 and “whom” in #4 are interrogative pronouns that function as objects, while “where” in #2 and “when” in #3 are interrogative adverbs that modify verbs.

Linguists describe the use of an interrogative before a verb (the usual position of a subject in a declarative sentence) as “wh– fronting,” and one after a verb (the usual position of an object or adverb) as “wh– in situ.”

Here’s an example of a declarative sentence that answers the fronted and in-situ questions that follow:

“I [subject] am writing [verb] a short story [object].”

“What [object] are you writing?” (Here, “what” is fronted.) … “You’re writing what [object]?” (Here, “what” is in situ.)

Interrogatives that express surprise or ask for clarification often echo earlier statements. Here are examples:

“I’ll treat you” … “You’ll do what?”

“I just met her” … “You met her where?”

Although wh– interrogatives are usually fronted in English, they’re in situ in some other languages, like Chinese and Japanese. (Linguists use wh– to mean an interrogative even in referring to languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet.)

Getting back to your question, it’s possible that what you hear as “The sky is blue, why?” is actually a declarative sentence followed by a one-word interrogative sentence: “The sky is blue. Why?”

That’s standard English. It’s a more emphatic though less common way of saying, “Why is the sky blue?”

It’s also possible that the use of wh– in situ (putting the wh– word after the verb and at the end of a sentence) may be more common now, especially in movies and on television, where dialogue predominates.

We’ve found quite a few examples in searching the scripts of recent movies. Most of the ones we’ve seen express surprise or ask for clarification.

Here are a few from film scripts that studios posted for 2023 Oscar contenders:

The Banshees of Inisherin. Padraic: “I knocked on ColmSonnyLarry and he’s just sitting there.” Siobhan: “Sitting there doing what?”

Master. Gail (to Jasmine): “So you go back home and then what? Transfer to another college hoping it’ll somehow be different?”

The Fabelmans. Burt: “You already won, Mitts. I surrendered. I’m not taking the bait.” Mitzi: “Who’s baiting who? I said I’d take him for his polio shot the first five times you asked me. Didn’t I?”

Finally, use of interrogatives at the end of a sentence didn’t begin with Friends, the TV sitcom that ran on NBC from 1994 to 2004. It dates back at least to the 19th century and perhaps a lot earlier.

We’ll end with a 19th-century example from Anthony Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers (1857)Septimus Harding is speaking here to his widowed daughter Eleanor about Obadiah Slope’s unwanted proposal:

“ ‘But you’ll tell the archdeacon?’ asked Mr. Harding.

“ ‘Tell him what?’ said she sharply.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why ‘one’ sounds like ‘won’

Q: Can you enlighten me about the origin of the (for me at least) strange “w” sound that begins the words “one” and “once”?

A: The short answer is that a regional pronunciation of “one” began spreading across England in the early 1400s and changed the way the term and some of its derivatives would normally have sounded.

In Old and Middle English, spellings generally reflected the way words were pronounced, but the spellings varied widely, depending on the practices of individual scribes.

To keep things simple, we’ll use the most common spellings in discussing the evolution of “one” and its derivative “once,” and we won’t differentiate between their various grammatical forms.

In Old English (spoken from roughly 450 to 1150), “one” was usually written as an, with the letter a pronounced like the “a” in the Modern English word “father.”

Here’s an Oxford English Dictionary example from the Wessex Gospels, written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English and dating back to the late 10th century:

“Hu ne becypað hig twegen spearwan to peninge, & an of ðam ne befylð on eorðan butan eowrun fæder” (“Are not two sparrows sold for a pening [an old coin], and not one of them falls to earth without your Father [knowing]?”). Matthew 10:19.

In Middle English (spoken from about 1150 to 1450), “one” was usually written as on, with the letter o pronounced like the long “o” in the Modern English “hope.”

An OED example from a Middle English poem written around 1250 refers to the bigamist Lamech in Genesis this way:

“For ai was rigt and kire bi-forn, / On man, on wif, til he was boren” (“For always it was right and pure before / One man, one wife, till he was born”). The Middle English Genesis and Exodus (1968), edited by Olof Arngart

The Middle English on was originally pronounced like the Modern English “own.” That old pronunciation has survived in several words derived from “one,” including “only” and “alone.”

But in the 1400s, a dialectal pronunciation of “one” appeared in southwestern and western England, with the “o” and “w” sounds reversed, resulting in a pronunciation like the Modern English “won.”

Technically, the long vowel o in the Middle English on acted like a diphthong. Emphasizing the beginning gave on an “own” pronunciation while emphasizing the end, as in the dialectal version, produced a sound like “won.

Historical linguists cite the use of won for on in late Middle English manuscripts as evidence of the dialectal pronunciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest won example, which we’ve expanded, was written sometime before 1450 in the dialect of Wiltshire in southwest England:

“won of hem þouȝt þat he nolde not spare for no fere to wete wherre þat maydenus body leyȝe hole ȝet þore” (“one of them thought that he would spare no fear to find out where the maiden’s body lay hidden”).

The passage is from a life of Ethelreda, an Anglo-Saxon saint, in Altenglische Legenden (1881), edited by Carl Horstmann.

The English theologian William Tyndale, who was born in Gloucestershire in the Southwest, also uses “won” for “one” in his early Modern English translation of the Bible in 1526:

“Alas Alas that gret cite Babilon that myghty cite: For at won houre is her iudgment come” (Revelation, 18:10).

The “won” pronunciation of on influenced the pronunciation of ones, the usual Middle English version of “once” and a few other words derived from the Middle English on, like “oneness,” “oneself,” and “onetime.”

Here’s an example of “once” spelled “wonce” in early Modern English. It’s from a 1599 report by Sir John Harington to Queen Elizabeth about a military campaign by the Earl of Essex against rebels in Ireland:

“The rebell wonce in Rorie O More shewed himselfe, withe about 500 foote and 40 horse, 2 myles from our campe.” From Nugæ Antiquæ (Ancient Nuggets), a 1775 collection of Harington’s papers, edited by Henry Harington, a descendant.

The “one” spelling appeared occasionally in Middle English, as in this expanded OED example from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:

“nule nout ure louerd he seið þe prophete: Þet o mon beo uor one þinge twien i demed” (“the prophet says Our Lord does not wish that a man be judged twice for one thing”).

However, a search of OED citations for the term suggests that “one” didn’t become common until the early Modern English of the 16th century.

Here’s an example from Richard Taverner’s 1539 translation of Erasmus’s annotated Latin proverbs: “One man no man. One man lefte alone and forsaken of all the rest, can do lyttell good.”

As for “once,” the earliest example for this spelling in the OED is from Tyndale’s 1526 Bible: “Five hondred brethren at once” (1 Corinthians 15:6).

But the dictionary’s citations indicate that the “once” spelling wasn’t common until the 17th century, as in this example from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a 1651 treatise on society and the state:

“The object of mans desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire.”

We suspect that the arrival of the printing press in England in the late 15th century and the spread of printing in the 16th and 17th helped lock in the “one” and “once” spellings before the “won” pronunciation was fully accepted.

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

‘Ask, and it shall be given you’

Q: I direct my Philosophy of Ethics students to your page about the distinction between morals and ethics. I was wondering about Matthew 7:7, specifically the object: “Ask, and it shall be given you.” Why isn’t it “given to you”?

A: It depends on which translation of Matthew 7:7 you’re looking at. Some do say “given to you.” However, the passage in the earliest Old English translation of the Gospels doesn’t use either “given you” or “given to you.”

This is the wording in the Wessex Gospels, copied around 1175 in a West Saxon dialect of Old English and believed to date from the late 10th century: “Byddeð. & eow beoð ge-seald” (“Biddeth, and you shall be given”).

And here’s an archaic spelling of “given to you” in the Wycliffe Bible, written in Middle English in the 1380s under the direction of the theologian John Wycliffe:

“Axe ȝe, and it ſhal be ȝouen to ȝou” (“Ask ye, and it shall be given to you”). From Maþeu, Capitulum VII (Matthew, Chapter 7).

The King James Version of 1611 has an early Modern English form of the passage you’re familiar with (“Aske, and it shalbe giuen you”), while the New King James Version of 1982 has a contemporary update (“Ask, and it will be given to you”).

The two clauses, “it shall be given you” and “it shall be given to you” mean the same thing semantically but differ grammatically. In the first clause, “you” is an indirect object; in the second, “to you” is a prepositional phrase that serves a similar purpose.

As we’ve said many times before on the blog, the use of prepositions is highly idiomatic in English and has varied widely over the years. At times, one form or another may be more common in American than in British usage, or vice versa.

In contemporary English, for example, one would usually say “give it to you” or “give you it.” However, “give it you” is often heard in British English, though the usage is sometimes described as informal or nonstandard.

In a 2009 post, we discuss the use of prepositional phrases and objects with “give,” “write,” “pass,” and several other verbs.

These verbs are now commonly used without prepositional phrases when they’re immediately followed by an indirect object (like “me” in “give me the book” or “write me a letter”).

But if a direct object (“the book” or “a letter”) comes first, a prepositional phrase is used (“Give the book to me” or “Write a letter to me”).

The use of the verb “write” differs in the US and the UK when the only object is an indirect object, as in “Have you written your mother?” or “Write me.” That usage, once standard on both sides of the Atlantic, is now frowned upon in the UK though still fine in the US.

Only when both objects are present and the indirect object comes first (as in “Have you written your mother a thank-you note?” or “Write me a letter”) do British speakers omit the preposition now.

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Can a chatbot hallucinate?

Q: Why do some writers say ChatGPT is “hallucinating” when it makes stuff up (e.g., recites lines of prose supposedly by Mark Twain that he never wrote, as the NY Times reports). To me, the chatbot is lying, not hallucinating.

A: When a chatbot simply makes something up, the untruth is a “hallucination” in the lingo of artificial intelligence.

As The Times reports in a Jan. 10, 2023 article, a chatbot may tell you that “Mark Twain’s Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County could not only jump but talk. A.I. researchers call this generation of untruths ‘hallucination.’ ”

But is such an untruth a mistake—the machine’s best guess at something it doesn’t know—or is it a lie? Shouldn’t the machine admit that it doesn’t know?

Your question, as you can see, is pretty complicated. We don’t pretend to be experts on the ethical implications of chatbots, but we can throw some light on the history of “hallucinate” and “hallucination.”

And as it turns out, the new senses of the words in artificial intelligence aren’t as new as you think. They reflect the words’ original meanings in the 16th and 17th centuries, when to “hallucinate” was to be in error, to be deceived, or to lie, and a “hallucination” was caused by error or deception.

Both verb and noun came into English from Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. They can be traced to the Latin verb alucinari (“to wander in mind, talk idly, prate,” the dictionary says, though some other sources suggest an earlier antecedent, the Greek αλύειν (alyein, to be confused or distraught).

The verb entered English first, in the mid-1500s, when to “hallucinate” meant to be mistaken or misled. The OED defines it more broadly this way: “To be deceived, suffer illusion, entertain false notions, blunder, mistake.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from a poem entitled “An Artificiall Apologie” (1540), a satirical broadside by “the ryght redolent & rotounde rethorician R. Smyth.”

The author says he has included annotations so that “the imprudent lector shulde not tytubate [stumble, go astray] or hallucinate in the labyrinthes of this lucubratiuncle [scholarly writing].”

Smyth deliberately peppered his verse with obscure, unusual, and exaggeratedly learned words for humorous effect. And “hallucinate” must have been extremely obscure at the time, since the next example we’ve found in the sense of “mistake” appeared almost a century later:

“Sir Hu[m]frey with all his diuinitie [divinity] had not iudgement to distinguish, he proueth nothing but doth onelie hallucinate betweene trueth and falsehood.”  From The VVhetstone of Reproofe (1632), by a church sexton identifying himself as “T.T.”

(Incidentally, the “VV” in the title above represents “UU,” for the letter “W,” an early usage that we discussed in a  recent post on the blog.)

The OED’s earliest citations for the verb “hallucinate” are from the mid-17th century, in passages accusing seers and healers of being mistaken. Here’s the first one, which we’ve expanded:

“If Prognosticators have so often hallucinated (or deceiving, been deceived) about naturall effects” (Πυς-μαντια: The Mag-astro-mancer, 1652, an examination of astrology and witchcraft by a Puritan clergyman, John Gaule). The first element in the Greek title is ersatz Greek, but the second, –μαντια, refers to divination.

As for that other early meaning of “hallucinate” (to lie), it lasted for only a few decades before falling out of use.

The OED labels this sense “rare” and “obsolete,” adding that it was “apparently” found only in dictionaries or glossaries of the early 17th century. Oxford cites examples from two early dictionaries,  which define “hallucinate” as “to deceive, or blind” (1604) and “to deceive” (1623).

In searching old databases, however, we’ve found an example in an anonymous political tract that clearly refers to a falsehood, not a mistake: “No sure, in thist you hallucinate verie palpably and groasly” (Bad English, yet Not Scotch, published in London in 1648).

The noun “hallucination” in its early sense (a false or mistaken idea) is still known today, though that’s no longer the principal meaning in modern English.

Oxford defines this sense as “the mental condition of being deceived or mistaken, or of entertaining unfounded notions,” as well as “an idea or belief to which nothing real corresponds; an illusion.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from a religious treatise of the 1630s, aimed at those who are industrious in their material lives but inattentive to God:

“millio[n]s of people shall be in hell, who according to their hallucination, their misdeeming [mistaking], their alas! misseconceit, thought that they were not idle.” (The Ransome of Time Being Captive, John Hawkins’s 1634 translation from the Spanish of Andreas de Soto.)

And here’s the OED’s first example for this sense of the noun (a mistaken belief): “Notions … arising from the deceptions and hallucinations of Sense” (Select Discourses, by the philosopher John Smith, probably written around 1650 and published in 1660).

Around this time, the mid-17th century, the spookier and more familiar meanings of “hallucinate” and “hallucination” emerged. These senses involve not just erroneous notions, but deranged or supernatural experiences—seeing or hearing things that aren’t real.

The noun in this sense is defined in the OED as a term in “Pathology and Psychology” for “the apparent perception (usually by sight or hearing) of an external object when no such object is actually present.” The dictionary notes that it’s “distinguished from illusion in the strict sense, as not necessarily involving a false belief.”

Here’s Oxford’s earliest recorded example: “If vision be abolished it is called cæcitas, or blindnesse, if depraved and receive its objects erroneously, Hallucination” (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1646, by the physician Sir Thomas Browne).

The verb “hallucinate” in the modern, deranged sense took longer to enter the mainstream. The pathological meaning of the verb wasn’t recorded, as far as we can tell, until the end of the 19th century.

The earliest example we’ve found is in a doctor’s report on a patient in a mental hospital, published in a South Carolina newspaper:

“He is very obedient and courteous, but continues to hallucinate, often stating that the spirit voices keep him awake at night” (Keowee Courier, May, 21, 1919).

And this is the OED’s earliest citation: “A man hallucinated that the clothes of the girls ‘flew off them’ ” (The Creative Mind, 1930, by the British psychologist Charles Edward Spearman).

That meaning of “hallucinate,” plus the corresponding sense of “hallucination,” are the ones chiefly recognized today in standard dictionaries. Some, however, add that “hallucination” less commonly can mean an unfounded or mistaken belief.

No standard dictionary has yet recognized the new deceptive chatbot sense of “hallucinate” and “hallucination.” But it has become established in the Artificial Intelligence industry, where unreliable data is a problem.

In the words of Vilius Petkauskas, a senior journalist at Cybernews, “chatbots hallucinating convincing fakes can lead to anything from misunderstandings to misinformation” (March 6, 2023).

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

‘Time to get up, you lot!’

Q: Do you think the British use of “you lot” as a second person plural pronoun has a link to the American use of “y’all”?

A: The Southern American regionalism “y’all” and the British colloquialism “you lot” are similar in that both can be used to mean “you all” in its traditional sense: “all of you.” However, the two usages differ in several ways.

As we say in a 2023 post, the uncontracted “you all” first appeared in Old English as eow ealle and referred to all of the people being addressed.

The “you all” spelling showed up in the 16th century and the contracted “y’all” in the 17th century with the same “all of you” sense, though the contraction was rarely used.

The regionalism “y’all” or “you-all” first appeared in the American South in the early 19th century and could refer to one or more people as well as others associated with the people addressed.

The British colloquialism “you lot” (often “all you lot”) appeared a century later, with the noun “lot” used to stress the plural sense of the pronoun “you.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “lot” here is used “to indicate or emphasize plural reference (in contrast to simple you, which may have either singular or plural reference).” Here’s the dictionary’s earliest citation:

“When the guard came to the top to collect the fares the girls there tendered their pennies. The guard declined them, explaining, ‘Your mother has paid for all you lot’ ” (The Manchester Guardian, Feb. 9, 1907).

The OED doesn’t directly link “you lot” to “y’all,” but it suggests that readers compare the British usage with the regionalisms “you-all” and “yous.” We’ve discussed “yous” and “youse” in several posts, most recently in 2011.

As for the noun “lot,” it has referred to a group of people since at least the 12th century. Here’s an example we’ve found in the Ormulum (circa 1175), a collection of early Middle English homilies:

“Þe maste lott tatt heȝhesst iss Iss þatt lærede genge” (“The great lot that is highest is the legion of the learned”).

The OED says this use of “lot” now usually refers to “a number of people associated in some way by the speaker or writer. The dictionary says the usage is “now colloquial and often depreciative.”

Getting back to “you lot,” the phrase is often negative, as in the second Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, from D. H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers (1913):

“ ‘An’ is it goin’ to be wasted?’ said Morel. ‘I’m not such a extravagant mortal as you lot, with your waste. If I drop a bit of bread at pit, in all the dust an’ dirt, I pick it up an’ eat it.’ ”

We’ll end with a recent example of the usage that we found in a novel about the life of a young schoolteacher in a poor area of Birmingham in the 1930s:

“ ‘Time to get up, you lot!’  Mr Belcher had swung open the barn door and dusty rays streamed in. Joey could see the man’s round face beneath the brim of his hat, pink in the warmth. ‘Come on–shake a leg!’ ” (Miss Purdy’s Class, 2011, by Annie Murray).

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Why we rely on a ‘go-to’

Q: When did people start using the phrase “go-to” as a noun? I don’t recall having heard it when I lived in the States (1953-1975).

A: The use of the noun and earlier adjective “go-to” for a dependable or reliable person or thing showed up in the late 20th century as an American sports usage.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun as “a person who or thing which may be consulted or relied upon; a preferred or favoured option.”

Similarly, the OED says the adjective refers to someone or something “that may be consulted or relied upon; frequently chosen, utilized, or sought out in a particular situation.”

The adjective came first, in a description of reliable basketball players as “go-to guys.” In the earliest Oxford citation, Don Chaney, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, refers to the NBA guard Derek Smith:

“Derek is one of my go-to guys—players who want the ball in crucial situations” (United Press International, April 4, 1985).

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun is from another basketball article. The reporter quotes Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls on the subject of Patrick Ewing’s teammates on the New York Knicks:

“ ‘Wannabe stars’ is how Dennis Rodman sized up Ewing’s supporting cast. Now those wannabes are going to make the quantum leap to ‘go-tos’?” (Daily News, New York, Dec. 23, 1997).

Interestingly, a now-archaic version of the noun “go-to” appeared in the mid-19th century, when it was used in the phrase “at one go-to,” meaning in one attempt or without stopping. (Today, one would say “at one go.”)

The OED has this example from a horsey travel memoir: “I am tired with writing it all at one go-to” (Las Alforjas, or, The Bridle-Roads of Spain, 1853, by George John Cayley). Alforjas are saddlebags.

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Not to mention Paul

Q: Thank you for your article on “not to mention,” a funny phrase since the writer goes on to mention it anyway. Are you aware that the phrase is in Paul’s letter to Philemon (verse 19) and evidently much older than the 1644 example from Milton you cite?

A: You’re right that this use of “not to mention” appeared in English before the Oxford English Dictionary citation that we mention in our 2007 post, which we’ve now updated. But it didn’t show up quite as early as your biblical example suggests.

We’ve found several earlier 17th-century uses, including this one from a treatise on the Anglican liturgy that criticizes the servants of “Don Beel-zebub” for encouraging equivocation and deception:

“Not to mention here their vnsufferable correcting, yea corrupting of all Authors” (An Exposition of the Dominicall Epistles and Gospels Used in Our English Liturgie, 1622, by John Boys, Dean of Canterbury).

As far as we can tell, the use of “not to mention” in the Epistle to Philemon appears in only modern translations of the New Testament, not in older ones.

Here, for example, is Philemon 19 in the New King James Version (1982): “I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.”

But this is the passage in the original King James Version (1611): “I Paul haue written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I doe not say to thee how thou owest vnto me euen thine owne selfe besides.”

And here is Filemon 19 in the Wycliffe Bible, written in Middle English in the early 1380s:

“Y Poul wroot with myn hoond, Y schal yelde; that Y seie not to thee, that also thou owist to me thi silf” (“I, Paul, wrote this with my hand, I shall repay it; that I say not to thee, that also thou owest me thy self”).

That Middle English translation is in keeping with early Greek versions of Paul’s epistle. Here’s the relevant Greek passage: “ἵνα μὴ λέγω σοι” (“that not I say [or “may say’] to you”).

Although “Y seie not to thee” in the Wycliffe version has the same meaning as “not to mention” in modern translations of Philemon 19, the two usages are not etymologically related.

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The laundry list, itemized

Q: What’s a “laundry list” anyway? Do people itemize their dirty socks? Even when I go to a laundry, they give me a receipt with a per-pound price, not any kind of list. “Grocery list,” yes. “Laundry list,” wha…?

A: The term “laundry list” has been used literally since the 1860s and figuratively since the 1930s. Here’s a literal example from the old Hotel Astor at Times Square:

As Merriam-Webster explains in an etymological note, the expression first appeared in the 19th century with the rise of commercial laundry services.

“When you took your laundry to a commercial laundry establishment,” the dictionary says, “you had to make a record of what you’d sent; this ensured both that you got back what you’d sent, and that you paid for what got washed. And that is where the laundry list comes in.”

By the 1860s, the dictionary says, “some enterprising souls had seen fit to create laundry lists that itemized all the varieties of potentially dirty articles with a place for the user to enter the tally for each item.”

The dictionary cites this description from the March 4, 1871, issue of The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu):

“Mr. W. M. Wallace has got up a very neat and convenient card for laundry lists, which on examination will at once strike one as useful as well as novel. The different articles of clothing sent to the wash are by an ingenious arrangement numbered each under its separate head, without the bother of writing or making figures. There are separate lists for ladies, gentlemen, and families, and every ordinary article of clothing that requires washing has its separate place, from one piece up to twelve. We are confident that on trial it will be found of indispensable use in every household, and a valuable source of economy.”

The earliest example we’ve found for the term “laundry list” used literally is from “The Art of Travel in Europe,” a review of tourist guides in the July 1863 issue of The National Review, a short-lived British quarterly.

In discussing the organization of foreign words and phrases in various categories, the authors say “the chief articles of dress occur in two, the toilette and the laundry list.”

As for the figurative sense of the expression that’s often seen now, Merriam-Webster says “a laundry list is ‘a usually long list of items,’ and it’s used to refer to lists of varying kinds.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a headline in The Illinois State Journal, Springfield, May 9, 1938: “Girl Should Make Laundry List of Marriage Factors, Then Proceed to Pick Man.”

Finally, we should mention that a predecessor of the literal “laundry list” was a “washing bill,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a statement of laundry-charges.”

The first OED citation for the earlier usage, which we’ve expanded, is from Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey, completed in 1803 but published posthumously in 1817.

Catherine Morland, the young protagonist, discovers a roll of paper in a  cabinet in the bedroom where she’s staying on a visit to the Abbey. She imagines that she’s found a precious manuscript but then learns otherwise:

“Her greedy eye glanced rapidly over a page. She started at its import. Could it be possible, or did not her senses play her false? An inventory of linen, in coarse and modern characters, seemed all that was before her! If the evidence of sight might be trusted, she held a washing-bill in her hand.”

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Let’s liven things up

Q: Are “enliven,” “liven,” and “liven up” equally acceptable? Is one preferred? “Liven up” seems a little colloquial for written communication.

A: The verbs “enliven” and “liven” and the phrasal verb “liven up” are all acceptable English and have been for hundreds of years. The two verbs showed up in the early 1600s and the phrasal verb in the early 1800s.

All 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include the three terms as standard English. Not one labels “liven up” as colloquial, informal, casual, or conversational.

Although “liven up” does strike us as somewhat more relaxed than “enliven,” we wouldn’t hesitate to use the phrasal verb in all kinds of writing.

Some of the dictionaries say “liven” is “usually” or “often” used with “up.” In fact, all the examples for “liven” in the 10 dictionaries include “up”—sometimes directly after the verb and sometimes after whatever is livened (as in “liven it up”).

Although “liven up” is more popular now than “liven” by itself, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference, has contemporary examples for both usages.

The OED notes one significant difference in the use of the three terms: “enliven” is used only transitively (with an object) while “liven” and “liven up” can also be used intransitively (without an object).

The first of the terms to appear in writing was “enliven,” which originally was spelled “inliuen” (“inliven”) and meant “to give life to; to bring or restore to life,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Contemplatio Mortis, et Immortalitatis (“A Contemplation of Death and Immortality”), 1631, by Henry Montagu, Earl of  Manchester:

“Consider Death originally or in his owne nature, and it is but a departed breath from dead earth inliuened first by breath cast vpon it.”

The OED says “enliven” soon came to mean “to give fuller life to; to animate, inspirit, invigorate physically or spiritually.” The dictionary’s first citation for this sense in from a treatise comparing theological and legal righteousness:

“The Divinity derives itself into the souls of men, enlivening and transforming them into its own likeness” (Select Discourses, 1644–52, by the English philosopher and theologian John Smith).

At the beginning of the 18th century, Oxford says, “enliven” took on the sense of “to make ‘lively’ or cheerful, cheer, exhilarate.” The earliest example is from a treatise on theology and science:

“Their eminent Ends and Uses in illuminating and enlivening the Planets” (The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation, 1701, by John Ray, an English naturalist, philosopher, and theologian).

When “liven” first appeared in the 17th century, the OED says, it was used transitively in the sense of “to brighten or cheer, to animate; to bring energy and interest into.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The New Covenant; or, the Saints Portion, a treatise by the Anglican theologian John Preston, written sometime before his death in 1628:

“Things liuened by the expression of the speaker, sometimes take well, which after, vpon a mature review, seeme eyther superfluous, or flat.”

The verb was first used intransitively in the early 18th century. The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a July 24, 1739, letter in which the English poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone describes a conversation with his housekeeper, Mrs. Arnold:

“ ‘Why, Sir, says she, the hen that I set last-sabbath-day-was-three-weeks has just hatched, and has brought all her eggs to good.’ ‘That’s brave indeed,  says I.’ ‘Ay, that it is, says she, so be and’t please G—D and how that they liven, there’ll be a glorious parcel of ’em.’ ”

When “liven up” first appeared in the early 19th century, the OED says, it was used transitively in the figurative sense of “to give life to, put life into.”

The earliest example given is from “The Angel Message,” a poem in Recreations of a Merchant, or the Christian Sketch-Book (1836), by William A. Brewer:

“Hadst thou a thousand lives to live … and garden-sweat to tinct, / Or Calvary’s gore to liven up the sketch … ’twere vain indeed, / To attempt a lively portraiture of man / Freed from the guilt and power of sin.”

A few decades later, the phrasal verb took on the transitive sense of “to brighten, cheer, animate.” The first OED citation is from the novel  Bellehood and Bondage (1873), by Ann Sophia Stephens:

“If she isn’t too knowing, and don’t put on beauty airs, perhaps it might do. … This girl may liven up the establishment a little.”

Finally, the first Oxford citation for the intransitive “liven up” is from the January 1863 issue of The Continental Monthly: “Thus refreshed, although soaked to the skin, Francesco livened up.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Linguistics Phrase origin Punctuation Usage Word origin Writing

Did ‘y’all’ originate in England?

Q: An article in the online magazine Atlas Obscura suggests that “y’all” may have originated in 17th-century England, not the American South of the 19th century. Do you think so too?

A: The regional “y’all” of the American South isn’t quite the same as the earlier contraction used in England, which has roots in Anglo-Saxon times.

The older usage is simply a contracted form of “you all” and means “all of you.” That sense of “you all” has been acceptable English for a thousand years, but has seldom been contracted.

The related regional “y’all” or “you-all,” perhaps the most recognized feature of Southern American speech, is more flexible and may have been influenced by the speech of slaves from Africa or Scotch-Irish immigrants.

The story begins in Anglo-Saxon days when Old English writers began giving the pronoun “you” a more specific sense by adding “all.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the subject or object pronoun “you” was “defined or made precise by a qualifying word or phrase.”

In the dictionary’s earliest citation for this usage, the Old English eow (you) is made more inclusive by adding ealle (all). In the following passage, eow ealle refers to all the people addressed:

“Ic for Cristes lufe forlæt eow ealle, and middaneardlice lustas swa swa meox forseah” (“I for Christ’s love abandoned you all, and despised the lusts of the world as dung”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.

And here’s the dictionary’s first example of “you all” with its modern spelling: “I longe after you all, from the very hart rote [heart rooted] in Iesus Christ.” From a 1549 translation, by Myles Coverdale and others, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament.

The contracted form “y’all” showed up a century later with the same inclusive sense of “you all.”

Here’s an expanded version of the passage that was cited in “The Origins of ‘Y’All’ May Not Be in the American South,” a Jan. 9, 2023, article in Atlas Obscura by David B. Parker, a professor of history at Kennesaw State University in Georgia:

The captiue men of strength I gaue to you,
The weaker sold; and this y’all know is true,
The free-borne women ransom’d, or set free
For pittie sake, the seruile sort had yee.

From The Faire Æthiopian, William Lisle’s 1631 translation of Αἰθιοπικά (Aethiopica, Ethiopian Story), an ancient Greek romance by Heliodorus of Emesa.

The article originally appeared on Nov. 29, 2022, on The Conversation, a website that publishes the work of academic researchers, and had a less etymologically startling headline: “ ‘Y’all,’ that most Southern of Southernisms, is going mainstream–and it’s about time.”

It’s clear from our expanded excerpt that Lisle contracted “you all” to maintain the iambic pentameter (a line of five metrical feet, each with one unstressed and one stressed syllable). He also contracted the “-ed” ending of “ransomed,” which was formerly pronounced as a separate syllable.

Here’s a conversational example we’ve found in The Goblin, a comedy by Sir John Suckling, first performed in 1638 and published in 1646:

“A race of criples are y’all, Iffue [if you] of Snailes, he could not else have escaped us?”

We’ve seen other early examples of “y’all” used to mean “all of you,” but the contraction was relatively rare in the past.

As for the colloquial Southern usage, the Dictionary of American Regional English describes “you-all” or “y’all” as “a second person pl pron, often including in its scope others known or assumed to be associated with the person or persons addressed.”

For example, a Southerner might say “How are you-all (or y’all)?” in asking a couple, or even a single person, about themselves as well as their family—a wider usage than the earlier “all of you” sense in speaking to a group of people.

(DARE, the OED, and standard dictionaries use the hyphenated “you-all” for the uncontracted Southern regionalism.)

The earliest example of this colloquial “you-all” in DARE is from an 1816 letter written by a New England clergyman on a trip to Virginia:

“Children learn from the slaves some odd phrases; as … will you all do this? for, will one of you do this?” (Letters From the South and West, 1824, by Henry Cogswell Knight).

The first DARE citation for the contracted “y’all” is from a fictional account of life in the rough-and-tumble days of the Republic of Texas. The speaker here is addressing two people: “Ar y’all alive and kickin’ in thar?” (The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha, 1856, by Alfred W. Arrington).

And here’s a DARE citation for the singular usage, from Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education (March 1869):

“The Tennessee lady says … to a friend, as she bids her good-bye … ‘Won’t you all come and see me?’ or, on meeting her, ‘How do you all do?’ meaning only the one addressed.”

DARE notes that “you-all” or “y’all” is also sometimes used attributively, or adjectivally, as in this citation from a letter written during the Civil War:

“I wish this war would end so you all soldiers could get home one more time” (Corpus of American Civil War Letters, 2007, by Michael B. Montgomery and Michael Ellis).

And the regional dictionary says the usage, especially the contraction, is sometimes “used with a preceding qualifier, as all, any, both, some, without of,” as in this example:

“All y’all jes stand back” (from “Ole ’Stracted,” a short story by Thomas Nelson Page, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1886).

Linguists have suggested that the Southern usage may have been influenced by the speech of slaves from Africa or immigrants from Scotland or Ireland.

In “Y’ALL in American English: From Black to White, From Phrase to Pronoun,” John M. Lipski suggests the influence of Black English on the usage (in the journal English World-Wide, January 1993).

And in “The Etymology of Y’all,” Michael Montgomery suggests the influence of the Scotch-Irish phrase “ye aw” (in Old English and New, 1992, edited by Joan H. Hall, Nick Doane, and Dick Ringer).

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Good, best, or well wishes?

Q: I’m mystified by what seems to be the recent use of “well wishes” rather than “good wishes” or “best wishes.” Is “well wishes” really correct? Shouldn’t the modifier be an adjective, not an adverb?

A: The usual expression is “good wishes” or “best wishes,” but “well wishes” has been used for hundreds of years in the same sense.

All three were first recorded in the late 16th century. A search with Google’s Ngram viewer of digitized books indicates that “good wishes” and “best wishes” have alternated in popularity over the years, while “well wishes” has been a distant third.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “well wishes” as “an instance of wishing well to someone or something.” The dictionary says the expression was formed by combining the adverb “well” and the noun “wish.”

Interestingly, “well” has been used adjectivally since Anglo-Saxon times in various constructions indicating good fortune.

In this expanded OED example from the epic poem Beowulf, dating back to as early as 725, the Old English wel is used in the sense of fortunate:

“Wel bið þæm þe mot æfter deaðdæge drihten secean / ond to fæder fæþmum freoðo wilnian” (“Well be he who in death can face the Lord and find friendship in the Father’s embrace”).

The earliest OED citation for “well wishes,” which we’ve also expanded, is from an English translation of a 15th-century Spanish poem about an old man’s reflections on love:

“Thou art that spirit that S. Powle, / Did feele to wrestle with his soule, / And pray’d our Lord to set him free / From such a peeuish enemie of his wel-wishes.” (From Loues Owle, an Idle Conceited Dialogue Betwene Loue, and an Olde Man, 1595, Anthony Copley’s translation of Rodrigo de Cota’s Dialogo Entre el Amor y un Caballero Viejo.)

Oxford adds that the expression is usually plural and “now less common than best or good wishes.” The dictionary also notes the earlier verb “well-wish” (1570), noun “well-wishing” (1562), and adjective “well-wishing” (1548).

As for the more common “best wishes,” the OED defines it as “an expression of hope for a person’s future happiness or welfare, often used formulaically at the end of a letter, card, etc.”

The first citation is from a letter written by the Earl of Essex on Oct. 16, 1595: “This … is … accompanyed with my best wishes, from your lordship’s most affectionate cosin and friend, Essex.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary, doesn’t have an entry for  “good wishes,” and neither do the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an analysis of Psalm 129 in a 16th-century treatise on the Book of Psalms:

“Vers. 8. Teacheth vs, that it is a testamonie of Gods great curse vppon vs to want either the prayers or good wishes of the godly, howsoeuer the world make no account of the one or the other” (A Very Godly and Learned Exposition, Upon the Whole Booke of Psalmes, 1591, by Thomas Wilcox).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

I’m a riddle: Am I ridiculous?

Q: Many riddles are ridiculous. Could “riddle” and “ridiculous” be related?

A: No, “riddle” comes from rædels, Old English for the word game, while “ridiculous” is ultimately derived from ridere, classical Latin for to laugh.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “riddle” in this sense as “a question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning, frequently used as a game or pastime.”

The first OED example is from an Old English translation of the Hexateuch, the first six books of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah plus Joshua). Here’s an expanded version of the citation from Numbers 12:8:

“Ic sprece to him mude to mude 7 openlice næs ðurh rædelsas” (“I speak to him face to face and clearly not through riddles”).

The OED says rædels comes from the Germanic base of rædan, Old English for to read, which originally meant to consider, guess, discover, and foretell as well as to scan writing silently or aloud.

In case you’re wondering, the “s” of the singular rædels was dropped in Middle English on the mistaken impression that it was a plural ending.

As for “ridiculous,” the OED says it entered English through one of two adjectives derived from ridere: the classical Latin ridiculus or the post-classical Latin ridiculosus. Both meant laughable.

The earliest OED citation for “ridiculous,” which we’ve expanded, is from a 16th-century treatise on education. This passage discusses whether the image of God can be in every man if some men are not very godlike:

“If that whiche is in euery mannes bodye were the ymage of godde, Certes thanne [certainly then] the ymage of godde were not onely diuers [diverse], but also horrible, monstruouse, and in some part ridiculouse: that is to say, to be laughed at” (Of the Knowledge Whiche Maketh a Wise Man, 1533, by Sir Thomas Elyot).

Finally, here’s a more recent, expanded example from “Eminent Domain,” a short story by Antonya Nelson, in the Jan. 26, 2004, issue of The New Yorker:

“This same newspaper had announced the arrival of Mary Annie’s first grandchild early the summer before, a little girl, named something fanciful and trendily ridiculous, something that her parents, particularly her mother, Meredith, former dope dealer and hell-raiser, hoped and prayed would suit her as she emerged into the world.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

On jurors and panels

Q: I was in England as part of my sabbatical research and visited an old town hall with a courtroom dating from Elizabethan times. A guide explained that the wooden panels surrounding the jury box were removable and that’s where the idea of empaneling a jury came from. It sounds bogus to me. What do you think?

A: The verb “empanel” comes from the use of the noun “panel” in Middle English for a piece of parchment on which the names of jurors were written.

(The usual spelling of the verb has been “impanel” in American English and “empanel” in British English, but a search with Google’s Ngram viewer indicates that “empanel” is now equally popular in the US.)

In fact, the verb—in both spellings—showed up in Middle English before the noun was used for the typically wainscotted wooden panels of a jury box.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the verb is made up of the prefix “em-”  (“to put (something) into or upon”) and a “now rare” sense of the noun “panel” (“the slip or roll of parchment on which the names of jurors are listed”).

English adopted the verb in the early 15th century from the Anglo-Norman empaneler, which dates back to the late 14th century with the same sense. The post-classical Latin impanellare also had that meaning.

The verb was spelled “enpanel” when it first appeared in Middle English. The earliest OED citation is from a February 1426 entry in the Rolls of Parliament, the official records of the English Parliament:

“All such persones as buth enpanelled to passe in enquestes in þe kyngus court” (“All such persons as be empaneled to serve in inquests in the king’s court”).

The dictionary’s first example with the “impanel” spelling is from a November 1439 entry in the Rolls of Parliament:

“Tho men the which hath estat to thaire oeps … be retourned and impanelled” (“Those men which have property to their use … be returned and impaneled”).

And the first Oxford citation for the “empanel” spelling is from a 1467 list of ordinances governing guilds in the City of Worcester:

“The seid seriaunts [servants] empanelle no man to be in gret inquest” (English Gilds: The Original Ordinances of More Than One Hundred Early English Gilds, 1892, by Joshua Toulmin Smith and Lucy Toulmin Smith).

As for the noun “panel,” it took on its legal sense in the late 14th century. In this OED citation from Piers Plowman (circa 1378), an allegorical poem by William Langland, it refers to a parchment list of jurors:

“Ne put hem in panel to don hem pliȝte here treuthe” (“Not put them in panel [on parchment] to make them plight the truth”).

It wasn’t until the late 15th century that “panel” took on its sense of “a distinct, typically rectangular section or compartment of a wainscot, door, shutter, etc.,” according to the OED.

The dictionary’s earliest recorded example is a 1498 entry in the Ledger of Andrew Halyburton, 1492-1503, edited by the Scottish historian Cosmo Innes in 1867.  Halyburton was a Scottish trade official stationed in Flanders:

“4 dossin of pannellis of rassit vark cost 3 grotis the stek” (“4 dozen panels of raised work [in relief] cost 3 groats [silver coins] apiece”).

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English English language Expression Language Linguistics Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why the ‘w’ is called a ‘double u’

Q: Are you familiar with a rhyme or riddle about a V who meets a W, and asks why he’s called a Double U instead of a Double V, and W replies that he’s “Double you”? I read it as a child, about 50 years ago, and can’t find it anywhere.

A: You’re thinking about a poem that originally appeared in an American children’s magazine near the end of the 19th century.

Here’s an image that accompanied the poem, “V. and W.,” by Charles I. Benjamin, in the May 1885 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine:

“Excuse me if I trouble you,”
Said V to jolly W,
“But will you have the kindness to explain one thing to me?
Why, looking as you do,
Folks should call you double U,
When they really ought to call you double V?”

Said W to curious V:
“The reason’s plain as plain can be
(Although I must admit it’s understood by very few);
As you say I’m double V;
And therefore, don’t you see,
The people say that I am double you.”

But why, really, is the “w” called a “double u” and not a “double v”?

The 23rd letter of the English alphabet is called a “double u” because it was originally written that way in Old English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “When, in the 7th cent., the Latin alphabet was first applied to the writing of English, it became necessary to provide a symbol for the sound /w/, which did not exist in contemporary Latin.”

Latin once had an almost identical sound “originally expressed by the Roman U or V as a consonant-symbol,” the OED says, but “before the 7th cent. this Latin sound had developed into /v/.”

“The single u or v therefore could not without ambiguity be used to represent (w),” the dictionary explains, and so “the ordinary sign for /w/ was at first uu.”

In any case, the “w” sound couldn’t have been represented by a double “v” because the letter “v” didn’t exist in Old English, where “f” represented an “f” or a “v” sound, depending on vocal stresses, according to the OED.

In early versions of “Cædmon’s Hymn,” which originated in the seventh century and is considered the oldest documented poem in Old English, “w” is written as “uu” in uuldurfadur (glorious father) and uundra (wonder).

In Old English, the /w/ sound could appear before the letters “l,” “r,” and “n,” as well as before vowels, but that usage died out in Middle English.

As the OED notes, the silent “w” in the Modern English “write” is a survivor of that usage, as was the “w” in “wlonk” (splendid) in 16th-century Scottish poetry.

Cædmon’s short poem first appeared in writing in Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (“Ecclesiastical History of the English People”), a church history written in Latin around 731 by the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede.

In the next few years, scribes inserted Old English versions of the poem in two copies of the manuscript, now known as the Moore Bede (734–737) and the St. Petersburg Bede (732-746).

Here’s a lightly edited version of the hymn in the Moore Bede (MS Kk.5.16 at the Cambridge University Library):

“Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard / metudæs maecti end his modgidanc / uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes / eci dryctin or astelidæ.”

(“Now we must praise the heavenly kingdom’s guardian, / the creator’s might and his conception, / the creation of the glorious father, thus each of the wonders / that he ordained at the beginning.”)

The text of the poem in the St. Petersburg Bede (lat. Q. v. I. 18 at the  National Library of Russia) differs somewhat, but the use of “uu” in the relevant words is similar: uuldur fadur and uundra.

The two terms are too faint in the Moore Bede to reproduce here, but this is how they appear in the St. Petersburg Bede (uldur fadur is at the beginning and uundra is at the end):

Later in the eighth century, Oxford says, the ƿ (or wynn), a character in the runic alphabet, began replacing the “uu,” and the ƿ eventually became the dominant letter representing the “w” sound in Old English.

An Old English version of the poem from the first half of the 10th century, for example, has the two terms as ƿuldor fæder and ƿundra (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Tanner 10).

In the meantime, according to the OED, “the uu was carried from England to the continent, being used for the sound /w/ in the German dialects, and in French proper names and other words of Germanic and Celtic origin.”

Then in the 11th century, Oxford says, the “w,” a ligatured (that is, joined) form of “uu,” was “introduced into England by Norman scribes, and gradually took the place of ƿ, which finally went out of use about a.d. 1300.”

Since then, the “uu” and and ƿ of “Caedmon’s Hymn” have often been transcribed with “w” (as in wuldorfæder and wundra). However, the terms are spelled with a uu or ƿ in all seventeen Old English examples we’ve examined.

Similarly, the letter “w” frequently appears in transcriptions of other Old English writing in which the letter was originally a “uu” or a ƿ. A common example is Beowulf, an epic poem that is believed to date from the early 8th century.

The oldest surviving Beowulf manuscript, which dates from around the year 1000, spells the hero’s name with a wynn: beoƿulf. Here’s its first appearance in the manuscript (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f 132r at the British Library):

beowulf wæs breme (“beowulf was renowned”)

Getting back to the letter “w,” we’ll let the OED have the last word: “The character W was probably very early regarded as a single letter, although it has never lost its original name of ‘double U.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Why Old English looks so weird

Q: When you rewind to older states of the language, such as Middle English, most words are unrecognizable and some letters too. Granted, back then French also looked different from Modern French, but the letters were the same.

A: You’ll find Old English even more unrecognizable than Middle English. Here are the first few lines of the epic poem Beowulf from a manuscript at the British Library:

HǷÆT ǷE GARDEna ingear dagum þeod cyninga  þrym gefrunon huþa aðelingas ellen fremedon.

A Modern English translation:

What tales we’ve heard about the might of kings in bygone years, the gloried deeds of valor that their brave Dane spearmen wrought.

(The runic letter ƿ [wynn] in that passage sounds like “w.” The runes þ [thorn] and ð [eth] have a “th” sound. The manuscript is a copy from the late 10th or early 11th century of a work believed to date from the early 8th century.)

The earliest French isn’t all that recognizable either. Here are the first two lines of the Séquence [or Cantilènede Sainte Eulalie, a poem that dates from around 880 and is one of the oldest surviving Old French texts:

Buona pulcella fut eulalia. Bel auret corps bellezour anima
Voldrent la veintre li deo Inimi. Voldrent la faire diaule seruir

Here’s the passage in modern French:

Une bonne jeune-fille était Eulalie. Belle de corps, elle était encore plus belle d’âme.
Les ennemis de Dieu voulurent la vaincre. Ils voulurent la faire servir le diable.

And here’s an English translation:

Eulalia was a good girl. She had a beautiful body, a soul more beautiful still.
The enemies of God wanted to overcome her. They wanted to make her serve the devil.

(The poem is from a manuscript at La Médiathèque Simone Veil in Valenciennes, France. The anonymous author describes the death of Eulalia de Mérida, an early Christian martyr from Spain. Each line includes a couplet separated by a punctus.)

You’re right, though, that Old and Middle French are written in Roman letters while Old and Middle English have some runes among the Roman letters. Here’s a very simplified explanation of why early English has those runes and early French doesn’t.

Both English and French are ultimately derived from Proto-Indo-European, a prehistoric language that has been reconstructed by linguists and that is the ancestor of most European and some Asian languages.

English comes from Indo-European’s prehistoric Germanic branch, the source of those strange characters, while French comes from the prehistoric Italic branch, the ancient ancestor of Latin and the Romance languages.

In the early centuries AD, the Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic people used various versions of the runic alphabet (called the Futhark), before adopting the Latin alphabet under the influence of Roman occupation and the spread of Christianity.

However, the Latin alphabet at that time didn’t include letters representing some sounds used by Germanic speakers. So writers of Old English (roughly 450 to 1150) and Middle English (1150 to 1450) supplemented the Roman letters with several runes:

  • æ (called an ash), which sounded like the “a” of “cat”;
  • þ (thorn), which could sound like the voiceless “th” of “thing” or the voiced “th” of “the”;
  • ð (eth), which was used more or less interchangeably with the þ (thorn) for those “th” sounds;
  • ƿ (wynn), an early “w”;
  • ʒ (yogh), which could sound like “y” or like the “ch” of the German ich. (For instance, “niȝth,” a Middle English spelling of “night,” sounded like “nicht.”)

Here’s an inscription, probably dating from the eighth century, written in the Anglo-Saxon Futhark. It’s carved on the Ruthwell Cross, a stone cross in the Scottish village of Ruthwell, which used to be in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria:

ᛣᚱᛁᛋᛏ ᚹᚫᛋ ᚩᚾ ᚱᚩᛞᛁᚻᚹᛖᚦᚱᚨ ᚦᛖᚱ ᚠᚢᛋᚨ ᚠᛠᚱᚱᚪᚾ ᛣᚹᚩᛗᚢ ᚨᚦᚦᛁᛚᚨᛏᛁᛚ ᚪᚾᚢᛗ.

This is the inscription, transliterated into Old English script, with several thorns:

krist wæs on rodi hweþræ þer fusæ fearran kwomu æþþilæ til anum ic þæt al bih[eald]

And here it is in Modern English:

Christ was on the cross. Yet the eager came there from afar to the noble one that all beheld.

The term “Futhark,” by the way, comes from a transliteration of the first six letters of Elder Futhark, the oldest version of the runes:  ᚠ, ᚢ, ᚦ, ᚨ, ᚱ, ᚲ (f, u, th, a, r, k). The ᚦ (called a thurisaz) in Elder Futhark is an early version of the þ (thorn) used in Old English.

Interestingly, inscriptions in Gaulish, the Celtic language spoken in ancient Gaul before Old French, used the Greek alphabet until the Roman conquest in the first century BC, when the Roman alphabet replaced it. Here’s an example from the Musée Lapidaire d’Avignon of a votive offering to Belesama (Bηλησαμα), the Gaulish Minerva:

ειωρου βηλη-
σαμι σοσιν

And this is an English translation by Pierre-Yves Lambert, a French linguist and scholar of Celtic studies:

Segomaros, son of Villū, citizen of Nîmes, offered this sacred enclosure to Belesama.

(Βηλησαμι in the inscription is the dative, or indirect object, of Bηλησαμα.)

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Does a plan ‘gel’ or ‘jell’?

Q: Is it “gel” or “jell”? I offer the following: There’s a point in the process where things start to gel/jell.” I’ve searched several style manuals and usage guides to no avail. Is one of them correct or preferred or to be avoided like the plague?

A: “Gel” and “jell” are two different words with two different etymologies, though they mean the same thing when used figuratively as verbs in a sentence like the one you ask about. The two terms are homophones, words that are pronounced the same but differ in meaning or origin or spelling.

“Gel” is derived from “gelatin” and “jell” from “jelly.” However, both verbs ultimately come from the same Latin source, gelare (to freeze), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Standard dictionaries have separate entries for “jell” (as a verb) and “gel” (as a noun and a verb). When the verb “gel” is used in the past tense or as a participle, the “l” is doubled.

Both verbs are usually defined much the same way. Literally, they refer to a liquid or semiliquid that sets or becomes more solid. Figuratively, they refer to a project or an idea that takes a definite form or begins to work well.

American Heritage, for example, has these definitions and examples for the two verbs when used figuratively:

  • Gel: “To take shape or become clear: Plans for the project are finally starting to gel.”
  • Jell: “To take shape or become clear; crystallize: A plan of action finally jelled in my mind.”

We haven’t found a usage manual or style guide that discusses the two terms, though some standard dictionaries describe “jell” as an Americanism or more common in American English. The New Oxford American Dictionary, for example, says it’s “mainly North American.”

search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that “gelled” is more popular than “jelled.” (The results include both literal and figurative senses.) Additional searches show that “gelled” is more popular in American as well as British English. With those results in mind, we’d prefer “gel” for the verb.

As for the etymology, the story begins in the late 14th century when the noun “jelly” first appeared in Middle English. It originally referred to a glutinous food made by boiling and cooling skin, tendons, bones and other animal products.

And it was originally spelled with a “g” because, as we’ve written before, the letter “j” didn’t become established in English spelling until the 17th century, though it had been used previously in place of “i” at the end of a numeral.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “geli” in the compound “gelicloth,” a cloth to strain jelly: “Et pro iij. vergis tele pro j gelicloth, xviijs.” From an expense entry dated March 20, 1393, in Expeditions to Prussia and the Holy Land Made by Henry Earl of Derby (1894), edited by Lucy Toulmin Smith. The earl was later King Henry IV of England.

The next OED citation, with “gely” as a stand-alone noun, is from a Middle English poem in which animals debate their usefulness to humans: “Of the shepe … Of whos hede boylled … Ther cometh a gely and an oynement” (from Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep, circa 1440, by John Lydgate).

The “jelly” spelling showed up in the 17th century. This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Jelly which we make of the flesh of young piggs, calves feet, and a cocke.” From A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657), by Richard Ligon, an English author who managed and co-owned a plantation on the island.

In the 18th century, the OED says, the noun came to mean “a preparation of the juice of fruit, or other vegetable substances, thickened into a similar consistence,” or “a preparation of gelatin and fruit juices in cubes or crystals, from which table-jellies are made.”

The dictionary cites these two examples from a medical treatise on diets for people with various constitutions and ailments:

“The Jelly or Juice of red Cabbage, bak’d in an Oven” and “Robs [Syrups] and Gellies of Garden Fruits.” From Practical Rules of Diet in the Various Constitutions and Diseases of Human Bodies (1732), by John Arbuthnot, a Scottish author, physician, and mathematician.

When the verb “jell” appeared in the 19th century, it meant to congeal or become jelly. The earliest OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women, published in two volumes in 1868 and ’69:  “The—the jelly won’t jell—and I don’t know what to do!” (Vol. 2, 1869).

The first Oxford example for the verb in its figurative sense of “to take definite or satisfactory shape” is from the early 20th century: “[He] remarked of his countrywomen’s minds that they ‘didn’t jell’; but he possibly, and mistakenly, thought he was talking American” (Daily Chronicle, London, March 20, 1908).

As for “gelatin” (the source of the noun and verb “gel”), it originally referred to the substance that’s the basis of the jelly made from animal tissues. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London for the year 1800:

“In relating the preceding experiments, I have had frequent occasion to remark, that a quantity of that animal jelly which is more or less soluble in water,  and which is distinguished by the name of gelatin, was obtained from many of the marine bodies, such as the Sponges.”

The OED says the noun “gel,” a short form of “gelatin,” appeared at the end of the 19th century as a term in chemistry for “a semi-solid colloidal system consisting of a solid dispersed in a liquid.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from “On the Structure of Cell Protoplasm,” a paper by W. B. Hardy in The Journal of Physiology (May 11, 1899):

“Graham’s nomenclature is as follows: The fluid state, colloidal solution, is the ‘sol,’  the solid state the ‘gel.’ The fluid constituent is indicated by a prefix. Thus an aqueous solution of gelatine is a ‘hydrosol,’ and on setting it becomes a ‘hydrogel.’ ” The reference is to Thomas Graham, known as the founder of colloidal chemistry.

When the verb “gel” appeared in the early 20th century, it meant to become a gel in the scientific sense: “Ligno-cellulose fibre … does not gel so readily by cold mechanical treatment as does cellulose” (Scientific American Supplement, September 1917).

The figurative sense of the verb appeared several decades later: “The combination of drawingroom and documentary failed to gel” (The Observer, London, March 30, 1958).

We’ll end with the hairdressing sense of the noun “gel,” which Oxford defines as “a jelly-like substance used for setting or styling the hair, sold as a jelly.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an advertisement in the journal American Hairdresser and Beauty Culture (July 26, 1958): “Contains miracle deprovinyllol/DEP/styling gel.”

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

Better half (the whole story)

Q: I’m curious about “better halves.” When did the term come to mean spouses?

A: When “better half” appeared in the mid-16th century, it meant “the larger portion of something” or “more than half,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a religious treatise defending the Roman Catholic Church against criticism by the Church of England:

“it woulde well lacke the better halfe of jx. yeres [nine years].” From A Return of Untruths (1566), by the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Stapleton, responding to a treatise by John Jewel, the Church of England’s Bishop of Salisbury.

The usual sense now, which the OED defines as “a person’s husband, wife, or (in later use) partner,” appeared in the late 16th century.

The first citation is from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published posthumously in 1590, four years after the author’s death:

“My deare, my better halfe (said hee) I finde I must now leaue thee” (the dying Argalus is speaking here to his wife Parthenia).

The dictionary doesn’t have any citations for plural versions of “better half.” The earliest examples we’ve found in searches of digitized books are from the 18th century. Here are two of them:

  • “ ‘I am happy to acknowledge, that, though we have no gods to occupy a mansion professedly built for them, yet we have secured their better halves, for we have goddesses to whom we all most willingly bow down.’ ” From Evelina (1778), by the English novelist Fanny Burney. (Lord Orville is speaking to Captain Mirvan.)
  • “I trust the example of our better halfs will tempt the ladies all to emulate those virtues which have made us for ever renounce the follies of fashion, and devote our future lives to that only real comfort which heaven has bestowed on mortals—virtuous, mutual, wedded love.” From The Ton; or Follies of Fashion (1788), a comic play by the Scottish author Eglantine Wallace. (Lord Raymond is speaking to Lady Raymond.)

In case you’re wondering, both “better halfs” and “better halves” were common in the late 18th century, but “better halves” has been the usual plural for the last two centuries,  according to a comparison with Google’s Ngram Viewer.

The OED says the phrase “better half” has had two other senses, “a close and intimate friend” (1596) and “a person’s soul” (1629), but the first is now rare and the second obsolete.

We should add that in the spousal sense, “better half” is often used affectionately or in a semi-humorous way.

Finally, here are a few other alternatives for “husband” or “wife,” and the dates of their earliest OED citations: “spouse” (before 1200), “partner” (1577), “helpmate” (1815), and “ball and chain” (1921).

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