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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Did she coin ‘wuss’ and ‘wussy’?

Q: The words “wuss” and “wussy” did not appear for the first time in the 1970s among college students, as you say. In 1966, when I was a junior at Bayonne High School in New Jersey, I asked the boys to use “wuss” and “wussy” because “pussy” made me feel uncomfortable.

A: Etymologists, the people who trace the history of words, generally date the origin of a usage from when the term was first recorded—in newspapers, magazines, books, radio programs, TV shows, and so on. That’s because the first recorded use of a word can be proven.

Most new words show up in speech before they appear in writing or other recorded forms.  You may have inspired the use of “wuss” and “wussy” in their weak or effeminate sense at Bayonne High School in 1966. However, there’s no way of proving this, unless you can provide dated evidence of the usage. For instance, a yearbook or school newspaper from 1966. (Note: She didn’t have such evidence.)

Your email inspired us to look further into the history of these terms. As a result, we’ve found several “wussy” examples from the late 1800s, beginning with its use to mean “pussy” in the feline sense.

The earliest example we’ve found is from an English version of the “Puss in Boots” fairy tale. Here “pussy-cat” and “wussy-cat” are used as rhyming terms:

“Pussy-cat, wussy-cat, with a white foot, / When is your wedding? for I’ll come to’t. / The beer’s to brew, the bread’s to bake, / Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, don’t be too late” (Mother Goose’s Melodies or Songs for the Nursery, 1878, edited by William A. Wheeler).

The next example is from a travel book that refers to two young women with “Pussy” and “Wussy” as nicknames:

“Pussy and Wussy at once took their places on the front seat. It was a little way of theirs always to look out for themselves—at least, Pussy did it, and Wussy followed suit” (The Foreign Freaks of Five Friends, 1882, by Cecilia Anne Jones).

In the early 20th century, the term “pussy-wussy” came to be used as an adjective or noun with the sense of weak, ineffectual, or effeminate. The  earliest example we’ve found uses it in the ineffectual sense.

In a speech on July 14, 1915, the American suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway used the term adjectivally to criticize prohibitionists as “white-ribboned sisters of virtue” who “depend on a pussy-wussy piece of white ribbon for protection from themselves.” (The white ribbon has been a symbol of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union since the 19th century.)

A year later, the term showed up as a noun for an effeminate man. In Drink and Be Sober (1916), a book calling for the prohibition of alcohol, Vance Thompson writes that the prizefighter Jess Willard was “unafraid of being laughed at as a ‘sissy’ or a ‘pussy-wussy’ ” for supporting the temperance movement.

We’re adding a note to our 2016 post about this early etymology. As we say in that post, the terms “wuss” and “wussy” appeared in writing by themselves in the second half of the 20th century, first in the weak or ineffectual sense, and later in the effeminate sense, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest citation in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is for “wuss” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person:

“Come on you wuss, hit a basket” and “John’s a wuss.” From “Campus Slang,” a Nov. 6, 1976, typescript of slang terms collected by Connie C. Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Eble had asked her students to contribute current slang terms on index cards.

When “wussy” showed up in print the following year, it was an adjective meaning effeminate: “Soccer! … What kind of wussy sport is that!” From the Harvard Crimson, Sept. 12, 1977.

A few years later, according to Oxford citations, “wussy” appeared in writing as a noun meaning “a weak or ineffectual person” as well as “an effeminate man.”

The first example uses the term jokingly in the weak or ineffectual sense: “Kong’s a wussy. … That wasn’t him climbing the Empire State Building; that was a stunt ape” (Washington Post, July 18, 1981).

The OED says “wussy” originated with the addition of the suffix “-y” to the noun “wuss.” And it suggests that “wuss” may have originally been a blend of “wimp” and “pussy” used to mean a cat.

However, the evidence we’ve found indicates that “wussy” originated as a rhyming term for “pussy,” and that “wuss” is simply a short form of “wussy.” In fact, “wussy” showed up in English dozens of years before the first OED sighting of “wimp” used to mean a weak or ineffectual person (1920).

As for “pussy,” it originated in the 16th century when the “-y” suffix was added to “puss,” a proper or pet name for a cat.

Oxford’s earliest citation for “puss” used as a cat’s name is from an early 16th-century play: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat / Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.” From Johan Johan the Husband (1533), John Heywood’s comedy about an Englishman who believes his wife is cheating on him with the local priest.

When the suffixed “pussy” first appeared, the OED says, it was chiefly a colloquial term for “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability. Frequently used as a pet name or as a term of endearment.”

The first citation is from a bawdy ballad, perhaps written some time before 1560: “Adew, my pretty pussy, Yow pynche me very nere” (from Jacobite Songs and Ballads of Scotland from 1688 to 1746, edited by Charles Mackay, 1860).

In the late 17th century, “pussy” came to be used for both a cat’s name and the female genitals. The earliest example is from a risqué  song in which the word is used in both senses, Oxford says:

“As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.” From “Puss in a Corner,” in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by Thomas  D’Urfey.

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Why a black swan is a rara avis

Q: Lately I have seen several references to “black swan” meaning an unexpected event or an anomaly. Is this new or just new to me? I can guess how it originated but would love to hear from you about it.

A: The use of the phrase “black swan” to mean a rare or unexpected occurrence ultimately comes from a passage in the Satires of the Roman poet  Juvenal. The Latin passage is also the source of another English term for a rarity, “rara avis.”

In Satire VI,  Juvenal describes a wife with what he considers all the right qualities—looks, charm, money, fertility, and ancestry—as “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno” (“a bird rare on earth and similar to a black swan”).

When Juvenal was writing in the late first and early second centuries, Romans believed that all swans were white, so a black swan would have been an impossibility. We know now, though, that black swans (at least mostly black ones) do indeed exist. More on this later.

When the phrase “black swan” first showed up in Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was used in contrast to emphasize the whiteness of the European swan:

“The swan hatte signus in latyn and olor in grew [Greek] for he is al white in fetheres, for no man findiþ [findeth] a blak swan.” (From John Trevisa’s translation in the late 1300s of De Proprietatibus Rerum, an encyclopedic Latin reference compiled in the mid-1200s by the medieval scholar Bartholomeus Anglicus.)

In the 16th century, the OED says, the usage took on the sense of “something extremely rare (or non-existent); a rarity, rara avis.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from a sermon denouncing sensuality: “Captaine Cornelius is a blacke Swan in this generation.” (Earlier, the virtuous captain’s deeds are praised as “musicke to God.”) From a sermon on Easter Tuesday, 1570, by Thomas Drant at St. Mary Spital, a priory and hospital (lodging for travelers) in Spitalfields, London.

The next Oxford example is from a play that satirizes the theater: “The abuse of such places [ancient Roman theaters] was so great, that for any chaste liuer [liver] to haunt them, was a black swan, & a white crow” (from Schoole of Abuse, 1579, by Stephen Gosson).

In the late 17th century the term “black swan” appeared literally, in reference to Cygnus atratus, a swan that’s native to Australia. It’s mostly black, with a red bill and some white wing feathers.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1698 report in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: “Black Swans, Parrots and many Sea-Cows were found there.” The sightings were in Australia, known at the time as Hollandia Nova, New Holland, or Nieuw Holland, a usage introduced by the Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman in 1644.

As for “rara avis,” when the phrase appeared in English in the early 17th century it meant “a person of a type rarely encountered; an unusual or exceptional person; a paragon,”  according to the dictionary.

The first Oxford example is from The Miseries of Enforced Marriage, a 1607 play George Wilkins: “And by that, thou hast beene married but three weekes, tho thou shouldst wed a Cynthia rara avis, thou wouldest be a man monstrous: A cuckold, a cuckold.”

In the mid-17th century, the phrase came to mean “that which is seldom found, a rarity; an unusual, exceptional, or remarkable occurrence or thing.”

The earliest OED example is from a 1651 issue of the Faithfull Scout, a London weekly:  “Moderation, which may well be intituled the Rara avis of these times.”

Today, according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged, “rara avis” means “a rare person or thing.” The dictionary gives this example from the Atlantic: “that rara avis of politics, a disinterested man.”

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Even so, amen

Q: Merriam-Webster says “even so” means “nevertheless” or “in spite of that.” I’m puzzled by its use in this passage from the King James Version: “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”

A: Although the phrase “even so” means “nevertheless” or “in spite of that” today, it has had several other senses that are now considered archaic.

When the phrase showed up in Old English as efne swa, perhaps as far back as 1,200 years ago, it meant “in the very same way; likewise, similarly,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED citation is from Christ I, a collection of anonymous poems about the coming of Christ:

“Þu eart þæt wealldor, þurh þe waldend frea / æne on þas eorðan ut siðade, / ond efne swa þec gemette, meahtum gehrodene, / clæne ond gecorene, Crist ælmihtig” (“You are the door in the wall; through you the all-wielding Lord / only once journeyed out into this world, / and even so [in that way] he found you, adorned with powers, / chaste and chosen, Almighty Christ”).

The 12 poems of Christ I are in The Exeter Book, a 10th-century collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry. In Critical Studies in the Cynewulf Group (1949), the Swedish scholar Claes Schaar suggests that Christ I may have been written around 800 AD, though not, as some have speculated, by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf.

In Middle English, according to OED citations, “even so” came to be an intensifier “expressing emphatic agreement: ‘exactly so,’ ‘yes indeed.’ ” The dictionary’s first example is from an early 15th-century sermon:

“For lik as oure princes and lordes spoyleth and robbeþ þer suggettus … euen so God suffreþ þe ethen princes to robb and spoile oure lordes” (“For like as our princes and lords despoil and rob their subjects … even so [exactly so] God allows the heathen princes to rob and despoil our lords”). From a sermon written circa 1415 and collected in Middle English Sermons (1940), by Woodburn O. Ross.

In the passage you cite from Revelation 1:7 in the King James Version (written from 1604 to 1611), “even so” is used in the “exactly so” or “yes indeed” sense:

“Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”

The OED cites another example from the King James Version. Here “even so” is used in its “similarly” sense: “As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world” (John 17:18).

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A needy confection

Q: In chapter 4 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Aunt Chloe uncovers “a neatly baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need to have been ashamed.” Could you explain that “need to have been” construction? It doesn’t sound quite right to me.

A: Yes, there is something unusual about that passage from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel. What’s strange is the presence of “to.” The clue here is “need,” which in that sentence is a modal auxiliary and not the principal verb.

“Need” is unusual because it can go both ways. It can be the main verb in a clause (as in “no one needs a car,” “no one needs to drive”) or a modal auxiliary (“no one need drive”).

We’ve written before on the blog about modal auxiliaries (the more familiar ones include “must,” “should,” “can,” and “might”). They’re used alongside other verbs to express things like probability, necessity, permission, or obligation.

When “need” is a modal, it’s not followed by a “to” infinitive. Like the other modals, it’s followed by a bare (“to”-less) infinitive.

This bare infinitive can be the usual simple one, as in “need be,” “need go,” “need leave.” Or it can be the perfect infinitive, as in in “need have been,” “need have gone,” “need have left.

The simple infinitive is appropriate here when speaking of the present or future: “no one need go.” The perfect infinitive is appropriate when speaking of the past: “no one need have gone.”

Which brings us back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In that passage, Stowe is describing something in the past—a cake baked and cooling and waiting to be served. So we would expect to find “a neatly baked pound-cake, of which no city confectioner need have been ashamed.” In the passage as she wrote it, “need to have been ashamed,” the “to” is extraneous.

Is Stowe grammatically out of bounds here? Yes. She’s blending two different forms of “need”: the one that’s a main verb (as in “no one needs to have been”) and the one that’s a modal auxiliary (as in “no one need have been”). However the misuse is understandable.

The truth is that the modal use of “need” is rare in American English, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum.

Another source, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al., says the modal “need” is rare in both varieties of English, though “rarer” in the US than in the UK.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that writers sometimes confuse the two forms of “need”—the main verb and the modal. Here’s how the two differ.

  • As a main verb, “need” is inflected—that is, it changes according to its subject and tense. So “-s” is added in the third-person singular present (“no one needs”) and “-ed” in the simple past (“no one needed”). But the modal “need” is uninflected; it’s always “need.”
  • As a main verb, “need” can have a direct object, such as a noun (“he needs coffee”), a “to” infinitive (“she needs to leave”), or sometimes a gerund (“his shirt needs ironing”). But as a modal, “need” can’t have a direct object; what follows is always a main verb in the bare infinitive (“she need not leave”).
  • As a main verb, “need” can be used with auxiliary forms of “do” (“he doesn’t need coffee,” “did she need to leave?”). But the modal “need” cannot.
  • When it’s the main verb, “need” can be used in any kind of clause—whether statement or question, negative or positive. But the modal is used only in negative statements or in questions. As the Cambridge Grammar puts it, the modal “need” is “restricted to non-affirmative contexts” (the Comprehensive Grammar calls them “nonassertive contexts”).

In those first three respects—verb agreement, complements, and use with “do”—the modal “need” behaves just like “must,” “should,” and the other common modals. But in that last respect—its occurrence only in negatives and questions—“need” is unlike them. Here’s how it works.

Used negatively, it expresses non-necessity or non-obligation, as in “she need not come” … “he needn’t leave” … “nobody need go hungry.” (Or, in reference to the past: “she need not have come” … “he needn’t have left” … “nobody need have gone hungry.”)

Used in questions, it expresses doubt about necessity or obligation: “need she come?” … “need he leave?” … “need anyone go hungry?” (Or, in reference to the past: “need she have come?” … “need he have left?” … “need anyone have gone hungry?”)

Less frequently, the modal “need” is also used in semi-negative statements, those that include “hardly” or “only” or some other negative implication. Examples: “she need hardly speak” … “he need only ask” … “your dad need never know” … “the test is longer than it need be.” (Or, in the past: “she need hardly have spoken” … “he need only have asked” … “your dad need never have known” … “the test was longer than it need have been.”)

You can see why the differing forms of “need” can pose a challenge, especially for speakers who don’t customarily use the modal. And after all, aside from stylistic preferences there’s no pressing need to use the modal here.

For instance, take the sample clause above, the one about the excessively long test. This is how the same thought can be expressed in standard English in different ways.

With “need” as modal: “the test is longer than it need be” … “the test was longer than it need have been.”

With “need” as main verb: “the test is longer than it needs to be” … “the test was longer than it needed to be.”

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Sea chantey or shanty?

Q: Hello, my hearties. My husband, who had a recording company for years, was writing about an album of sea chanties he recorded when his spellchecker changed it to “sea shanties.” Surprised, he typed “sea chantey or sea shanty?” in Google and was told the proper spelling was “shanty.” How does this kind of nonsense take hold?

A: You’d better batten down the hatches before reading on. All 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult consider “shanty” an acceptable spelling of the word for a sailor’s song.

All five of the American dictionaries have entries for “chantey,” with standard variant spellings given as “chanty,” “shanty,” and “shantey.” All five British dictionaries list “shanty” as the only standard spelling, though one includes “chantey” as an “archaic North American” usage.

No matter how it’s spelled, the musical term is usually pronounced the same, SHAN-tee, in the US and the UK, according to the dictionaries.

Interestingly, the word was spelled with both “ch-” and “sh-” when it showed up in English in the mid-19th century. Here are the two earliest examples in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence:

“The anchor came to the bow with the chanty of ‘Oh, Riley, Oh’ ” (Seven Years of a Sailor’s Life, 1867, by George Edward Clark).

“Sailors’ Shanties and Sea-Songs” (an article in Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, Dec. 11, 1869).

As for the origin of the spelling, the OED says the musical terms “shanty,” “chanty,” and “chantey” are “said to be a corruption of French chantez, imperative of chanter to sing.” The dictionary defines the usage as “a sailor’s song, esp. one sung during heavy work.”

Why is an English word derived from the French chantez often spelled “shanty”? Perhaps because “shanty” comes closer than “chantey” to the pronunciation of the French word: shahn-TAY.

However, it’s natural for English words of foreign origin to take on new spellings, pronunciations, meanings, forms, and so on.  For example, why should an English speaker now spell and pronounce “afraid” as effrayé because both terms ultimately come from the Old French verb esfreer?

As for the word meaning a small, crudely built shack, all 10 standard dictionaries agree that it should be spelled “shanty.” It’s also believed to come from a French word beginning with “ch”—in this case, chantier, Canadian French for a hut in a lumber camp.

The OED cites this English translation from the chantier entry in Dictionnaire Canadien-Français (1894), by Sylva Clapin: “an establishment regularly organized in the forests in winter for the felling of trees; the head-quarters at which the woodcutters assemble after their day’s work.”

The first Oxford example, which we’ll expand here, is from the journal of Zerah Hawley, a Connecticut doctor who spent a year in Ohio in the early 19th century.

In an entry dated Oct. 7, 1820, Hawley describes visiting “a child sick of the intermittent fever, whose parents with two children, lived in what is here called a shanty. This is a hovel of about 10 feet by 8, made somewhat in the form of an ordinary cow-house.”

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Is ‘butt’ short for ‘buttock’?

Q: I’ve long wondered about the use of the American word “butt” to denote the backside. Is it simply a shortened form of “buttock” or something else entirely?

A: Although the use of “butt” in this sense is now chiefly an American usage, it originated in British English—first as an animal’s hindquarters and later as the backside of a man.

So which term for a backside came first, “butt” or “buttock”? Probably “butt,” but like so much about language it’s not certain. Here’s the story.

When this sense of “butt” first appeared in writing in the early 15th century (spelled bott in Middle English), it referred to the hindquarters, especially of an animal, or a piece of meat consisting of the hindquarters, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from a recipe for beef and mutton in a medieval cookbook:

“Take fayre Bef of þe quyschons, & motoun of þe bottes, & kytte in þe maner of Stekys” (“Take fair rumps of beef, and butts of mutton, and cut in the manner of steaks”). From Harleian Ms. 279, dated 1430, in the Harley collection at the British Library.

In the 17th century, the term came to be used colloquially in northwestern England to mean a person’s buttocks or anus, according to the OED. The first Oxford example is from Burlesque Upon Burlesque (1675), by Charles Cotton, a satire based on the dialogues of Lucian, a second-century Assyrian who lived in the Roman Empire and wrote in Greek:

“For to behold those goodly horns, / That py’d beard, which thy face adorns, / That single wagging at thy Butt, / Those Cambrils [hocks], and that cloven foot.” Mercury, a god in Roman mythology, is speaking here to his son Pan, who has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat. Mercury is the equivalent of Hermes in Greek mythology.

The OED’s earliest US example for “butt” used to mean the hindquarters is from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1859), which defines it this way: “The buttocks. The word is used in the West in such phrases as, ‘I fell on my butt,’ ‘He kick’d my butt.’ ”

As for which came first, “butt” or “buttock,” the OED says “buttock” was “apparently formed” by adding the diminutive suffix “-ock” to “butt.”

However, the dictionary points out that “butt” was “first attested later” than “buttock” in the hindquarters sense. In other words, “butt” apparently existed in speech, but not writing, before “buttock” was recorded.

The dictionary defines “buttock” as  “either of the two round fleshy masses (comprising the gluteal muscles and surrounding tissues) situated beneath the lower back, that together form the bottom or rump, and support the body’s weight when seated.”

The earliest OED citation for “buttock” is in a description of the fetal position from a medieval treatise on science written around 1300:

“The heles atte buttokes, the kneon in aither eye” (“The heels at the buttocks, the knees in either eye”). From Popular Treatises on Science Written During the Middle Ages, edited by Thomas Wright, 1841.

In Anglo-Saxon days, a much older, similarly spelled word, buttuc, could mean the end of something, a small piece of land, a slope, or a ridge, according to various Old English dictionaries. The -uc ending here was a diminutive, so buttuc apparently referred to a little butt, though butt by itself wasn’t recorded in Old English.

Are the unrecorded Old English word butt and its diminutive buttuc ancestors of the modern words “butt” and “buttock”? Possibly. The OED says the use of buttoc in Anglo-Saxon times “with reference to topographical features, perhaps ‘one of two rounded slopes or banks’ is perhaps implied” by this passage from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:

“Þanon suðriht on ðæne heafodæcer. Of ðam heafdon on ðæne weg. Of ðam wege on ða buttucas. Of ðam buttucon on ðone broc” (“Straight south from the acre at the head of the field. Out of the headland on to the path. Out of the path on to the buttucas. From the buttocon at that brook”).  From a deed dated 1023, published in Anglo-Saxon Charters (1968) by Peter Sawyer. The property was in Evesham, a market town in Worcestershire.

However, the OED adds that the passage “is perhaps more likely to show a different formation,” a ridge or raised strip of cultivated land, a usage that’s now regional in the UK.

We should mention here that there are many other “butt” words in modern English. Here are some common ones: an object of ridicule (“the butt of their jokes”); the thicker end (“the butt of a rifle”); an unburnt end (“the butt of a cigar”); to hit or push (“he butted his head against the wall”; to interfere (“they butted in”); to adjoin (“the house butted up against a bowling alley”).

Most of the “butt” words (including the one for a fanny) ultimately come from a prehistoric root reconstructed as bhau- (to strike), according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

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The singularity of Mother’s Day

[Note: In recognition of Mother’s Day, we’re republishing a post that originally appeared on May 10, 2013.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why fourteen isn’t onety-four

Q: Why do we say “twenty-four,” “thirty-four,” “forty-four,” etc., but we don’t say “onety-four” for “fourteen”?

A: The suffix “-ty” here denotes multiples of ten, so “twenty-four” would be two tens plus four, “thirty-four” would be three tens plus four, and so on.

The “-ty” suffix is used for multiples of two to nine tens. When only one ten is involved, it’s represented by the suffix “-teen.” So “fourteen” would be four plus ten, “fifteen” would be five plus ten, and so on.

This system dates back to Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, where “-ty” was tig, “twenty” was twentig, and “thirty” was þrítig. In Old English writing, “-teen” was –téne, -tīene, etc., “fourteen” was féowerténe, and “fifteen” was fífténe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

You may be wondering why “eleven” isn’t “oneteen” and “twelve” isn’t “twoteen” in Modern English. This usage also dates back to Old English, where “eleven” was endleofan, and “twelve” was twelf.

Although there’s some doubt about the ultimate origin of “eleven” and “twelve,” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the usage comes from prehistoric Germanic: “eleven” from ain-lif (“one left” beyond ten) and “twelve” from twa-lif (“two left” beyond ten).

Finally, we should mention that English has another “-ty” suffix, one used to form nouns denoting a quality or condition, such as “ability,” “certainty,” “modesty,” and “responsibility.” These nouns ultimately come from Latin, though many arrived in English by way of French.

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Textured hair

Q: What is textured hair? And how do I say it in Albanian?

A: We don’t get many requests to translate English phrases into Albanian, but you came to the right place.

As it happens, we know a hair stylist of Albanian origin, so he not only speaks Albanian but he knows all about textured hair. (Pat was one of his clients a few years ago when we lived in Connecticut.)

“There are a few Albanian translations,” says the stylist, Sabit Vrzivoli. The most likely, he suggests, are flok te dredhura (wavy hair) or flok kacurrela (curly hair).

“ ‘Textured hair’ is the description of the curl pattern of the hair, like curly or wavy,” he says. “It’s defined by how tight the curl is. ‘Coarse’ or ‘fine’ describes the thickness or texture of the hair strand.”

The phrase “textured hair” is relatively new, since we haven’t found any published examples older than 1990. It apparently originated in the African-American press and was first associated with black styles, but it has since acquired wider usage in the hair-care industry.

Dictionaries are a bit behind the curve (or wave) on “textured hair.” There’s nothing about it in any of the 10 standard online dictionaries we regularly consult.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no entry for the phrase and no examples of its use. However, the OED does say that in today’s English, the adjective “textured” used without a preceding modifier means “provided with a texture, esp. as opposed to smooth or plain.”

So apparently “textured hair” simply means any hair that isn’t straight. And as the British hair stylist Vernon François has written, that definition takes in a lot of territory.

In a HuffPost UK article entitled “What Is Textured Hair?” (Dec. 9, 2016, updated Sept. 13, 2017), François says there’s been some confusion about the term.

“What I mean when talking about ‘textured hair’ is hair that has some kind of curl pattern to it,” he says. “Basically, hair that is not straight.” He adds that the phrase “is effectively an umbrella term, which can then be broken down into kinky, coily, curly and wavy.”

As we mentioned above, the phrase “textured hair”—with “textured” specifically meaning some degree of curly—is a relatively recent usage.

The oldest example we’ve found is from an African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder (June 30, 1990). Here the phrase is used adjectivally: “When you choose your new hair style, keep in mind that your hair is growing out of the relaxer. Try mini-braids or one of the new textured hair styles.”

In early use, as in these examples from the black press, the phrase was sometimes preceded by “Afro-” or “African”:

“Syreeta [Scott, a Philadelphia hair stylist] used Afro-kinky textured hair to create this look” (Essence, May 2003) … “cultural hair stylists who specialize in grooming African textured hair” (New York Amsterdam News, March 12, 1994) … “these processes have given women the ability to do more with their African textured hair” (Michigan Chronicle, Feb. 22, 1995) … “the special needs of melanin skin and textured hair” (Amsterdam News, Sept. 14, 1996).

But over time the phrase has become more universal, as in this example from the Washington Times, March 8, 2000, about new quarters issued by the US Mint: “The front of the quarter shows George Washington’s stony profile, as usual, but his head is shrunken a bit with more textured hair.”

A September 2016 article in Glamour (“5 Things Every Woman With Textured Hair Should Know”) quoted the New York hair stylist Mia Emilio: “Sixty-six percent of people have some texture in their hair. And the range of curls varies greatly, from wavy all the way to super curly.”

To return to Vernon François and his HuffPost article: “People from all walks of life, all countries, can and do have textured hair. The ‘textured hair community’ is a global one.”

Finally, let’s look at the origins of “textured,” a word that has its etymological roots in weaving. It ultimately comes from Latin, in which textūra means a weaving and texĕre means to weave.

The adjective has existed in written English for only about two centuries. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1888 (“light-textured homespuns”), but we’ve found many uses from earlier in the 19th century. We’ll cite just a couple:

“Thin chalky land, covered with a fine textured turf interspersed with wild thyme, small wild clover, and eyebright, is that which produces the finest wool” (a column of news from England published in a Sydney newspaper, the Australian, Feb. 10, 1825).

“Look in at the ‘Senior’ [a London men’s club], and the broad, coarse, weather-beaten, sail-cloth textured face of Sir John Ross will meet your glance” (an article in the Boston Atlas, reprinted in the Alexandria [VA] Gazette on Aug. 12, 1845).

The adjective was derived from the now obsolete verb “texture,” first recorded in the 17th-century when it meant to weave or to construct as if by weaving. The defunct verb, the OED says, came in turn from the noun “texture,” which meant “the process or art of weaving” when first recorded in the 1400s.

That original sense of the noun is long dead, but it lives on today in meanings that began to appear in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is why we speak of the “texture” of a work of literature, music, or fine art, or say it is “textured”—that is, composed of various strands as if woven.

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Guilty as charged

Q: Do you know the history of the statement “guilty as charged”? I have not been able to find anything relevant from a Google search, so I would love to hear what you can uncover.

A: The Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive etymological dictionary of the English language, is no help here. The OED doesn’t have an entry for “guilty as charged” and the expression doesn’t appear in citations given for any other terms.

We haven’t found an entry for the phrase in legal dictionaries either, though some use it in defining such terms as “conviction,” “no contest,” and “reasonable doubt.” However, two of the ten online standard dictionaries that we regularly consult include the usage.

Merriam-Webster defines it as “having committed the crime one is accused of committing,” and gives this example: “The state will prove that the defendants are guilty as charged.”

Cambridge has two definitions—one uses the term in its legal sense and the other uses it more broadly, often to make light of the so-called charge:

(1) “responsible for doing something illegal that you have been accused of in court: They were guilty as charged and fairly tried, and therefore justice was served.”

(2) “used to admit that what someone has been accused of is true, often when you think this is not really bad: Guilty as charged! I am an Elvis fan!

As far as we can tell, the expression was first used in reference to moral or doctrinal accusations rather than formal legal charges decided in a court.

The earliest example we’ve seen, which uses similar though not identical wording, appeared in a defense of Quakers:

“We are not guilty of idolatry, as charged by our adversary.” (From The Invalidity of John Faldo’s Vindication of His Book, a 1673 treatise by William Penn. Faldo’s book, Quakerism No Christianity, had been published earlier that year.)

Here’s the first written use we’ve found for the exact expression, from a passage arguing that historians are tough on innocent people and easy on guilty ones:

“If these great Men were innocent and honest, they had the hardest Measures that can be received from Historians; but, if guilty as charged, their Memory cannot be too much loaden with Infamy” (The History of Scotland, 1732, by William Gordon).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the term used in reference to a court proceeding appeared in the late 18th century in a libel case involving a newspaper:

“I have no difficulty in saying, that if I had in my soul the slightest idea that they were guilty as charged in the information, of malicious and wicked designs, I should leave the talk of defending them to others” (The Case of Libel, the King v. John Lambert and Others, Printer and Proprietors of the Morning Chronicle, 1794, published by John Debrett).

Finally, our searches indicate that the figurative use of “guilty as charged” to make light of an accusation showed up in the late 19th century.

The earliest example we’ve found is from the March 12, 1898, issue of the Weekly Messenger in St. Martinville, LA. An article on page one dismisses handbills (“dodgers”) claiming that a local boycott is driving a five-and-dime (“racket store”) out of business:

“Murder! said the dodgers of a racket store lately opened in the lower part of Main street. And ‘Guilty as charged’ is the next line. In our estimation if this business is murdered by our home people it is because he is ‘guilty’ of an unpardonable mistake. … He circulated dodgers that were printed in New Iberia when there are two printing offices in St. Martinville.”

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‘The coronavirus’ or ‘coronavirus’?

Q: It’s everywhere but how do we say it? It’s “a coronavirus,” but many people refer to it as “the coronavirus.” It seems obvious that we shouldn’t use the definite article. We also need to consider that the virus is actually SARS-CoV-2.

A: Scientists and the general population often use different terms for the same thing. In fact, scientists themselves often use a clipped form of a cumbersome technical term.

The name of the virus, “SARS-CoV-2,” for example, is an abbreviated version of “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.” And the name of the disease, “Covid-19,” is short for “coronavirus disease 2019” (the year it emerged).

However, in general, nontechnical English, as you’ve noticed, the disease and the pathogen that causes it are often referred to as “the coronavirus.”

We see this as simply an elliptical, or shortened, way of saying “the new [or novel or 2019] coronavirus.” Using the article makes the noun particular, so that it means the one of current concern.

Neither the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, nor any standard dictionary comments specifically on the use of articles with the noun.

However, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) consistently uses “the coronavirus” in an explanatory essay: “a pandemic like the coronavirus” … “words related to the coronavirus” … “the difference between the coronavirus and the plague,” and so on.

You have to recognize that the nontechnical usage is still a work in progress. News organizations have reported on the current pandemic for only a few months, sometimes using “the coronavirus” and sometimes only “coronavirus.”

A search of newspaper and news agency archives suggests that we’re now seeing a preference for “the.” In the April 25 edition of the New York Times, for instance, we found many more noun uses of “the coronavirus” than just “coronavirus.” Here’s a small sampling:

“deaths linked to the coronavirus” … “the coronavirus has added danger” … “without catching the coronavirus” … “died of complications of the coronavirus” … “the fallout of the coronavirus” … “the fight against the coronavirus” … how the coronavirus behaves.”

As you know, there are dozens of pathogens called coronaviruses, and different ones cause different diseases, also called coronaviruses. These illnesses range from the common cold to SARS and now Covid-19.

When people use the term “coronavirus,” it’s often difficult to tell which is meant, the disease or the virus. But in most cases that makes little practical difference.

Again we’re talking here about nontechnical English, as opposed to the more specific terms used in scientific language (which we’ll get to in a moment). But nontechnical doesn’t mean nonstandard English.

Nearly all American and British dictionaries recognize “coronavirus” as standard English for a virus of this kind. And two of them have recently expanded their definitions to include a disease caused by such a virus.

Right now there are entries for “coronavirus” in nine out of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. All nine (five American and four British) define it as a noun meaning one of the family of viruses known as coronaviruses.

And two (one American, one British) add that it also means a disease caused by one of those viruses. Here, for instance, are Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “coronavirus”:

“1: any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections, infect birds and many mammals including humans, and include the causative agents of MERS, SARS, and COVID-19.”

“2: an illness caused by a coronavirus, especially COVID-19.”

The British dictionary Macmillan also has both definitions. For #2, it says the word appears “in general use to refer to the disease Covid-19 that is caused by a novel type of coronavirus.”

We expect that as time goes by, more standard dictionaries will recognize definition #2, with “coronavirus” meaning a disease, especially Covid-19. (On our blog, we capitalize only the “C,” as do many news organizations, including the New York Times.)

For now, the OED has only the virus definition. Its entry was last updated in 2008.

Oxford defines “coronavirus,” as “any member of the genus Coronavirus of enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses which have prominent projections from the envelope and are pathogens of humans, other mammals, and birds, typically causing gastrointestinal, respiratory, or neurological disease.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a scientific report in the journal Nature (Nov. 16, 1968): “In the opinion of the eight virologists, these viruses are members of a previously unrecognised group which they suggest should be called the coronaviruses, to recall the characteristic appearance by which these viruses are identified in the electron microscope.”

Viewed microscopically, the viruses are roundish and have projections forming a “corona” like that seen during a solar eclipse (the Latin noun corona means a crown or wreath).

In scientific as opposed to general English, “coronavirus” isn’t normally used by itself, without any modifiers, to mean the virus or the disease of the current pandemic.

The virus’s official name, announced on Feb. 11, 2020, by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” abbreviated as “SARS-CoV-2.”

As for the disease, its official name, announced the same day by the World Health Organization, is “COVID-19,” an abbreviation of “coronavirus disease 2019.”

The two international agencies, according to the WHO, “were in communication about the naming of both the virus and the disease.” But in its own communications with the public, the WHO says it won’t use the official taxonomic name of the virus (“SARS-CoV-2”), instead using more general terms like “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus.”

The agency decided this in part, it says, because “using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003.”

The disease SARS (for “severe acute respiratory syndrome”) is now inactive. But outbreaks of MERS (officially “Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus,” or “MERS-CoV”), were still being reported in late 2019 in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, according to WHO reports.

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Why bacon strips are ‘rashers’

Q: At breakfast on Shrove Tuesday, we had a big platter of bacon strips, and wondered, “Why do you suppose they’re called rashers?” So I checked to see if you’d covered that topic and came up dry. Is this worth a column?

A: Yes, indeed. As you already know, a “rasher” is a strip of bacon, and “rashers” means several strips (who can eat just one?).

The usage is chiefly British, according to some standard dictionaries, and like you we’ve sometimes wondered where it comes from. As it happens, etymologists have wondered too, but they haven’t come up with an ironclad answer.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the word is “of uncertain origin” but it does point readers to a likely source: the now obsolete verb “rash,” meaning to slice or cut.

That old verb, the dictionary says, may be derived from a defunct meaning of the verb “raze” (to scrape or shave off), from rādere, which is “scrape” in Latin.

If that’s the origin of “rasher,” then it perhaps originally referred “to the practice of scoring a slice of meat before grilling or frying it,” the OED adds.

However it developed, the noun “rasher” has existed in writing since the 1500s, and its original definition hasn’t changed over the centuries. Oxford defines it as “a thin slice or strip of bacon, or (less commonly) of other meat,” either cooked or intended to be cooked “by grilling, broiling, or frying.”

In early times, “rashers” were evidently cooked over coals, as in the OED’s earliest example: “If I venture vpon a full stomacke to eat a rasher on the coales” (from John Lyly’s Elizabethan comedy Sapho and Phao, 1584).

The dictionary has several similar examples involving coals, including these from the poetry of John Dryden: “snatch the homely Rasher from the Coals” (1678), and “Rashers of sindg’d bacon on the coals” (1700).

Occasionally, the word has been applied to other cuts of meat, as in these OED citations: “A rasher of Mutton or Lambe” (1623); “some rashers of pork” (1756); “Great rashers of broiled ham” (1841); and “rashers of smoked whale” (1861).

By extension, the word has also been used to mean “a slice or portion” of any other food, the OED says. Its examples include “a Cherry-Tart cut into Rashers” (1634); “a rasher of watermelon” (1890); and “a rasher of light bread” (1965).

You may be wondering whether there’s a connection between “rasher” and two familiar English words—the medical noun “rash,” for a skin condition, and the adjective “rash,” meaning impetuous or foolhardy. Well, the answer is mixed.

The noun “rash” is probably related to “rasher,” though very distantly.

The medical term came into English in the late 17th century, Oxford says, “probably” from an obsolete French word for a skin eruption (rache or rasche). That French noun, like the later verb racher (to scrape or scratch), ultimately comes from the Latin verb rādere (to scrape), which we mentioned above as a possible ancestor of “rasher.”

This is the OED’s earliest known use of “rash” in the medical sense: “Measles, Small-pox, Red-gum, Rash, Blasts, spotted, viz. Red and Purpre Fevers” (Gideon Harvey’s A Treatise of the Small-pox and Measles, 1696).

Harvey uses the word many times in his treatise, so we’ll also give this more colorful passage: “He that mistakes a Rash (a term of art used by Nurses) for the Measles or Small-pox, can be no other than an illiterate drunken bold Fool.”

The medical term led to a later figurative use, meaning an outbreak or a spate of something, “esp. something unwelcome or undesirable,” as the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest example is of raindrops upon a woman’s skin: “Wet through and through: with her feet squelching and squashing in her shoes whenever she moved; with a rash of rain upon her classical visage” (Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, 1854).

Among the dictionary’s later examples are “a rash of diminutive chapels”  (1871); “a perfect rash of [labor] strikes” (1929); and “a rash of exclamation marks” (1980).

The adjective “rash” is another story. It comes from Germanic, not Latin, and it’s not related to either of the nouns. Here’s the OED definition: “Hasty, impetuous; acting or speaking without due consideration or regard for consequences; reckless, thoughtless, foolhardy.”

This word is also older than the nouns. It was first recorded in The Pearl, an allegorical poem written in Middle English in the late 14th century (some date it from around 1350). Here’s the passage, as cited in the OED: “Of raas þaȝ I were rasch and ronk, Ȝet rapely þerinne I watz restayed” (“Though I rushed, rash and headstrong, / Yet quickly I was restrained in my course”).

The word may be older than that, however. Oxford says the Middle English adjective was “probably” a form of an earlier one that existed in Old English but hasn’t been found in writing. The dictionary points to similar words in other Germanic languages, including rasch in older as well as modern forms of Dutch and German.

Before we go, a note about that scratchy Latin verb rādere (scrape), the probable ancestor of the nouns “rash” and “rasher.” It’s also the ultimate source of “abrade,” “erase,” “razor,” and perhaps “rascal” and “rapscallion,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

As we all know, rascals and rapscallions are people who take more than their share of the bacon.

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A flight of chardonnays

Q: In recent years, I’ve observed “flight” used in restaurant menus for a selection of alcoholic drinks in a wine, beer, or whiskey tasting. Where does this usage come from?

A: The word “flight” has been used for centuries as a collective term for an airborne group of things—birds, insects, angels, arrows, even clouds.

In this usage, which began appearing in the mid-1200s, “flight” means “a collection or flock of beings or things flying in or passing through the air together,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But “flight” as a restaurant term for a sampling of foods or drinks is much more recent, dating from the late 1970s. The OED defines this sense as “a selection of small portions of a particular type of food or drink, esp. wine, intended to be tasted together for the purpose of comparison.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is about a wine tasting: “There were four flights of wines, as they say in the trade, four spätleses, four ausleses, four beerenausleses and four trocks [trockenbeerenausleses]” (New York Times, March 29, 1978. The terms describe late-harvest wines of varying sugar content).

The OED also has this example in which the “flight” is a selection of edibles: “They turned the dinner into a smoked salmon tasting…. Each flight of the tasting was garnished differently” (Washington Post, Dec. 14, 1983).

We’ll end with a flight of alcoholic examples from the OED:

“An inviting line-up of the famous single malt whiskeys available in tasting flights” (Sydney Morning Herald, June 17, 1997).

“The tasting bar offers three to six flights of wine in several categories: classic, prestige, all white, and all red” (Wine Lover’s Guide to Wine Country, by Lori Lyn Narlock and Nancy Garfinkel, 2005).

Cheers!

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A little off the fringe?

Q: Recently I came across an old postcard that offers advice to young men on how to choose a wife. Tip No. 3 says, “SEE that she has One Nose, One Mouth, One Tongue (a short one), One Fringe, and one only.” I am curious about this use of “fringe.” Any clues?

A: Sexism aside, how is “fringe” being used on that vintage postcard, and what’s the joke?

In searching for clues as to its origin and date, we found the card you’re probably referring to on a collectors’ site, and fortunately there are front-and-back images.

On the front side, one tip for choosing a wife suggests a reward of “£ 1000” for “a Girl who can Cook like Mother.” And the reverse side reads, “Affix Half-penny Stamp.”

Since British currency is mentioned, along with halfpenny stamps (which were used in Britain from 1870 into the mid-1930s), we know the card was printed in Britain between 90 and 150 years ago.

So “fringe” is meant in the British sense—a section of hair cut short across the forehead. In other words, what we in the US would call “bangs” (more on that later).

But why the advice to seek a wife with “One Fringe, and one only”? Our guess is that it means she shouldn’t have facial hair—that is, a second “fringe” on her upper lip or chin. Well, that’s vintage humor for you.

The hair sense of “fringe”—that is, bangs—originated in 19th-century British English and is still used in Britain today.

This sense of “fringe” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a portion of the front hair brushed forward and cut short.”

The earliest example we’ve found is from an Australian newspaper in the 1860s: “There was something noble and majestic in his tall and upright form, his stately head and weather-beaten face, with its shaggy white eyebrows and the fringe of white hair that hung about his high forehead” (Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 1863).

The OED’s earliest examples are from the 1870s and come from England or Scotland. The first is from an advertisement in an illustrated magazine aimed at women: “Curled or waved fringes for the front hair” (the Queen, July 29, 1876).

This OED citation is from a periodical published a couple of years later: “None of that affected ‘Grecian fringe’ with which modern ‘girls of the period’ strive to hide what little forehead they possess” (Cassell’s Family Magazine, 1878).

However, “fringe” was used decades earlier to mean a man’s facial hair, as in this OED citation for “Newgate fringe,” a term for a beard that survived well into the 20th century:

“I seized my best razor, and, as a great example, shaved off the whole of the Newgate fringe from under my chin!” (from a letter of Charles Dickens, Oct. 25, 1853).

This sighting, which we found in an Australian newspaper, refers to a mustache: “The mouth is large and wide; the lips are hideous, clothed with a scanty fringe of hair” (from the Empire, Sydney, July 10, 1862).

The grooming use of “fringe” is one of several senses that have developed from the original, centuries-old meaning of the word in English—an ornamental border. Etymologists say the word’s medieval ancestor is a word in colloquial Latin, frimbia, an alteration of the classical Latin fimbria (border).

The noun came into Middle English by way of Old French (frenge) and was originally spelled “frenge.” (The change in later English from “e” to “i” was normal before a soft “j”-like sound, the OED says, noting the similar cases of “hinge” and “singe.”)

When first recorded in the 14th century, “fringe” meant a narrow ribbon or band with threads attached, either dangling or gathered in tassels or twists, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s earliest example is a 1327 entry in the wardrobe and household accounts of King Edward III: “14 uln. frenge, serico nigro, per uln’, 3d.” (The entry is for 14 ulns of black silk fringe at 3 pence per uln. Here “uln”—short for “ulna,” the long bone of the forearm—was an archaic unit of measurement something like the “ell,” “eln,” or “cubit,” all based on the length of a man’s arm or parts of it.)

In medieval times, a “fringe” could be used to ornament such things as garments, helmets, or a saddle, as in this example: “A sadel Þat glemed ful gayly with mony golde frenges” (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a romance from the late 1300s).

In later centuries, other meanings of “fringe” developed, and they too are still in use today.

For instance, since the first half of the 17th century, “fringe” has been used to mean something marginal or existing on the edge, figuratively or literally. This accounts for uses like “the fringes of Paris,” “the fringe of society,” “fringe theater,” “the fringe vote,” and so on.

And since the latter half of the 17th century, “fringe” has been used for something resembling an edge or border, especially if broken or serrated, as in “a fringe of foam” on a beach or “a fringe of trees.”

Getting back to hair, we’ve written before about “bangs,” a 19th-century American noun derived from the equine term “bangtail.”

In a 2011 post, we say a “bangtail” is an animal’s tail that’s been grown long, then cut straight across horizontally and abruptly (as if with a “bang!”). The word can also be a noun for the animal itself (usually a horse), or an adjective, as in “a bangtail mare.”

The horse in question might even be pulling a surrey with fringe on top!

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To internet, or not to internet?

Q: I saw this in a New York Times article the other day: “The Virus Changed the Way We Internet.” And this was the tagline of a recent Bayer TV commercial: “This is why we science.” Am I just an old fogy or can any noun be turned into a verb these days?

A: You won’t find the verbs “internet” or “science” in standard dictionaries, but there’s a case to be made for the verbing of the noun “internet.” In fact, the verb showed up in print just a year after the noun, though not in the sense you’re asking about.

When the noun “internet” first appeared in 1975, it referred to “a computer network comprising or connecting a number of smaller networks,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. When the verb appeared in 1976, it meant “to connect by means of a computer network.”

The usual sense of the noun now—a global computer network that allows users around the world to communicate and share information—evolved over the 1980s and ’90s. The verb took on the sense you’re asking about—to use the internet—in the 1990s.

Here are the two earliest OED citations for the verb used in that way: “A number of providers want you to Internet to their services” (Globe & Mail, Toronto, May 13, 1994) … “I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat. I just internetted” (Associated Press, Aug. 21, 1994).

Oxford doesn’t include a usage label that would suggest the verb is anything other than standard English. However, none of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have an entry for “internet” as a verb. (The collaborative Wiktionary includes it as an “informal” verb meaning to use the internet, and offers this example: “Having no idea what that means, I am internetting like mad.”)

As for the verb “science,” we couldn’t find an entry for it in either the OED or standard dictionaries. However, Oxford and four standard dictionaries include the adjective “scienced” as a rare or archaic usage.

Oxford describes the adjective as “now rare” when used to mean “knowledgeable, learned; skilled or trained in a specified profession or pursuit; (in later use also) adopting a scientific approach.” It says the term is “now somewhat archaic” when used in the sense of “well versed or trained in boxing.”

(Wiktionary includes the “colloquial, humorous” use of the verb “science,” meaning “to use science to solve a problem.” It also includes the adjective “scienced,” meaning “knowledgeable, learned; skilled or trained in a specified profession or pursuit.” It doesn’t cite any examples.)

Speaking for ourselves, we aren’t likely to use “internet” or “science” as a verb, at least not yet. Neither usage is widespread enough. However, we see nothing wrong in principle with the verbing of nouns. In a 2016 post, we defended it as process that dates back to the early days of English.

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When Harry met ‘high maintenance’

Q: Someone mentioned to me that the terms “high maintenance person” and “transitional relationship” come from the film When Harry Met Sally. I find no confirmation of this. Do you have any information about it?

A: No, those expressions didn’t originate with the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally. In fact, the 1988 screenplay, by Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner, and Andrew Scheinman, doesn’t include the exact phrase “high maintenance person” or “transitional relationship.” But the film, directed by Reiner, uses similar wording and may have helped popularize the two usages.

In the film, Harry (played by Billy Crystal) says, “There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.” Sally (Meg Ryan) later asks, “Which one am I?” And Harry responds, “The worst one. You’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”

In another scene, Sally tells her friend Marie (Carrie Fisher): “Look, there is no point in my going out with someone I might really like if I met him at the right time but who right now has no chance of being anything to me but a transitional man.” Later, Sally tells Harry that her ex-boyfriend is marrying a paralegal in his office: “She’s supposed to be his transitional person, she’s not supposed to be the one.”

The phrase “high maintenance” has been used adjectivally since the early 1980s to describe someone “requiring a great deal of care or attention; esp. very demanding or fussy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED citation refers to a child with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder in which bones break easily: “An O.I. child is a high-maintenance child” (from People Weekly, April 19, 1982).

The first Oxford example for the expression used to describe a demanding adult is from an essay on friendship: “None is what I think of as a high-maintenance friend—someone, that is, who requires regular ministering to in the form of visits, daily telephone calls, or lengthy letters” (from “A Former Good Guy and His Friends,” an essay by Joseph Epstein, writing under the name Aristides in the spring 1985 issue of American Scholar).

The OED doesn’t include the expression “transitional relationship,” nor does it have any citations for “transitional” used to modify “man,” “woman,” or “person,” as the adjective is used in When Harry Met Sally. However, we’ve found two examples for “transitional person” from well before the movie opened:

“A transitional person performs the same role as the confidant, but sticks around longer. It can be a lover, a child, a lawyer or a good friend. No matter what, they’re on your side” (from “The Stages of Splitting Up,” Washington Post, Sept. 30, 1986).

“Eventually, the initiator may find a ‘transitional person,’ someone helpful in the separation process. ‘Usually people think of the transitional person as a lover, but it also may be an acquaintance, a counselor or therapist, a minister or even a brother or sister,’ Dr. [Diane] Vaughan said” (from “Drifting Apart: A Look at How Relationships End,” New York Times, Dec. 8, 1986).

The earliest example we’ve found for the expression “transitional relationship” used in the sense we’re discussing is from a self-help book on romantic relationships, published the year the movie opened:

“The distinguishing characteristic, then, of the transitional relationship is that it reflects growth, often profound growth. It allows a great leap ahead, that clear forward movement toward the close-to-perfect, enduring, perhaps permanent love” (Choosing Lovers, 1989, by Martin Blinder).

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Link, a bendable word

Q: There was a headline describing something as “linked with” cancer. I thought it should have said “linked to” cancer. But I am not sure why or if both are permissible.

A: Both prepositions are acceptable. You can link something “to” or “with” something else. In fact, the “with” usage is somewhat older, though writers have used both prepositions for hundreds of years.

Before we discuss the prepositions, let’s look at the history of “link,” which is ultimately derived from kleng-, a reconstructed prehistoric root meaning to bend or turn, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

That ancient Proto-Indo-European term gave Old English the noun hlęnce (plural hlęncan), meaning armor or a coat of mail.

Then it gave Middle English (by way of Old Norse) the word lynk, lynke, linke, etc., a noun for a section of a chain, and in the plural, chains or fetters.

Finally, lynk and its variations led to the Middle English verb linken, meaning to bind or fasten things together.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the bending sense of the prehistoric root “implies ‘joints’ and ‘links,’ and this is the meaning which the word is presumed to have had when it passed into Old Norse as hlenkr—from which English acquired link.”

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have any Old English citations for hlęnce or hlęncan used to mean armor, but here’s an example and a translation from the Boswell-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary:

“Moyses bebeád … frecan árísan habban heora hlencan … beran beorht searo” (“Moses bade the warriors arise, take their coats of mail, bear their bright arms”). From a retelling of Exodus in the Junius Manuscript, believed written in the late 900s. We’ve added ellipses to show where words in the original manuscript are missing from the Boswell-Toller citation.

The first OED citation for the noun “link” is from a poem based on an Aesop fable: “Thinkand thairthrow to lok him in his linkis” (“Think and thereby lock him in his chains”). From “The Fox, the Wolf and the Husbandman,” in The Morall Fabillis of Esope, circa 1480s, by the Scottish poet Robert Henryson.

In the 16th century, the noun took on the more general sense of a connecting part, whether literal or figurative. In the first Oxford example, “link” refers to a political marriage: “A conuenient mariage … whiche should be a lincke necessary, to knit together the realme of Scotlande and England.” From The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall.

As for the verb “link,” the OED says it’s derived from the noun “though recorded somewhat earlier.” In other words, the verb appeared first in writing but it’s believed to have come from the earlier use of the noun in speech.

The earliest citation for the verb is from a poem about the friendship between two merchants: “In love he lynketh them that be vertuous.” From “Fabula Duorum Mercatorum” (“Tale of Two Merchants”), written sometime before 1412 by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.

Getting back to your question about prepositions, the earliest OED example for “link with” is from a poem by Lydgate about the rise and fall of Troy: “So was malice linked with innocence” (Troy Book, written from 1412 to 1420).

The first “link to” citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an allegorical poem in which spiders and flies stand for opposing Protestants and Roman Catholics during the 16th-century reign of Queen Mary I:

“Our chaine / That lingth [linketh] vs to credence: is not auctoritie [authority], / But good vse of auctoritie, by honestie” (The Spider and the Flie, 1556, by John Heywood).

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Is the pun in the pudding?

Q: In your discussion of “the proof is in the pudding,” you seem to have missed the pun. Puddings, as in doughs, etc., require proofing before baking.

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but there are several problems with your suggestion.

First of all, the word “proof” in bread baking means to make dough rise by means of yeast. And yeast is not normally an ingredient in puddings—even ones that are baked.

Second, that old proverb—“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”—dates from the early 1600s, as we wrote in our 2012 post. There, “proof” is a noun meaning something like a test. But “proof” in the culinary sense, a verb, wasn’t recorded until the second half of the 19th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

And third, “pudding,” a word dating from the Middle English of the late 13th century, originally meant a kind of sausage—that is, an animal’s stomach or intestine, stuffed with various ingredients and boiled.

This sense of “pudding” survived into the late 19th century, as we wrote in a 2016 post (even today, the Scottish dish haggis is sometimes referred to as a “pudding”). So the “proof of the pudding” proverb was probably about sausage.

Over time, of course, “pudding” was also used for other sorts of savory and sweet dishes. But it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that it arrived at its most common meanings in American and British English today.

In the US, it means a sweet dessert of a custard-like consistency, a sense first recorded in the 1890s.

In the UK, it means any sweet dessert, a usage first recorded in the 1930s. An unsweetened exception is Yorkshire pudding, a dumpling-like side dish made of batter (not dough), and no yeast.

So if puddings aren’t made with yeast, what does “proof” mean in the old proverb? Well, it’s not about baking.

As the OED explains, the noun as used in the proverb originally meant a “test” but is “now sometimes understood” to mean “evidence.” And “the proof of the pudding”—a popular phrase derived from the longer proverb—means “that which puts something to the test or (in later use) proves a fact or statement.”

As we mentioned earlier, the kitchen use of “proof” is much more recent than the proverb. This baking term (as in “to proof dough”) appeared in the 1870s, a couple of decades after a similar use of “prove” (as in “the dough proved quickly”).

“Proof” here is a transitive verb (one requiring an object) while “prove” is an intransitive verb (one that doesn’t require an object).

The OED defines “prove” in the baking sense this way: “Of bread or dough: to become aerated by the fermentation of yeast prior to baking; to rise. Occasionally also of yeast: to cause such aeration.”

Here’s Oxford’s earliest example: “The whole of the flour is … left about an hour … to prove” (from Charles Tomlinson’s Cyclopædia of Useful Arts, 1852).

The OED defines “proof” in this sense as  “to aerate (dough) by the action of yeast before baking.” This is the dictionary’s first example:

“After this laborious process the finished dough is covered over for some time … during which fermentation again begins, and the mass is ‘proofed’ ” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edition, Edinburgh, 1875).

Those early examples of “prove” and “proof” in baking were probably printed in italics and quotation marks because the usages were unfamiliar to 19th-century readers.

To conclude, when that old proverb appeared there was no pun intended.

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When walk-ins walk in

Q: I am writing a standard operating procedure for my company (hotels) that describes, among other things, how employees should deal with “walk ins”— guests who “walk in” without a reservation. Are terms like “check in,” “check out,” and “walk in” hyphenated?

A: When compounds like those are used as verbs, they’re generally two separate, unhyphenated words. But as adjectives and nouns, they’re either hyphenated or a single word.

Here’s our advice on how to write those terms, based on preferences given in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. (Some dictionaries may follow the preferred spellings with lesser-used variants.)

Verbs (no hyphens):  “We’ll check in Friday and check out Monday, assuming they’ll let us walk in.”

Adjectives (hyphenated or one word): “The check-in clerk says checkout time is at noon, and they accept walk-in customers.”

Nouns (hyphenated or one word): “Our check-in was easy and so was the checkout, even though we were walk-ins.”

The verbs involved here are phrasal verbs, which are usually defined as a verb plus an adverb. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) gives “settle down,” “act up,” and “phase out” as examples. “A phrasal verb is not hyphenated,” the manual says, “even though its equivalent noun or adjective might be.”

The book illustrates this variability with the phrasal verbs “flare up” and “burn out.” Their equivalent adjectives and nouns are “flare-up” (hyphenated) and “burnout” (unhyphenated).

But as we wrote in 2009, the conventions of hyphenation change over time, and the tendency is for hyphens to disappear from familiar compounds. In 2019, we described the evolution of the verb “check out” as well as the noun and adjective “checkout.”

Many other compounds follow the “check out”/“checkout” pattern—the phrasal verb is two separate words but the adjective and noun are one. These include “break down,” “hold up,” “crack down,” “hand out,” “build up,” “back up,” “lay off,” “send off,” “send up” (to mock), and usually “close out.”

Many other compounds, for now at any rate, still follow the “check in”/“check-in” pattern—that is, the phrasal verb is two separate words but the adjective and noun are hyphenated. Some examples are “drop in,” “drive in,” “cave in,” “drop off,” “carry on,” “die off,” and usually “clean up.”

If you come across a compound that we haven’t mentioned, how can you tell whether the adjective and noun forms are hyphenated or one word? The easiest way is to check out the compound in an up-to-date dictionary.

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From the horse’s mouth

Q: What is the dialect spoken in that quote from Kipling in your “All het up” post? In addition to “het up,” the speaker uses “cramp,” “her,” “them,” and “piece” in nonstandard ways.

A: In “A Walking Delegate,” an 1894 short story by Rudyard Kipling, horses speak a language that combines several regional American dialects.

The Deacon, one of the talking horses in the story, is quoted in the passage cited: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.”

“Het up” here means heated up, “cramp” is to turn a wagon around sharply, “her” stands for “it,” while “them” means “these” or “those,” and “a piece” indicates a while, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

The story has many other regionalisms, including “dreffle” (dreadfully), “harr” (hair), “natchul” (naturally), “ner haow” (no how), “nigh” (near), “sociable” (a party), and “sperrity” (spirited).

In the Kipling allegory, one of the horses, Boney, tries to get the others to rise up against their human oppressors. The Deacon and other older horses keep the younger ones from falling under Boney’s sway.

The title of the story refers to a union official who visits locals to make sure that workplace rules and agreements are followed. Kipling didn’t much like unions, socialism, or democracy.

In Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work (1955), the Cambridge historian Charles E. Carrington sees “A Walking Delegate” as a dialectal showpiece: “Though told as a horse story, it is more remarkable for the skilful use of several American dialects than for horse-lore.”

Kipling was living in Vermont when he wrote the story. He was married to a Vermonter, Carrie Balestier.

In Something of Myself, a memoir that was unfinished when Kipling died in 1936, he writes, “I tried to give something of the fun and flavour of those days in a story called ‘A Walking Delegate’ where all the characters are from horse-life.”

The story was a forerunner of another political allegory, Animal Farm (1945), by George Orwell. In Animal Farm, a group of farm animals rebel against a human farmer, but end up under the dictatorship of a pig named Napoleon.

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Help bake, or help to bake?

Q: “I helped him bake cookies,” or “I helped him to bake cookies”? Which is right?

A: The short answer is that both are right. However, there are some occasions when the verb “help” is more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive, and some by a “to”-less infinitive, though either construction would be correct.

When “help” itself is a “to” infinitive, for example, the following verb tends to be bare, or “to”-less.

As Jeremy Butterfield explains in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), English speakers have a “natural reluctance to allow the sequence to help + to-infinitive, that is, to repeat to. This reluctance means that the bare infinitive is usually chosen in such cases, but not always.”

For an early example of such avoidance, Butterfield cites this passage from Shakespeare’s Richard III (circa 1593): “The time will come when thou shalt wish for me / To help thee curse that poisonous bunchback’d toad.”

When the verb “help” appears without “to,” however, Shakespeare routinely follows it with a “to” infinitive, as in this example we’ve found from The Tempest (c. 1611): “Come, temperate nymphs, and help to celebrate / A contract of true love; be not too late.”

Style may also play a role, with “help” more likely to be followed by a “to” infinitive in some formal or literary writing. As Butterfield points out, “no doubt formality and literariness also have an influence.”

He gives this literary example, which we’ve expanded, from The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), a novel by Iris Murdoch: “Hattie decided against the new dress which would look out of place on such a dismal wet morning, but she allowed Pearl to help her to stack up her hair.”

And we’ve found this formal example in nonfiction: “English language learners need visual stimulus to help them to process and store the information that comes from words” (What Every Teacher Should Know About Media and Technology, 2003, by Donna Walker Tileston).

Aside from special cases like those, Butterfield says, the use of the bare infinitive after the verb “help” is “preferred in everyday written and spoken English.” We’d say it’s more common, not necessarily preferred, in everyday English. And we’ll repeat here that both usages are standard English.

As for the etymology, the verb “help” meant to aid or assist when it showed up in Anglo-Saxon times. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (c. 897), King Ælfred’s Old English translation of a sixth-century treatise by Pope Gregory:

“He nyle gifan ðæt him God geaf, and helpan ðæs folces mid ðæm þe he his healp” (“He is not willing to give what God gave him, and help the people with his help from God”).

In the 12th century, writers began using “help” with an infinitive—it was a “to” infinitive at first. The OED includes two examples from around 1175:

“to seke gan, and þa deden helpen to buriene” (“to seek to go, and help to bury the dead”), from the Lambeth Homilies, a collection of Old English sermons.

“forr hemm itt hallp biforenn godd / to clennsenn hemm off sinne” (“for them, it helped to cleanse themselves of sin before God”), from the Ormulum, a book of biblical commentary.

In the 16th century, writers began using “help” with bare infinitives, as in these two Oxford examples:

“To helpe garnishe his mother tongue” (from a 1548 translation, overseen by Nicholas Udall, of Erasmus’s paraphrase, or retelling, of the New Testament in Latin).

“I wyll helpe synners turne to the [thee]” (from Goostly Psalmes and Spiritual Songs, 1535, Miles Coverdale’s translations of German hymns by Martin Luther and others).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed infinitives several times on the blog, including a post in 2013 that explained why “to” isn’t part of the infinitive. It’s generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle.”

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Which virus is more deadly?

Q: Coronavirus is said to kill a larger percentage of those who catch it than the flu, but the flu is said to kill more people overall. Which disease is more deadly? The news media says coronavirus is deadlier. Is that an accepted technical usage?

A: As far as we can tell, the word “deadly” doesn’t have a technical sense that differs from its usual meaning.

We’ve found only one technical reference with an entry for the adjective. The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary says it means “likely to cause or capable of causing death.”

That’s pretty much the same definition given in any standard dictionary. Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines the term in its medical sense as “tending to produce death: productive of death.”

So “deadly” can refer to either the overall number of people killed by a disease or the percentage of infected people who die of it. Since the term can be used both ways, we think writers should clearly indicate which sense is being used when comparing the deadliness of two diseases, such as coronavirus and influenza.

Without a vaccine and adequate public-health measures, coronavirus may turn out to be deadlier than the latest influenza strains in both ways. We assume you’ve seen the recent report by the COVID-19 Response Team at Imperial College in London.

Etymologically, “deadly” comes from adding -lic (an Anglo-Saxon version of the suffix “-ly”) to the Old English noun déad. The usage is ultimately derived from the reconstructed prehistoric root dheu- (to die), says The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

When “deadly” showed up in Old English, it meant “causing death, or fatal injury; mortal, fatal,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. The earliest OED citation, which uses deadlicne (the accusative, or objective, form of the adjective), is from a ninth-century translation of a Latin history:

“Forbræcon Romane heora aþas … and þær deadlicne sige geforan” (“The Romans broke those pleasant oaths … and carried out their deadly victory”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), a fifth-century work by Paulus Orosius.

In the late 14th century, the sense of the adjective widened to include something “having the property or capacity of causing death or fatal injury,” according to the OED.

The first citation is from a Middle English sermon by John Wycliffe, written around 1380: “Dedli drynke, ȝif þei taken it … anoieþ hem not” (“Deadly drink, if they have taken it … knoweth them not”).

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When ‘drastically’ is too drastic

Q: I see “drastically” used in this way more and more: “We call on NYPD to drastically increase police visibility in Orthodox communities” (from a Dec. 27, 2019, tweet by the NYC Jewish Caucus). Doesn’t “drastic” have negative connotations? Wouldn’t “dramatically” or “significantly” be more accurate?

A: We agree that “drastically” is jarring in that tweet, which followed a series of anti-Semitic incidents. The adverb “drastically,” like the adjective “drastic,” is generally used in connection with measures that are extreme, severe, or harsh.

The adverb is commonly seen in reference to sharp cuts or steep reductions, rather than to buildups or increases (especially if they’re beneficial ones).

It’s also used in reference to extreme change, as in “drastically different” or “drastically altered.” Generally, though, the implication is that the change is a negative one, not a cause for celebration.

We do occasionally see news items online with phrases like “drastically improve,” “drastically higher,” “drastically raise,” even “drastically benefit.”

But examples like those are rare in major news outlets, where the English is edited—unless they’re in quotations. We agree with you that “significantly” or “dramatically” would be appropriate to describe an increase or buildup.

Most standard dictionaries don’t have separate entries for “drastically,” merely noting that it’s the adverbial form of “drastic.” One exception, Merriam-Webster, says the adverb means “in a drastic manner” and is synonymous with “severely” and “seriously.”

We’ll focus here on “drastic,” a word that in modern English, Merriam-Webster says, means “acting rapidly or violently,” or “extreme in effect or action,” synonymous with “severe.” (Some other dictionaries add “harsh” or “with harshness.”)

Originally, however, “drastic” had a much more specific meaning as a medical term. It was used for medicines that induced a sudden and violent “unloading of the bowels” (to use a phrase common to 18th- and 19th-century physicians).

In bygone days it was used by doctors both as an adjective (“drastic remedy,” “drastic purgative”), and as a noun for the medicine (“a drastic”).

The adjective came into English in the mid-17th century from a Greek word meaning active, δραστικός (drastikós). This is its original definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary: “Of medicines: Acting with force or violence, vigorous; esp. acting strongly upon the intestines.”

The OED’s earliest example, which we’ll expand for context, is from a description of a case of blindness supposedly cured by 10 to 12 hours of violent purging:

“Within three or four days after this single taking of the Drastick Medicine had done working, he began to recover some degree of Sight, and within a Fortnight … would discern Objects farther and clearer then most other Men.” The “drastick medicine” given was mercury, and not only the patient’s bowels were emptied but also his stomach, bladder, tear ducts, pores, and salivary glands. He’d been warned beforehand of the “torment of the Cure.”

(From Some Considerations Touching the Vsefulnesse of Experimental Naturall Philosophy, a treatise by the chemist Robert Boyle. Natural philosophy, the study of nature, was a precursor of modern science. The OED doesn’t give a precise date, but the earliest copy we’ve found was printed in 1663.)

The adjective “drastic” caught on and flourished in medical writing, and in the 18th century doctors also began using the word as a noun. A “drastic,” according to the OED, meant “a drastic medicine” or “a severe purgative.”

The earliest known use of the noun, Oxford says, is from the 1783 volume of an annual compendium, Medical Communications: “Large quantities of the pills … acting as a drastic.”

Searches of old newspaper databases show that both forms of “drastic”—noun and adjective—were common medical terms until the late 1800s, familiar not only to doctors but to laymen as well. This is to be expected, since some doctors considered purging a panacea and prescribed it for almost everything, particularly in the first decades of the 19th century.

Much of the credit for this—or rather the blame—is due to an Edinburgh physician, James Hamilton, author of Observations on the Utility and Administration of Purgative Medicines (1805). The book went into many editions in Britain and the US, and was translated into Italian, German, and French.

Hamilton’s methods were widely adopted, and his adherents believed that a violent emptying of the bowels could cure typhus, rabies, mental illnesses, fevers, skin diseases, menstrual irregularities, heart palpitations, sore throat, and bad breath, among other things.

We mention this long-discredited medical practice only to illustrate how commonplace “drastic” was in its original senses.

The noun “drastic” is uncommon today, and few standard dictionaries still include it. One exception is Merriam-Webster, which defines it as “a powerful medicinal agent; especially: a strong purgative.” You’ll also find it in the collaborative Wiktionary (“a powerful, fast-acting purgative medicine”).

But the adjective “drastic” is another story. By the early 19th century, the OED says, it had taken on a “transferred” meaning derived from the medical sense: “vigorously effective; violent.”

The dictionary’s earliest citations are from British writers who were political philosophers and economists:

“In consideration of their too extensive and too drastic efficacy” (Jeremy Bentham, Scotch Reform, 1808).

“Occasions … in which so drastic a measure would be fit to be taken into serious consideration” (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848).

Around this same time the new adverb “drastically” emerged. Oxford’s definition: “in a drastic manner; with drastic remedies or applications; with effective severity.”

The earliest example we’ve found has no medical connection. It’s from a tongue-in-cheek comment on jurisprudence in foreign lands:

“In the East, where there are despots equal to our judges … they punish first offences, drastically it is true, but in a manner which still recommends itself to our secret prejudices” (The London Magazine, Nov. 1, 1827).

But at times in the 19th century, “drastically” was still associated with medical purges. Discussing cholera in a letter dated October 1849, a Manchester physician wrote of bile secretions that are “rendered drastically purgative instead of gently aperient” (Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal, November 1849).

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Tidbit or titbit?

Q: Why do Americans use “tidbit” for a word that we in the UK properly spell “titbit”?

A: Americans may spell it “tidbit” because that’s how the term was pronounced when it first appeared in English in the 17th century as “tyd bit.”

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term may have originated as a combination of the adjective “tid” (playful, frolicsome, lively, etc.) and the noun “bit” (biting or a bite), though it says “the form tidbit is now chiefly North American.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the “titbit” spelling in the UK “probably” resulted from the “alteration of the first element after the second”—that is, the British turned “tid” into “tit” to make it rhyme with “bit.”

However, Oxford notes what it apparently considers a less likely explanation—that “titbit” was “perhaps” influenced by “tit” and “tittle” (terms for various small things).

No matter how the first part was spelled, the terms originally meant “a small piece of tasty food; a delicacy, a morsel,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest OED citation is from a collection of proverbs and phrases spoken in Gloucestershire, a county in southwestern England:

“A tyd bit, i.e. a speciall morsell reserved to eat at last.” From A Description of the Hundred of Berkeley in the County of Gloucester and of Its Inhabitants, 1639, by the antiquarian John Smyth. (The “Hundred of Berkeley” refers to a section of the county.)

The work was later edited by John Maclean and published in 1885 as The Berkeley Manuscripts. Maclean writes in his preface that Smyth finished the work on Dec. 21, 1639.

The OED says the term showed up as “tit bit” two years later: “A Man-servant … should goe into a Victualers service, because he hopeth for tit bits either of gift, or by stealth, and relicks more ordinary of his Masters Dishes.” From A Right Intention (1641), John Dawson’s translation of a Latin treatise by Jeremias Drexel.

The term, Oxford says, soon came to be used figuratively to describe “a person or thing likened to a delicacy or morsel,” as in this 1650 citation from a London weekly overseen by John Milton: “The Kirk longs much, and is like to miscarry for a Tid Bit of yong Tarquin” (Mercurius Politicus, No. 3, June 20-27).

In this figurative sense, the term was spelled “tidbit” as well as “titbit” by British writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, as in these expanded OED examples:

“Author. Now for a taste of Recitativo. My farce is an Oglio of tid-bits,” from Eurydice, A Farce, by Henry Fielding. (The play was withdrawn after two performances in 1737 because of hissing. It was published for the first time in Miscellanies, 1743, as Eurydice, A Farce: As it was d-mned at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.)

“And except on first nights or some other such occasion, or during the singing of the well-known tit-bits of any opera, there was an amount of chattering in the house which would have made the hair of a fanatico per la musica stand on end” (What I Remember, an 1887 memoir by Thomas Adolphus Trollope, the oldest brother of Anthony Trollope).

In the early 19th century, the term took on its modern sense of “a small and particularly interesting item of news, gossip, or information,” according to OED citations: “Another tit bit of domestic scandal” (Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, December 1809).

The use of the “titbit” spelling in the UK, especially in the news and gossip sense, may have been reinforced by the name of a mass-circulation British newspaper that specialized in easy-to-read human-interest stories.

As the OED explains, “Tit-Bits (later Titbits) was the name of a British weekly newspaper devoted to such items and is regarded as one of the progenitors of popular journalism. First published on 22 Oct. 1881, it ceased publication in 1984.”

Tit-Bits was the first general-interest publication to buy a humor piece by P. G. Wodehouse, one of our favorite writers. You can read the Nov. 24, 1900, piece, “Men Who Have Missed Their Own Weddings,” on Madame Eulalie, a website devoted to Wodehouse’s early works.

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Sticking in a knife with a smile

Q: I have recently heard two instances of someone prefacing a criticism by saying, “I am telling you this lovingly.” It sounds to me like sticking in a knife with a smile. It’s similar to prefacing a remark with “clearly,” an indication that things may not be all that clear. Any thoughts about this?

A: We haven’t yet noticed “lovingly” used to criticise with a smile. But like you, we’re bugged by deceptive preludes to faultfinding.

As you know, these introductory remarks are often followed by the word “but” and the critical statement. Some of the more common ones: “I don’t want to criticize, but …,” “I hate to be the one to tell you, but …,” “Don’t take this the wrong way, but …,” and “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but ….”

These “contrary-to-fact phrases” have been called “false fronts,” “wishwashers,” “but heads,” and “lying qualifiers,” according to the lexicographer Erin McKean, as we noted in a 2012 post.

McKean says the object of these opening remarks is “to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of ‘best offense is a good defense’ strategy” (Boston Globe, Nov. 14, 2010).

“This technique,” she notes, “has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer.”

Once you start looking for these deceptive introductions, McKean says, “you see them everywhere, and you see how much they reveal about the speaker. When someone says ‘It’s not about the money, but …,’ it’s almost always about the money. If you hear ‘It really doesn’t matter to me, but …,’ odds are it does matter, and quite a bit.”

“ ‘No offense, but …’ and ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but …’ are both warning flags, guaranteed to precede statements that are offensive, insulting, or both,” she adds. “ ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but …’ invariably signals the advent of breathtaking, blatant, write-in-to-Miss-Manners-style rudeness. (And when someone starts out by saying ‘Promise me you won’t get mad, but …’ you might as well go ahead and start getting mad.)”

McKean doesn’t mention the use of “clearly” at the beginning of a sentence, but she discusses a few similar sentence adverbs: “Someone who begins a sentence with ‘Confidentially’ is nearly always betraying a confidence; someone who starts out ‘Frankly,’ or ‘Honestly,’ ‘To be (completely) honest with you,’ or ‘Let me give it to you straight’ brings to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip: ‘The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.’ ”

We should also mention a 2013 post of ours about “Just sayin’,” an expression that follows a critical comment: “ ‘You might look for a new hair stylist. Just sayin’.”

Why do people use deceptive phrases in criticizing others? McKean suggests that “our real need for these phrases may be rooted in something closer to self-delusion. We’d all like to believe we aren’t being spiteful, nosy or less than forthcoming. To proclaim our innocence in this way is to assert that we are, indeed, innocent.”

However, we think that many of us—including the two of us—use these sneaky expressions simply because we don’t feel comfortable criticizing others, even when criticism may be warranted. Unfortunately, a sneaky criticism often stings more than one that’s plainspoken.

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Is the parrot willful or willing?

Q: I suppose you’re going to inform me that, as has happened with so many other words, the meaning of “willfully” now has a positive connotation. The Daily Kos recently cited a study showing that the African gray parrot “willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy.”

A: No, “willfully” hasn’t changed. The writer no doubt meant “willingly,” not “willfully.” The headline on that Jan. 14, 2020, article, “African gray parrots voluntarily show kindness to others,” is a clue.

In an article on the kindness, even altruism apparently shown by parrots, the appropriate adverb would have been “willingly,” a positive term meaning voluntarily or gladly, not “willfully,” a negative one meaning deliberately, obstinately, even maliciously.

Here’s a fuller excerpt from the article: “It’s been known for a few years that some other higher primates (especially orangutans) will voluntarily help others, especially if they think they’ll get something in return, and that doesn’t seem too surprising. But a nicely conceived test of the very intelligent African gray parrot shows that it willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy when presented with the opportunity.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include the two terms, without definitions, as adverbial forms of the adjectives “willful” and “willing.” In other words, “willfully” means in a willful manner and “willingly” in a willing manner.

Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) is one of the few standard dictionaries to define the two adverbs. It uses “wilfully,” the British spelling, for the word Americans usually spell as “willfully.” Here are Lexico’s definitions and examples:

willingly: Readily; of one’s own free will. she went willingly.”

wilfully (US willfully): 1. With the intention of causing harm; deliberately. she denies four charges of wilfully neglecting a patient. 2. With a stubborn and determined intention to do as one wants, regardless of the consequences. he had wilfully ignored the evidence.”

The adverbs were derived from their corresponding adjectives. The first, “willing,” was recorded in compounds in the late 800s; the second, originally spelled “wilful,” is believed to have existed by about 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though there are no surviving examples in Old English writing.

As for the meaning of the adjectives, Merriam-Webster says in usage notes that “willing implies a readiness and eagerness to accede to or anticipate the wishes of another,” while “willful implies an obstinate determination to have one’s own way.”

Getting back to the adverbs, the older of the two, “willingly,” first appeared in writing in the 900s, spelled willendlice, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

(The -líce suffix in Old English, precursor to the “-ly” ending we know today, was used to form adverbs out of adjectives. The modern spelling, “willingly,” evolved in the mid-1500s.)

The earliest Oxford citation for “willingly” is from a 10th-century Latin-Old English dictionary in which the Latin diligenter (diligently, conscientiously) is translated as willendlice.

A later Latin-English dictionary, this one from the 16th century, defines the Latin libenter (eagerly, cheerfully) as “wyllyngely, gladly.”

The OED, which defines “willingly” as “with a ready will, consentingly, without reluctance,” says the adverb can convey “various shades of meaning from ‘with acquiescence, submissively’ to ‘with pleasure, cheerfully, gladly’ or ‘wishfully, eagerly.’ ”

Most uses in modern English conform to the Oxford definition, as exemplified by this citation from a 19th-century novel:

“Often have I observed one … of the sisters willingly go without her dinner … in order that her portion might be reserved for Mr. Stallabras” (The Chaplain of the Fleet, 1881, by Walter Besant and James Rice).

And that’s still the chief use of the word today, though at times in the past it has had less altruistic meanings, even crossing into the negative senses of “willfully.” Those uses are now obsolete, the OED says.

The adverb often appears in the phrase “would willingly,” Oxford adds, which means “should like to,” while “would not willingly” means “would rather not.”

As for “willfully,” the dictionary says the word was first recorded around the year 1000, spelled wilfullíce in late Old English. It originally had senses similar to  “willingly”—voluntarily, of one’s own will—but those uses are obsolete, the dictionary says.

Today “willfully” has only two meanings, both negative. These are the OED definitions for those senses, which began to appear in the late 1300s and late 1500s, respectively:

(1) “Purposely, on purpose, by design, intentionally, deliberately. Chiefly, now always, in bad sense” and “occasionally implying ‘maliciously.’ ” (2) “In a self-willed manner, perversely, obstinately, stubbornly.” The two meanings are often hard to tell apart.

Here’s the earliest Oxford example for the purposely or deliberately sense, which we’ve expanded to add more context:

“Yf þat he wole take of it no cure, Whan þan it cometh, but wylfully it weyuen, Lo neyþer cas nor fortune hym deseyuen, But right his verray slouþe and wrecchednesse” (“If he will not take advantage of it when it comes, but willfully dismiss it, then neither chance nor fortune deceive him, but only his own sloth and wretchedness”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1374.

And in the dictionary’s first example for the self-willed or obstinate sense, a hard-hearted mother is willfully intent on marrying her daughter to a rich creep:

“The mother … beyng determinately (least I shoulde say of a great Lady, wilfully) bent to marrie her to Demagoras.” From The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney, 1590.

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Now I am become Death

Q: I recently read a reference to J. Robert Oppenheimer’s comment about the first test of an atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I assume that “I am become” is an old usage. How would it be expressed in modern English?

A: That quotation illustrates an archaic English verb construction that’s now found chiefly in literary, poetic, or religious writings. This is the use of forms of “be” in place of “have” as an auxiliary verb in compound tenses: “The prince is [or was] arrived” instead of “The prince has [or had] arrived.”

The passage you ask about, “I am become Death,” is a present-perfect construction equivalent to “I have become Death.” (We’ll have more to say later about Oppenheimer and his quotation from the Bhagavad Gita.)

As we wrote on the blog in 2015, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address has a well-known example of this usage: “We are met on a great battle-field.” Another familiar use is from the Bible: “He is risen” (King James Version, Matthew 28:6). And Mark Twain uses “I am grown old” in his Autobiography (in a passage first published serially in 1907). All of those are in the present-perfect tense.

Though usages like this were rare in Old English, they became quite frequent during the early Modern English period—roughly from the late 1400s to the mid-1600s, according to The Origins and Development of the English Language (4th ed., 1992), by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo.

The verbs affected were mostly intransitive (that is, without objects) and involved movement and change. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions “verbs of motion such as come, go, rise, set, fall, arrive, depart, grow, etc.”

The dictionary’s citations from the mid-1400s include “So may þat boy be fledde” (“That boy may well be fled”) and “In euell tyme ben oure enmyes entred” (“Our enemies are entered in evil times”).

In Modern English (mid-17th century onward), this auxiliary “be” faded from ordinary English and was largely replaced by “have.” So by Lincoln’s time, the auxiliary “be” was considered poetic or literary. You can see why if you look again at the examples above.

Lincoln used “we are met” to lend his speech a gravity and stateliness that wouldn’t be conveyed by the usual present-perfect (“we have met”). “He is risen” is nobler and more elevated than the usual present perfect (“He has risen”). And Twain’s poetic “I am grown old” is weightier and more solemn than the prosaic version (“I have grown old”).

Apart from matters of tone, the auxiliary “be,” especially in the present perfect, conveys a slightly different meaning than the auxiliary “have.” It emphasizes a state or condition that’s true in the present, not merely an act completed in the past.

As Oxford says, this use of “be” expresses “a condition or state attained at the time of speaking, rather than the action of reaching it, e.g. ‘the sun is set,’ ‘our guests are gone,’ ‘Babylon is fallen,’ ‘the children are all grown up.’ ”

Even today verbs are sometimes conjugated with “be” when they represent states or conditions. A modern speaker might easily say, “The kids were [vs. had] grown long before we retired,” or “By noon the workmen were [vs. had] gone,” or “Is [vs. has] she very much changed?”

In older English, those participles (“grown,” “gone,” “changed”) would have been recognized as verbs (“grow,” “go,” “change”) conjugated in the present perfect with the auxiliary “be.” Many such examples are interpreted as such in the OED. However, in current English they can also be analyzed as participial adjectives modifying a subject, with “be” as the principal verb.

In its entry for the verb “grow,” for example, Oxford has this explanation: “In early use always conjugated with be, and still so conjugated when a state or result is implied.” And in the case of “gone,” the dictionary says that its adjectival use “developed out of the perfect construction with be as auxiliary, reinterpreted as main verb with participial adjective.”

We can never write enough about the word “be.” As David Crystal says, “If we take its eight elements together—be, am, are, is, was, were, being, been—it turns out to be the most frequent item in English, after the” (The Story of Be, 2017).

And a word that’s in constant, heavy use for 1,500 years undergoes a lot of transformations. It’s entitled to be complicated, and no doubt further complications are still to come. To use an expression first recorded in the 1600s, miracles are not ceased.

As for Oppenheimer’s comment, various versions have appeared since he witnessed the atomic test at Alamogordo, NM, on July 16, 1945. You can hear his words in The Decision to Drop the Bomb, a 1965 NBC documentary:

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

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‘Outshone’ or ‘outshined’?

Q: Is it “outshone” or “outshined”? Merriam-Webster says “outshone,” but wouldn’t “outshined” be better? What do you recommend?

A: Merriam-Webster, which is updated regularly online, says that either “outshone” or “outshined” can be the past tense and past participle of the verb “outshine.” Both variants are considered standard English. The last two print editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the 10th and 11th) have similar entries.

As M-W explains, “When a main entry is followed by the word or and another spelling, the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants. If two variants joined by or are out of alphabetical order [as is the case here], they remain equal variants. The one printed first is, however, slightly more common than the second.”

Most of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult list only “outshone” as the past tense and past participle. However, Webster’s New World and Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) agree with Merriam-Webster and include both “outshone” and “outshined.”

The verb “outshine,” which showed up in the late 16th century, can have either a literal meaning (to shine brighter) or a figurative one (to surpass).

The two senses are combined in this example, the earliest in the Oxford English Dictionary: “His zeale out shinde, the Papists taper lights” (from the English author George Whetstone’s 1585 biography of Francis Russell, second Earl of Bedford).

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the verb was formed within English by the addition of the prefix “out” to the much older verb “shine,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

As we say in a 2014 post, standard dictionaries generally accept either “shone” or “shined” as the past tense and past participle of “shine.” However, the dictionaries often note that “shone” is usual when the verb is intransitive and “shined” when it’s transitive.

(A verb is transitive when it needs an object to make sense: “He shined his shoes.” An intransitive verb makes sense without one: “The sun shone.”)

In the earlier post, we cite an American Heritage usage note: “By tradition, the past tense and past participle shone is used when the verb is intransitive and means ‘to emit light, be luminous’: The full moon shone over the field. The form shined, on the other hand, is normally used when the verb is transitive and means ‘to direct (a beam of light)’ or ‘to polish,’ as in He shined his flashlight down the dark staircase or The butler shined the silver.”

As for the etymology, the verb “shine” is Germanic in origin and first appeared in Old English in the early eighth century, spelled scynan, scine, scaan, and so on. The earliest citation in the OED is from a glossary of Latin and Old English that dates from around 725: “Ardebat, scaan.” (The Latin ardebat means burns, glows, or sparkles.)

The spelling of the past tense roughly evolved from scan and scean in Old English to scean, schon, shoon, etc., in Middle English, and finally to “shone” and “shined” in the 1500s, during the early Modern English period.

In this example from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written in the 1590s), Hippolyta says: “Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace.”

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Courting a honey or a heartache

Q: “Court” seems to be an incredibly adaptable word—a royal court, a tennis court, a court of law, courting a beau or a client, heartache or disaster. Where did it all begin?

A: All those senses of “court” (in law, romance, diplomacy, sports, etc.) ultimately come from cohors, classical Latin for an enclosed area—what we’d now call a courtyard.

As cohors evolved in Latin, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins, “it came to stand for those assembled in such a yard—a crowd of attendants or company of soldiers; hence the meaning of cohort familiar today.”

“But both in its original sense and as ‘retinue’ the word took another and rather more disguised path into English,” Ayto writes.

While the English word retained “the underlying notion” of an enclosed area, he says, it added a judicial sense because of “an early association of Old French cort [a judicial tribunal] with Latin curia [a legal tribunal or sovereign’s assembly].”

The respect and attention that one offers at a judicial court led to the diplomatic, romantic, and summoning senses of the term, while the sports sense comes from the original meaning of cohors in Latin as an enclosed area.

When “court” first appeared in Middle English in the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant a meeting of a ruler with his retinue as well as the place where such a meeting was held.

The first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, uses the term (spelled “curt” here) in the sense of “a formal assembly held by the sovereign at his residence” with “his councillors and great lords, for purposes of administration”:

“Þa he to Engle land com. þa was he under fangen mid micel wurtscipe. and to king bletcæd in Lundene on þe Sunnen dæi. be foren midwinter dæi and held  þær micel curt” (“When he came to England, he was received with great honor. He was consecrated King in London on the Sunday before Christmas Day, and then he held a great court there”).

The passage is from an 1154 entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing the death of King Stephen, the arrival from France of Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine, and his consecration in London as King Henry II.

The next Oxford example, which we’ve also expanded, uses the term in the sense of “the place where a sovereign (or other high dignitary) resides and holds state, attended by his retinue.” This comes from a parable in the Cotton Vespasian A. Homilies, dated at sometime before 1175:

“þat an rice king wes. strang and mihti. his land gélest wide and side. his folc was swiðe ærfeð-telle … and he nam him tó rede þat heom wolde ȝearceon anæ grate laðienge. and þider ȝeclepíen all his underþeód. þat hi bi éne féce to his curt come sceolde and sette ænne déȝie” (“there was a rich king who was strong and mighty; his land stretched far and wide; his people were numerous … and he decided to prepare a great feast and call all his subjects thither so that they should come at the same time to his court”).

The word took on its legal sense in the late 13th century when “court” came to mean “an assembly of judges or other persons legally appointed and acting as a tribunal to hear and determine any cause, civil, ecclesiastical, military, or naval.”

The first OED citation is from a treatise in Middle French that sets forth the laws of England (early legal works in England were in Latin or French): “en dreit de nous mesures et de nostre Curt” (“with regard to ourselves and our Court”). From Britton, 1292, a work whose origin and author are in dispute; some early sources say John le Breton, bishop of Hereford, wrote it at the direction of King Edward I.

The first Oxford example that’s written in Middle English is from a 1297 entry in The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, an account of early British history: “The king wolde, that in is court the ple solde be driue” (“The king willed that the plea be pursued in his court”).

In the early 16th century, “court” took on the sense of  “an enclosed quadrangular area, uncovered or covered, with a smooth level floor, in which tennis, rackets, or fives are played.” (In fives, an English sport, players use bare or gloved hands to hit a ball against the walls of a court with three or four sides.)

The first OED citation uses the term in reference to a court for lawn tennis: “Hen. Smith, for ceiling the great armoury house at Greenwich, the Friar’s wharf, the tennis court at Richmond, and other places, 200l.” From a March 1519 entry in King Henry VIII’s Book of Payments. At the time, the verb “ceil” meant to add a canopy.

In the late 16th century, the noun “court” took on the sense of “homage such as is offered at court,” specifically as “attention or courtship shown to one whose favour, affection, or interest is sought.” The earliest OED example uses the term in its diplomatic sense: “Him the Prince with gentle court did bord [address]” (from Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene, 1590).

The verb “court,” which showed up in the early 1500s, originally meant to live at a royal court or spend a lot of time there. But by the late 1500s it was being used in its romantic sense.

The first Oxford example, which we’ve expanded, is also from The Faerie Queene: “And in the midst thereof vpon the floure, / A louely beuy [bevy] of faire Ladies sate, / Courted of many a iolly Paramoure, / The which them did in modest wise amate.”

In the early 1600s, the use of the verb began expanding to include the seeking of things other than romance, such as power, friendship, publicity, or popularity: “Never would he have had the face to have courted the Crown Imperiall” (The Historie of the Holy Warre, 1639, by Thomas Fuller).

And by the mid-19th century, according to our searches, the verb broadened even more to include inviting or provoking something negative. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book of homespun philosophy:

“Therefore, in the first, saints and martyrs have fulfilled their mission, / Conquering dangers, courting deaths, and triumphing in all” (Proverbial Philosophy, 1843, by Martin Farquhar Tupper).

The verb phrase “court disaster” showed up a dozen years later, according to our searches: “Gladwyn discouraged the enterprise, conceiving it, doubtless, as rash and perilous to court disaster” (History of American Conspiracies, 1863, by Orville J. Victor).

Over the years, many other descendants of the Latin cohors have appeared in English, including “courtier” (circa 1290), “courtesy” (before 1200), “courtly” (c. 1450), “courthouse” (1483), “cohort” (1489), “courting” (1530), “curtsy” (noun, 1513; verb, before 1556), “courtyard” (1552), “courtesan” (1549), “courtship” (1597), “pay [or make] one’s court” (1667), and “courtroom” (1677). (In a 2017 post, we discussed “courtesy” and “curtsy.”)

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A ‘they’ by any other name

Q: You have defended the singular “they” when it applies to an unknown person of unknown gender. OK. But how about for a known person of unknown gender? A recent news article that said “they were fired” caused me to search back and forth to find who else was fired. A waste of time.

A: We have indeed defended the use of “they” in the singular for an unknown person—an individual usually represented by an indefinite pronoun (“someone,” “everybody,” “no one,” etc.). Some examples: “If anyone calls, they can reach me at home” … “Nobody expects their best friend to betray them” … “Everyone’s looking out for themselves.”

As we’ve said on the blog, this singular use of “they” and its forms (“them,” “their,” “themselves”) for an indefinite, unknown somebody-or-other is more than 700 years old.

You’re asking about a very different usage, one that we’ve also discussed. As we wrote in a later post, this singular “they” refers to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female and prefers “they” to “he” or “she.” Some examples: “Robin loves their new job as sales manager” … “Toby says they’ve become a vegetarian.”

This use of “they” for a known person who’s nonbinary and doesn’t conform to the usual gender distinctions is very recent, only about a decade old.

When we wrote about the nonbinary “they” three years ago, we noted that only one standard dictionary had recognized the usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language included (and still does) this definition within its entry for “they”: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”

American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard but adds a cautionary note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”

Since then, a couple of other standard dictionaries have accepted the usage, but without reservation.

Merriam-Webster’s entry for “they” was updated in September 2019 to include this definition: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

A British dictionary, Macmillan, now has a similar definition: “used as a singular pronoun by and about people who identify as non-binary.” Macmillan’s example: “The singer has come out as non-binary and asked to be addressed by the pronouns they/them.”

Neither dictionary has any kind of warning label or cautionary note. Other dictionaries, however, are more conservative on the subject, merely observing in usage notes that the nonbinary “they” is out there, but not including it among the standard definitions of “they.”

For instance, Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) says in a usage note that the use of “they” and its forms “to refer to a single clearly specified, known, or named person is uncommon and likely to be noticed and criticized. … Even so, use of they, their, and them is increasingly found in contexts where the antecedent is a gender-nonconforming individual or one who does not identify as male or female.”

And Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) has this in a usage note: “In a more recent development, they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop). Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, the singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, added the binary use of “they” and its forms in an October 2019 update.

This is now among the OED’s definitions of “they”: “Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Twitter post (by @thebutchcaucus, July 11, 2009): “What about they/them/theirs? #genderqueer #pronouns.” Oxford also has two later citations:

“Asher thought they were the only nonbinary person at school until a couple weeks ago” (the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, Los Angeles, Sept. 25, 2013).

“In 2016, they got a role on Orange Is the New Black as a wisecracking white supremacist” (from a profile of Asia Kate Dillon on the Cut, a blog published by New York magazine, June 3, 2019).

We agree with you that this usage can confuse a reader. When a writer uses “they” in an article, we’re sometimes left to wonder how many people are meant.

But a careful writer can overcome this problem. The use of “they” in that last OED citation (“they got a role”) is not confusing because it links the pronoun with a single role  And elsewhere in the article, the author, Gabriella Paiella, took pains to be clear (“they’re arguably Hollywood’s most famous nonbinary actor, one whose star turn came on an unlikely television series”).

As we noted in our nonbinary “they” post, “Clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when ‘they’ refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.” We also noted that “when ‘they’ is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: ‘Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.’ ”

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Complementary remarks

Q: I teach writing to foreign students and was asked a question that I just cannot answer. Both of these sentences are normal English: “I was happy being alone” … “I was happy to be alone.” But only the first of these is normal: “I became [or got] lonely being alone” … “I became [or got] lonely to be alone.” What’s wrong with that last sentence?

A: Your question has to do with adjectives and their complements—that is, the words or phrases that complete them. In this case, you’re attempting to complement the adjectives “happy” and “lonely” with two different phrases: one formed with a gerund or “-ing” participle (“being alone”), and the other with a “to” infinitive (“to be alone”).

As any native speaker of English would know immediately, the “happy” sentences work with both complements, but the “lonely” sentences don’t. “I got lonely to be alone” doesn’t sound like normal English.

This is because “lonely” is not among adjectives that can invariably be complemented by an infinitive. If you replace “lonely” with “afraid,” the original examples work: “I became [or got] afraid being alone” … “I became [or got] afraid to be alone.”

We wish we could tell you that there’s a predictable pattern here—that certain types of adjectives can always be complemented by both participles and infinitives, while other types are always restricted to one or the other.

Unfortunately, no clear pattern emerges. Different adjectives simply act differently in different contexts.

For instance, with another subject and another verb, those “lonely” sentences work with both complements: “It is lonely being alone” … “It is lonely to be alone.” (There “it” is a dummy subject; the real subject is the complement: “Being alone is lonely” … “To be alone is lonely.”)

While we can’t give you a rule about all this, we can make a few broad observations.

Dozens of evaluative adjectives (like “educational,” “interesting,” “lovely,” “pleasant,” etc.) can be used with either “to” infinitives or “-ing” participles if the subject is a dummy “it” and the verb is a form of “be” (like “is,” “was,” “might have been,” and so on). With adjectives like these, the complements are pretty much interchangeable: “It was lovely to see you” … “It was lovely seeing you.”

Many adjectives that modify a subject, and that have to do with the subject’s attitude or capabilities, are often complemented by infinitives. These include “able,” “afraid,” “anxious,” “bound,” “delighted,” “determined,” “eager,” “happy,” “hesitant,” “liable,” “likely,” “quick,” “reluctant,” and “unwilling.” (Example: “The pianist was delighted to perform.”)

Some of those adjectives can also be complemented by “-ing” participles if a preposition is added, like “about” (as in “delighted about performing”), or “in” (“quick in replying”).

Still other adjectives, ones that refer to the experiencing or doing of something rather than to the thing itself, can be complemented by “to” infinitives. In a sentence like “This piece is difficult to perform,” the adjective “difficult” refers more to the performing than to the piece. These adjectives include “boring,” “delicious,” “difficult,” “easy,” “enjoyable,” “hard,” “impossible,” “tough,” and “tiresome.”

Adjectives that are usually complemented by “-ing” participles are much less numerous than the other kind. Among them are “busy,” “pointless,” “useless,” “worth,” and “worthwhile.” For instance, we can say, “She’s busy eating,” but not “She’s busy to eat.

As for “busy,” notice what happens when we modify the adjective with “too”—both complements work: “She’s too busy eating” … “She’s too busy to eat.” Completely different meanings! This is because “too busy eating” implies a missing element—“… to do [something else].”

Some adjectives that are usually complemented by infinitives—like “absurd,” “annoying,” “awkward,” “fortunate,” “happy,” “logical,” “odd,” and “sad”—can be complemented with participles as well.

Here a point should be made. Sometimes the choice of adjective complement—infinitive or participle—makes no difference in meaning, especially if the subject is the dummy “it.” (Examples: “It’s exhausting to cook for twenty” … “It’s exhausting cooking for twenty.”)

But sometimes a different complement produces a different meaning. “He was happy to carry your suitcase” does not mean “He was happy carrying your suitcase.” Similarly, “I became afraid to be alone” is not the same as “I became afraid being alone.”

This is also true of verbs with these complements or objects. For instance, “I stopped to think” does not mean “I stopped thinking,” and “I remembered to call” does not mean “I remembered calling.” We’ve written several posts, most recently in 2019, about verbs that can have infinitives or gerunds or both as their objects or complements.

With verbs, too, linguists have found no clear pattern that could help a foreign student predict which types work with gerunds, or with infinitives, or with both. As we wrote in 2014, there are only broad outlines that don’t work reliably in all cases.

You can find more on this subject in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum (pp. 1246, 1259), and A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk et al. (pp. 1224, 1230-31, 1392-93).

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An etymological valentine

(Note: In observance of Valentine’s Day, we’re repeating a post that originally appeared on Feb. 23, 2012.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could be more intriguing than that?

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All het up

Q: The other day I came across the phrase “all het up” and wondered if it’s dialect for “all heated up.” Is this worthy of an expansive look?

A: The colloquial expression “all het up,” meaning angry, upset, or worried, can be traced back to an old use of “het” as the past tense and past participle of the verb “heat.” As odd as this use of “het” for “heated” may seem now, similar forms are standard with some other verbs, like “meet” (“met”), “feed” (“fed”), and “lead” (“led”).

The past tense and past participle forms of “heat” have been spelled all sorts of ways since the verb first appeared in Old English as hǽtan, haten, hatten, and so on. In Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the past was hǽtte or hætte, while the participle was gehǽt, gehǽted, or gehǽtt. In Middle English, spoken from roughly 1250 to 1500, the past was hatte, hette, het, etc., while the participle was hatte, hette, het, etc.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, includes het among the usual past tenses and participles of “heat” in Middle English, but adds that it was considered dialectal from the 19th century on. As the OED explains, “The past tense and participle underwent in Middle English various shortenings, some of which are still dialectal; the literary language now recognizes only heated.”

Old English inherited the verb “heat” from prehistoric Germanic, a language reconstructed by linguists. The earliest Oxford example is from the Épinal manuscript in The Épinal-Erfurt Glossary, a Latin-English glossary that the OED dates at sometime before 700: “Calentes, haetendae.” In Latin, calentes is a participle of caleo (to be hot). In Old English, haetendae means heated.

The earliest example in the OED for “het” used as the past tense of “heat” is from a medieval Scottish life of St. Thomas the Apostle: “[He] in þe fyre gert het þam wele” (“[He] in the great fire heated them well”). From Legends of the Saints in the Scottish Dialect of the Fourteenth Century, edited by William M. Metcalfe in 1896 for the Scottish Text Society.

The dictionary’s first example of “het” used as a participle is from a Middle English translation of a collection of spurious letters supposedly written by Aristotle to Alexander the Great:

“Hit ys cold and nedith to be het” (“It is cold and needs to be heated”). From Secret of Secrets, circa 1400, a translation of the Latin Secreta Secretorum. Scholars believe the work originated in Arabic in the 10th century and was translated into Latin in the 12th century. In Arabic, it’s known as Kitāb Sirr al-Asrā.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the terms “het,” “het up,” and “all het up” appeared as colloquial or dialectal adjectives meaning angry, upset, or excited. The earliest example we’ve found for “het” used alone in this sense is from a poem by James Russell Lowell:

“Don’t you git het: they thought the thing was planned; / They’ll cool off when they come to understand.”  From The Biglow Papers, Second Series, London, 1862. The OED has an abbreviated version from the 1867 American edition.

The first Oxford example of “het up” used adjectivally, which we’ll expand here, is from “A Walking Delegate” (1894), a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “You look consider’ble het up. Guess you’d better cramp her [a horse-drawn carriage] under them pines, an’ cool off a piece.” The story appeared first in the Century Magazine (December 1894) and later in Kipling’s collection The Day’s Work (1898).

The longer term you’re asking about, “all het up,” showed up in the early 20th century, Oxford says: “But you mustn’t get yourself all ‘het up’ before you take the plunge” (Letters From a Self-Made Merchant to His Son, a 1902 novel by George Horace Latimer).

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Not a man but felt this terror

Q: I have a question about the strange use of “but” in the following letter of Emerson to Carlyle: “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.” I see no modern definition of “but” that fits here. Is the usage archaic?

A: Yes, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of “but” is archaic in that sentence, but the usage is still occasionally seen in contemporary historical novels.

The sentence is from a letter Emerson wrote to Thomas Carlyle on Oct. 30, 1840. In it, Emerson refers to the plans of American social reformers to set up utopian communities inspired by the ideas of the French social theorist Charles Fourier.

The passage is especially confusing because it has principal and subordinate clauses with elliptical, or missing, subjects. The “but” is being used to replace a missing pronoun (the subject) in the subordinate clause and to make the clause negative.

Here’s the sentence with all the missing or substitute parts in place: “There is not a reading man who has not a draft of a new Community in his waistcoat pocket.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “but” is being used here “with the pronominal subject or object of the subordinate clause unexpressed, so that but acts as a negative relative: that … not, who … not (e.g. Not a man but felt this terror, i.e. there was not a man who did not feel this terror, they all felt this terror). Now archaic and rare.”

The earliest OED example of the usage is from a medieval romance: “There be none othir there that knowe me, but wold be glad to wite me do wele” (“There are none there that know me who would not gladly expect me to act well”). From The Three Kings’ Sons, circa 1500. Frederick James Furnivall, who edited the manuscript in 1895 for the Early English Text Society, suggested that David Aubert, a French calligrapher for the Duke of Burgundy, may have been the author.

The most recent Oxford example for this use of “but” is from a 20th-century historical novel for children:

“There is scarce one among us but knows the fells as a man knows his own kale-garth” (“There is scarce one among us who doesn’t know the hills as a man knows his own cabbage garden”). From The Shield Ring, 1956, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

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‘Premier’ or ‘premiere’?

Q: Is it the “premier” or “premiere” episode of a TV series? I see it both ways in print. Which would you use?

A: “Premier” can be an adjective meaning first, best, or most important, as well as a noun for the leader of a national or regional government, according to standard dictionaries.

“Premiere,” with an “e” at the end, can be a noun for the first performance of a play, movie, opera, etc., or a verb meaning to give or have a first performance.

Only three of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult accept the use of “premiere” as an adjective meaning first.

Despite what the majority of these dictionaries say, “premiere” is often used adjectivally to describe the first episode of a TV series.

In fact, a search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares terms in digitized books, indicates that “premiere episode” has increased in popularity over the last 50 years and is now significantly more common than “premier episode.” The “premiere” version is also overwhelmingly more popular in the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles since 2012 from online newspapers and magazines.

We suspect that the seven standard dictionaries that don’t include the usage will eventually add “premiere” as either an adjective or a noun used attributively—that is, adjectivally—to mean first.

Which would we use, “premier” or “premiere,” to describe the initial episode of a TV series? Neither. We’d use “first episode,” a usage that’s far more popular than either the “premier” or “premiere” versions, according to Ngram Viewer.

The adjective “first” has referred to an initial item since late Anglo-Saxon days.The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 12th-century section of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that describes the consecration of St. Ethelwold in 963 as bishop of Winchester:

“Sancte Dunstan him gehalgod to biscop on þe fyrste Sunnondæg of Aduent” (“Saint Dunstan [the Archbishop of Canterbury] consecrated him bishop on the first Sunday of Advent.”

As for “premier” and “premiere,” why does English have two spellings? Perhaps because 18th-century Francophiles tried to make an already French word (premier) seem even more French by using the feminine form (première).

The first of these words to show up in English was the adjective “premier.” The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says English borrowed it in the 15th century from Anglo Norman and Middle French, where the similarly spelled premier meant “first in a sequence or series.”

The OED defines the English adjective as “first in importance, rank, or position; chief, leading, foremost.” In the dictionary’s earliest citation, the adjective (here spelled “primier”) meant first in importance:

“Maisters Gower, Chauucer & Lydgate, Primier poetes of this nacion” (from The Active Policy of a Prince, a poem by George Ashby, believed written in 1470 or ’71. In the poem, Ashby offers advice to Edward, Prince of Wales).

In the 17th century, writers began using the adjective in the noun phrase “premier minister,” meaning the chief officer of an institution or the chief minister of a ruler. The earliest OED citation is from “The Kings Vows,” a 1670 poem by Andrew Marvell:

“Of my Pimp I will make my Minister Premier.” (In the poem, Charles I cheerfully recites some of his misdeeds. He was beheaded in 1649 on a charge of treason against England.)

When the noun “premier” appeared a few years later, it also referred to the chief officer of an institution or chief minister of a ruler. In the first Oxford example, it had the institutional sense:

“Mr. William Colvin late premier in the college of Edinburgh” (from a 1675 entry in a register of burials in the Greyfriars burying-ground in Edinburgh).

In the early 18th century, the noun came to mean a British prime minister or the chief minister of a self-governing British colony: “The Premier and his brother of All Souls called on me last week on their way to young Bromley’s” (from a June 23, 1726, letter by the Duke of Portland).

And in the 19th century, the term took on its wider modern sense of a prime minister of a national government or chief minister of a regional government: “Jiji Sanjo … is the son of an official who has been somewhat vaguely described as the Premier of Japan” (the Times, London, Oct. 13, 1871).

The adjective “premiere” showed up in the mid-18th century as a borrowing of première, the French feminine adjective for first. The OED says the “reason for the borrowing of the feminine form (alongside earlier premier adj.) is unclear.”

At the time, there was a vogue in London for all things French, and our guess, as we mentioned above, is that “premiere” looked Frenchier and thus tonier than “premier.”

The earliest Oxford citation for the adjective “premiere” is from The Life and Adventures of Sir Bartholomew Sapskull (1768), by William Donaldson: “The venerable dame of antiquity, who was recommended … to superintend my premiere actions, till I should grow into power to assist myself.”

In the mid-19th century, “premiere” took on the sense of “first in importance or position; foremost, leading; outstanding,” according to Oxford. The first example given is from Tom Burke of “Ours” (1844), a novel by Charles James Lever about an Irish exile who fights for France: “Ah, François, these Mamelukes were not of the ‘premiere force,’ after all. I have only been jesting all this time—see here.”

When the noun “premiere” appeared a couple of decades later (originally italicized and with a grave accent), it referred to a ballerina: “The dancer who has passed the chrysalis ballet-girl stage, and is now a full-fledged, butterfly première” (from the August 1867 issue of the Galaxy, a magazine later absorbed by the Atlantic Monthly).

The OED describes “premiere” here as a shortening of première danseuse, French for a leading female dancer, especially in a ballet company. The longer French term first appeared in English publications in the early 19th century, according to OED citations:

“The following performers have already been engaged. … For the Ballet … Madame Anatole, Premiere Danseuse at the Royal Academy of Music” (Times, London, Jan. 5, 1822). All but one of the six later citations italicize the phrase and use the accent in première.

The term “premiere” soon evolved in English to mean a first performance or showing of a play, film, musical composition, and so on: “The première of the Tzigane [a work by Maurice Ravel] was a very brilliant affair. Of course, the usual elegant audience … was in force” (from the Spirit of the Times, an American weekly, Nov. 24, 1877).

When the verb “premiere” showed up in the early 20th century, it meant  to make a first appearance in a play, film, opera, and so on. The earliest OED example refers to a first appearance in baseball: “Rogers Hornsby … premiered against the Philadelphia Nationals” (Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, April 12, 1927).

The verb soon also meant to present something for the first time. In this Oxford example, the setting of an opera has its debut: “His new setting of ‘Don Giovanni’ is to be premiered at the San Carlo of Naples (Musical Times, March 1, 1929).

[Note: This post was updated on Feb. 4, 2020, after a reader of the blog called our attention to the popularity of “premiere episode” in online searches.]

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