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

Better half (the whole story)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Shot for a Jerry spy’

Q: In a novel I’m reading, a character in London during World War II says to himself, “Can’t fix anything if I get shot for a Jerry spy.” I recognise this use of “for” (being British myself), but it  seems an old-fashioned, RAF-blokes-with-mustaches construction. What can you tell us about it?

A: We don’t believe that use of “for” in The Coldest War, a 2012 novel by Ian Tregillis, is all that uncommon now in American or British English, though it’s usually seen in the phrases “taken for” and “mistaken for,” where the preposition “for” means “as” or “as being” or “to be.”

Here are a few recent examples from the news media in the US and the UK:

“Two deputies will be suspended and a Florida sheriff has apologized after a visually impaired man was arrested last month when his walking cane was mistaken for a gun” (NBC News, Nov. 9, 2022).

“Why I Keep Getting Mistaken for a Conservative” (headline of an article by the American culture writer and novelist Kat Rosenfield in National Review, Oct. 27, 2022).

“No one likes to feel like they’ve been taken for a fool, least of all financial markets” (The New Statesman, Oct. 12, 2022).

“As a humanist who writes about the impact of digital technology on our lives, I am often mistaken for a futurist” (The Guardian, Sept. 4, 2022).

And here’s a “shot for” example from Fredy Neptune, a 1999 novel in verse by the Australian poet Les Murray:
“But I was thinking more about being shot for a spy, if I protested or explained myself.” (The novel is about the adventures and misadventures of Fred Boettcher, an Australian of German parentage.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says “for” here means “in the character of,” “in the light of,” or “as equivalent to,” and adds that “as or as being may generally be substituted.” The preposition used in this sense first appeared in Old English and is similar to terms in Old Frisian and Old Saxon.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from the epic poem Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725:

“Me men sægde Þæt þu ðe for sunu wolde hereri[n]c habban” (“Men say to me that you wish to have this hero for a son”). Wealhtheow, the Danish queen, is speaking to her husband, King Hrothgar, about Beowulf, who is sitting between the king’s two sons, Hrethric and Hrothmund, at a banquet.

And here’s an expanded OED example from the 18th century: “You’ll be hanged for a Pirate, and the particulars examined afterwards” (The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1719, by Daniel Defoe).

We’ll end with this arboreal OED example from The Silverado Squatters (1883), Robert Louis Stevenson’s memoir about his honeymoon with Fanny Vandegrift in Napa Valley, California:

“The oak is no baby; even the madrona, upon these spurs of Mount Saint Helena, comes to a fine bulk and ranks with forest trees—but the pines look down upon the rest for underwood.”

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Are you stumped?

Q: What is the origin of the term “stump” in the political sense? (X stumps for Candidate Y; Z gives a stump speech.)

A: The short answer is that the political sense of “stump” comes from using the base of a large felled tree as a platform for speaking.

For the long answer, we’ll have to go back a few hundred years, when the noun “stump” originally referred to the remaining part of a severed human limb, not that of a fallen tree.

The term is derived from similar words in other Germanic languages meaning mutilated, blunt, or dull. In Middle English, it originally meant “the part remaining of an amputated or broken-off limb or portion of the body,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from an Arthurian alliterative poem in which a knight’s arm, cut off in battle, is miraculously restored:

“Þan Ioseph … bad þat mon knele, þe arm helede a-ȝeyn hol to þe stompe” (“then Joseph … bade the man kneel; the arm healed again whole to the stump”). From Joseph of Arimathie (circa 1350), edited in 1871 by Walter William Skeat.

The dictionary notes the use of the term in the expression “fight to the stumps,” which it describes as “apparently an allusion” to a 17th-century English ballad:

“For when his leggs were smitten of, he fought vpon his stumpes.” From “The Ballad of Chevy Chase” (c. 1650), published in 1889 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, edited by Francis J. Child.

In the 15th century, the OED says, the noun “stump” came to mean the “portion of the trunk of a felled tree that remains fixed in the ground; also, a standing tree-trunk from which the upper part and the branches have been cut or broken off.”

The dictionary’s first example is from Promptorium Parvulorum (c. 1440), an English-Latin dictionary: “Stumpe, of a tree hewyn don, surcus.” We’re unfamiliar with surcus, but we assume it’s a rare Latin term for “stump” and related to the diminutive surculus (“twig”).

Getting back to your question, the OED says the political sense of “stump” comes from the use of the term for the base of “a large felled tree used as a stand or platform for a speaker.”

The earliest citation is from a 1775 Tory song, printed as a broadside, that mocked George Washington’s July 3 arrival at the Cambridge common to take formal command of the Continental Army: “Upon a stump he placed himself Great Washington did he.”

By the early 18th century, the term was being used loosely to mean “a place or an occasion of political oratory,” the dictionary says. The first example is from an 1816 debate in Congress:

“I [a Virginian member] think his [a South Carolinian’s] arguments are better calculated for what is called on this side of the river [the Potomac] stump, than for this Committee” (The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1853).

The OED adds that the term was used in expressions like “to go on the stump” and “to take the stump,” in the sense of “to go about the country making political speeches, whether as a candidate or as the advocate of a cause.”

Here’s an example we’ve found from the mid-19th century that includes the expression “take to the stump” as well as the noun “stump” used attributively, or adjectivally:

“Why didn’t you ever take to the stump? You’d make a famous stump orator!” From Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Here Alfred St. Clare is speaking to his twin brother Augustine, the father of Eva and a brief owner of Tom.)

As for the verb “stump,” it meant to stumble over an obstacle when it showed up in The Owl and the Nightingale, an anonymous poem written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Ne beoþ heo nouht alle forlore þat stumpeþ at þe fleysses more” (“They [women] are not at all lost if they stump [stumble] over a root of the flesh [lust]”).

And at the beginning of 17th century, the OED says, the verb came to mean “to walk clumsily, heavily, or noisily, as if one had a wooden leg.” The first citation is from a satirical poem:

“Some [dames] in their pantophels [high-heeled slippers] too stately stompe” (Tom Tel-Troths Message, 1600, by John Lane).

In the 19th century, Oxford says, the verb took on the sense of “to make stump speeches” or “to travel over (a district) making stump speeches.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Peter Pilgrim, an 1838 novel by the American writer Robert Montgomery Bird: “I stumped through my district, and my fellow-citizens sent me to Congress!”

Over the years, the word “stump” has taken on various other senses as a noun or verb, including the “stump” of a pencil, eraser, etc. worn down by use (1516); one of the “stumps,” or upright sticks, that form a wicket in cricket (1730); to be “stumped” (baffled, 1807), and “up a stump” (puzzled, 1829).

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Whenever Harry met Sally

Q: It seems to be getting more and more common lately, particularly among younger English speakers, to use “whenever” in place of “when,” as in this example: “Whenever I got up this morning, it was still dark outside.” Is this a developing usage? Is it valid?

A: You could use “when” or “whenever” in that sentence, but the meaning would change. “When I got up this morning, it was still dark outside” indicates that you got up once and it was dark. “Whenever I got up this morning, it was still dark outside” suggests you got up more than once and it was dark each time.

In standard English, “when” here is a conjunction meaning “at the time that” something happens or “as soon as” something happens, while “whenever” is a conjunction meaning “every time that” something happens.

But in various English dialects, “whenever” is often used as a conjunction in the sense of “when.” As the Dictionary of American Regional English explains, in parts of the US (the South, South Midland, and western Pennsylvania) as well as in Scotland and Ireland, “whenever” is used dialectally “in contexts where when would be expected.”

Used in reference to “a single punctual event,” the dictionary says, this dialectal “whenever” means “at the same time that” or “as soon as” the event occurred.

DARE’s earliest American example for the regional “whenever” cites the “as soon as” usage: “The Pennsylvanians use the word whenever to signify ‘as soon as.’ Thus it will be said that, ‘whenever the carriage came, the lady got in’ ” (“The Dialects of Our Country,” by the Rev. N. C. Burt, Appletons’ Journal, November 1878).

The dictionary’s next example is from Virginia: “Whenever … As soon as; ‘He will go whenever he gets ready’ ” (Word Book of Virginia Folk-Speech, 1912, by Bennett Wood Green).

And here’s a citation from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee: “Whenever … When. ‘What did they do with you whenever you killed that man some two or three years ago?’ ” (a 1939 field report in the Joseph Sargent Hall Collection in the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University).

The linguists Michael B. Montgomery and John M. Kirk use the term “punctual whenever” in referring to “the subordinating conjunction whenever, especially when used for a onetime, momentary event.”

In a paper, “ ‘My Mother, Whenever She Passed Away, She Had Pneumonia’: The History and Functions of Whenever,” the linguists cite “eighteenth-century Ulster migrants mainly of Scottish heritage as the most likely trans-Atlantic source” of the usage in America (Journal of English Linguistics, September 2001).

Montgomery (University of South Carolina) and Kirk (Queen’s University, Belfast) add that “the available evidence indicates remarkably little difference in how whenever is used today in Ulster English and Appalachian English, two historically related varieties.”

The sentence used in the paper’s title is from a speaker in Tennessee; it was reported at the Mid-America Linguistics Conference at the University of Oklahoma in 1978.

Interestingly, the usage was first recorded in England, not Scotland or Northern Ireland. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an English translation, published in London in the mid-17th century, of a French satirical novel:

“He gave me a good supper last night when ever I came within his doors” (The Comical History of Francion, 1655, an anonymous translation of Charles Sorel’s  L’Histoire Comique de Francion, 1623).

The next OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a list of Scotticisms: “We will go to our dinner whenever the clock strikes two, when translated into English, means, We shall go to dinner when the clock strikes two” (from a letter to The Monthly Magazine; or British Register, London, May 1, 1800).

As you can see, the use of “whenever” in the sense of “when” has been around for hundreds of years. We’ve seen no evidence that it’s more common now than in the past, but it’s possible that the regional usage may be heard more widely because of modern travel and communications.

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What’s up, man?

Q: We’ve read that the use of “man” by dudes referring to each other comes from the Jazz Era, when black musicians called each other “man” as a reaction to the belittling “boy.” However, we’re thinking that “hey, man” and such must come from way  before the 20th century.

A: You’re right in thinking that this use of “man” to address someone appeared in English long before the Jazz Age of the 1920s and ’30s. In fact, the usage dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, though its sense has evolved over the years.

When the usage first appeared in Old English, it was “used to address a person (usually a man, but sometimes a woman or child) emphatically to indicate contempt, impatience, exhortation, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from the “Vercelli Homilies,” 23 prose homilies in the Vercelli Book, an anthology of prose and poetry probably collected in the late 10th century but originating earlier:

“cwæð sanctus ysodorus, geþence nu ðu, man, & ongyt gif ðu sylf þe nelt alysan þa hwile þe ðu miht” (“Saint Isidore said, ‘Now think, man, and consider if you don’t want to release yourself [from a sinful life] while you can”).

Although that original contemptuous, impatient, or exhorting sense of “man” is still around (“Hurry up, man,” “Knock it off, man,” and so on), the OED describes it as “somewhat archaic.”

In the 16th century, the dictionary says, “man” took on the sense you’re asking about: “Used to address a person (in many varieties of English, irrespective of sex) parenthetically without emphasis to indicate familiarity, amicability, or equality between the speaker and the person addressed.”

In the first Oxford example, a countrywoman uses the term in speaking of her lover: “ ‘Fow wo’, quod scho, ‘Quhair will ȝe, man?’ ” (“ ‘Oh, woe,’ quoth she, ‘Where will ye, man?’ ”). From “In Secreit Place,” a poem written in the early 1500s by the Scottish author William Dunbar.

In the next OED citation, a Puritan critic of the Anglican hierarchy uses the term to address Thomas Cooper, Bishop of Winchester, a defender of the hierarchy, during a war of pamphlets known as the Marprelate Controversy:

“Heere be non but frends man.” From “Hay Any Work for Cooper” (1588), by Martin Marprelate, the anonymous author or authors of seven tracts satirizing Anglican leaders. (The title of this tract, a pun on Bishop Cooper’s name, is an old London street cry by coopers, craftsmen who repair wooden casks made of staves and hoops.)

And here’s an example we found in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, believed written in the early to mid-1590s: “Why, man, what is the matter?”

In the early 19th century, the OED says, English speakers began using “man” as a colloquial interjection “to express surprise, delight, disbelief, amazement, etc. (freq. in oh man!), or to give force to the statement which it introduces. man alive!

The first OED citation for this use is from the New England writer John Neal’s 1823 novel Errata: “Man!—Man!—I had a heart like a well—into it, every living creature might have dipped.”

The dictionary notes that the use of “man” to address someone with familiarity was also heard, “esp. in 20th cent., in Caribbean English and among African Americans.” It adds that the use of “man” as an interjection was once heard “chiefly among African Americans and [in] South African [English].”

In the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Jonathan E. Lighter says the contemporary use of “man” to address someone is perceived as US slang because of its “association with the speech of jazz and swing musicians” and later “rock and roll enthusiasts,” but it’s a “semantically weakened offshoot” of the original Anglo-Saxon usage.

Clarence Major, editor of Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994), includes a related sense: the use of “man” by African-Americans as “a form of address carrying respect and authority” and used by “black males to counteract the degrading effects of being addressed by whites as ‘boy.’ ”

In A Jazz Lexicon (1964), Robert S. Gold includes the same sense of “man,” describing it as “current esp. among Negro jazzmen since c. 1920, among white jazzmen as well since c. 1940.”

The earliest example Gold cites is from the August 1933 issue of the music magazine Metronome: “Trum’s greeting was in the Negro dialect he usually employed: ‘Man! How is you?’ ” (“Trum” is apparently the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, who was of white and Cherokee ancestry.)

And that’s the story, man.

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The ‘it’ in ‘lording it over’

Q: I’ve always felt that you need “it” in a sentence like “He lorded it over them.” But I sometimes see the usage without it. Is this permissible, or are people just not getting the idiomatic use of “it”?

A: The verb “lord” is used in three different ways when it means to act in a superior or domineering manner: (1) “He lorded over them,” (2) “He lorded it over them,” and (3) “He lorded himself over them.”

search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books, indicates that the first two are about equally popular, while the third appears much less often..

The verb is intransitive in #1 and transitive in #2 and #3. A transitive verb is one with a direct object. In #2 the object is “it,” while in #3 the object is a reflexive pronoun.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of “it” here as “a vague or indefinite object of a transitive verb,” and adds that the transitive use has “the same meaning as the intransitive use.”

When “lord” first appeared as a verb in the 14th century, it meant “to have the status of a lord; to govern, rule; to have a presiding authority or influence,” a sense that’s now obsolete, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession,” circa 1390), a long Middle English poem by John Gower: “On [One] lordeth, and an other serveth.”

In the 16th century, “lord” came to mean “to act in the supposed manner of a lord; to behave in an arrogant, disdainful, or dissipated manner; to rule tyrannically; to dominate.” The verb was used at the time both with and without “it” (but not with “over,” which didn’t appear in the usage until a century later).

The first OED example for “lord” used without “it” is from a sermon by Hugh Latimer, a Church of England reformer who was burned at the stake outside Balliol College, Oxford, and is one of the three Oxford Martyrs of Anglicanism:

“For they [the Apostles] preached and lorded not. And nowe they lorde and preache not” (“A Nota­ble Sermō of Ye Re­uerende Father Maister Hughe Latemer, Whi­che He Preached in Ye Shrouds at Pau­les Churche in Londō, on the .XVIII. Daye of January. 1548”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the verb “lord” used with “it” is from a book about Christian martyrs: “Suche Byshoppes as minister not, but lorde it” (Acts and Monuments, 1563, by the English historian John Foxe).

In the 17th century, versions with “over” began appearing, and the OED says it’s usually present today. Here are the first examples, both with and without “it”:

  • “Lording it over the Consciences of the people” (A Treatise of the Confession of Sinne, 1657, by the English theologian Thomas Aylesbury).
  • “Had Judah that day join’d, or one whole Tribe, / They had by this possess’d the Towers of Gath / And lorded over them whom now they serve.” (We’ve expanded this citation from Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes, 1671. Gath was a major Philistine city.)

The earliest OED citation for the verb “lord” used with a reflexive pronoun is from a religious tract responding to the writings of George Fox and other Quakers of the 17th century. Here’s an expanded version:

“G F. hath remembred the Affliction of Joseph, and doth not Lord himself over the Light of God in others; this is false, and R. R. might have applyed it at home” (from Something in Answer to a Book Printed in 1678, Called, The Hidden Things Brought to Light, 1679, by Robert Rich, a Quaker who often challenged other Quakers).

Finally, here are the most recent OED citations for “lord over,” “lord it over,” and “lord oneself over”:

  • “The Manchus, from their own separate world, lorded over and indeed lived off the Han” (Manchus & Han, 2000, by Edward J. M. Rhoads). We’ve expanded the citation.
  • “Lording it over them was one of the pleasures of my father’s old age” (The Times Literary Supplement, London, March 11, 2005).
  • “It smacked of colonialism, patriarchy, bad white men lording themselves over voiceless minions” (The New York Times, Oct. 9, 2011).

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

Gentlemen, God rest you merry!

Q: Which is the more traditional version of this Christmas carol: “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” or “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”? I see it both ways, but the one with “you” looks better to me.

A: You’re right—“you” makes more sense than “ye” in this case, as we’ll explain later. In fact, the original pronoun in that early 18th-century carol was “you.”

But that isn’t the only misunderstanding associated with the song. There’s that wayward comma too. Here’s the story.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, English speakers used “rest you” or “rest thee” with a positive adjective (“merry,” “well,” “tranquil,” “happy,” “content”) to mean “remain in that condition.” (The verb “rest” is used in a somewhat similar sense today in the expressions “rest assured” and “rest easy.”)

In the earliest and most common of such expressions, the adjective was “merry,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And at the time, “merry” had a meaning (happy, content, pleased) that’s now obsolete.

So in medieval English, the friendly salutation “rest you (or thee) merry” meant remain happy, content, or pleased. The OED explains it more broadly as “an expression of good wishes” that meant “peace and happiness to you.”

The form “rest you merry” was used in addressing two or more people, while “rest thee merry” was used for just one. This is because our modern word “you,” the second-person pronoun, originally had four principal forms: the subjects were “ye” (plural) and “thou” (singular); the objects were “you” (plural) and “thee” (singular). The expression we’re discussing required an object pronoun.

The OED’s earliest example of the expression, in 13th-century Middle English, shows a single person being addressed: “Rest þe [thee] murie, sire Daris” (the letter þ, a thorn, represented a “th” sound). From Floris and Blanchefleur (circa 1250), a popular romantic tale that dates from the 1100s in Old French.

As early as the mid-1200s, according to OED citations, “you” began to replace the other second-person pronouns. By the early 1500s, “you” was serving all four purposes in ordinary usage: objective and nominative, singular and plural.

As a result, the usual form of the old expression became “rest you merry” even when only one person was addressed. And it was often preceded by “God” as a polite salutation, with the meaning “may God grant you peace and happiness,” the OED says. The dictionary cites several early examples of the formula:

  • “o louynge [loving] frende god rest you mery.” From an instructional book, Floures for Latine Spekynge Gathered Oute of Terence (1534)by Nicholas Udall. (The English is presented as a translation of the Latin greeting Amice salue.)
  • “God rest you mery bothe and God be your guide.” From Like Wil to Like (1568), a morality play by Ulpian Fulwell.
  • “God rest you merry sir.” From Shakespeare’s As You Like It (c. 1600).

Soon after Shakespeare’s time, we find the formulaic “rest you merry” addressed to “gentlemen.” In plays of the 17th century in particular, it’s often spoken by a character in greeting or parting from friends.

The popular playwright John Fletcher, for example, used “rest you merry gentlemen” in at least two of his comedies: Wit Without Money (c. 1614) and Monsieur Thomas (c. 1610-16).

It also appears in several other comedies of the period, including works by the pseudonymous “J. D., Gent” (The Knave in Graine, 1640), Abraham Cowley (Cutter of Coleman-Street, 1658), Thomas Southland (Love a la Mode, 1663), and William Mountfort (Greenwich-Park, 1691).

In most of the 17th-century examples we’ve found, there’s no comma in “God rest you merry gentlemen.” When a comma does appear, it comes after “merry,” not before: “Rest you merry, gentlemen.”  This is because “rest you merry” is addressed to the “gentlemen.”

In his comedy Changes: or, Love in a Maze (1632), James Shirley has “Gentlemen, rest you merry,” a use that more clearly illustrates the sense of the expression and removes any ambiguity.

This brings us to the Christmas song “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”— the title as given in The Oxford Book of Carols and other authoritative collections. The oldest existing printed version of the song was published around 1700, though the lyrics were probably known orally before that.

As the OED says, “rest you merry” is no longer used as an English expression; it survives only in the carol. But the syntax of the title, the dictionary adds, “is frequently misinterpreted, merry being understood as an adjective qualifying gentlemen.” So the comma is often misplaced after “you,” as if those addressed were “merry gentlemen.”

In fact, the carol originally had no title. The words first appeared, as far as we can tell, in a single-page broadsheet entitled Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays with only a generic designation—“Carol  I. On Christmas-Day.” The broadsheet had no music, either; the words were sung to a variety of tunes.

The sheet was probably published in 1700 or 1701, according to the database Early English Books Online. Some commentators have said the lyrics existed earlier, but we haven’t found any documents to show this. The other three songs on the sheet are designated “Carol II. On St. Stephen’s-Day,” “Carol III. On St. John’s-Day,” and “Carol IV. On Innocent’s-Day.”  Here’s a facsimile of the front side, with “Carol I” at left.

“God rest you merry Gentlemen” (without a comma) is the first line of “Carol I,” and it later became used as the title. It appeared as the title in some printings of the carol by the late 1700s.

But well into the 19th century the song was sometimes referred to simply as “Old Christmas Carol” (in Sam Weller, a play by William Thomas Moncreiff, London, 1837) or “A Christmas Carol” (in The Baltimore County Union, a weekly newspaper in Towsontown, MD, Dec. 23, 1865).

For the most part, music publishers over the years have printed the title with “you” (not “ye”) and with the comma after “merry,” a form that accurately represents the original meaning. But in books, newspapers, and other writing the title has also appeared with “ye,” a misplaced comma, or both.

Why the misplaced comma? Apparently the old senses of “rest” and “merry” were forgotten, and the title was reinterpreted in ordinary usage. It was understood to mean that a group of “merry gentlemen” were encouraged to relax and be jolly.

The OED’s earliest example of the misconception dates from the early 19th century, where Samuel Jackson Pratt refers to “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” as “a time-embrowned ditty” (Gleanings in England, 2nd ed., 1803).

And why the shift from “you” to “ye”?  Our guess is that it represents an attempt to make the carol sound older or more “traditional.” (Not coincidentally, “ye” began appearing in place of “you” in 18th- and 19th-century reprints of those old comedies we mentioned above, as if to make them more antique.)

We’ve found scores of “ye” versions of the carol dating from the 1840s onwards in ordinary British and American usage.

A search of Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “you” versions were predominant in books and journals until the mid-20th century. But in the 1960s, “ye” versions began to rise, and by the ’80s they had surpassed the “you” versions. (Placement of the comma isn’t searchable on Ngram.)

Today, both the “ye” and the misplaced comma are ubiquitous in common usage, despite the way the title is printed by most music publishers and academic presses.

Perhaps the music of the carol bears some of the blame for the wayward comma. While the song has had several different musical settings, it’s now sung to music, most likely imported from Europe, that some scholars believe was first published in Britain in 1796. And the tune doesn’t allow for a pause before “gentlemen,” so the ear doesn’t sense a comma there.

As the music scholar Edward Wickham writes, “The comprehension of whole sentences of text, when sung, relies in part on the perception of how those sentences are segmented and organised.”

“The music to the Christmas carol ‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen,’ ” Wickham says, “makes no provision for the comma and thus is routinely misunderstood as ‘God rest you, merry Gentlemen.’ ” (“Tales from Babel: Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing,” a chapter in Experimental Affinities in Music, 2015, edited by Paulo de Assis.)

One final observation. All this reminds us of an entirely different “ye” misunderstanding—the mistaken use of “ye” as an article. This misconception shows up in signage of the “Ye Olde Gift Shoppe” variety, an attempt at quaintness that we wrote about in 2009 and again in 2016.

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When ‘pomp’ met ‘circumstance’

Q: An article about the ceremonies following Queen Elizabeth’s death referred to the “pomp and circumstance” involved. “Pomp” I get, but what’s with “circumstance”? It doesn’t have the usual meaning (fact, condition, event).

A: An archaic meaning of “circumstance” refers to a ceremony or public display at an important event, a usage that survives in the phrase “pomp and circumstance.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines that sense of “circumstance” as “the ‘ado’ made about anything; formality, ceremony, about any important event or action.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the “The Knight’s Tale,” the first of The Canterbury Tales (1386) of Chaucer: “His sacrifice he dide and that anon fful pitously with alle circumstance.”

The OED says the expression “pomp and circumstance” echoes Othello’s farewell to “Pride, pompe, and circumstance of glorious warre” (from Shakespeare’s Othello, written in the early 1600s and first published in 1623).

The dictionary’s earliest example for the exact wording “pomp and circumstance” is from The Bashful Lover, a play by Philip Massinger written sometime before 1640: “The Minion of his Prince and Court, set off / With all the pomp and circumstance of greatness.”

The dictionary adds that “the prevalence of the particular form pomp and circumstance is probably due to the popular military marches composed (from 1901) by Edward Elgar with this subtitle.”

As for the earlier etymology, the noun “circumstance” ultimately comes from the Classical Latin circumstantia (standing around, surrounding condition). The Latin term is the present participle of circumstare (to stand around), which combines circum (around) and stare (to stand).

When the word showed up in Middle English, it was used in the plural to mean the surroundings or conditions in which an action takes place. The earliest Oxford example is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:

“Abute sunne liggeð six þinges. þet hit hulieð. o latin circumstances. on englis totagges muȝe beon icleoped. Persone. stude. time. Manere. tale. cause” (“About sin there lie six things that conceal it: person, place, time, manner, telling, cause—in Latin circumstances, in English, they may be called trappings that obscure”).

Many other senses have appeared over the years, including “circumstances” that make an act more or less criminal (1580), an incident or “circumstance” in a narrative (1592), living in easy or reduced “circumstances” (before 1704), and something that’s a mere “circumstance” (1838).

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On ‘thrice’ and ‘trice’

Q: Are “thrice” and “trice” related? If so, “in a trice” might be construed as “in triple time.”

A: No, they’re not related. “Thrice” is an old way of saying three times, while the phrase “in a trice” means in a moment or very quickly.

Although both usages are found in standard dictionaries, “thrice” is often labeled “old-fashioned,” “dated,” “mainly archaic,” and so on.

 When “thrice” appeared in Middle English (spelled “þriȝes,” “þriȝess,” etc.), it was an adverb meaning “three times (in succession); on three successive occasions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The runic letter “þ” (a thorn) at the beginning sounded like “th,” and the runic “ȝ” (a yogh) in the middle sounded like “y.”

The OED says “þriȝes” is ultimately derived from þri or thrie, Old English for three, and its prehistoric ancestors, the Proto-Germanic þrijiz and the Proto-Indo-European treies.

The dictionary’s earliest “thrice” example, which we’ve expanded, is from the Ormulum (circa 1175), a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk identified as Orm in one part of the manuscript and Ormin in another:

“& ure Laferrd Jesu Crist / Badd hise bedess þriȝess” (“and as the Lord Jesus Christ bade, they prayed thrice”).

As for the “trice” of “in a trice,” it apparently began life in the late 14th century as a verb meaning “to pull; to pluck, snatch, draw with a sudden action.” The OED says Middle English adopted the verb from the Middle Dutch trîsen (to hoist).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb is from “The Monk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (circa 1386): “By god, out of his sete I wol hym trice” (By God, out of his throne I will snatch him [Nero]”).

In the 15th century, “trice” came to mean a pull or a tug in the expression “at a trice,” meaning “at a single pluck or pull; hence, in an instant; instantly, forthwith; without delay.” Oxford says “trice” here is apparently a noun formed from the verb.

Although “at a trice” is now obsolete, the usual version of the expression, “in a trice,” evolved from it in the 17th century. The first OED citation is from a book about Queen Elizabeth I:

“True it is, he [Sir Walter Raleigh] had gotten the Queenes eare in a trice” (Fragmenta Regalia, or, Observations on the Late Queen Elizabeth, Her Times and Favorits, 1641, by Sir Robert Naunton).

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The subtleties of the silent ‘b’

Q: The terminal combination “-bt” is an odd one, with its silent “b,” and curiously (ignoring variations) the only two English words in which it occurs begin with “d.” Care to explicate?

A: The consonant cluster “bt” doesn’t appear only in words beginning with “d,” and it isn’t always at the end. It’s found in “doubt,” “debt,” “subtle,” and their various forms (“doubtful,” “indebted,” “subtlety,” and so on).

The “b” is now silent in these words, though it was neither seen nor heard when “doubt,” “debt,” and “subtle” first appeared in Middle English, the language used from around 1150 to 1450.

Writers began adding the “b” in the early Modern English of the late 15th and 16th centuries to make the terms look more like their Classical Latin ancestors: dubitare, debitum, and subtilis. (The “b” was pronounced in Latin, but silent in the English borrowings.)

As the classicist J. D. Sadler explains, “There are many words borrowed from Latin through French where we have gone back to the Latin root to replace a letter lost in transit. Most involve the initial consonant in the groups bt, ct,  lt, and pt.”

In his article “Popular Etymology” (The Classical Journal, February-March 1971), Sadler gives “debt,” “doubt,” and “subtle” as examples, along with “arctic,” “perfect,” “subject,” “verdict,” “victuals,” “assault,” “fault,” “somersault,” and “receipt.”

In some of these words, he notes, the initial letter of the consonant cluster is mute while in others “we have recovered the sound.” He adds that “perhaps words of this sort [those Latinized retroactively] should be termed examples of scholarly etymology, rather than of popular etymology.”

(We wrote in 2018 about another consonant cluster with a silent “b”—the “mb” in words like “bomb,” “tomb,” “lamb,” “dumb,” “comb,” “climb,” and “plumb.”)

When “doubt” first appeared in early Middle English, it was a verb (duten) meaning “to dread, fear, or be afraid of,” a usage that’s now obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200. The verb here appears as duteð (duteth): “Þe deouel of helle duteð ham swiðe” (“the devil of hell dreads them [prayers] greatly”).

The earliest OED example showing the verb in its uncertain sense is from a homily written around 1325:

“Of his birth douted thai noht” (“Of his birth doubted they nought”). English Metrical Homilies From Manuscripts of the Fourteenth Century (1862), edited by John Small.

As for the noun “doubt,” Oxford says that when it appeared in the early 13th century it referred to “the (subjective) state of uncertainty with regard to the truth or reality of anything” or “undecidedness of belief or opinion.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from The Legend of St. Katherine of Alexandria, an anonymous work written sometime before 1225: “Ne beo þu na þing o dute / Of al þet tu ibeden hauest” (“Do not be thou the least in doubt of all that thou hast prayed for”).

When the noun “debt” showed up in the late 14th century as the plural dettis, the OED says, it meant “that which is owed or due; anything (as money, goods, or service) which one person is under obligation to pay or render to another.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a treatise by the theologian John Wycliffe: “Ȝif a trewe man teche þis pore man to paie his dettis” (“If a true man teach this poor man to pay his debts”). From The Grete Sentence of Curs Expounded (circa 1380).

As for “subtle,” it first appeared as an adjective describing someone “characterized by wisdom or perceptiveness; discriminating, discerning; shrewd,” according to the dictionary.

The first OED citation (with “subtle” spelled “sotil”) is from a Middle English poem about the childhood of Jesus. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“For leowi wuste þat Jesum / Sotil was and wis of redes” (“For loving was Jesus, subtle and wise of counsel”). From “Childhood Jesus” (c. 1300), published in 1875 as “Kindheit Jesu” in Altenglische Legenden (Old English Legendary), edited by Carl Horstmann.

And here are the earliest OED examples for “doubt,” “debt,” and “subtle” in their usual senses and spelled with a “b”:

  • “Diuerse of his houshold seruauntes, whome either he [Richard III] suspected or doubted, were by great crueltie put to shamefull death.” The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustrate Famelies of Lancastre [and] Yorke (1548), by Edward Hall. We’ve expanded the citation.
  • “To declare his debtes, what he oweth.” The Booke of the Common Prayer (1549), the original Anglican prayer book, published in the reign of King Edward VI.
  • “The subtle difference of lying and telling of a lye.” From an undated letter by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England, in answer to a May 21, 1547, letter by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.

Finally, we should note that the “b” spelling of the noun “doubt” appeared somewhat earlier in its obsolete sense of fear:

“For doubte to be blamed he spored his horse” (“For fear of being blamed, he spurred his horse”). The Foure Sonnes of Aymon (1490), William Caxton’s translation of Les Quatre Fils Aymon, an anonymous French romance dating from the late 12th century.

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A few laps at the laptop

Q: How did the word “lap” get these three different meanings: (1) the “lap” one swims,  (2) the “lap” a baby is held on, and (3) the “lap” of a cat drinking milk?

A: Those three senses of “lap” are derived from two Old English words of prehistoric Germanic origin, the noun læppa (the skirt or flap of a garment) and the verb lapian (to take up a liquid with the tongue).

Læppa is the ultimate source of the “lap” where a baby is held as well as the “lap” in swimming or racing, while lapian is the source of a cat’s lapping milk, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says læppa first appeared in Pastoral Care, King Alfred’s late ninth-century translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis, a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory. The noun læppan here is in the accusative case, a direct object:

“forcearf his mentles ænne læppan to tacne dat hə his geweald ahte” (“he [David] cut off a lap of his [Saul’s] robe as a sign that he had him in his power”). Gregory is referring to a biblical passage in which David uses his knife to take a piece of Saul’s robe rather than take the king’s life (1 Samuel 24:3-4).

The use of læppat for the skirt or flap of a garment apparently led to its use for the section of the body under that part of the garment—the area from the waist to the knees of a seated person.

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from Layamon’s Brut, a 12th-century Middle English history of the British people (it’s called a brut because the history begins with Brutus, the mythical founder of Britain):

“Com þar a bour-cniht and sat adun forþ-riht … he nam þan kynges hefd and leyde vppe his lappe” (“there came a chamber knight and he sat down forthright … he then took the king’s head and laid it upon his lap”). Brian, the knight, had found King Cadwalan asleep in a meadow.

The OED’s first example illustrating a child on a mother’s lap, which we’ve expanded, is from an anonymous 14th-century religious poem: “Als a childe þat sittes in þe moder lappe / And when it list [wishes], soukes hir pappe” (The Pricke of Conscience, circa 1325-50).

In the 19th century, the folding-over sense of læppat apparently led to its use in the sense of a turn around a track in horse racing, first as a verb and then as a noun. Here are the OED’s earliest citations:

  • “I told you the brown horse was a mighty fast one for a little ways. But soon I lapped him.” From A Quarter Race in Kentucky, and Other Sketches (1847), by William Trotter Porter.
  • “They had gone fourteen ‘laps’ (as these circuits are technically called).” From Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts (Nov. 23, 1861).

The usage soon appeared in swimming, where it referred to “one defined stage of a course, typically one or two lengths of a swimming pool,” the OED says.

Here’s the dictionary’s earliest example: “Beckwith … left the water after swimming 3 miles 21 laps, being at the time 7 laps to the bad” (The Times, London, Dec. 24, 1883).

As for the Old English verb lapian (to take up a liquid with the tongue), the first OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Bald’s Leechbook, a medical text compiled in the ninth century:

“gebeorh þæt hie ungemeltnesse ne þrowian & god win gehæt & hluttor þicgen on neaht nestig & neaht nestige lapien on hunig” (“as a defense against suffering indigestion, take at night good wine, heated and clear, and, fasting for a night, lap on honey”). By the way, the term “leechbook” comes from the Old English læce (doctor) and boc (book).

Finally, the OED’s first cat-lapping example is from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, believed written around 1610: “They’l take suggestion, as a Cat laps milke.”

In addition to the three senses of “lap” you’ve asked about,  the word is used now in many other ways derived from those two Old English words. Here are some examples and the earliest OED dates for them:

“lap dog” (1645), “in fortune’s lap” (1742), waves that “lap” the shore (1855), a “lap” of a journey or other effort (1932), dropping a burden in someone’s “lap” (1962), a “laptop” computer (1983), and “lap dance” (1986).

We’ll end by sharing this “lap dance” example from Anthony Lane’s review of the film Showgirls in the Oct. 16, 1995, issue of The New Yorker:

“To lap-dance, you undress, sit your client down, order him to stay still and fully clothed, then hover over him, making a motion that you have perfected by watching Mister Softee ice cream dispensers.”

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A tale of two plights

Q: The Merriam-Webster entry for “plight” lists “to put or give in pledge” and “a solemnly given pledge” before the only definition I’m familiar with, “an unfortunate, difficult, or precarious situation.” Where do the first two come from?

A: The word “plight” is now usually a noun for an unfortunate condition, but some dictionaries include it as a rare noun for a pledge and a rare verb meaning to pledge (as in to “plight one’s troth”).

As it turns out, the pledging and the unfortunate senses aren’t related etymologically, though they may be connected semantically. In other words, the two senses have different ancestors, but an ancestor of one may have influenced the meaning of another.

So why does Merriam-Webster list those two obscure senses before the usual meaning of “plight” today? Here’s the answer, from the dictionary’s explanatory notes:

“The order of senses within an entry is historical: the sense known to have been first used in English is entered first. This is not to be taken to mean, however, that each sense of a multisense word developed from the immediately preceding sense. It is altogether possible that sense 1 of a word has given rise to sense 2 and sense 2 to sense 3, but frequently sense 2 and sense 3 may have arisen independently of one another from sense 1.”

When “plight” first appeared in Old English, it was both a noun (pliht) with the sense of “peril, danger, or risk” and a verb (plihtan) meaning “to endanger or compromise (life, honour, etc.),” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Those two senses are now obsolete, but they led to the pledging meaning and may have influenced the unfortunate sense that’s common these days.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots says the Old English terms are derived from two prehistoric roots that have been reconstructed by linguists—the Germanic plegan (responsible for) and the Proto-Indo-European dlegh- (engage oneself). The notion here may be one of taking responsibility for or engaging in something dangerous.

The first OED citation for the noun, which uses the plural plihtas, is from the Vespasian Psalter, an eighth-century illuminated manuscript written in Latin and Old English:

“Circumdederunt me dolores mortis et pericula inferni inuenerunt me: ymbsaldun mec sar deðes & plihtas helle gemoettun mec” (“The pains of death surrounded me, and the plights [dangers] of hell beset me”). Psalms 114:3; the passage is Psalms 116:3 in later English translations.

The earliest Oxford example for the verb is from a law enacted in 1008 by Æðelred II, King of the Anglo-Saxons from 978 to 1016, a period of intense conflict with the Danes that led him to flee briefly to Normandy:

“Gyf hwa butan leafe of fyrde gewende, þe se cyning sylf on sy, plihte him sylfum & ealre his are” (“If anyone deserts an army that is under the command of the king himself, it shall plight [endanger] his life and all his honor”).

Æðelred, now usually called Æthelred the Unready (more accurately, the Ill-Advised), was ousted for a few months by King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. The nickname, which appeared dozens of years after Æðelred died, was a play on his name, from æðele (noble) and ræd (counsel or advice) in Old English.

In early Middle English, the OED says, the verb “plight” took on the sense of “to put (something) under risk of forfeiture; to give in pledge; to pledge or engage (one’s troth, faith, oath, promise, etc.).”

The dictionary’s earliest citation uses iplicht (“plighted”) in the marital sense: “folliche iplicht trouðe” (“a foolishly plighted troth”). From the  Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women written sometime before 1200.

The dictionary’s first citation for the noun used to mean a pledge is from an anonymous Middle English translation of the account in Genesis of the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, the King of Gerar:

“He bad him maken siker pligt / Of luue and trewðe in frendes rigt” (“He bade him make a sure plight [pledge] of love and truth in friendship”). From The Middle English Genesis and Exodus (1968), edited by Olof Sigfrid Arngart.

Although the pledge sense of “plight” is rare now, it does show up once in a while. An article published March 18, 2021, in The Atlantic, for example, refers to Prince Harry and his marriage to Meghan Markle this way: “He had plighted his troth to this unexpected and very beautiful woman.”

As for today’s usual sense of “plight” (an unfortunate condition), Middle English borrowed the usage around the beginning of the 14th century from Anglo-Norman French, where plitplistpleit, etc., meant a situation, a condition, or a state.

The French term ultimately comes from the Latin plicare (to fold) and the Proto-Indo-European root plek- (to plait), according to American Heritage’s Indo-European dictionary. (“Plait” can mean “pleat,” “weave,” or “braid.”)

So how did an ancient term for pleating, weaving, braiding, or folding come to mean an unfortunate condition in English? As we wrote in 2016, terms common to sewing, weaving, and textiles are often used metaphorically. To borrow a cliché of book reviewing, English is a richly woven tapestry.

When the noun “plight” first appeared in English in this new sense, it simply meant a neutral condition, as it had meant in French. However, the English term was often modified by a negative adjective, as in the earliest OED citation:

“Yt was in a sori pleyt, / Reuliche toyled to and fro” (“It [the body] was in a sorry plight, / Pitifully pulled to and fro”). From Þe Desputisoun Bitwen þe Bodi and þe Soule (“The Debate Between the Body and the Soul”), an anonymous poem written around 1300.

As the OED explains, the sense of “plight” as a neutral condition appears “in early use often with modifying word, as evilsorrywoeful, but in modern usage almost always having negative connotations even without modifier.”

The dictionary’s latest example of the noun uses it negatively without a modifier: “Paralyzed, unable to speak, losing the ability to swallow and yet totally aware of her plight” (The New York Times, Aug. 3, 2003).

How did “plight” evolve from a neutral to a negative condition? The OED suggests that the negative sense may have arisen because the neutral Middle English noun was “associated semantically” with the etymologically unrelated Old English term for danger.

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Why ‘it’s’ means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’

Q: I can’t stand the use of “it’s” for “it has” in writing. When I see “it’s,” I read “it is” and then have to translate this to “it has.” Am I too picky?

A: There’s nothing wrong with using “it’s” as the contraction of “it is” or “it has,” whether in writing or in speech. One can easily tell from the context which sense is meant, and both uses are long established in standard English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, for example, says “it’s” has two meanings: “1. Contraction of it is. 2. Contraction of it has.” And Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says “its is the possessive form of it (The cat licked its paws) and it’s is the shortened form of it is (It’s raining again) or it has (It’s come).”

In fact, “it’s” has been a contraction of both “it is” and “it has” for hundreds of years, though “it’s” was once the usual form of the possessive adjective and “ ’tis” was the usual contraction of “it is.” Confusing, ’tisn’t it? Here’s the story.

In Old English (roughly 450 to 1150) and Middle English (about 1150 to 1450), the usual nominative or subject form of “it” was hithyt, etc. The usual genitive or possessive form (“its” or “of it”) was hishys, etc. The nominative it was seen only occasionally in Old English, more often in Middle English.

Here’s an early example of the nominative hit in Beowulf, an epic poem that may have been written as early as 725: “hit wearð ealgearo, healærna mæst” (“it stood there ready, the noblest of halls”).

And here’s an example of the genitive his in an Anglo-Saxon herbal remedy: “Gedrinc his þonne on niht nistig þreo full fulle” (“Drink of it, after a night of fasting, three full cups”). From the Old English Herbarium, a 12th-century manuscript at the British Library (Cotton Vitellius C. iii).

(By the way, “he” was he in Old English, “she” was heo or hie, “his” was his or hys,  and “her” was hire.)

Both “its” and “it’s” first came into use as possessive adjectives in early Modern English, probably because the older neuter genitive his was being confused with the masculine possessive his.

(We’re using the term “possessive adjective” here to describe a dependent genitive like “her” or “their,” and “possessive pronoun” to describe an independent genitive like “hers” or “theirs.”)

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “its” as a possessive adjective is from a late 16th-century translation of a collection of Latin anecdotes for clerics: “There stands a bedde, its death to tell.” From Certain Selected Histories for Christian Recreations (1577), by Ralph Robinson.

And the first OED citation for the apostrophized “it’s” used as a possessive is from the definition of spontaneamente in an Italian-English dictionary: “willingly, naturally, without compulsion, of himselfe, of his free will, for it’s owne sake.” From A Worlde of Wordes (1611), by John Florio.

Of the two versions of the possessive adjective—with and without the apostrophe—“it’s” was apparently the predominant spelling throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. (In fact, “her’s,” “our’s,” “their’s,” and “your’s” were also possessives in early Modern English.)

The dictionary cites a half-dozen examples of the possessive “it’s,” including one from a Nov. 8, 1800, letter by Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra. We’ve expanded the citation, which describes the reaction of Austen’s neighbors, the Harwoods, on learning that their son Earle, a marine lieutenant, had accidentally shot himself in the thigh:

One most material comfort however they have; the assurance of it’s being really an accidental wound, which is not only positively declared by Earle himself, but is likewise testified by the particular direction of the bullet. Such a wound could not have been received in a duel.”

We’ll add this earlier one from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, believed written in the late 1590s and first published in the 1623 Folio: “As milde and gentle as the Cradle‑babe, / Dying with mothers dugge betweene it’s lips.”

As Merriam-Webster explains, “the unapostrophized its was in competition with it’s from the beginning and began to rise to dominance in the mid 18th century.” M-W cites several language authorities to show how the usage evolved.

In A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), Robert Lowth gave “its” as the possessive form of “it.” But in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), George Campbell gave “it’s.” In Reflections on the English Language (1770), Robert Baker preferred “it’s,” then switched to “its” in the 1779 edition. And in English Grammar (1794), Lindley Murray endorsed its.

As for the “it is” contractions, “ ’tis” appeared about a century before “it’s,” according to citations in the OED.

This is Oxford’s earliest example of “ ’tis” is written without an apostrophe (for the missing “i” in “it”): “Alas, tys pety yt schwld be þus” (“Alas, ’tis a pity it should be thus”). From Mankind, an anonymous morality play written around 1475.

The dictionary’s earliest example with an apostrophe is from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, first published in the 1623 Folio but believed to have been performed in 1606: “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twer well, It were done quickly.”

Meanwhile, “it’s” had emerged as a competing contraction. This is Oxford’s first example:  “And ambition is a priuie [private] poison, It’s also a pestilens.” From Rewarde of Wickednesse, a 1574 poem by Richard Robinson.

At first, the competition of “ ’tis” and “it’s” was pretty one-sided. A comparison using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, suggests that “ ’tis” was the usual contraction of “it is” from the mid-16th century to the mid-19th.

In fact, the early dominance of “ ’tis” was even greater than the comparison shows, since the Ngram results include the use of “it’s” as a possessive adjective as well as a contraction of “it has” and “it is.”

Language authorities in the late 18th and early 19th centuries indicated a preference for “ ’tis.” Campbell, for instance, complains in The Philosophy of Rhetoric about what he considers the misuse of “it’s, the genitive of the pronoun it, for ’tis, a contraction of it is.”

And both Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1775) and Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) include entries for “ ’tis” (but not “it’s”) as a contraction of “it is.”

Getting back to your complaint about the use of “it’s” as a contraction of “it has,” the earliest example we’ve seen for the usage is from the 1623 Folio of King Lear.

In addition to the contraction “it’s” for “it has,” Shakespeare used “it” twice by itself as a possessive: “the Hedge-Sparrow fed the Cuckoo so long, that it’s had it head bit off by it young.”

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Why you can ‘malign,’ but not ‘benign’

Q: “Malign” and “benign” look as if they should be antonyms with the same parts of speech. But “malign” is a verb and “malignant” the adjective, while “benign” is an adjective with no corresponding verb. Shouldn’t a tumor be “malignant” or “benignant”?  And why can’t you “benign” as well as “malign” someone?

A: Yes, “benign” and “malign” do behave differently, but not quite as differently as you think. A smile or a tumor can be “benign” or “benignant,” according to many standard dictionaries, though “benign” is a much more common adjective.

One big difference, as you point out, is that “malign” is a verb or an adjective while “benign” is only an adjective.  So why can someone malign a person’s character, but not benign it? We’ll have to go back to the Latin roots of the two words to answer.

“Malign” comes from the classical Latin malignus (wicked, mean), a compound of male (“badly”) and gignere (“to beget”), while “benign” comes from the classical Latin benignus (kindly, friendly, generous), a compound of bene (well) and gignere.

In post-classical Latin, the two adjectives inspired two verbs—malignare (to act or plot maliciously, to defame) and benignor or benignari (to rejoice or take delight in).  As you can see, the Latin verbs were not antonyms.

Here are examples for each that we’ve found in Saint Jerome’s Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments, completed in 405:

  • “leva manus tuas in superbias eorum in finem quanta malignatus est inimicus in sancto” (“Lift up your hands against their pride until the end; see how much the enemy has maligned the sanctuary”). From Psalms 74:3.
  • “nec est apud eam accipere personas neque differentias, sed quae iusta sunt facit omnibus iniustis ac malignis. et omnes benignantur in operibus eius” (“It is not with her [truth] to prefer persons or differences, but she does what is just to all, forsaking injustice and evil, and all rejoice in her works”). From 1 Esdra 4:39.

In the early 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Old French adopted the Latin malignare as maligner (to plot, deceive, act wrongly). And in  the early 15th century, English borrowed the term from Anglo-Norman, where it meant to slander.

When the verb maligne appeared in Middle English, the OED says, it could mean either to act wickedly or to slander someone. The dictionary’s earliest citations for these senses are from two different works written around the same time by the English monk and poet John Lydgate:

  • “Ay þe more he was to hem benigne, / Þe more vngoodly ageyn hym þei malygne” (“Ay, the more he was to them benign, the more ungoodly [wrongly] against him they malign”). From Troyyes Book (circa 1420), Lydgate’s translation from the Latin of Historia Destructionis Troiae (1287), by Guido delle Colonne.
  • “For it were veyne, nature to malingne, / Though she of kynde be the Empresse, / Ayeyne hir lorde that made hir so maystresse” (“For it were a thoughtless trait of hers to malign, though she be properly the Empress, against the lord who made her his mistress”). We’ve expanded the citation from Lydgate’s religious poem Life of Our Lady (circa 1420-22).

But as far as we can tell, benignor or benignari, the post-classical Latin verb meaning to rejoice or take delight in, didn’t inspire a similar verb in Old French, Anglo-Norman, or Middle English.

So that’s why modern English doesn’t have a verb “benign” as the antonym of our verb “malign.” And English speakers apparently don’t feel the need for one.

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Getting down to the bone

Q: In Joe Biden’s first visit to the Mideast as president, he said the connection between the Israeli and American people was “bone-deep.” Is that another Scrantonism?

A: No, “bone-deep” is not a Scrantonism from President Biden’s early childhood in Pennsylvania. Nor is it an American regionalism. Although the term was first recorded in New England, it has appeared in writing in the US and the UK since the 19th century.

Interestingly, two similar expressions are much older, “to the bone,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, and “skin-deep,” which showed up in England in the early 17th century.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bone-deep” literally as “to a depth that reaches or exposes a bone” and figuratively as “to the core” or “very deeply.”

When the term first appeared, it was an adverb used figuratively. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a Jan. 28, 1839, letter by H. W. Green, a former editor of The Eastern Argus in Portland, ME, to Francis O. J. Smith, a congressman from Maine.

In response to a letter from Smith to another Maine newspaper, The Frankfort Intelligencer, Green says he’s “branding bone-deep upon your forehead, if the records of infamy already written there have left space sufficient, a word which I would never use in controversy with a gentleman—the word LIAR!”

The dictionary’s next adverbial citation, another figurative use, is from “Modern Logicians,” an 1861 article by Sir William Hamilton in The British Controversialist and Literary Magazine, London:

“The trenchant weapon of the consummate analyst is pointed to the flaw in the mailed armour of his opponents, and he cuts bone-deep into the seemingly secure harness.”

The OED’s first example for “bone-deep” used adjectivally is figurative too. We’ve expanded the citation to give it context:

“We who were in and of the army could feel an instant and bone-deep change in the men around us when it became known that Field-Marshall Lord Roberts was coming out to take command” (The Times of India, June 12, 1900).

The OED says “bone-deep” is “frequently figurative and in figurative contexts.” Most of the dictionary’s examples are figurative.

The earliest literal usage cited is from The Illinois Medical Journal, August 1904: “A bone-deep incision is carried from the femoral vein along the pubic ramus to the origin of the pubic spine.”

As for “to the bone,” the OED defines the expression this way: “right through the flesh so as to reach the bone. Frequently hyperbolical, or in figurative contexts.”

The first Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English letter by Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham that includes what it describes as the torture of the Apostle John by the Roman Emperor Domitian:

“Domicianus hatte se deoflica casere, þe æfter Nerone þa reðan ehtnyssa besette on þam cristenum, & hi acwealde mid witum. Se het genyman þone halgan apostol & on weallendum ele he het hine baðian, for ðan þe se hata ele gæð in to ðam bane.” (“Domitian, the most devilish emperor after Nero, cruelly persecuted the Christians and reigned over them with torments. He commanded this holy Apostle to be taken & bathed with boiling oil, for hot oil pierces to the bone.”) From Ælfric’s Letter to Sigeweard, written in the late 10th or early 11th century.

The earliest figurative use of the expression in the OED is from The Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice written in verse around 1250: “Betere is þe holde loverd þen þe newe, þat þe wole frete and gnawe / To þe bare bone” (“Better is the old lover than the new, who will devour and gnaw to the bone”).

Finally the dictionary defines “skin-deep” as “penetrating no deeper than the skin; on the surface only; superficial, shallow.” When the term first appeared in the early 17th century, it was an adjective used proverbially to indicate the limits of beauty.

The earliest OED citation is from “A Wife,” a poem by Thomas Overbury describing the qualities a young man should look for in a wife: “All the carnall Beautie of my wife, / Is but skinne-deepe.” The poem was published in 1614, a year after the author’s death.

The dictionary’s first literal example describes a schoolchild’s injuries in playground brawls: “His wounds are seldome aboue skin deepe” (from New & Choise Characters With Wife, a collection of sketches by Overbury and others that were published in 1615 along with his poem).

We’ll end with a historical note: Overbury, who was a secretary, close adviser, and friend to Robert Carr, a favorite of King  James I, wrote the poem in an attempt to persuade Carr not to marry Frances Howard, the estranged wife of the Earl of Essex.

She and her family, led by the Duke of Norfolk, are said to have plotted against Overbury, resulting in his imprisonment in the Tower of London, where he died on Sept. 14, 1613. The Essex marriage was annulled 11 days later, and she married Carr, then Earl of Somerset, two months after that.

In 1615, a Yorkshire apothecary’s assistant confessed on his deathbed that Frances Howard had paid him £20 for poison to murder Overbury in prison. She, her husband, and four others were eventually convicted of the murder. The King pardoned the couple; the four others were executed.

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As to ‘as to’

Q: Would you tackle the ubiquitous use of “as to” as the go-to substitute for “about”? I’ve noticed it among the students in my college writing class who are trying to sound “professional” (the current word for “formal” in the lingo of pre-professionals).

A: The phase “as to” has been used since the 14th century by many admired writers—including Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and Henry James—to mean with respect to, concerning, or about.

We see nothing wrong with the usage and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which says “it is a common compound preposition in wide use at every level of formality.”

The earliest citation for the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Ayenbite of Inwyt (Remorse of Conscience), a 1340 Middle English translation by the Benedictine monk Dom Michelis of Northgate of a Middle French treatise on morality:

“Þe ilke þet hateþ his broþer, he is manslaȝþe ase to his wylle and zeneȝeþ dyadliche” (“he that hateth his brother, he is a man-slayer as to his will, and sinneth deadly”). We’ve expanded the citation, which is from a translation of La Somme le Roi (“A Survey for a King,” circa 1395), written for the children of Philip III by the Dominican Friar Laurent d’Orléans, the king’s confessor and his children’s tutor.

The usage is ultimately derived from the Old English eall swa (“all so”), an intensification of “so” and an ancestor through “progressive phonetic reduction” of the Modern English “as,” “so,” “also,” “as for,” and “as to,” according to the OED.

As far as we can tell, nobody was troubled by the usage until the early 20th century, when H. W. Fowler complained in The King’s English (1907) about the use of compound prepositions and conjunctions, notably “the absurd prevailing abuse of the compound preposition as to.”

Fowler was especially troubled by the use of “as to” before the conjunction “whether,” arguing that “if as to is simply left out, no difference whatever is made in the meaning.”

But in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), Fowler acknowledged that the phrase “has a legitimate use—to bring into prominence at the beginning of a sentence something that without it would have to stand later (As to Smith, it is impossible to guess what line he will take).”

Other usage writers have criticized “as to” as legalese and wordy as well as redundant before conjunctions like “how,” “why” and “whether.”

However, Merriam-Webster’s Usage notes that the phrase is not legalese and is less wordy than some proposed alternatives, like “concerning” and “regarding.” In fact, M-W says, “If we replace it with about, we have five letters, no space, two syllables. How much have we gained? Nothing.”

Yes, “as to” is often unnecessary, but we’re among the many writers who use it. We feel a phrase like “as to whether” may sometimes be less abrupt or more clear than “whether” itself. Here are a couple of Merriam-Webster examples that we’ve expanded:

“My uncertainty as to whether I can so manage as to go personally prevents me from being more explicit” (from an April 7, 1823, letter by Lord Byron).

“There ensued a long conversation as they waited as to whether waiters made more in actual wages than in tips” (from “May Day,” a short story in Tales of the Jazz Age, 1922, by F. Scott Fitzgerald).

And here are a few of the many M-W citations (some of them expanded) for “as to” used in other ways:

“As to the old one, I knew not what to do with him, he was so fierce” (Robinson Crusoe, 1719, by Daniel Defoe).

“Fanny had by no means forgotten Mr. Crawford when she awoke the next morning; but she remembered the purport of her note, and was not less sanguine as to its effect than she had been the night before” (Mansfield Park, 1814, by Jane Austen).

“And so you don’t agree with my view as to said photographer?” (from an April 1, 1877, letter by Lewis Carroll).

“There still remained my relation with the reader, which was another affair altogether and as to which I felt no one to be trusted but myself” (The Art of the Novel, 1934, by Henry James. From a collection of prefaces originally written for a 1909 multivolume edition of James’s fiction).

“When women were first elected to Congress, the question as to how they should be referred to in debate engaged the leaders of the House of Representatives” (The American Language, 4th ed., 1949, by H. L. Mencken).

As Merriam-Webster explains, “As to is found chiefly in four constructions: as an introducer (the use approved by Fowler and his followers) and to link a noun, an adjective, or a verb with following matter.”

The usage guide cites these four examples from conversations of the 18th-century man of letters Samuel Johnson (cited in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, 1791):

“He would begin thus: ‘Why, Sir, as to the good or evil of card-playing—’ ‘Now, (said Garrick,) he is thinking which side he shall take.’ ” Johnson is speaking here with the actor David Garrick.

“Sir, there is no doubt as to peculiarities.”

“For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.”

“We are all agreed as to our own liberty.”

In the opinion of the M-W editors, “All of the constructions used by Dr. Johnson are still current. You can use any of them when they sound right to you.”

We agree, though some other usage guides have various objections. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), for example, says “as to is an all-purpose preposition to be avoided whenever a more specific preposition will do.”

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Rock around the clock

Q: I used to have a coworker who bragged that he “rocked” his opponents in bar fights, meaning he knocked them out or pummeled them. I haven’t heard anyone else use “rock” that way. Is there a history to this usage, perhaps a region where it’s common?

A: English has two etymologically distinct words “rock,” both dating from Anglo-Saxon times: a noun derived from rocca, medieval colloquial Latin for a large stone, and a verb of prehistoric Germanic origin meaning to sway from side to side.

We haven’t found a definite source for the rare fighting use of “rock” you’re asking about, but it may have been influenced by various senses derived from either the noun or the verb. Here’s the story.

When “rock” first appeared in Old English, it was a noun that was part of the compound stanrocca (“stone rock”), a pointed or projecting rock, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Latin-Old English Cleopatra Glossaries: “Obolisci, stanrocces.” Obolisci is Latin for “obelisks.”

(The glossaries, held at the British Library, are named for a bust of Cleopatra that sat on a bookcase where the manuscripts were kept in the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton.)

The noun appears by itself in the next OED citation, which is from the lyrics of an early Middle English religious ballad about Judas, written sometime before 1275:

“Iudas, go þou on þe roc heie up-on þe ston, lei þin heued i my barm, slep þou þe anon” (“Judas, go thou on the rock, high upon the stone, lay thine head in my bosom, sleep thou anon”). From English Lyrics of the 13th Century (1932), by Carleton Brown.

When the other word “rock” appeared in Old English, it was a verb meaning “to move (a child) gently to and fro in a cradle, etc., in order to soothe it or send it to sleep,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest  example, which we’ve expanded, is from a 12th-century homily about the Virgin Mary by Ralph d’Escures, Archbishop of Canterbury:

“On his cildlicen unfernysse, heo hine baðede, & beðede, & smerede, & bær, & frefrede, & swaðede, & roccode” (“In his childhood infirmity, she bathed him, and warmed him, and anointed him, and carried him, and comforted him, and swaddled him, and rocked him”).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the verb is derived from a prehistoric Germanic base reconstructed as rukk- and meaning “move.” Ayto cites similar words in other Germanic languages, such as the German rücken (“move”) and the Dutch rukken (“pull, jerk”).

The original cradle-rocking sense of “rock” has given us many other senses, including to shake physically (1300) or psychologically (1881), to disturb or “rock the boat” (1903), to dance to music with a strong beat (1931), and to “rock and roll” (1941).

It’s possible that the sense of shaking someone physically may have influenced the punching and fighting meaning of the verb “rock” that you’re asking about. But we’ve seen no evidence to support this.

Another possible influence is an entirely different verb “rock” that appeared in American regional English at the beginning of the 17th century with a violent slang sense. Derived from the noun “rock,” it meant to throw stones at someone or something—that is to stone them.

The Dictionary of American Regional English says the usage chiefly occurs in the South and South Midland regions, but the earliest DARE example is from a Philadelphia newspaper:

“ ‘Rock him! rock him!’ cried the boys, ‘rock him round the corner’ … The wearer was ‘rocked’ till he turned his cloak inside out” (Public Ledger, Aug. 30, 1836).

The earliest Southern example in DARE is an 1899 entry in a book about the regional dialect of Virginia: “Rock … To throw rocks. ‘You boys stop rocking’ ” (Word Book of Virginia Folk-Speech, 1912, by Bennett Wood Green).

However, we haven’t seen any evidence that the stoning sense of the verb “rock” inspired the fighting usage you’re asking about. In fact, we haven’t found any etymological or slang reference that notes the use of “rock” as to fight or punch.

However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two examples for “rock it” used to mean fight, an obscure sense that showed up in the early 20th century.

The first example is from Capricornia, a 1938 novel by the Australian writer Xavier Herbert, set in Australia’s Northern Territory: “Rock it into him, Darkey—you got him now!”

The next Green’s citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the American musical West Side Story (1957), with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents:

“We’re gonna rock it tonight, / We’re gonna jazz it up and have us a ball! / They’re gonna get it tonight; / The more they turn it on, the harder they’ll fall!”

The word “rock” has many other meanings, as both a verb and a noun, but we’ll end with a fashion sense that evolved in the late 20th century from the original baby-rocking verb.

The OED defines this modern verb as “to wear, esp. with panache; to display, flaunt, or sport (as a personally distinctive style, accessory, possession, etc.).”

The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ve expanded, is from “Elementary,” a 1987 song by the hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions, with lyrics by KRS-One (Lawrence Parker) and Scott La Rock (Scott Monroe Sterling):

“Watchin’ all these females rock their pants too tight, / Cos there’s no other creative composition on display / That give a full analysis and rock this way.”

A more recent example that we’ve found is this headline from the Daily Mail (London, July 11, 2022): “Kourtney Kardashian rocks edgy black and white leather jacket and thick sunglasses while posing for mirror selfie.”

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Breaking up is hard to do

Q: I thought I knew the rules for hyphenating syllable breaks, but apparently not. For instance, I assumed that “qu” shouldn’t be split since it’s pronounced as a single sound. But my dictionary breaks “equity” as eq-ui-ty and “aqua” as aq-ua. Why?

A: First of all, the rules of hyphenation—that is, for splitting a word that breaks at the end of a line of print or writing—have little or nothing to do with how a word splits when spoken.

The “qu” combo represents not one sound but two (“k” + “w”), and as we’ll explain later, it’s often split, both typographically and phonetically. Our advice is to forget about figuring out the “rules” here, and grab a dictionary that shows both the typographical and the phonetic splits.

When you look up a longer word, you’ll notice that the word is split into divisions in two different ways.

Take the word “accomplishment” as given in Merriam-Webster online. The word is first divided as ac·​com·​plish·​ment, with mid-level dots indicating where it splits for typographical purposes. The word is then divided again for pronunciation purposes: ə-ˈkäm-plish-mənt. 

Note the difference in the two divisions. The first two syllables aren’t split the same way for writing and for speaking.

The difference is even clearer with the kind of suffixed words that break one way in print and another in speech.

For instance, “ending” is hyphenated as end·​ing but pronounced EN-ding. And “orally” is hyphenated as o·​ral·​ly but pronounced OR-uh-lee. The suffixes “-ing” and “-ly” are separate syllables for hyphenation purposes, even when they’re spoken along with a preceding consonant.

As for words spelled with “qu,” we haven’t found any authoritative explanation for when the letters are split typographically and when they’re not. But after consulting several standard dictionaries, we can give you an idea of the usual conventions.

(1) When “q” comes between two vowels—as it usually does—the hyphen can either precede or follow the “q,” regardless of the spoken stress or the vowel value (long vs. short) of the preceding syllable.

  • Written words in which the hyphen precedes the “q” include “aquarium” (a·quar·i·um) … “aquatic” (a·quat·ic) … “acqueous” (a·que·ous) … “equal” (e·​qual) … “equator” (e·qua·tor) …“equestrian” (e·ques·tri·an) … “equidistant” (e·qui·dis·tant) … “equip” (e·quip) … “equinox” (e·qui·nox) … “obloquy” (ob·lo·quy) … “sequester” (se·ques·ter).
  • Written words in which the the hyphen follows the “q” include “aqua” (aq·ua) … “aqueduct” (aq·ue·duct) … “aquiline” (aq·ui·line) … “equable” (eq·ua·ble) … “equity” (eq·ui·ty) … “equitation” (eq·​ui·​ta·​tion) … “equitable” (eq·ui·ta·ble) … “iniquity” (in·iq·ui·ty).

(2) When “c” precedes “q,” the hyphen divides the two consonants even though they’re pronounced together: “acquaint” (ac·quaint) …  “acquiesce” (ac·qui·esce) … “acquire” (ac·quire) … “acquit” (ac·quit). In speech, such words have just a vowel as the first syllable.

We’ve taken all of those “qu” examples from two standard American dictionaries: American Heritage online and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (5th print ed.). We used those dictionaries because they show where a hyphen would theoretically go after a single letter, something you’re interested in knowing.

However, the question of hyphenating a word like “equal” (e·qual) is merely academic. In real life, no typographer would break a word and start a new line after only one letter. As any editor, proofreader, or compositor knows, you never strand (or “orphan”) a first letter at the end of a line.

That’s why Merriam-Webster doesn’t show hyphenations after a single opening letter, even if the letter is pronounced as a separate syllable. M-W’s entry for “equal,” for example, leaves the headword whole and undivided. It splits only the pronunciation, which it gives as ˈē-kwəl. The message: The word is left whole in writing but is spoken in two parts.

Three M-W editors explain all this in a “Word Matters” podcast that ends with a discussion of hyphenation conventions. And they note that in practice, few people today need to know how a word should break at the end of a line because word processing programs do it for us.

This may be why fewer and fewer dictionaries today offer hyphenation guides, especially dictionaries that are published solely online. Even those that do offer hyphenation guides may differ in these matters.

For instance, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a British source, disagrees with a couple of the American hyphenations cited above.

Where the American dictionaries have e·qui·nox, Longman has eq·ui·nox; where the Americans have eq·ui·ta·ble, Longman has eq·uit·a·ble.

So choose your dictionary and don’t try to suss out the “rules.”

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The invisibilized man

Q: A young man I mentored uses the term “invisibilization” in a Fulbright study about unauthorized migrants transiting Costa Rica. At first I was taken aback by the usage, but now I believe it may be a brilliant term for dismissing a group of people. Your thoughts?

A: “Invisibilize” and “invisibilization” have been around for some time (the verb since the 1840s and the noun since the 1930s), but they haven’t made it into the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult. Nor are they among the 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological reference.

However, the collaborative dictionary Wiktionary has entries for both terms. It defines “invisibilize” as “to make invisible; to marginalize so as to erase the presence or contributions of.” And Wiktionary defines “invisibilization” as “invisibilizing,” which it says is the verb’s present participle and is a term chiefly used in sociology.

We should add that “invisibilizing” is both a present participle (as in “that word was invisibilizing us”) and a gerund, a verb form that acts as a noun (as in “invisibilizing is a form of oppression”).

Although these term are often seen in scholarly writing by social scientists, they haven’t made the transition from academese to ordinary English, which is why they aren’t yet in standard or etymological dictionaries.

When the verb appeared in writing in the 19th century, it meant to hide. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a play first performed in London: “Where shall I invisibilize myself? Is there no friendly cupboard, or chimney, or coal-cellar?” (from Like Father, Like Son, an 1840 farce by R. J. Raymond).

As far as we can tell, the sociological sense of the verb was first recorded in the second half of the 20th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book by an American sociologist about racism and sex:

“Historically, when black men and women came in contact with white men and women, whatever the occasion, the blacks had a fixed role to play, a rigid, docile way to act, in order to nullify (‘invisibilize’) the sexuality of their presence” (Coming Together: Black Power, White Hatred, and Sexual Hang-ups, 1971, by Calvin C. Hernton).

Since then, “invisibilize” has been used in many areas (gender, politics, fashion, music, religion, etc.) to mean exclude, ignore, erase, or dismiss.

The composer Ned Rorem, for example, has used it in discussing music and poetry: “Music, being more immediately powerful, does tend to invisibilize all poems except bad ones” (from Critical Affairs: A Composer’s Journal Unbound, 1970).

As for “invisibilization,” the earliest example we’ve seen is from God in a Rolls Royce: The Rise of Father Divine, Menace or Messiah? (1936), by John Hoshor.

The author writes that Father Divine, an African-American religious leader, coined terms “such as physicalate, omnilucent, intutor, invisibilization, contagionized, begettion,” and so on.

Interestingly, Father Divine appears to have used the verb “invisibilize” to mean disappear when the police came to arrest him in Milford, CT, in connection with a violent incident at his headquarters in Harlem. Here’s an account of the arrest from the April 23, 1937, issue of The New York Times:

“When the police of the Connecticut town found him, Father Divine first tried to ‘invisibilize’ himself behind the furnace. When that failed, he raised his right hand and said: ‘Peace, it’s wonderful.’ ”

Getting back to “invisibilization,” the sociological sense of the noun appeared a few decades later: “Many of the women reported a progressive sense of invisibilization as their graduate careers continued” (from Sex, Ethnic, and Field Differences in Doctoral Outcomes, a 1975 PhD dissertation by Lucy Watson Sells).

The usage reminds us of a sense of “disappear” that English borrowed in the 1960s from desaparecer in Latin American Spanish: to cause someone to disappear by arrest, abduction, or murder.

The OED’s earliest citation is from a Pittsfield, MA, newspaper: “One day, without explanation, he ‘was disappeared’ to Czechoslovakia, say reliable Cuban sources” (The Berkshire Eagle, Oct. 16, 1965).

The usage also prompts us to mention the use of “cancel” to mean boycott or withdraw support from those promoting unacceptable beliefs. The dictionary’s first example is from the script of a crime film: “Cancel that bitch. I’ll buy another one” (New Jack City, 1990, written by Thomas Lee Wright and Barry Michael Cooper).

And the first Oxford citation for the noun phrase “cancel culture” is from an Oct. 28, 2016, tweet by @unicorninkkon: “I hate cancel culture until I want to set things on fire!”

Will the OED ever add “invisibilize” and “invisibilization”? Perhaps, but only if more English speakers use them and give the usage greater visibility.

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Imperatively speaking

Q: A sign in the bathroom of the ladies’ locker room says, “It is imperative that nothing but TP is put in the toilet.” Aside from the fact that a couple of other things also go in the toilet, shouldn’t this read “be put,” not “is put”?

A: A sentence like that is referred to as a mandative construction; it demands something. It includes a mandative adjective (“imperative”) that governs a subordinate clause expressing what’s demanded.

The two usual ways to write such a sentence are (1) “It is imperative that nothing but TP be put in the toilet” and (2) “It is imperative that nothing but TP should be put in the toilet.” A much less common and somewhat iffy version is (3) “It is imperative that nothing but TP is put in the toilet.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, says a mandative adjective can be followed by (#1) a “subjunctive mandative” clause, (#2) a “should mandative” clause, or (#3) a “covert mandative” clause. The term “covert” here describes a tensed usage with a hidden subjunctive sense.

“Clear cases of the covert construction are fairly rare,” the authors add, “and indeed in AmE are of somewhat marginal acceptability. In AmE the subjunctive is strongly favoured over the should construction, while BrE shows the opposite preference.”

The Cambridge Grammar includes many examples of the three types of mandative construction, including these: (1) “It is essential that everyone attend the meeting”; (2) “It is essential that everyone should attend the meeting”; (3) “It is essential that everyone attends the meeting.”

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The pilgrimage of ‘progress’

Q: In looking up “progress,” I stumbled across this note: “The verb became obsolete in British English use at the end of the 17th century and was readopted from American English in the early 19th century.” Why did it become obsolete in Britain, not the US?

A: The verb “progress” wasn’t actually obsolete in British English during the 18th century, but it was apparently less common in Britain than in the US.

That passage from the Oxford Dictionary of English is outdated. It’s probably based on an etymological note in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary that was updated in the online third edition.

(The ODE is a standard dictionary while the OED is an etymological dictionary. Both are published by Oxford University Press.)

Although the note in the OED second edition says the verb was “in 18th c. obs. in England,” the third edition (in a March 2022 update) says it was “apparently more common in U.S. than in British use in the 18th cent.”

Of the seven 18th-century citations in the updated entry, three are from Britain, three from the US, and one from Ireland. Here are the British examples in various senses of the verb:

  • “ ’Tis Ordain’d … that the Sun … should be more Certain in Motion, and usefully computable, by never progressing from his Ecliptick Line” (from Remarks on the New Philosophy of Des-Cartes, 1700, by Edward Howard).
  • “While England was progressing in that change of its constitution, Ireland as a dependent country was affected with it” (A View of the Internal Policy of Great Britain, 1764, by Robert Wallace).
  • “A glorious war, commenced in justice and progressed in success” (The Out-of-Door Parliament, 1780, by a Gentleman of the Middle Temple).

English borrowed the word “progress” from Latin, where progressus referred to a forward movement, an advance, or a development. It appeared as a noun in the 15th century and a verb in the 16th. Here are the first OED citations for the noun and the verb:

  • “In oure progresse to outward werkis aftir þese [these] now afore taken” (from The Reule of Crysten Religioun, circa 1443, by Reginald Pecock).
  • “Caesar returned out of Africke, and progressed vp and downe Italie” (from The Liues of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, 1578, Thomas North’s translation of the Greek historian Plutarch’s biographies).

The verb “progress” was used in the 16th and 17th centuries by leading British writers, including Shakespeare, Milton, and Donne. The OED cites this tearful example from Shakespeare’s King John, believed written in the mid-1590s but published in 1623:  “Let me wipe off this honourable dewe, / That siluerly doth progresse on thy cheekes.”

The verb continued to be used in American English during the 18th century, although it fell out of favor in British English. Noah Webster includes the noun and verb as standard in An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), while Samuel Johnson says in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that the verb is “not used.”

Johnson was aware of the verb’s history (he cites Shakespeare’s use of it in King John), but the mistaken belief among less informed Britons that the verb was an Americanism may have kept many from using it in the 18th century.

By the early 19th century, however, the reluctant British apparently found the verb so helpful that they resumed using it despite its supposed American origins.

The OED cites this example, which we’ve expanded, from Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village (1832), a collection of sketches about rural life in England:

“In country towns, as in other places, society has been progressing (if I may borrow that expressive Americanism) at a very rapid rate.”

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Blowing Their Cover

[Pat’s review of a book about how publishers tout their books, reprinted from the September 2022 issue of the Literary Review, London. We’ve left in the British punctuation and spelling.]

* * * * * * * * * * * *

PATRICIA T O’CONNER

Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A–Z of Literary Persuasion
By Louise Willder (Oneworld 352pp £14.99)

‘It starts with the rats.’

Gotcha, didn’t it? That line got me too. It’s from a blurb for The Plague, and the nameless copywriter deserves a plaque. Those five words conveyed all the ominous menace of the book and got there a lot faster than Camus, bless him.

Blurb Your Enthusiasm, Louise Willder’s homage to the persuasive end of publishing, is studded with jewels like that – sales pitches raised to artistry. Or to hilarity, as with the blurb for a campy German novel about Hitler’s return from the dead: ‘HE’S BACK. AND HE’S FÜHRIOUS.’

A ‘tell-all’ of shameless promotion, this book examines all the paraphernalia designed to hook a reader: title, subtitle, first sentence, jacket art, review quotes, flattering remarks from other authors, and so on. But the star here is the in-house précis and plug known as the publisher’s blurb, usually found on the back cover or a jacket flap. After twenty-five years in publishing, Willder figures she’s written more than five thousand. (A side note: in the United States, a ‘blurb’ is a prepublication endorsement by a fellow author, otherwise known as a ‘puff ’.)

Although Willder admires blurbal perfection, she has also put together a ‘little cabinet of horrors’ – blurbs so deliciously bad that we suspect the copywriters were impaired or never read the books. She describes these productions as ‘unhinged’, ‘barking’, ‘bats’, ‘deranged abominations’ and ‘a big “screw-you” to the reader’. A standout in that last category: ‘This is a Lord Peter Wimsey story. Need we say more?’ Well, yes.

Pulp editions of the classics are particularly rich in covers that in no way reflect what’s inside. Willder delights in a garish edition of Pride and Prejudice featuring a smouldering, hairy-chested Darcy, smoke curling from his cigarette, and the line ‘Lock Up Your Daughters… Darcy’s In Town!’ Often the writers of blurbs for pulp classics ‘take leave of their senses’, the author writes, citing a reprint of Zola’s Nana: ‘Voluptuous and violent, she created a world of luxury which revolved about her person.’ Her person?

In a more serious vein, Willder explores the history of book promotion, from William Caxton’s medieval flyers to the marketing tricks that helped sell Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. Dickens owned the author tour and the dramatic reading, we learn, while Hugo perfected the art of advance buzz, right down to press releases embargoed till publication date. And when it comes to advertising posters, Hugo was the original plasterer of Paris.

Now here’s a eureka moment. Think of the ridiculously verbose title pages of 17th- and 18th-century books, their inflated subtitles ballooning out to fill every inch of space. A case in point:

The
LIFE
AND
STRANGE SURPRIZING
ADVENTURES
OF
ROBINSON Crusoe,
of YORK, MARINER:
Who lived Eight and Twenty Years,
all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the
coast of AMERICA, near the Mouth of
the Great River of OROONOQUE;
Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck,
wherein all the Men perished but himself.
WITH
An Account how he was at last as strangely
deliver’d by PYRATES.
Written by Himself.

It’s a blurb! Daniel Defoe’s own blurb, Written by Himself. As Willder explains, early books had no covers, let alone jackets. They were just bundles of folded pages (the wealthy had them bound). So the logical place for any marketing hoo-ha was the title page, which a bookseller could hang on a string to attract shoppers.

Then as now, hyperbole sold books. And speaking as a copywriter, Willder admits to creating her share. The blub is ‘my 100 words of little white lies’, she says. ‘There has to be some kind of sugar coating and, yes, lying.’

Of course, one has to draw the line somewhere, and Willder would like to see fewer shopworn adjectives on book covers, specifically ‘luminous’, ‘dazzling’, ‘incandescent’, ‘stunning’, ‘shimmering’, ‘sparkling’, ‘glittering’, ‘devastating’, ‘searing’, ‘shattering’, ‘explosive’, ‘epic’, ‘electrifying’, ‘dizzying’, ‘chilling’, ‘staggering’, ‘deeply personal’ and the ubiquitous ‘haunting’.

Hooray! Publishers (and reviewers), take note. I never could understand ‘incandescent’. Even light bulbs aren’t incandescent anymore. And while we’re at it, I’d like to blue-pencil the noun phrases ‘rite of passage’, ‘coming of age’ and ‘richly woven tapestry’.

Louise Willder – we are cut from the same cloth. But you can’t escape without a couple of quibbles. It wasn’t Dorothy Parker who said, ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.’ It was Tom Waits (one could fill a book with Dorothy Parker quips that Dorothy Parker never quipped). And ‘furlough’ is not an American term. It originated in 17th-century British English. Check the Oxford English Dictionary, a deeply shattering work of haunting luminosity.

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Can you break a phrasal verb up?

Q: I often encounter a construction like this: “Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed through Congress a law overturning the 1820 Missouri Compromise.” Is “pushed a law through Congress” incorrect? It seems crisper, less contorted.

A: Some writers, probably influenced by the old “split infinitive” myth, are reluctant to break up a phrasal verb like “push through,” and this sometimes leads to contorted sentences.

However, we don’t think that’s the issue here. Our guess is that the writer of the passage (“Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushed through Congress a law overturning the 1820 Missouri Compromise”) simply wanted to keep the noun “law” close to its description.

We agree with you that “pushed a law through Congress” is usually more straightforward than “pushed through Congress a law,” but we think the passage is more effective as written.

A phrasal verb, as you know, is made up of a verb and one or more other words, typically adverbs or prepositions: “break up,” “carry out,” “shut down,” “find out,” “give up,” “put off,” “try on,” etc.

There’s nothing wrong with breaking up a phrasal verb as long as it still makes sense: you can “shut down a computer” or “shut a computer down.” It’s a question of style, not grammar.

The phrasal verb “push through,” meaning to carry out something to its conclusion, showed up in late 19th-century writing, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, breaks up the phrase:

“If it is not pressing, neither party, having other and nearer aims, cares to take it up and push it through” (from The American Commonwealth, 1888, by the British historian and statesman James Bryce).

Finally, we’ve written several times on our website about the so-called “split infinitive,” a misleading phrase, since “to” isn’t part of the infinitive  and nothing is being split.

As we note in a 2013 post, when “to” appears with an infinitive, it’s generally referred to as an “infinitive marker” or “infinitive particle.” When an infinitive appears without “to,” it’s described as a bare, simple, or plain infinitive.

On the Language Myths page of our website, we note that writers have been putting words between the infinitive and its particle since the 1300s. It was perfectly acceptable until the mid-19th century, when Latin scholars—notably Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen’s English—objected to the usage.

Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians’ slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can’t divide an infinitive. The so-called rule was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it.

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There, there, don’t cry

Q: I teach EFL and was asked about the origin of using “there, there” to comfort someone. I was unable to find this online. Not one single iota as to where it came from. Can you help?

A: The word “there” has gone in many different directions since it first appeared in Anglo-Saxon days as þara, an adverb indicating location or position, as in this example from a medieval English version of a 5th-century Latin chronicle:

“swiðe earfoðhawe, ac hit is Þeah Þara” (“very hard to perceive, yet it is still there”). From the Old English Orosius, a late 9th- or early 10th-century translation of Paulus Orosius’s Historiarum Adversum Pagano Libri VII (“Seven Books of History Against the Pagans”).

We’ll skip ahead now to the 16th century, when the adverb “there” started being used in multiples as an interjection to express vexation, dismay, derision, satisfaction, encouragement, and so on.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary uses “there, there” to express satisfaction: “They gape vpon me with their mouthes, sayenge: there, there; we se it with oure eyes” (from the Coverdale Bible of 1535, Psalms 35:21; the King James Version of 1611 has “Aha, aha” instead of “there, there”).

The next OED example uses “there” four times to express dismay: “Why there, there, there, there, a diamond gone cost me two thousand ducats” (from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, believed written in the late 1590s).

The earliest example we’ve found for the adverb used to comfort someone is from the early 19th century: “There, there, my dear fellow—nay, don’t cry—it will be all well with you yet” (“Incident at Navarino,” The London Saturday Journal, Oct. 19, 1839).

Oxford’s first citation for the comforting usage appeared several decades later: “ ‘There, there,’ my poor father answered, ‘it is not that’ ” (from Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual of 1872).

The dictionary’s next use, which we’ve expanded, is from Damon Runyon’s short story “Butch Minds the Baby” (1938): “He lays down his tools and picks up John Ignatius Junior and starts whispering, ‘There, there, there, my itty oddleums. Da-dad is here.’ ”

The most recent OED citation for the usage has “there-there” as a verb meaning to soothe or comfort: “Joyce took the baby … and lovingly there-thered his raucous cries” (from The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, a 1977 crime novel by Colin Dexter).

It’s possible that the comforting sense of “there, there” may have originated in its use with children, though we haven’t found any evidence to support this. Parents use many fully or partly reduplicative expressions in talking to young children: “choo-choo,” “dada,” “itty-bitty,” “mama,” “pee-pee,” “teeny-weeny,” “tum-tum,” “wee-wee,” and so on.

Although “there, there” and the similar expressions “there now” and “now, now” are often used in a comforting way, all three can also be used to express disapproval: “There, there, stop that” … “Now, now, that’s enough” … “There now, watch your language.”

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I can’t believe it’s not margerine!

Q: Why is “margarine” pronounced as if it were spelled “margerine”? The letter “g” is almost always hard when followed by an “a” and soft when followed by an “e.”

A: You’re right in thinking that the letter combination “ga” normally produces a hard “g,” as in the name “Margaret,” while the combination “ge” usually produces a soft “g,” as in “Margery.” In fact, “margarine” was originally pronounced with a hard “g,” as you’d suppose from its spelling.

It’s spelled with “ga” because the word was coined in the early 19th century in French, where margarine has a hard “g.” And when the word first entered English in the mid-19th century, it had the same hard “g” sound that it has in French.

Only later, in the early 20th century, did the original English pronunciation begin to shift. Today the letter is soft, like the “g” in “gin,” a development the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says was probably influenced by “words like margin and such alterations in pronunciation as those of Margaret and Margie.”

We’ll have more on the pronunciation later. First, a little history of this word, which didn’t originally refer to something you’d put on your pancakes. It got its start in French as a chemical term, margarine. The butter substitute wasn’t invented until many decades later.

The word was coined in 1813 by the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul. In experimenting with animal fats, he synthesized what he believed to be a previously unknown fatty substance, which he’d extracted from soap made of pork lard.

He gave this substance the chemical name margarine, a term soon adopted into English chemistry as “margarin” or “margarine.” And three years later, in 1816, Chevreul gave the name acide margarique (“margaric acid”) to the fatty acid he thought it came from.

Why those names? As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the substance had “the appearance of mother-of-pearl,” so Chevreul adapted the name from the ancient Greek word for “pearl,” μαργαρίτης (margarites).

Keep in mind that in the first half of the 19th century, the words margarine, “margarin” and “margarine” were French and English chemical terms, not the names of edibles. The butter substitute wasn’t yet invented. The same is true of oléomargarine, a later French chemical term.

What the inventors of oléomargarine—Théophile-Jules Pelouze (a pharmaceutical scientist) and Félix Henri Boudet (a pharmacist)—synthesized in 1838 was a fatty solid derived from olive oil. They believed it to contain the same substances that Chevreul had synthesized from animal fats—margarine and another called oléine. By the late 1830s, these scientific terms were “olein” and “margarin” or “margarine” in English.

Pelouze and Boudet believed their discovery could have applications in the soap and candle industries. In fact, the terms “margarine candles” and “margarine soap” began appearing in English in the 1840s.

Although they discovered it in 1838, the new substance wasn’t given the name oléomargarine until 1854, when the French chemist Pierre Eugène Marcellin Berthelot chose that name because of its supposed constituents, oléine and margarine. (Incidentally, the French oléine and English “olein” are derived from the Latin word for “oil,” eleum.)

Finally we come to the edible, spreadable butter substitute. Its invention in 1869 was inspired by a butter shortage in France and a contest sponsored by Napoleon III, who offered a prize to anyone who could develop an artificial butter.

The winner was yet another French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who described his invention in the original 1869 patent as “comme le beurre” (“like butter”), according to the Oxford English Dictionary. He said its chemical constituents included the oléine and margarine identified by Chevreul more than half a century earlier.

In a later patent, filed in 1874, Mège-Mouriès added skimmed cow’s milk to the mixture, so it “a la même composition que le beurre” (“has the same composition as butter”), the OED says.

And based on its supposed ingredients, oléine and margarine, he formally gave his invention both a scientific and a general name: “L’oléomargarine, nommé vulgairement margarine” (“Oleomargarine, commonly called margarine”).

So the French word margarine didn’t specifically mean artificial butter until 60 years after the term was coined in chemistry.

Though Mège-Mouriès didn’t officially name his invention until 1874, two English nouns for it, “margarine” and “oleomargarine,” jumped the gun slightly—no doubt borrowed from his formula.

The OED’s earliest citation for “margarine” to mean artificial butter is from an American patent  issued in 1873: “When it is cold … it constitutes … a greasy matter of very good taste, and which may replace the butter in the kitchen, where it is employed under the name of ‘margarine.’ ”

The dictionary’s earliest example of “oleomargarine” in the buttery sense is from Scientific American (Oct. 18, 1873): “The manufacture of artificial butter by the ‘Oleomargarine Manufacturing Company.’ ”

The names “margarine” and “oleomargarine” have meant the kitchen product ever since. But we can’t overlook the short forms: “oleo” and “marge.” These are Oxford’s oldest examples:

“There is one firm in London which is able to turn out from ten to twenty tons of this valuable oleo per week” (Daily News, London, Dec. 11, 1884) … “Potatoes and marge, marge and potatoes” (James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, 1922).

Notice that “marge” as a short form developed after the English “margarine” had largely shifted to a soft “g,” a development that was noticed—and condemned as a mispronunciation—at the turn of the century.

The soft “g” pronunciation wasn’t accepted by lexicographers until 1913, when it was included, though as a lesser variant, in the Phonetic Dictionary of the English Language, by Hermann Michaelis and Daniel Jones.

But soon after, the pronunciations switched places in the opinion of phoneticians. In An English Pronouncing Dictionary (1917), Daniel Jones listed the preferred pronunciation is /dʒə/ (soft “g”), with /ɡə/ (hard “g”) as a less frequent variant.

The older pronunciation, according to the OED,  “became rare in the second half of the 20th cent.” Now for a historic footnote:

The French terms oléomargarine and margarine were based on a scientific misunderstanding, according to the OED. “As subsequent research showed that neither the margarine of Chevreul, nor the oléomargarine of Berthelot, were definite chemical compounds,” the dictionary says, “these names are no longer in chemical use.”

But though defunct in scientific use, they live on in the names used today for the butter substitute.

[Note: On Sept. 21, 2022, a reader writes to say, “ ‘Margarine’ has hard ‘g’ in winter and a soft ‘g’ in summer.”]

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On claret, hock, and sack

Q: I often see “claret,” “hock,” and “sack” used in British novels for what I take to mean red wine, white wine, and sherry. Where do these terms come from?

A: The word “claret” now refers to a French red wine, especially one from Bordeaux, while “hock” is a German white wine, especially one from the Rhineland. “Sack” is a historical term for a sweet white wine that was once imported from Spain.

Here’s the intoxicating story.

When English borrowed “claret” from Old French in the 15th century, it didn’t mean red wine. The term referred to “wines of yellowish or light red colour, as distinguished alike from ‘red wine’ and ‘white wine,’ ” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary cites a passage in French showing that in the late 14th century vin claret meant something other than red wine. Here we’ve expanded and translated the passage:

“et puis ils aportent de très bone cervoise et des bons vins; c’est a savoir vin claret, vermaille et blanc” (“and then they bring very good cervoise [beer] and good wines, namely claret, red, and white wine”). From La Manière de Langage Qui Enseigne à Parler et à Écrire le Français (circa 1396), a handbook intended to help the English improve their French.

The dictionary’s first example of “claret” in English is from Promptorium Parvulorum (c. 1440), an English-to-Latin dictionary: “Claret or cleret as wyne, semiclarus.” (In Latin, semiclarus means half-bright or half-clear.)

The OED’s first English example that clearly shows “claret” as a wine other than red or white is from Colyn Blowbols Testament (c. 1500), an anonymous poem about a drunkard: “Rede wyn, the claret, and the white.”

Oxford says that since about 1600 “claret” has meant a red wine, adding that it’s “now applied to the red wines imported from Bordeaux, generally mixed with Benicarlo or some full-bodied French wine.”

The dictionary’s earliest definite example of “claret” meaning a red wine, which we’ve expanded, is from the early 1700s:

“To be sold an entire Parcel of New French Prize Clarets … being of the Growth of Lafitt, Margouze, and La Tour” (The London Gazette, May 22, 1707).

We found this earlier example in an Oct. 17, 1634, letter by the British historian James Howell:

“As in France, so in all other Wine countries the white is called the female, and the claret or red wine is called the male, because it commonly hath more sulpher, body and heat in’t.” From Epistolæ Ho-Elianæ (“Letters of Howell”), Vol. 2, published in 1747.

As for “hock,” it’s a shortening of “hockamore,” an Anglicized form of Hochheimer, a Rhine wine from Hochheim am Main in Germany, the OED says. The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is for the shorter term:

“Nay, truly, he had as good a study of books, I’ll say that for him, good old authors, Sack and Claret, Rhenish and old Hock” (from Juliana, a 1671 tragicomedy by John Crowne). The passage refers to a proud cardinal who collected wines instead of books, and who “would not stoop to pray.”

The dictionary’s first example of the now-obsolete term “hockamore” is from Epsom Wells (1673), a comedy by Thomas Shadwell: “I am very well, and drink much Hockamore.”

Finally, “sack” refers to a sweet wine imported from Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest example in the OED is from a 1531 Act of Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, setting retail prices for imported sweet wines:

“It is further enacted … that no Malmeseis Romeneis Sakkes [Malmseys, Rumneys, Sacks] nor other swete Wynes … shalbe rateiled aboue .xij. d. the galon.”

The dictionary adds that “sack” was also used “with words indicating the place of production or exportation,” as in “Malaga sack,” “Canary sack,” and “Sherris sack.” (Málaga is a Spanish province and the Canary Islands a Spanish region in the Atlantic. “Sherris” is a transliteration of “Jerez,” a city in southwestern Spain and the Spanish word for “sherry.”)

As for the etymology, the OED says the term “sack” is derived from vin sec, French for “dry wine,” though it notes that “some difficulty therefore arises from the fact that sack in English … was often described as a sweet wine.”

Julian Jeffs, who has written books on sherry and other wines, has suggested that “sack” is derived from sacar, Spanish for to “draw out,” and saca, the wine extracted from a solera, a tiered cask for blending different vintages.

In his book Sherry (2014), Jeffs notes that wine exports were referred to as sacas in the minutes of the Jerez town council for 1435. However, he doesn’t cite any English evidence connecting sacar and “sack,” and we haven’t seen such evidence.

Was the “sack” of the 16th and 17th centuries similar to the fortified wine that we now know as sherry?

Jeffs says it’s “difficult to say exactly what Elizabethan sack wines were like,” but he adds that “they were certainly fortified.” As evidence, he cites a passage from Chaucer about the power of sack.

We’ll end instead with Falstaff’s praise of sack in this prose passage from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2

A good sherris sack hath a two-fold
operation in it. It ascends me into the brain;
dries me there all the foolish and dull and curdy
vapours which environ it; makes it apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and
delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the
voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes
excellent wit. The second property of your
excellent sherris is, the warming of the blood;
which, before cold and settled, left the liver
white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity
and cowardice; but the sherris warms it and makes
it course from the inwards to the parts extreme:
it illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives
warning to all the rest of this little kingdom,
man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and
inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain,
the heart, who, great and puffed up with this
retinue, doth any deed of courage; and this valour
comes of sherris. So that skill in the weapon is
nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work; and
learning a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till
sack commences it and sets it in act and use.

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On ‘bottom,’ a fundamental thing

Q: I am researching a book on le vice anglais and have become interested in when the word “bottom” came to mean the buttocks. Some dictionaries say the late 18th century, but an anecdote in Boswell’s Life of Johnson implies the word had that meaning by the 1780s.

A: Yes, that anecdote indicates that “bottom” had the sense of buttocks in the 18th century, which isn’t surprising since it had been used that way since the 16th century.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “bottom” meaning “the buttocks, the posterior; (also) the anus” is from a 16th-century margin note in The Prose Brut Chronicle of England, a Middle English manuscript from the first half of the 15th century.

The OED says the term is written two ways in the manuscript (Harley 4827 at the British Library). It’s “erses” (arses) in the main text and “botumes” (bottoms) in this later marginal comment:

“Englishmen fyrst chaunghed there Aparell contrary to the old orders and women folowed wt foxe tayles to hyde there botumes.” The dictionary estimates the date of the marginal note with “botumes” at around 1550.

The next Oxford citation for “bottom” used in the buttocks sense is from a satirical poem about Scottish Presbyterians: “Like aples in the Lake of Sodom, / Like beautie clapped in the bodom” (Mock Poem, or, Whiggs Supplication, a manuscript copy written sometime before 1680, by the Scottish satirist Samuel Colvil).

The original sense of “bottom” as the lower part of something dates back to Anglo-Saxon days. The first OED citation is from a Latin-Old English glossary: “Fundum, fætes botm” (Cleopatra Glossaries, Cotton Cleopatra A. III, a 10th-century manuscript at the British Library). Fundum is Latin for “bottom”; “fætes botm” is Old English for “bottom of a cup.”

Finally, we should let our readers share that April 20, 1781, anecdote you mentioned from The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). In the biography, James Boswell describes the drawing-room tittering that results when Johnson refers to a woman’s sensible character by saying, “the woman had a bottom of good sense.” Here’s Boswell on Johnson’s reaction:

His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule, when he did not intend it; he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotick power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, ‘Where’s the merriment?’ Then collecting himself, and looking aweful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, ‘I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;’ as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.

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Phee-phi-pho-phum

Q: As a mathematician, I’m bothered by the inefficiency of transliterating the Greek letter ϕ as “ph.” Since it’s one letter in Greek, and we have “f,” which makes the same sound, why do we use two letters for it?

A: The letter ϕ (phi) in ancient Greek, spelled “ph” in many English words of Greek origin, didn’t originally have an “f” sound.

The ϕ sounded like the aspirated “p” in “pot,” as opposed to the ancient Greek π (pi), which sounded like the unaspirated “p” in “spot.” (An aspirated letter is pronounced with the sound of a breath.)

When the ancient Romans borrowed words from Greek, they transliterated the ϕ with the digraph ph to differentiate it from the unaspirated p in Latin. (A digraph is a pair of letters representing one sound.)

However, the pronunciations of both the Greek ϕ and the Latin ph evolved during the first few centuries AD and came to sound like the English fricative “f.” (A fricative is a consonant produced by the friction of forcing air through a narrow space.)

In Vox Graeca (1968), a guide to ancient Greek pronunciation, the Cambridge philologist W. Sidney Allen says “the first clear evidence for a fricative pronunciation of ϕ comes from 1 c. A.D. in Pompeiian spellings such as Dafne ( = Δάφνη).” He adds that “from the 2 c. A.D. the representation of ϕ by Latin f becomes common.”

In Old English, spoken from roughly the mid-5th century to the late 11th, the “ph” digraph in words of Greek origin that the Anglo-Saxons borrowed from Latin was sometimes transliterated as f and sometimes as ph.

In an anonymous Old English version of a Latin history, for example, “philosopher” is filosofum in one place and  philosophe in another:

  • “Gesetton him to ladteowe Demoste[n]on þone filosofum” (“They appointed as their leader Demosthenes the philosopher”).
  • “Philippus … wæs Thebanum to gisle geseald, Paminunde, þæm strongan cyninge & þæm gelæredestan philosophe” (“Philip … was given as a hostage to the Theban Paminunde, that strong king and learned philosopher”).

The passages are from the Old English Orosius, a loose translation in the late 9th or early 10th century of Historiarum Adversum Pagano Libri VII (“Seven Books of History Against the Pagans”), a 5th-century chronicle by Paulus Orosius. Modern scholars doubt an attribution of the translation to King Ælfred.

The linguists Thomas Pyles and John Algeo say Old English had “somewhat more than 500 in all” loanwords from Latin, including those of Greek origin. Some loanwords came directly from Latin and others indirectly from Celtic or Germanic terms. (The Origins and Development of the English Language, 4th ed., 1993.)

However, the majority of Greek words in English appeared after the Norman Conquest of the 11th century and the adoption of Anglo-Norman as the language of the aristocracy in England.

“From the Middle English period on, Latin and French are the immediate sources of most loanwords ultimately Greek,” Pyles and Algeo write.

In Middle English (roughly 1150 to 1450), the “f” sound in words of Greek origin was sometimes represented with an “f” and sometimes with a “ph” digraph. So “philosopher” was spelled variously felesophre, filosofre, filosophre, fylosofre, phelesophrephilesofre, philisofre, and so on. Yes, spelling was a mess in Middle English.

In the late 15th century, as Middle English was giving way to early Modern English, the printing press arrived in England and helped standardize spelling, including the use of “ph” for the “f” sound in words from Greek.

As it turns out, some Romance languages derived from Latin (such as Spanish and Italian) preferred “f” in these words, while  others (notably French) chose “ph.”

Getting back to your question, the use of the “ph” digraph here may be less efficient than using “f,” but we find it more interesting. The usage preserves a fascinating chapter in the history of English.

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‘Got a screwdriver?’ … ‘I do.’

Q: If I ask a question like “Have you got a screwdriver?” and someone answers, “I do,” it sets my teeth on edge. I extrapolate that to mean “I do got.” Is that answer incorrect, or is it just me?

A: The use of “I do” in reply to “have you got” is a normal and correct construction in English. There is no “rule” against this common usage.

What’s thrown you off is the idiomatic verb construction “have got.” Both the Oxford English Dictionary and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language say “have got” here means “have” (in the sense of own or possess). Oxford calls it a “specialized” usage while the Cambridge Grammar calls it an informal idiom.

So in the type of question you mention, “have got” and “have” are interchangeable. And whether it’s worded “Have you got a screwdriver?” or “Do you have a screwdriver?” the question has several grammatically correct replies, including (1) “Yes I have” and (2) “Yes I do.”

Both of those are elliptical replies, in which the verb is stranded at the end. They might be expanded as “Yes I have [or have got] a screwdriver” and “Yes I do have a screwdriver.”

So as you can see, the “do” in reply #2 is elliptical for “do have,” not “do got.” As the Cambridge Grammar explains, the “got” in the idiomatic “have got” cannot be stranded at the end of a sentence. This means that in an elliptical construction with a verb at the end, an auxiliary like “have” or “do” is used.

Keep in mind that “have you got” is an idiom to begin with, so it’s not unexpected that the common reply—“Yes I do,” or “No I don’t”—should be idiomatic too.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that in answer to a “have you got” question, the “do” reply is a familiar feature of both British and American English. Fowler’s, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, offers this analysis:

“Question: Have you got a spare room? Answer: Yes, we do. This apparently illogical use of do, replacing have as the auxiliary verb, arises because the question implicitly being answered is ‘Do you have a spare room?’ It is a common pattern in AmE and causes less surprise to British visitors than formerly, since it has also become a feature of BrE.”

In ordinary usage, rather than in the idiom, “have got” is the present perfect tense of the verb “get,” with “have” as the auxiliary (as in “I have got infected”). But in the idiom we’re discussing, the OED says, “have got” functions as the present-tense equivalent of “have.”

And “have” in the idiomatic “have got” is the main verb (not an auxiliary). So both grammatically and semantically, “I have got” = “I have.” In fact, the question  “Have you got a screwdriver?” could be rephrased more formally as “Have you a screwdriver?”

(We might add that many speakers find a sentence like “Have you a screwdriver?” to be excessively formal. Americans in particular seem to prefer questions phrased with “do” when there’s a direct object: “Do you have a screwdriver?”)

You might wonder why English speakers started using the idiomatic “have got” in the first place. After all, the simple “have” performed that function for hundreds of years, and still does.

As we said in a 2014 post, there are two theories about the likely origins of this usage, which dates back to Elizabethan times.

One is that the verb “have” began losing its sense of possession because of its increasing use as an auxiliary. Thus “got” was added as an informal prop.

The other theory is that “got” was originally inserted because of the tendency to use contracted forms of the verb “have.” So if a sentence like “I’ve a cat” felt unnatural or abrupt, one could use “I’ve got a cat” instead.

We should mention another familiar idiomatic use of “have got”—the one that means “must.” Here too, the “got” is not essential to the meaning. “I have got to leave” = “I have to leave” = “I must leave.”

And again, a “do” reply to this variety of “have got” question is perfectly acceptable: “Have you got to leave?” … “I do.”

The “have got” that indicates obligation or necessity is followed by a “to” infinitive, like “to leave.” (The other “have got” idiom, the one indicating possession, is followed by a direct object, like “a screwdriver.”) We wrote about this usage in 2010.

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Casting a little light

Q: Living a life in theatre, I cast actors, though I don’t throw them out the window. “Cast” is one of those verbs with the same form in the past and present. Interesting word, and with so many meanings. I could look it up in my Compact OED, but I can’t read the tiny print—even with the magnifier.

A: Yes, “cast” is an interesting verb, but it’s not always the same in the present tense, past tense, and past participle. The third-person present is “casts.” Some similar verbs are “bet,” “cost,” “cut,” “hit,” “hurt,” “let,” “put,” and “shut.”

You’re right that “cast” has a lot of senses, as both a verb and a noun. All of them are derived from the Old Norse verb kasta (to cast or throw), which first appeared in Middle English and took the place of an Old English verb with the same meaning, weorpan, the ancestor of “warp.”

But as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, “cast,” a Scandinavian migrant that replaced an Old English word, “has now in turn been largely superseded in ordinary language and in the simple literal sense by throw,” which began life as the Old English þrawan (thrawan), and originally meant to twist or turn.

Today, the OED says, “cast” has an old-fashioned air when used in its original English sense: “ ‘Cast it into the pond’ has an archaic effect in comparison with ‘throw it into the pond.’ ” But the word “is in ordinary use in various figurative and specific senses, and in many adverbial combinations, as cast about.”

When “cast” first appeared in the Middle English of the early 13th century, Oxford says, it was a verb meaning “to project (anything) with a force of the nature of a jerk, from the hand, the arms, a vessel, or the like.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from Hali Meidenhad (Holy Virginity,) an alliterative homily written around 1230: “Ha cast hire fader sone se ha iboren wes fram þe hehste heuene in to helle grunde” (“As soon as she [Pride] was born, she cast her father from the highest heaven into the deep of hell”).

The OED’s earliest example for the noun “cast” used in the sense of a throw is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “If a stoon he throwe, and with the cast sleeth [slayeth], lijk maner he shal be punishid” (Numbers 35:17-18).

Interestingly, the noun “cast” showed up earlier in a figurative example that likened the Last Judgment to a game of chance where everything is risked on a throw of dice:

“On domesdai be-for iustise, þar all es casten on a cast” (“On doomsday before justice, there all is risked on a single cast”). From Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem believed written sometime before 1325.

As we’ve said, the word “cast” has a great many senses, so many that the OED arranges the verb in 13 categories, though some of the usages are labelled archaic, obsolete, rare or dialect:

“I. To throw. II. To throw down, overthrow, defeat, convict, condemn. III. To throw off so as to get quit of, to shed, vomit, discard. IV. To throw up (earth) with a spade, dig (peats, a ditch, etc.). V. To put or place with haste or force, throw into prison, into a state of rage, sleep, etc. VI. To reckon, calculate, forecast. VII. To revolve in the mind, devise, contrive, purpose. VIII. To dispose, arrange, allot the parts in a play. IX. To cast metal, etc. X. To turn, twist, warp, veer, incline. XI. To plaster, daub. XII. Hunting and Hawking senses, those of doubtful position, and phrases. XIII. Adverbial combinations.”

Here are some of the more common uses of the verb that have evolved from its original sense of throwing, along with dates of the earliest OED citations: “cast out” (circa 1200), “cast into prison” (before 1225), “cast a fishing line” (c. 1250), “cast away” (c. 1325), “cast an eye, glance, look, etc.” (c. 1385), “cast off” (c. 1400), “cast aside” (1475), “cast molten metal” (1512), “cast about” (1575), “cast with plaster or the like” (1577), “cast a shadow” (1630), “cast the parts of a play” (1711), “cast some light” (1752), “cast adrift” (1805), “cast a stitch”  (in knitting, 1840), and “cast a horoscope” (1855).

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Weak in the knees

Q: Can you write about the expression “weak in the knees”? I know it has to do metaphorically with fear or apprehension, but as someone who suffers from literal weak knees I’d like to know more about it.

A: The image of weak or unsteady knees as a metaphor for vacillation—being indecisive or afraid, lacking faith, not standing firm—came into English from biblical writings. It can be found in ancient Hebrew and Greek versions of the Bible and in later Latin translations.

The imagery was preserved in early English translations of the Bible, where the knees of people lacking spiritual stamina were first described as “trembling” and “feeble” (1300s) and later as “weak” (1500s).

And in wider, secular use, irresolute or faint-hearted people went from having “weak knees” to being “weak in [or at] the knees” (1700s) or “weak-kneed” (1800s).

Here’s a closer look at the history.

As we mentioned, the metaphoric equivalent of “weak knees” was known in biblical Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The noun “knee” in Hebrew is ברך (berek), in Greek γόνατο (gonato), and in Latin genu. The adjectives used in the metaphor can be translated as feeble, weak, trembling, unable to move, and so on.

In Hebrew, various Old Testament figures who are struck with terror or who are unsteady in their faith are said to have weak or feeble knees, as in ברכים כרעות (birkayim karaot,  Job 4:4) and ברכים כשלות (birkayim kashalot, Isaiah 35:3).

This imagery was passed along in Greek translations of the Old Testament and of the New Testament as well.

For example, in Hebrews 12:12 in the New Testament, where the people are admonished to bear up and keep their faith, the Greek phrase used in describing their vacillation is παρaλυτα γόνατα (paralya gonata), literally “paralyzed knees.” Biblical scholars say the Greek verb παραλύειν (paralyein, paralyze) is used idiomatically here, so that to “lift up one’s paralyzed knees” means to gain courage, be unafraid, stand firm.

Biblical translations in Latin used similar imagery to express fear or faithlessness; genua trementia confortasti (strengthen trembling knees) in Job 4:4; genua debilia roborate (strengthen feeble knees) in Isaiah 35:3; soluta genua erigite (lift up weak knees) in Hebrews 12:12; omnia genua ibunt aquae (all knees will be weak as water) in Ezekiel 7:17.

By the way, the image of weak or trembling knees as a metaphor for fear was known earlier in Greek mythology and in Latin lyric poetry. It can be found, for example, in the Greek legend of Tiresias, whose knees shake in terror before the king, and in the Odes of Horace, where Chloe’s knees tremble in fear.

But we won’t dwell on the earlier literary sources, since the metaphor found its way into English via the Bible.

The earliest English version, the Wycliffe Bible, was made in Middle English in 1382 from late fourth-century Latin versions. And in rendering that metaphor, it has “knees tremblynge” (Job 4:4), “feble knees” (Isaiah 35:3), and “knees shall tremble” (Ezekiel 7:17).

As far as we know, the earliest example of the exact phrase “weak knees” used figuratively is in a translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale, published in 1534. Here’s Tyndale’s rendering of Hebrews 12:12, made from Greek and Hebrew texts: “Stretch forthe therfore agayne the hondes [hands] which were let doune & the weake knees.”

Tyndales’s work was completed and greatly enlarged by Miles Coverdale, whose 1535 translation from Greek and Hebrew was the first English version with both Old and New Testaments. Here’s how Coverdale rendered that passage: “Life [lift] vp therfore the handes which were let downe, and the weake knees.”

This image became a familiar theme of sermons and commentaries from the later 16th century onwards. For instance, John Calvin evoked it in a sermon delivered in January 1556: “It is the ministers charge to strengthen the weake knees.”

The figurative use of “weak knees” as a religious device became more or less official when the Anglican priest and scholar Thomas Wilson included it his popular book A Christian Dictionarie (1612), his attempt to define English words as used in the Old and New Testaments. Wilson defined “weak knees” as meaning “feeble, remisse, and slothfull mindes” (citing Hebrews 12:12).

Wilson’s dictionary went through many editions. A 1661 printing, edited after his death, added the literal condition of “weak knees” and also expanded the figurative meanings to include “dejected in courage, and faint-hearted,” “fearful and dejected in minde,” and “sluggish in the way of godliness” (citing Job 4:4, Isaiah 35:3, and Hebrews 12:12).

By the mid-1600s, “weak knees” was in secular use as well, meaning not only fearful and irresolute but disloyal. The earliest example we’ve found is in John Ford’s play The Chronicle Historie of Perkin Warbeck (1634), about a foiled plot to overthrow King Henry VII.

Here Sir Robert Clifford, a leader of the plot, has decided to plead for his life in return for betraying his co-conspirators:  “Let my weake knees rot on the earth, / If I appeare as leap’rous in my treacheries, / Before your royall eyes; as to mine owne / I seeme a Monster, by my breach of truth.”

The longer phrase “weak in the knees” didn’t appear in writing until the late 18th century, as far as we can tell. The earliest example we’ve found is in a work of astrology, where it’s listed among character faults attributed to people born under the sign of Capricorn:

“weak in the knees, not active or ingenious, subject to debauchery and scandalous actions; of low esteem, &c. amongst his associates.” (From Astronomy and Elementary Philosophy, Ebenezer Sibly’s 1789 translation of a Latin work written in 1650 by the Italian scholar Placidus de Titis.)

The variant phrase “weak at the knees” followed a half-century later. The oldest use we’ve found is from an anonymous collection of Irish verse: “What an ease to the minds of the mighty J.P.s, / Who felt chill at their hearts and grew weak at the knees” (The Lays of Erin, 1844).

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entries for “weak knees” or “weak in [or at] the knees.” But it does have an entry for the adjective “weak-kneed,” which it defines as “having weak knees,” and says is a “chiefly figurative” expression meaning “wanting in resolution or determination.”

We found this example in a Missouri newspaper: “So come out, you weak-kneed false-tongued slanderer of the Whig press of Missouri.” (From the Hannibal Journal, May 12, 1853, quoting a dispatch in the St. Louis News.)

The OED’s earliest example appeared a decade later: “But we must forego these comforts and conveniences, because our legislators are too weak-kneed to enact a tax law.” (From the Rio Abajo Press, Albuquerque, Feb. 24, 1863.)

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English English language Etymology Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

A sticky question

Q: The verb “stick” seems to have uses that don’t allow conjugation. You can say, “We got stuck in the elevator,” but not “The elevator sticks us.” Are there other verbs with one sense applicable only in the past tense?

A: In a clause like “We were stuck in the elevator” or “We got stuck in the elevator,” the word “stuck” is either a past participle or a participial adjective, depending on the meaning. In either case, “stuck” is a nonfinite verb form, one that isn’t inflected for tense.

When a state or condition is meant, “stuck” is usually a participial adjective in an intransitive clause. When an action is meant, “stuck” is usually a past participle in a passive transitive clause.

The “be” version is used for a condition or an action, while the “get” version tends to be used for an action.

You can expand the two elevator clauses above to make clear that the first refers to a condition (“We were stuck in the elevator all night”) and that the second refers to an action (“We got stuck in the elevator when the power failed”).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language refers to the past participle in such uses as a “verbal passive” and the participial adjective as an “adjectival passive.”  Cambridge calls the two conditions “stative” and “dynamic.” It discusses “be” and “get” passives in more detail on pages 1429-1443.

The grammar’s authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, cite several examples of adjectives derived from past participles but with special meanings:

“She’s bound to win” … “We’re engaged (to be married)” … “Aren’t you meant to be working on your assignment?” … “His days are numbered” … “Are you related?” …  “I’m supposed to pay for it” … “He isn’t used to hard work.”

For readers who’ve forgotten the terminology, a verb is transitive when it needs a direct object to make sense (“Beverly raises calla lilies”) and intransitive when it makes sense without one (“The yellow ones died”).

A  verb is active when the subject performs the action (“Gertrude grows lupins”) and passive when the action is performed on the subject (“The lupins are grown by Gertrude”).

When an active transitive clause becomes passive, as in that latter example, the former direct object (“lupins”) becomes the subject, and the former subject (“Gertrude”) becomes the object of a prepositional phrase, though the prepositional phrase is not always expressed.

As for the etymology here, when “stick” was originally used to mean fix in place it was an intransitive verb spelled sticiað in Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary says transitive uses “are typically recorded later than their intransitive equivalents and chiefly occur in the passive, as to be stuckto get stuck, etc.”

The earliest intransitive example in the OED is from the Old English Boethius, a translation made in the late ninth or early tenth century of De Consolatione Philosophiae (“The Consolation of Philosophy”), a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“Gesihst þu nu on hu miclum & on hu diopum & on hu þiostrum horoseaða þara unðeawa ða yfelwillendan sticiað” (“Do you see now in how great and in how deep and in how dark an abyss of sins men of evil vices stick”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “stick” used as a transitive passive is from a letter written on Oct. 4, 1635, by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, to the English statesman Thomas Wentworth:

“When he saw the man and his horse stuck fast in the quagmire.” (Here “stuck” is a participial adjective.)

The OED’s earliest “be stuck” example is figurative: “It is Natural to men in the wrong to persist, and believe they take Wing when they are deepest stuck in the Mire” (from The Portugues Asia, John Stevens’s 1695 translation of a work by the Portuguese historian Manuel de Faria e Sousa).

And the dictionary’s first “get stuck” citation is from the transcript of an 1899 case before the New York State Court of Appeals: “If the logs get stuck we keep men there with pevies and work them through.” A “peavey” (the usual spelling) is a hooked lumberjack tool.

Finally, we should mention that the verb “stick” took on a bloody sense in Middle English when it came to mean “to impale (a thing) on (also upon) something pointed.” The OED’s first citation is from an anonymous medieval romance:

“And Þe bor is heued of smot, / And on a tronsoun of is spere / Þat heued a stikede for to bere” (“And he beheaded the boar and stuck the head on the end of his spear so he could carry it”). From The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun (circa 1300).

Two centuries later, the verb came to mean “to pin (a person) to a wall, the ground, etc., by running a weapon through his or her body.” The first OED citation is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“And Saul had a iauelynge [javelin] in his hande, and cast it, and thoughte: I wyll stycke Dauid fast to the wall” (1 Samuel 18:11).

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Speaking of grandparents …

Q: If I say “grandparents” or “grandparents’ ” or “grandparent’s,” it sounds the same but can mean different things. How do I pronounce them so people will know which I mean. Is it wrong to add an extra syllable like “iz”?

A: These words are all pronounced exactly the same: “grandparents” (plural), “grandparent’s” (singular possessive), and “grandparents’ ” (plural possessive). The listener has to judge from the context which form you’re using.

This is true not just of “grandparent” but of any regular noun whose singular form does not end in a sibilant—a hissing, shushing, or buzzing sound, like s, sh, ch, x, or z. (A regular noun forms its plural in the usual way, by adding “s” or “es.”)

In pronouncing the plural and possessive forms, only an “s” sound is added to the singular, not an extra syllable. These are the four forms, how they’re spelled, and how they’re pronounced:

  • “grandparent”—singular: “She’s my only surviving grandparent.”
  • “grandparents”—plural, no added syllable: “I once had four grandparents.”
  • “grandparent’s”—singular possessive, no added syllable: “My one surviving grandparent’s health is good.”
  • “grandparents’ ”—plural possessive, no added syllable: “I have all four grandparents’ family trees.”

The same rule holds even if the noun is a proper name, like “Bob.”

  • “Bob”—singular: “Bob is my oldest friend.”
  • “Bobs”—plural, no added syllable: “I know two other Bobs.”
  • “Bob’s”—singular possessive, no added syllable: “My friend Bob’s middle name is James.”
  • “Bobs’ ”—plural possessive, no added syllable: “All three Bobs’ middle names are different.”

The only nouns that add an extra syllable in their plural and possessive forms are those that end in a sibilant. We’ll illustrate with the proper noun “Jones” and the common noun “church.”

  • singulars: “Nathan Jones is the pastor of our church.”
  • plurals, add a syllable: “The many Joneses in our town attend several different churches.”
  • singular possessives, add a syllable: “Pastor Jones’s car has its own spot in his church’s parking lot.”
  • plural possessives, add a syllable: “All the other Joneses’ cars are lucky to find spots in their churches’ parking lots.”

The syllable that’s added when those plurals and possessives are spoken sounds like ez. The apostrophe at the end of the plural possessives isn’t sounded.

We’ve published several blog posts about forming the plurals and possessives of nouns, including one in 2011 about names like “Chris.”

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English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

The case of the sluggish slugger

Q: How did “slug” come to mean either a good or a bad thing? As in, “The slugger hit a home run and ran sluggishly around the bases.” Perhaps the same derivation morphed into different connotations?

A: English has several distinct—that is, etymologically unrelated—senses of “slug.” One is the source of “slugger” and the other of “sluggishly.”

When “slug” first appeared in early Middle English (as “sluggi” or “sloggi”), it was an adjective meaning indolent or sluggish.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from Ancrene Riwle (also known as Ancrene Wisse), an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:

“hwa mei beon for schame slummi sluggi & slaw, þe bihalt hu bisi ure lauerd wes on eorðe” (“Who can, for shame, be sleepy, sluggish, and slow, who sees how very busy our Lord was on earth?”). The text cited by the OED uses “sluggi” where some other Ancrene Riwle manuscripts use “sloggi.”

The term “slug” later appeared in the verb “forslug” (to neglect by sluggishness). This Oxford example was written around 1315:

“Wanne man leteth  adrylle / That he god ȝelde schel, / And for-sluggyth by wylle / That scholde men to stel” (“When a man lazily and willfully neglects his duties toward God and man”). From The Poems of William of Shoreham, vicar of Chart Sutton in Kent. (The University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary uses the thorn þ for the th digraph in its citation for the passage.)

The word “slug” appeared as both a noun and a verb around the same time in the early 15th century, according to the OED. The verb meant “to be lazy, slow, or inert; to lie idly or lazily,” the dictionary says, while the noun meant “a slow, lazy fellow; a sluggard” as well as the personification of slothfulness.

Oxford’s earliest citation for the verb, from the Life of St. Mary of Oignies, circa 1425, says Mary, a member of the Beguines, a lay religious order, “slugged neuer wiþ slouþe; she defayled in trauayle neuere or seldom” (“was never lazy with sloth; she grew weak from toil never or seldom”).

The dictionary’s first example for the noun is from The Castle of Perseverance, an anonymous morality play written around 1425:

“A, good men! be-war now all of Slugge & Slawthe, þe fowle þefe!” (“Ah, good men! Beware now all of Sluggishness and Sloth, the foul thief!”)

This slow, lazy sense of “slug” is the source of “sluggard” (1398), “sluggish” (c. 1450), “sluggishly” (c. 1450), and the slimy, slow-moving garden “slug” (1725). The dates are for the OED’s earliest citations.

An entirely different sense of “slug” appeared in the early 17th century, when the word came to mean “a piece of lead or other metal for firing from a gun,” the OED says. We haven’t seen any convincing theories for the source of this sense.

The dictionary’s first citation is a 1622 entry in mixed Latin and English from the court records of Durham, England: “Unum tormentum anglice a gun oneratum cum quadam plumbea machina vocata a Slugg” (“One English cannon loaded with lead ammunition called a Slugg”). From Quarter Sessions Rolls, Durham.

This sense of “slug” led to its use as a term for a strong drink (1756), a metal bar to mark a division in printing (1871), a counterfeit coin (1887), and an identifying title of a draft news story (1925), according to evidence in the OED.

We’ve wondered if the ammo sense of “slug” may also have inspired its use as a verb meaning to hit hard and a noun meaning a hard hit, but the OED doesn’t make that connection. It notes only that a somewhat earlier noun and verb spelled “slog” had the same hitting senses, but was “of obscure origin.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins suggests that the hitting “slug” and “slog” share a distinct etymology and “probably go back ultimately to the prehistoric Germanic base *slakh-, *slag-, *slog-, ‘hit’ (source of English slaughter, slay, etc.).”

The OED defines the noun “slug” here as “a heavy or hard blow; a beating.” The first Oxford citation is from a poem in the Geordie dialect of northeast England about the life of a coal miner in Newcastle:

“We’ll spend wor hin’most plack, / Te gi’e them iv’ry yen a slug” (“We’ll spend our last penny to give every one of them a slug”). From The Pitman’s Pay, or, A Night’s Discharge to Care (1830), by Thomas Wilson.

The earliest OED example for the verb used similarly is from a northern English dialectal dictionary: “SLUG. To beat. ‘Been an’ slugg’d muh wi’ a stick as thick as his neive [fist]!’’ From The Dialect of Leeds and Its Neighbourhood (1862), by C. Clough Robinson.

Getting back to your question, this hitting sense of the verb “slug” is the source of “slugger” used for a hard-hitting prize fighter or baseball player. The boxing sense was the first to show up.

The OED has an 1877 citation from The Underworld of Chicago (1941), by Herbert Asbury, that refers to two African-American boxers as “sluggers.” However, we couldn’t find the cited passage in searching three editions of the book for an expanded version.

The earliest boxing example we’ve seen is from an account of a match in Cincinnati “between Thomas Day of Scranton and Dan Callahan, ‘The Galway Slugger,’ of Louisville. The referee decided in favor of the Slugger, the score standing 7 to 4 in his favor.” From the New York Clipper, a sporting and theatrical weekly, May 22, 1880.

The term was often attached to the most famous fighter of his day, John L. Sullivan, as in this headline from a West Virginia newspaper about a match with Paddy Ryan: “SULLIVAN,  THE SLUGGER: The Fighter and His Trainer in New Orleans—Confident of Victory” (Wheeling Register, Dec. 21, 1881).

The use of “slugger” in baseball appeared a few months later: “There are plenty of ‘sluggers’ and three-bagger batsmen, who do big things against poor pitching, but very few scientific hitters, who know how to place a ball, make a telling sacrifice-hit, or to earn a base well” (New York Clipper, May 6, 1882).

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Clause encounters

Q: In retirement, I’m pursuing my interest in grammar. Right now, I’m studying noun clauses, but I can’t figure out the function of these wh-ever question clauses: “Whoever you ask, you get the same answer” … “Whatever you do, don’t lose this key” … “Whoever calls, he must be admitted” … “He’s an honest man, whoever his friends might be.” I’d appreciate any guidance you might give me.

A: These are not, as you suggest, “wh-ever question clauses.” They’re adverbial clauses—more specifically, subordinate clauses that modify a main clause.

This type of clause can begin with a pronoun (like “whoever,” “whatever,” “whichever”) or an adverb (“wherever,” “whenever”). But no matter whether it begins with a pronoun or an adverb, the clause functions as an adverb that modifies a verb or adjective.

When “whoever” is used to introduce a modifying subordinate clause, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it means “if any one at all; whether one person or another; no matter who.” And in similar use, “whatever” means “no matter what” or “notwithstanding anything that.”

So in your four examples, the modifying clauses are the equivalent of “no matter whom you ask,” “no matter what you do,” “no matter who calls,” and “no matter who his friends are.”

The same is true of the other “wh-” words: “whichever,” “wherever,” “whenever.” When they introduce a subordinate clause that modifies a main clause, they’re the equivalent of “no matter which,” “no matter where,” “no matter when.” And their function is adverbial.

Of the four clauses in your examples, three modify verbs: “get,” “lose,” and “admit.” They indicate the manner in which, or the condition under which, some action should or should not be performed. The fourth modifies an adjective (“honest”). It indicates how honest a person is.

Another indication that these are adverbial clauses is that you could substitute a simple adverb (like “regardless,” “nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” “notwithstanding,” etc.) in grammatically similar sentences.

The “wh-ever” words can introduce a modifying clause that’s the grammatical equivalent of these:

(1) A conditional clause (typically beginning with “if” or “unless”): “If you ask anyone, you’ll get the same answer”

(2) A concessive clause (beginning with “though,” “although,” “even though,” “even if,” etc.): “Even though you ask everyone, you’ll get the same answer.”

(3) A disjunctive clause (often constructed with “whether … or”): “Whether you ask politely or not, you’ll get the same answer.”)

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