English English language Etymology Pronunciation Usage Word origin

Herbal treatment

Q: I’m a South African and I wonder why Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB. Isn’t this a French affectation?

A: Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB because that’s the way the word was spoken when the Colonists left England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Britons began pronouncing the “h” in “herb” in the early 19th century. Before then, both Brits and Americans pronounced it ERB.

In fact, the word was usually spelled “erbe” for the first few hundred years after it was borrowed from the Old French erbe in the 1200s.

The “h” was added to the spelling later as a nod to the Latin original (herba, or grass), but the letter was silent in English.

Today, Americans pronounce “herb” the way Shakespeare did, with a silent “h,” while the Bard wouldn’t recognize the word in the mouths of the English.

If you’d like to read more about British-vs.-American English, check out my latest book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.

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Why we suck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

A way with words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Graduate degrees

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

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

“Alumnus”: singular, for a male graduate

“Alumna”: singular, for a female graduate

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

“Alumnae”: plural, for female graduates only

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

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

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

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

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English English language Grammar Usage

Should Snow Patrol lie or lay?

Q: I hope you can settle a household dispute. There’s a song by Snow Patrol with the lines “If I just lay here / Would you lie with me and just forget the world?” My mother, a former English teacher, says the first line is yet another grating misuse of “lay,” and it should be “If I just lie here.” I don’t know what this construction is (the subjunctive, maybe?), but it seems right to me.

A: This isn’t a subjunctive issue. It involves an “if” clause followed by a conditional clause.

In a normal sequence of tenses, when the second verb is in the simple conditional tense (“would lie”), the first verb can be either in the simple present (“I lie”) or the simple past (“I lay”).

So that Snow Patrol lyric, from the song “Chasing Cars,” would have been grammatically correct either way.

The fact that the verb is “lie” does complicate things. It’s a minefield! But let’s imagine the same construction using different verbs.

Here are parallel examples using the simple present for the first verb: “If I run, would you run?” … “If I eat, would you eat?” … “If I go, would you go?”

And here are parallel examples using the simple past for the first verb: “If I ran, would you run?” … “If I ate, would you eat?” … “If I went, would you go?”

Of course, there is a subtle difference in meaning. The present tense (“If I lie/run/eat/go,  would you …”) implies “If I do it right now.” But the use of the past tense (“If I lay/ran/ate/went,  would you …”) in this context implies a theoretical time in the future, perhaps only minutes away. 

Assuming that the past tense is what the lyricist intended, the meaning is quite clear. But who says lyricists should use perfect English anyway?

In the words of Ira Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.” (And one of my favorite songs is Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay.”)

The Snow Patrol lyric is complicated by a lot of red herrings. The biggest and reddest, of course, is the verb “lie,” since the separate verb “lay” is identical to the past tense of “lie” and often confused with it. I’ve written about “lie” vs. “lay” before on the blog.

The word “here” is a mini-herring, since it seems to imply the present tense. And the use of “just” is another little red fishie, since it has two meanings: “recently” (which muddles the tense issue) and “simply.”

That’s why I eliminated the herrings in the simplified examples above.

One more note, however, about the use of the conditional “would.” This time we’ll use the verb “sing” to illustrate the correct sequence of tenses:

Present: “If I sing, would you sing?”

Past: “If I sang, would you sing?”

Past perfect: “If I had sung,  would you have sung [conditional perfect]?”

Note that in both past and present tenses, the simple conditional is appropriate for the accompanying clause. (There is no “past conditional.”)

The conditional can only be simple (“would sing”) or perfect (“would have sung”).

With that, I’ll go. Or, as the Snow Patrol song “Run” puts it, “I’ll sing it one last time for you / Then we really have to go.”

[Note: This post was revised on Dec. 12, 2014.]

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

Phoo, pfui, and phooey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English language Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

Why don’t “laughter” and “daughter” rhyme?

Q: Why do words like “caught,” “ought,” “thought,” “bought,” “naught,” “laugh,” and “should” have endings with no bearing on the way the words sound?

A: I think you’ve asked a much larger and more complicated question than you realize!

Our spelling system began as an attempt to reproduce speech. But because most spellings became fixed centuries ago, they no longer reflect exact pronunciations.

As a result, spelling is about more than pronunciation; it also reflects a word’s meaning and etymology and history. And in the case of English words, their spellings often have very idiosyncratic histories hidden within.

You mention “caught,” “ought” and others. The appearance of “gh” in words like these is annoying to people who’d like to reform English spelling. Many wonder, for example, why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme. Well, they once did.

“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter’”) and DAW-ter. We know which one survived.

The Middle English letter combination “gh” is now pronounced either as “f” (as in “cough/trough/laugh/enough”) or not at all (“slaughter/daughter/ought/through,” etc.).

The word “night,” to use another example, went through dozens of spellings over 600 years, from nact and nigt and niht, and so on, eventually to “night” around 1300. It’s a cousin not only to the German nacht but probably to the Greek nyktos and the Old Irish innocht, among many others.

The odd-looking consonants in the middle of “night” (as well as “right” and “bright”) were once pronounced with a guttural sound somewhere between the modern “g” and “k.” But though the pronunciation moved on, the spelling remained frozen in time.

You also mention “should,” a word in which the letter “l” looks entirely superfluous. But the “l” in “should” and “would” was once pronounced (as it was in “walk,” “chalk,” “talk,” and other words).

Same goes for the “w” in “sword” and the “b” in “climb.” They were once pronounced. Similarly, the “k” in words like “knife,” “knee,” and “knave” was not originally silent. It was once softly pronounced. But while pronunciation changed, spelling did not.

There are several reasons that English spellings and pronunciations differ so markedly.

Much of our modern spelling had its foundation in the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500). But in the late Middle English and early Modern English period (roughly 1350 to 1550), the pronunciation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval.

Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift, and it’s too complicated to go into in much detail here. To use one example, before the Great Vowel Shift the word “food” sounded like FODE (rhymes with “road”).

Melinda J. Menzer’s Furman University website can tell you more about the Great Vowel Shift. I’ve also touched on it briefly in a blog item.

While the pronunciations of many words changed dramatically, their spellings remained largely the same. Why? Because printing, which was introduced into England in the late 1400s, helped retain and standardize those older spellings.

Complicating matters even further, the first English printer, William Caxton, employed typesetters from Holland who introduced their own oddities (the “h” in “ghost” is an example, borrowed from Flemish).

In addition, silent letters were introduced into some English words as afterthoughts to underscore their classical origins. This is why “debt” and “doubt” have a “b” (inserted to reflect their Latin ancestors debitum and dubitare).

Sometimes, a letter was erroneously added to reflect an imagined classical root. This is why “island” has an “s” (a mistaken connection to the Latin isola). I’ve written a blog entry about this.

Still other English spellings came about in the Middle Ages when scribes found that the letters “m,” “n,” “u,” and “i” caused readers difficulty because of all those vertical downstrokes of the pen (“m” + “I” was hard to tell from “n” + “u”). So “o” was substituted for “u” in words like “come,” “some,” “monk,” son,” and “wolf.”

Apart from ease of reading, “o” was sometimes swapped for “u” because, as Dennis Freeborn writes in his book From Old English to Standard English, “u was an overused letter. It represented the sound v as well as u, and uu was used for w.”

Another authority, David Crystal, has pointed out that England’s “civil service of French scribes” following the Norman Conquest in the 11th century also influenced the spelling of English words.

Crystal writes in his book The Fight for English that not only did consonants change (the French “qu” replaced the Old English “cw” in words like “queen,” to use just one example), but vowels “were written in a great number of ways.”

“Much of the irregularity of modern English spelling derives from the forcing together of Old English and French systems of spelling in the Middle Ages,” he says.

As you can see, this is a vast subject. In summary, spellings eventually settle into place and become standardized, but pronunciations are more mercurial and likely to change.

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

An exception proves the rule?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Word origin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why “one-off” is one of a kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are we seeing “more” more?

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

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

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

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

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

But relax – those versions are here to stay.

Here’s a little history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Phrase origin

Two index fingers pointing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cotton picking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you find this answer properly cottoned.

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Take a listen, please!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pardon my French

[An updated post about “Pardon my French” ran on Jan. 31, 2014.]

Q: In an old “Seinfeld” episode, George admits his willingness to say anything to impress a woman, including that he’d coined the phrase “pardon my French.” Well, who did come up with this great expression?

A: Mary McCarthy is the first writer known to have used the exact phrase “pardon my French,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel, she puts the words in the mouth of one of her characters: “ ‘Damn fool,’ he said, vehemently, ‘pardon my French.’ ”

But the term “French” has been used euphemistically for bad language since the early 1900s and probably even earlier. In Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909), J. Redding Ware says the expression “loosing French” meant violent language, though he doesn’t give a date for its first use.

James Joyce, in Ulysses (1922), uses “bad French” to mean bad language. More to the point, in All Trees Were Green (1933), Michael Harrison writes: “A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.”

The adjective “French,” of course, has been used in a negative way in English for hundreds of years.

A 1503 citation in the OED, for instance, refers to venereal disease as the “Frenche pox.” The French, naturally, referred to it as the English disease. Touché!

And “French” has been used since the mid-18th century to describe racy novels and pictures. As an example, here’s an excerpt from Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister (1842):

Or, my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.

Belial, as you probably know, is the personification of evil in the Old Testament and a fallen angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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To incent and incense

Q: I recently saw an interview with Carly Fiorina, who kept using the words “incent” and “incenting.” My dictionary has never heard of these forms of “incentive.” Is my dictionary out of date? Or is Ms. Fiorina inventing words?

A: We’ve found “incent” in four standard dictionaries, though two of them (Collins and Oxford Dictionaries online) describe it as an American usage, and Collins adds that it’s “not standard.”

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list it without comment (that is, as standard English).

“Incent” is what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from “incentive.” As you might suspect, it means to provide an incentive or to incentivize.

Although “incent” hasn’t been accepted wholeheartedly by all standard dictionaries, it’s been around for more than a century and a half.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the word appears in an 1840 issue of the Rover, a New York literary weekly:

“Incented by the stupid ambition of an ignorant mother, she thought that the purse of the one was far superior to the heart of the other.”

The next OED citation, dated 1898, is from a British source, Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates: “The noble Lord went so far … as to charge … Mr. Tilak with incenting to murder.”

Back-formations are pretty common in English. Examples of verbs that began as back-formations from nouns are “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “baby-sit” (from “babysitter”), and “curate” (from “curator”).

Among back-formations that are frowned upon by some commentators are “incent,” “administrate” (from “administration”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), “liaise” (from “liaison”), and “orientate” (a mid-19th century back-formation from “orientation,” which itself is derived from a verb, “orient”).

Not every word you find in dictionaries is pleasing to every ear. We, for example, find “administrate” unnecessary since the older “administer” is a perfectly good word.

Though “administrate” doesn’t have any more syllables than “administer,” it’s longer and newer, which may be its attraction for people who enjoy using bureaucratic language.

An example of a back-formation that’s out there but not (yet) in standard dictionaries is “adolesce” (from “adolescence”), as in “He hasn’t finished adolescing yet.”

[Note: This post was updated on July 6, 2016, at the suggestion of a reader.]

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A dilemma inside an enigma

Q: I have a question that has plagued me since childhood: Has the spelling of “dilemma” changed in the past 35 or so years? I could have sworn that it was “dilemna” when I learned to spell in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I remember this because I used to pronounce it phonetically – i.e., “di-lem-na” – as a joke.

A: Welcome to the Twilight Zone!

The word “dilemma,” which has been in English since the 1500s, has always been spelled with a double m. And yet legions of English-speakers from around the world not only spell it “dilemna,” but also (and here’s where Rod Serling steps out from behind a tree) INSIST that their teachers drummed this into them and ridiculed any “mistaken” efforts to spell it with two m’s.

No matter what you were taught, the correct spelling is “dilemma.” The word is derived from the Greek di (twice) and lemma (assumption). What it means, as you probably know, is a choice between two or more alternatives, all unfavorable. (Despite the “di” prefix, the word is now widely accepted as applying to more than two choices.) The alternatives are sometimes called the “horns” of the dilemma.

I’ve checked the Oxford English Dictionary for any variant spellings of the word, but the only “dilemna” I found was in a book on logic written by Thomas Wilson in 1551, and that was probably a typo, since printing was rather primitive in those days and spellings were sometimes arbitrary. I’ve also checked every other dictionary I have, including some bizarre 19th-century ones. No dice. Or, rather, no “dilemna.”

But in googling for “dilemna,” I got hundreds of hits, including the CNN headline “Seoul’s Missile Dilemna,” and in searching the New York Times archive, I found 11 appearances of “dilemna” since 1981.

Mostly, though, I find cries in the wilderness from people (both American and British) whose teachers apparently insisted on the spelling “dilemna” so vigorously that it became engraved on their brains! Who were these teachers and where did they get this harebrained idea? Did they (on both sides of the Atlantic) descend from a single Proto-Teacher born on another planet?

The odd “mn” spelling does have parallels in English: “condemn,” “solemn,” “alumna,” “limn,” “autumn,” “indemnity,” and others. Oddly, I came across many language sites noting that the French for “dilemma” is dilemme, yet the word is widely misspelled in France as dilemne. As one site pointed out, “En effet, la forme ‘dilemne’ n’existe pas.” This gets curiouser and curiouser.

Some things, and this apparently is one of them, are beyond me. I can’t account for the bizarre phenomenon of so very many people being taught – and taught INSISTENTLY – that “dilemna” is correct. If I ever become enlightened on this mysterious subject, I’ll report back!

With apologies to Winston Churchill, this is a dilemma, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

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A pantleg to stand on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is it “-able” or “-ible”?

[Note: A later and more complete post on this subject was published on Jan. 6, 2016.]

Q: Is there a rule for remembering the correct spellings of words ending in “-able” or “-ible”? You know, words like “portable,” “possible,” “manageable,” “delectable,” “suitable.” Hmm… Now I’m having trouble coming up with another “-ible.” Perhaps treating “able” as the norm and remembering the “-ible” exceptions will do it?

A: There’s no rule, exactly, for telling the “-ables” from the “-ibles.” Often a word derived from a Germanic source (Old Dutch, Old Icelandic, Old Norse, and so on) will end in “-able,” like “forgivable,” which comes from Old English.

If a word is derived directly from Latin, however, it might be spelled one way or the other. It generally will end in “-able” if the  original Latin verb ended in “-are.” And it will probably end in “-ible” if  the  original Latin verb ended in “-ere” or “-ire.” 

That accounts for English words like “legible,” from the Latin legere (“read”), “collectible,” from colligere (“gather”), and “potable,” from potare (“drink”).

There are exceptions, though. And not many of us know automatically whether a word is derived from Latin or Old English. Only one thing is certain: there are far more “-ables” than “-ibles.” The best rule to follow is this: When in doubt, look it up.

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Are we losing “-ed” adjectives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heavens to Betsy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A wonky question

[An updated post about “wonk,” “wonky,” and “wonkish” appeared on the blog on July 2, 2014.]

Q: I’m reading an Angela Thirkell novel, High Rising, and one of the characters (young Tony Morland) repeatedly uses the term “wonky” to mean nutty or neurotic. Can you tell me more about the origin of this word?

A: Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) say “wonky” is chiefly British and means shaky, unsteady, or awry.

But many Americans these days use both “wonk” and “wonky” to mean overly studious or obsessed with details – that is, wonkish or nerdy. [See update below.]

The first reference for “wonky” in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1919 citation in which Lord Northcliffe, a newspaper magnate, writes of being “weak, and wonky, as the telephone girls say, after a bad morning with the subscribers.”

When Angela Thirkell wrote High Rising in the early 1930s, “wonky” was well established as an adjective to describe an unstable or unsound person or thing. Kipling, in his last collection of stories, Limits and Renewals (1932), refers to a wonky headlight. And Edgar Wallace, in his novel The Strange Countess (1925), refers to financial accounts “that went a little wonky.”

But where does “wonky” come from? American Heritage suggests that it may be derived from the Old English word wancol, meaning unsteady or insecure.

As for the noun “wonk,” it first appeared in print in 1929, according to the OED, and has had various meanings over the years, including a useless naval hand, a white person, and an effeminate man.

Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, has traced the use of “wonk” for a studious or hard-working person to a 1954 article in Time magazine. He says the usage may have originated at Harvard, where students were called wonks, preppies, or jocks, according to a 1962 article in Sports Illustrated.

The use of “wonk” or “wonkish” to refer to someone obsessed with minute points of policy is relatively recent. The first published reference in the OED is from a 1992 Washington Post article that refers to “a lot of wonkish material” (targeted tax cuts, community policing, education reform).

One apparently dubious suggestion is that “wonk” is “know” spelled backwards. Another is that “wonk” is related to the slang term “wanker,” meaning masturbator. A third is that it’s derived from Willy Wonka, Roald Dahl’s eccentric chocolate maker.

But all this is speculative. Most etymologists say the origin of “wonk” is unknown.

[Update, June 12, 2014: Newer definitions appear in later editions of the dictionaries we cited above. The OED includes this meaning of “wonkish,” which it says originated in American politics: “excessively concerned with minute points of (governmental) policy.” American Heritage (5th ed.) defines “wonk” as  “1. A student who studies excessively; a grind. 2. One who studies an issue or topic thoroughly or excessively: ‘leading a talkathon of policy wonks in a methodical effort to build consensus for his programs.  And the newest version of Merriam-Webster’s 11th says “wonk” means “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field; broadly ‘nerd,’ ” and gives the examples “a policy wonk” and “a computer wonk.”]


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Nerds of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Continuing education

Q: I am curious about the words “continual” and “continuous.” Is there a difference between them and when should each one be used?

A: Many usage guides make this distinction: “continual” means going on regularly or frequently but with breaks in between; “continuous” means going on steadily and without interruption. Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, offers a trick for telling them apart—imagine that the “ous” ending is short for “one uninterrupted sequence.”

These days, however, so many people use the two words interchangeably that the distinction may someday be lost. In fact, a case can be made that the difference between “continual” and “continuous” has never been quite as clear-cut as the sticklers insist.

The word “continual,” for instance, has been used to mean both continuing without interruption and repeated with brief interruptions since the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The 17th-century newcomer “continuous,” the OED says, means uninterrupted or unbroken.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define “continuous” as uninterrupted, but they say “continual” can mean either uninterrupted or recurring regularly.

Because people use both to imply without interruption, it’s better to use “repeated” or “intermittent”  instead of “continual” to describe something that starts and stops.

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English English language Spelling Usage

Resume, resumé, or résumé?

[An updated and expanded post on this subject appeared on Jan. 14, 2015.]

Q: Is the noun “résumé” (someone’s list of accomplishments) so ingrained in English that the accent marks are no longer needed? The only reason I can see for keeping them is so that the noun won’t be mistaken for the verb “resume” (meaning to begin again after an interruption).

A: The document that boasts of one’s accomplishments may be spelled in English either with or without accent marks, depending on which style manual or dictionary is the guide. But the most common spellings seem to use at least one accent. (In French, the word is spelled with acute accents over both e’s.)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists the spellings in this order: “résumé” or “resume,” also “resumé.” (The wording indicates that the first two are equal in popularity, and the third is somewhat less common.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) lists the same spellings, but in reverse order: “resumé” or “resume” or “résumé.” (The wording indicates that the three are equally popular.)

The New York Times stylebook recommends using both accents. So take your pick! (Or opt for “curriculum vitae.”)

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English English language Expression Usage

Why do New Yorkers stand “on line”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stormy weather

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tough row to hoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The great divide

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


Speech Crimes


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

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

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

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

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

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

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Tom, Dick, and Harry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Impacted wisdom

Q: I tried to call you on the radio about the misuse of the word “impact,” but I couldn’t get through. More and more, I hear “impact” used as a verb meaning to affect. This sounds just awful to me. It isn’t correct, is it?

A: The word “impact” has been used since the beginning of the 17th century as a verb meaning to pack together or wedge in or press down. (That’s where our old friend the impacted wisdom tooth comes from!) Since the early 20th century, “impact” has also meant to collide forcefully with something.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that it began meaning to affect. Many authorities frown on this usage. I find it to be particularly obnoxious in the past tense: “My bunion negatively impacted my performance in the marathon.” What’s wrong with “hurt”?

I believe “impact” should be used only as a noun, and “impacted” only in reference to dental work. Most usage experts agree.

That said, I have to admit that many dictionaries now accept “impact” as a verb meaning to have an effect on or to affect. Perhaps this explains why so many people who don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect” resort to “impact.”

I may cringe, but “impact” is slowly making its way into the language as a verb meaning to have an affect or impact on. That doesn’t mean WE have to use it that way. I hope I don’t sound too cranky!

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English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Do you champ or chomp at the bit?

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

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

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

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

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

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Is noon 12 a.m. or 12 p.m.?

Q: The parking signs in my town refer to noon as 12 p.m. Since “p.m.” stands for “post meridiem” (“after noon” in Latin), can 12 p.m. be used for noon itself?

A: The simple answer is yes, but we’d advise against it. By convention, the term “12 p.m.” is used for noon in countries like the US with a 12-hour clock.

For those who argue that noon and midnight are neither a.m. nor p.m., we can only cite the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (online 5th ed.), which has the following usage note with its entry for “PM”:

“By convention, 12 AM denotes midnight and 12 PM denotes noon. Because of the potential for confusion, it is advisable to use 12 noon and 12 midnight where clarity is required.”

(The print version of the dictionary’s 5th edition, which isn’t as up-to-date as the online version, has “by definition” instead of “by convention.”)

We agree that “12 a.m.” and “12 p.m.” are confusing and should be avoided, but one could also argue that “12 noon” and “12 midnight” are redundant. Why not simply say “noon” and “midnight”?

You may be interested in knowing that “meridiem” actually means midday in Latin, and that the terms “noon” and “midday” have not always been synonymous in English.

As the Oxford English Dictionary points out, the word “noon,” dating back to the year 900, originally meant “The ninth hour of the day, reckoned from sunrise according to the Roman method, or about three o’clock in the afternoon.” By the 14th century, according to the OED, the word “noon” had come to mean 12 o’clock.

Although dictionaries usually define “midday” as the middle of the day or noon, it’s often used more loosely than the word “noon.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, we prefer to lowercase and punctuate the terms “a.m.” and “p.m.,” as recommended in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.).

Well, that’s enough noon-sense for now.

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 16, 2015.]

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar

Growing pains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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English English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage Word origin

Who put the “X” in “Xmas”?

Q: I haven’t seen the word “Xmas” much for the last few years, probably because of all the attacks on it as part of a secularist plot against Christmas. In any case, what is the origin of “Xmas” and how did an “X” come to replace “Christ”?

A: Anybody who thinks “Xmas” is a modern creation that represents the secularization and/or commercialization of Christmas should think again. The term “Xmas” has been around for hundreds of years and “X” stood in for “Christ” for many hundreds of years before that.

The first recorded use of the letter “X” for “Christ” was back in 1021, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But don’t blame secularists. Blame the monks in Great Britain who used “X” for Christ while transcribing manuscripts in Old English.

It turns out that the Greek word for Christ begins with the letter “chi,” or “X.” It’s spelled in Greek letters this way: ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. In early times the Greek letters “chi” and “rho” together (“XP”) and in more recent centuries just “chi” (“X”) were used in writing as an abbreviation for “Christ.” Sometimes a cross was placed before the “X” and sometimes it wasn’t.

Thus for nearly ten centuries, books and diaries and manuscripts and letters routinely used “X” or “XP” for “Christ” in words like “christen,” “christened,” “Christian,” “Christianity,” and of course “Christmas.” The OED’s first recorded use of “X” in Christmas dates back to 1551.

One other point. Although the St. Andrew’s Cross is shaped like an “X,” there’s no basis for the belief that the “X” used in place of “Christ” is supposed to represent the cross on Calvary.