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

The four corners of the earth

Q: In regard to “the four corners of the earth,” how did our globe come to have four corners?

A: The expression “four corners of the earth” appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as “feowerum [four] foldan [of the earth] sceatum [corners]” and in Old English it meant the remotest areas of the world.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “the four corners, quarters, etc. (of the earth, heavens or world)” refers to “the remotest parts.” The dictionary defines the noun “corner” in such expressions as “an extremity or end of the earth; a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows.”

The OED doesn’t speculate on how “four corners” came to be used in this sense, but it notes that “the four corners (of a document)” refers to “the limits or scope of its contents,” while “within the four seas” has meant “within the boundaries of Great Britain,” and “of all four sides” is another way of saying “entirely, thoroughly.”

It’s possible that “four” here may have originated as a reference to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) or to the four bodies of water surrounding Britain: the English Channel, the North Sea, the Irish Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean.

Interestingly, the earliest Oxford citation for the word “four” uses it in the Old English version of “four corners of the earth.” The expression comes up in a description of the Last Judgment in Crist III, an anonymous Old English religious poem that the dictionary dates at 878:

“Þonne from feowerum foldan sceatum, þam ytemestum eorþan rices, englas æbeorhte on efen blawað byman on brehtme” (“Then from the four corners of the earth, from the utmost of the earthly realm, angels all-bright shall blow trumpets together with one voice”).

The earliest Oxford citation that resembles the modern version of the expression is from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 late Middle English translation of the Bible, the first complete translation of the Old and New Testaments in English. Here’s the Old Testament passage cited:

“And he shal set vp a toke [send a token or sign] amonge the Gentiles, and gather together ye dispersed of Israel, yee and the outcastes of Iuda from the foure corners of ye worlde” (Isaiah, 11:12).

Coverdale also uses the expression in translating a New Testament passage: “And after that sawe I foure angels stode on ye foure corners of the earth, holdinge ye foure wyndes of ye earth, yt ye wyndes shulde not blowe on ye earth, nether on ye see, nether on eny tree” (Revelation 7:1).

By the way, the adjective “four” is missing from the earliest known Hebrew version of the Old Testament passage mentioned earlier. The website of the Jewish Museum in Jerusalem has an English translation of the passage from the Great Isaiah Scroll, a Dead Sea Scroll dated at roughly 350 to 100 BC:

“He will raise a signal for the nations and assemble the banished of Israel and gather the dispersed of Judah from the corners of the earth.” (The translators, Peter W. Flint and Eugene Ulrich, render the Hebrew כנפות הארץ as “corners of the earth.” You can examine the scroll and the English translation on the website.)

The word כנפות appears in various passages of the Hebrew Bible and has been translated as corners, wings, edges, borders, ends, extremities, and so on. Some scholars have translated the phrase in Isaiah as “ends of the earth,” an interpetation that makes sense to us.

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Handsome is as handsome does

Q: Oliver Goldsmith uses “handsome is that handsome does” in The Vicar of Wakefield. Did he coin the usage, and is that the original wording of the expression “handsome is as handsome does”?

A: No, Goldsmith didn’t coin the usage. It was a familiar English proverb—though worded somewhat differently—more than a century before he used it in his 1766 novel.

Fred R. Shapiro, in The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), notes that a version appeared in a 1659 collection of proverbs: “He is handsome that handsome doth.”

And the Oxford English Dictionary has another pre-Goldsmith example, from Philip Ayres’s Mythologia Ethica (1689): “Our English Proverb answers very aptly: He handsome is that handsome does.”

Since the expression was described in writing in the mid-17th century as proverbial, you can be sure that it was commonly used in speech well before that time.

In fact, the formula “X is as X does” was used in pithy sayings before the “handsome” variety came along, as in these two examples:

“But as the auncient adage is, goodly is he that goodly dooth” (A View of Sundry Examples, 1580, a collection of prose by Anthony Munday).

“By my troth, he is a proper man; but he is proper that proper doth” (The Shoemakers Holiday, 1600, a play by Thomas Dekker).

So the formula in various versions—with “goodly” and “proper,” as well as “handsome”—was in use well before Goldsmith’s time, though the “handsome” form is the one that survived. And Goldsmith wasn’t even the first novelist to use the “handsome” proverb in fiction.

This example comes from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749): “I never thought as it was any Harm to say a young Man was handsome; but to be sure I shall never think him so any more now; for handsome is that handsome does.”

In context, the same message is conveyed in Goldsmith’s novel: deeds count for more than looks. Mrs. Primrose, the wife of Goldsmith’s vicar, has this reply for those who comment on the beauty of her children:

“Ay, neighbour, they are as heaven made them, handsome enough, if they be good enough; for handsome is that handsome does.”

The proverb is a play on words, contrasting two different senses of “handsome.” The adjective was used both (a) for a person who’s good-looking  and (b) for one who does the right thing. (We’ve written before about the interesting etymology of “handsome.”) So the gist is that a truly handsome person is one who acts handsomely.

The “that” in the original version of the expression (“He is handsome that handsome doth”) is a relative pronoun referring to the antecedent subject “he,” just as the relative “who” is used.  (As we’ve written before on the blog, both “that” and “who” can refer to people.)

By the 18th century, elliptical versions of the saying were appearing without the subject “he,” as in those passages from Fielding and Goldsmith. And the old saying continued to evolve, as proverbs generally do.

Versions with “who” or “as” in place of the relative “that”—“handsome is who [or as] handsome does”—began appearing in the early 19th century, according to our searches of old newspaper databases.

In the newer forms, “who” simply fills in for the old relative pronoun, but “as” plays a different role. The “as” in “handsome is as handsome does” is a conjunction meaning “in so far as,” “to the same extent as,” etc. These are the earliest published uses we’ve found:

“remembering, always, however much the opinion of the great may militate against the fact, that ‘handsome is who handsome does,’ and that even a nobleman may venture to walk Court, without being eternally disgraced” (from Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, London, Feb. 3, 1816).

“Handsome is, as handsome does; saith the proverb. That I hold to be a real live letter, or a real any-thing else, which is calculated to do real good” (Bombay Gazette, Nov. 28, 1821).

Numerous examples of the “as” version appeared through the 1820s and onward. American examples began cropping up in the 1840s, like this one: “ ‘Handsome is as handsome does,’ is a good old nursery ‘saw,’ and it applies most admirably to the case in point” (Richmond Enquirer, May 16, 1845).

Today that version—“handsome is as handsome does”—is the form most commonly used. In modern usage it has become an idiom—that is, the meaning of the words is no longer literal but understood.

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I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Jerry!

Q: If I say, “It wasn’t Jerry,” I mean it wasn’t Jerry. But if I say, “Damn if it wasn’t Jerry,” I mean it was Jerry. How does “Damn if” change the meaning to its opposite?

A: The statement “Damn if it wasn’t Jerry” is short for “I’ll be damned if it wasn’t Jerry.” The idiom “I’ll be damned,” often followed by “if,” is used to express surprise or negation. In this case, both senses are expressed.

Merriam-Webster.com, which labels the usage “informal + impolite,” defines the two meanings of “I’ll be damned” this way:

(1) “used to show that one is very surprised about something,” as in “I spent an hour putting the machine together and I’ll be damned if it didn’t fall apart as soon as I tried to use it.”

(2) “used to say that one cannot or will not do something,” as in “I’ll be damned if I can remember where I left my keys.”

Our searches of newspaper, magazine, and book databases indicate that the usage showed up in American English in the early 19th century but soon appeared in British English.

The earliest American example we’ve found is from a report in an Indiana newspaper about a schoolmaster who killed one of his students.

The 17-year-old victim, who had refused to sit down and watch while the teacher punished his 14-year old brother, had said, “I’ll be damned if I will—I will not see Marcus punished” (the Indiana Palladium, Lawrenceburg, Aug. 2, 1828).

The first British example we’ve seen is from a collection of historical whodunnits set in the courts of George II and George III:

“Why, look at the very position of the fellow as he lies on his bed there: I’ll be damned if it isn’t all sham!” From The Mysteries of the Court of London (Vol. I, 1849), by George William MacArthur Reynolds. The reference is to someone presumed to be feigning madness.

Finally, we should mention that we’ve discussed “damn” several times on the blog, including a 2021 post about how “damn” became a swear word, and a 2019 post on the shrinking of the adjective “damned” to “damn.”

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Black Lives Matter

Q: Who coined the phrase “Black lives matter”? Does it date back to the civil rights movement of the ’60s or maybe even earlier?

A: No, it’s more recent than that. The earliest known use of the slogan was in a Facebook posting by the activist and writer Alicia Garza in July 2013, according to The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021).

The book’s editor, Fred R. Shapiro, says Garza’s post “appears to be the introduction of the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”

Shapiro cites this portion of the posting: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter. Black Lives Matter.”

Garza wrote her post after learning that the killer of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, had been acquitted of his murder. But she has said in interviews that the popularization of the slogan was actually a three-woman project. Here’s how she describes it.

On July 13, 2013, Garza was working as an organizer with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance in the San Francisco Bay Area when she heard news reports that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of second-degree murder in the case.

Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in Sanford, FL, had pleaded self-defense after shooting Martin in February 2012. He had admitted following and confronting Martin, saying he looked “suspicious” and wore a “dark hoodie.” He shot Martin as the two scuffled.

As news of Zimmerman’s acquittal spread, Garza went to her Facebook page to write what she called a “a love letter to black people.” Included in her message (preceding the lines cited in The New Yale Book of Quotations) was this sentence: “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.”

Her friend Patrisse Cullors, who was working with a prisoners’ advocacy organization, repeated Garza’s post on her own social media, echoing the “Black Lives Matter” line and making it a hashtag.

Then a tech-savvy friend of Garza’s, Opal Tometi of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, took to the internet, spreading the hashtag and making it part of a grassroots movement to stop the killing of Black Americans.

The hashtag began appearing immediately on social media in July 2013, though its presence was modest at first. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, it didn’t take off until the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo. After that, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” became ubiquitous.

Today Garza, Cullors, and Tometi have all gone on to other projects. But history will likely remember them for the movement they started in the summer of 2013.

It’s notable that women have a much larger presence in The New Yale Book of Quotations than in any other general quotation book we’ve seen.

As the introduction notes, the new book supplies “proof of the unrecognized role of women in creating iconic sayings.” It adds that Shapiro, the editor, “has discovered, time and again, that in the realm of famous lines Anonymous was often a woman.”

“Many of the great quotesmiths,” the introduction says, “have been women who are now forgotten or whose wit and wisdom are erroneously credited to more-famous men.”

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Why a duck?

Q: How did the word “duck” acquire so many unrelated meanings?

A: Yes, there are lots of “duck” words and phrases. You can duck a bill collector, duck under a branch, duck out of a boring party, duck doing the dishes, duck a snowball, duck your head in a pond, and take to a new job like a duck takes to water.

As different as those uses of “duck” are, however, they’re not unrelated. Etymologists believe that all of them ultimately come from an obscure Old English verb meaning to plunge or dive.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “A duck is a bird that ‘ducks’—as simple as that. It gets its name from its habit of diving down under the water.”

He says the noun “duck” appeared in Old English and is believed to come from an Anglo-Saxon verb meaning to dive, but “there is no actual record of an English verb duck until the 14th century.” Nevertheless, he writes, “it is generally assumed that an Old English verb *ducan did exist, which would have formed the basis of the noun duck.”

Ayto adds that the presumed Old English verb “came from a prehistoric West Germanic verb *dukjan, which also produced the German tauchen ‘dive.’ ” The asterisks here and in the previous paragraph indicate words that presumably existed but do not appear in surviving manuscripts.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original noun as “a swimming bird of the genus Anas and kindred genera of the family Anatidæ, of which species are found all over the world.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from a corpus of Anglo-Saxon land charters:

“Andlang Osrices pulle þæt hit cymþ on ducan seaþe; of ducan seaþe þæt hit cymþ on Rischale” (“Along Osric’s creek one comes to the pond of ducks, and from the pond of ducks one comes to Rischale”). From an 867 charter in Codex Diplomaticus Aevi Saxonici, edited by John M. Kemble, 1848.

As for the verb, the OED says it originally meant “to plunge or dive, or suddenly go down under water, and emerge again; to dip the head rapidly under water.” The dictionary’s earliest written example, which we’ve expanded, is from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem dated at sometime before 1325:

“He þat doukeþ ones þer doun / Comeþ neuer out of þat prisoun” (“He that ducketh down there once never cometh out of that prison”). The prison here is Hell. The citation is from the version of Cursor Mundi at Trinity College, Cambridge.

We’ve written on the blog about several other “duck” expressions, including a 2021 post on “get one’s ducks in a row“ and a post in 2011 on “duck and cover.”

Finally, we should mention that the use of “duck” for the tightly woven fabric in sails and outer clothing is apparently unrelated to that obscure old verb and its avian offspring.

The OED says English borrowed the fabric term in the 17th century from Dutch, where doeck means cloth, canvas, linen, and so on. The unrelated Dutch word for the bird is eend.

Although the fabric isn’t etymologically related to the waterfowl, it does repel rain “like water off a duck’s back,” an expression that showed up in the 19th century.

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Thee bist purty, my love

Q: Why have the once ubiquitous terms “thee bist” and “thee bistnt” vanished from Wiltshire, Cornwall, and Dorset in England?

A: The dialectal use of “bist” and “bistnt” for “be” and “be not” hasn’t quite vanished in southwestern England, but it’s not as common as it used to be, probably because of the impact of radio, television, and universal education.

We’ve found quite a few 20th-century examples in newspapers from the West Country (an area roughly consisting of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Bristol). Here are some of the sightings:

“Thee bist a bit vree ’n eazee wi thy remarks bissent?” (Wells Journal, Somerset, June 3, 1976).

“I’m glad thee bist come, he remarked to the first customer to arrive” (Gloucester Citizen, Gloucestershire, July 26 1949).

“Wot’s rekin thee bist up to?” (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Nov. 29, 1947).

“Thee bist chicken, but thee b’yent d’yud an’ done vor yet a’while, thee zilly old chump” (Gloucester Journal, Jan. 20, 1940).

“Thee bistn’t any bloomin’ ornament vor a zure thing—bist any use?” (Western Gazette, Somerset, Oct. 6, 1933).

“What bist doin’, Targe? said another employee, Bist’nt gwain a do any work to-day?” (Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser, Aug. 05, 1944).

Interestingly, this dialectal usage has roots in Old English, where the verb “be” was bieonbian, or bion, and the second person singular (“you are”) could be written in various ways, including ðu arð (thou art) and ðu bist (thou be).

An Old English version of Matthew 6:9 in the Lindisfarne Gospels includes both ðu arð and ðu bist as variants, as well as two variant spellings of “heaven” (heofnum and heofnas):

Pater noster qui es in caelis: fader urer ðu arð ðu bist in heofnum in heofnas.” The manuscript was written in Latin around 700. A scribe added an interlinear Old English gloss, or translation, in the 900s.

Finally, here’s an early 20th-century example from Cotswold and Vale: or Glimpses of Past and Present in Gloucestershire (1904), by Henry Branch:

“Lookee, thee bist purty, my love; lookee, thee bist purty: thee hast dove’s eyes betwix thy locks; thy locks be like a flock o’ ship fur thickedness.”

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A questionable caticism

Q: I’ve heard that the expression “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” refers to cleaning a catfish, not skinning a cat. Is this true?

A: No, the expression is not about skinning catfish (though they are in fact cleaned by skinning, not scaling).

The “cat” here is indeed of the feline variety, but the phrase isn’t intended literally. It didn’t come from real people sitting around sharing tips about how to skin real cats.

Cats appear in many hyperbolic expressions—perhaps because they make for catchy language. We’ve written on our blog about a few other caticisms, including the “cat’s pajamas” (or “cat’s meow”), a “cat’s-paw,” “she is the cat’s mother,” “let the cat out of the bag,” and “cat got your tongue?” In fact, the word in some catty phrases is purely accidental, as with “catty (or kitty) corner.

But back to skinning cats. As you might imagine, a dead cat is not much use and there’s little value in its fur. So how did the notion of skinning one creep into a common English expression?

The story begins in the 17th century with another phrase, “to skin a flint,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says this was the first of several “hyperbolical phrases” about skinning things—a group of expressions that denoted exaggerated stinginess “or the willingness to go to extreme lengths to save or gain something.”

As the dictionary explains, “to skin a flint” was “a hyperbolical exemplification of avarice,” and “skinning a flint” was a figurative usage meaning “parsimonious saving.” A flint is a piece of hard stone used to make sparks, and of course it has no skin.

(A similar notion is found in the word “cheeseparing,” a 16th-century noun that meant a scrap pared from the rind of a cheese—something that’s useless or barely edible. Later, “cheeseparing” was used only figuratively, to mean economizing with small, stingy cuts.)

This is the OED’s earliest example of the “flint” phrase: “Jones was one Would Skinne a Flint, and eat him when h’had done” (from a satirical poem, The Legend of Captaine Jones, by David Lloyd, 1656).

Citations in the dictionary show that the “flint” version survived into the 20th century, as in this example from Poems (1917), by Edward Thomas: “For a farthing she’d skin a flint and spoil a knife / Worth sixpence skinning it.”

And, yes, this is where “skinflint” comes from, a late-17th-century noun defined in the OED as “a person who would ‘skin a flint’ to save or gain a thing, esp. money; a mean or avaricious person; a miser.”

In the 19th century, other versions of the “skin” phrase began appearing. A miser, seeing to get the last atom of use out of a useless thing, would “skin a louse” (1803), “skin a flea … for its hide or tallow” (1819), and finally “skin a cat.”

Here’s the earliest “cat” version in the OED: “I was … brought up amongst fellows would skin a cat” (from Davenport Dunn, 1859, by the Irish novelist Charles James Lever).

We found this parsimonious example in a travel guide: “A certain American once said, that to obtain money a Natalian would skin a cat” (South Africa: A Sketch Book, 1884, by James Stanley Little).

Meanwhile, the notion of skinning cats underwent a change in American usage. A new expression, “there is more than one way to skin a cat” (and variants) came to mean “there is more than one means of achieving a given aim,” the OED says.

This is the earliest example we’ve found: “At any rate, thought I, there’s more than one way to skin a cat” (from The New York Transcript, reprinted in The Indiana American, Brookville, Jan. 15, 1836).

The question here is whether the miserly expression “to skin a cat” was the direct source of “more than one way to skin a cat.” There’s no way to know for sure, but our guess is that the first one influenced the second.

We say this because similar proverbs of the “more than one way” variety—and all meaning that there are different means of accomplishing the same goal—existed before cats became part of the expression.

Perhaps the earliest such proverb was “there are more ways to the wood than one,” dating from the early 16th century. This version (we’ve also seen “more ways to the mill”) has appeared in published writing in every century since then, including our own.

Meanwhile, dogs began showing up in 17th-century versions of the expression, as in these examples (from our own searches as well as OED citations): “ther’s more wayes to kill a Dog then hanging of him” (1640); “there are more ways of killing a dog than choking him with butter” (1829); “there are more ways than one to kill a dog” (1835).

Lo and behold, cats also crept into the expression: “There is more than one way to kill a cat” (1833); “There’s more ways of killing a cat than hanging of her” (1843); “More ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream” (1855), and so on.

What we suspect is that the appearance of cats in those various “more than one way” expressions evoked that earlier phrase about extreme stinginess, with misers so cheap they would “skin a flint” or “skin a flea” or “skin a cat.”

It seems reasonable that the two “cat” expressions were conflated. And that might explain how “more than one way to skin a cat” appeared in the 1830s.

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A gentle reminder

Q: I work in an international school where the staff use the expression “gentle reminder” on an almost daily basis. I hadn’t heard the phrase before and it makes my toes curl. Did someone at the school coin it?

A: No, someone at your school didn’t coin “gentle reminder,” a phrase that always makes us brace ourselves for something unpleasant. We’ve found dozens of examples dating from the 1830s in Britain and the 1840s in the US.

In the earliest examples, the reminder is not so gentle, and the phrase is used humorously or ironically.

The oldest use we’ve found describes a fistfight: “He gave the blackguards a gentle reminder in the chops.” From The English Army in France: Being the Personal Narrative of an Officer (1830), by “J. J.” (pseudonym of John Gordon Smith, who served as a surgeon in a calvary regiment).

The novelist Charles Dickens also used “gentle reminder” ironically. Here are a few examples (the dates are for first appearances in serial form):

“gave his [donkey’s] jaw a sharp wrench, by way of gentle reminder” (Oliver Twist, April 1837) … “Newman took up one of the little glasses, and clinked it, twice or thrice, against the bottle, as a gentle reminder that he had not been helped yet” (Nicholas Nickleby, June 1839) … “jogging his arm as a gentle reminder” (David Copperfield, August 1850) …  “as a gentle reminder of which impropriety, the Queen gave him a tremendous box on the ear, and told him to go to the devil” (A Child’s History of England, June 1853).

As we’ve said, there’s no shortage of examples from the 1800s, in both British and American English. We’ve also found many examples of “tender reminder,” but there the usage is almost always literal—that is, the reminder is kindly and mild. “Gentle reminder” can go either way; it’s sometimes polite but often there’s nothing gentle about it.

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for “gentle reminder,” though there’s a definition of sorts hidden in the dictionary’s entry for the noun “nudge.” Used in a figurative way, the OED says, a “nudge” means “a gentle reminder; a prompt, a hint.”

The dictionary does have two examples of the phrase in entries for other words. For instance, this quotation in an entry for “neglect” shows the phrase expressed in a negative way:

“The car owner who neglects this vital element generally gets a none-too-gentle reminder in the form of stiff repair bills” (an advertisement in Life magazine, July 26, 1937).

And in this more recent British example in an entry for “gentle,” the adjective is used in reference to what the OED describes as “potentially negative” language, actions, and so on:

“The club would like to take this opportunity to send out a gentle reminder about the rules and procedures we have in place for the safety and wellbeing of all supporters” (The Birmingham Evening Mail, Sept. 16, 2017).

“Gentle,” according to OED citations, has been used to soften a perhaps unwelcome message since the early 1500s. Other examples include “by gentyll meanes” (perhaps 1529); “with gentyll entreatye” (1542); “a gentle hint” (1658); “gentle irony” (1951); and “gentle ribbing” (1998).

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True north, literal and figurative

Q: I am wondering about the origin of the phrase “true north.” When did it show up in English? And when did Christians begin using it metaphorically in referring to Jesus Christ as their “true North”?

A: As far as we can tell, the phrase “true north” was first used metaphorically in reference to Jesus in the 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book for Christians who question their faith by a pastor who questioned his.

In Christianity and the Science of Manhood: A Book for Questioners (1873), Minot Judson Savage says Jesus “is the first great leader of history who, by the power of his personal love, has drawn thousands of men out of and away from their most fascinating passions, and their dearest sins.”

“He has discovered,” Savage adds, “the secret of the human heart, and so drawn it into magnetic sympathy with his own, that in all its variations and vibrations, it is ever settling nearer and nearer to his true north.”

In the preface, he says the book was “born of doubt and conflict.” It was published a year after he left the Congregational Church to become a Unitarian because he “found it impossible to rest in tradition” and “felt compelled to seek a reasonable basis on which to stand.” He was a well-known Unitarian preacher in New England in the late 19th century.

Despite that early example, the figurative use of “true north” in reference to Jesus was relatively rare until the late 20th century. And the phrase is still not common enough to be included in any of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. It’s just defined literally as the geographic north as opposed to the magnetic north.

Nor is this figurative sense of “true north” found in the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive English etymological reference. It has only one definition for the term: “north determined by the earth’s axis of rotation (as opposed to magnetic north).”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 16th-century mathematical treatise: “Of the Variacion of the Compas, from true Northe” (in The Elements of Geometrie of the Most Ancient Philosopher Euclide, 1570, by Henry Billingsley, a translation from the Greek of Euclid’s work).

We’ll end with a metaphorical example from Mere Christianity, a 1952 book by C. S. Lewis, based on radio broadcasts he made during World War II. Here’s how he describes two people undecided about God:

“Their free will is trembling inside them like the needle of a compass. But this is a needle that can choose. It can point to its true North; but it need not. Will the needle swing round, and settle, and point to God?”

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Do you know your onions?

Q: I know the onion has many layers, but how did it get into the phrase “know your onions”?

A: The expression “know one’s onions,” meaning to be very knowledgeable or experienced about something, showed up in American English in the early 20th century.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary describes a horse with lots of experience at pulling a letter carrier’s mail wagon, as the one in this photograph from the Smithsonian National Postal Museum:

The OED citation, which we’ve expanded, is from a poem in the February 1908 issue of The Postal Record, a monthly journal of the National Association of Letter Carriers. In the poem, O. S. White, a letter carrier in Wilkes-Barre, PA, describes his workday. After a bit of grumbling about the demands of the job, he gets to his horse Billy:

But, never mind; Billy knows his onions,
He is not troubled with corns or bunions.
He travels along at a good, fair gait;
Unless the roads are bad, he is never late.

The dictionary’s first human example is from “The University Tongue,” a short story by Altha Leah Bass in the March 1922  issue of Harper’s Magazine.

When Ruth, a first-year college student, returns home for the holiday season, her mother asks if she has a good English instructor. Ruth replies, “Mr. Roberts knows his onions, all right.” Later, Ruth’s father says that parents, as well as students, can “learn their onions.”

The OED, in an entry for “know,” describes “know one’s onions” as a humorous colloquial play on an older use of the verb in various expressions meaning “to have learnt everything necessary about” a subject or “to be well informed” about it.

The dictionary’s citations for the older usage date back to the 1500s, but the early ones are relatively obscure. Here are a few clearer ones that we’ve found: “he knows his flock” (1621), “he knows his catechism” (1723), “he knows his business” (1744), “she knows her letters” (1799), and “they know their trade” (1800).

As for “know one’s onions,” the OED says it’s one of an assortment of offbeat expressions “used in same sense, but with substitution of a comically inappropriate noun, esp. the name of a vegetable or other foodstuff.” It adds that among such comic variations, the earliest and most common is “know one’s onions.”

Later versions of the usage cited by the dictionary are “knows his oil” (1924), “knows his cucumbers” (1929), “knew my okra” (1976), and “knows his carrots”—as in “It’s where every DJ who knows his carrots goes to be seen for the summer holidays” (Muzik Magazine, July 1995).

Note: Some language junkies have suggested that the usage may have been inspired by the name of the English lexicographer Charles Talbut Onions, better known as C. T. Onions. But that seems unlikely. Onions was a relatively obscure editor at the Oxford English Dictionary when the phrase first appeared across the Atlantic.

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The coast is clear

Q: We were wondering about “the coast is clear.” Smugglers? Invaders? As kids, we used it to mean “no adults around to say us nay.”

A: The expression dates from the seafaring days of the mid-1500s, when it literally meant the seashore is free of enemies. But the first written examples use the phrase metaphorically in much the same way you did as kids.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the literal usage refers to a seacoast being clear of “enemies who would dispute an attempt to land or embark.” When used figuratively in its various forms. it means “the way is open for an operation, event, etc.”

The earliest OED citation is from a pamphlet published in 1567 that warns the public against con men and tricksters. We’ll expand on the citation to provide context:

“Thus fedinge this old man with pleasaunt talke, vntyll they were one the toppe of the hyll, where these rufflares [rogues] mighte well beholde the coaste aboute them cleare. Quiclye stepes vnto this poore man, and taketh holde of his horse brydell, and leadeth him in to the wode, and demaundeth of him what and how much monye he had in his purse.” (From “A Caueat [Caveat] for Commen Cursetors,” by Thomas Harman. The obsolete noun “cursitor” meant a tramp or vagabond.)

We’ve found a couple of usages from the 1570s, including this one about the efforts of Eleanor of Aquitaine to secure the throne of England for her youngest son (King John):

“In the end winning al the nobilitie wholye vnto hir will, and seeing the coaste to be cleare on euery side.” (The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, by Raphael Holinshead, 1577.)

Our searches of historical databases turned up many other 16th-century uses of the phrase and its variants: “the coast is [or was] clear,” “if the coast be clear,” “no sooner cleered was the Coast,” “seeing the coast cleare,” and so on. And like those already cited, the majority have nothing to do with the sea.

Here, on the other hand, are a couple of the literal ones, referring to actual landings or embarkations:

“perceyuing [perceiving] the coaste cleare … they [the Corinthians] tooke seas forthwith.” (From an English version, published in 1579, of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes. The reference is to the coast of ancient Rhegium, now Reggio Calabria, Italy.)

“wee laded her [a ship] with all the speed we could, for as then the coast was cleare of Englishmen.” (Iohn Huighen van Linschoten, His Discours of Voyages Into ye Easte & West Indies, a memoir published by the Dutch trader Jan Huygen van Linschoten in London in 1598. The coast here is that of the island of Terceira in the Azores.)

The OED quotes Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, in which “the coast is clear” is called “a proverbial expression” meaning “the danger is over, the enemies have marched off.”

Johnson provides two examples from literature: “seeing that the coast was cleare” (Sir Philip Sidney, circa 1580) and “when now the Coast was clear” (John Dryden, 1587). In both uses, the references are to spying, sneaking about, and slipping unseen from place to place, not to real seacoasts.

Though the phrase (along with its variations) has shown up in literal, seafaring uses since the 16th century, it has mostly appeared as a proverbial expression.

It seemed made to order for the Restoration comedies and amoral novels of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, with their bawdy rakes and loose women on the lookout for a chance to behave badly.

This, for example, is from The Art of Cuckoldom, or, The Intrigues of the City-wives, published anonymously in 1697: “One Evening at the end of the Week, the Ladies Maid came to his Lodging from her Mistress, to tell him, That the morrow Morning following, the Coast would be clear, for her Husband was to be out the whole Forenoon: And therefore she desired his Company.”

Some uses, though, are more comic than licentious. We’ll conclude with this passage from a translation done around 1700 of Cervantes’s Don Quixote:

“Here Sancho got up without speaking a Word, laid his Finger on his Lips, and with his Body bent, crept cautiously round the Room, lifting up the Hangings, and peeping in every Hole and Corner: At last, finding the Coast clear, he return’d to his Seat. Now, quoth he, Madam Dutchess, since I find there’s no Body here but our-selves, you shall e’en hear, without Fear or Favour, the Truth of the Story.”

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Tossing and turning

Q: Inspired by your discussion of “mix and match,” I wonder if you can comment on “toss and turn.” As the comedian Demetri Martin says, he often turns in his sleep, but he doesn’t toss stuff all over his bedroom.

A: Yes, the verb “toss” has many meanings and you can have a lot of fun with them. You can toss a baseball, a salad, a coin, a party, an old newspaper, your head, or your cookies. You can toss down a drink, toss around an idea, or toss off a blog post. You can be tossed off a horse, tossed out of a game, or tossed into the slammer.

When the verb first appeared in English in the early 16th century, it meant to be thrown about at sea by waves or wind, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from the diary of Sir Richard Guildford’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1506:

“Soone after midnyght the grete tempest byganne to swage [ease] and wex lasse [wax less]. Howbeit the wroughte sees tossyd and rolled vs ryght greuously.” Guildford, who served King Henry VII of England in many senior roles, died on Sept. 6, 1506, in Jerusalem. The diary, written by Guildford’s unnamed chaplain, was published in 1511.

By the end of the 16th century, the verb “toss” had most of its modern senses, including the one you’re asking about, which the OED defines as “to fling or jerk oneself about; to move about restlessly.” The dictionary’s first example is from a biblical passage: “I am euen ful with tossing to and fro vnto the dawning of the day” (Geneva Bible, 1560, Job 7:4).

But when “toss” and “turn” first appeared together, with the two words reversed, the verb phrase referred to turning and tossing hay, wool, grain, etc., to loosen it.

The first Oxford citation describes the shelling of “peason,” or field peas: “by turning & tossing, they shed as they lie” (Fiue Hundreth Points of Good Husbandry, 1573, by Thomas Tusser).

The earliest example we’ve found for “toss and turn” used in its modern sleepless sense is from an 18th-century travel journal kept by an Annapolis, MD, physician during a trip up the East Coast to New England:

“My rest was broken and interrupted, for the Teague [an obsolete nickname for an Irishman] made a hideous noise in coming to bed, and as he tossed and turned, kept still ejaculating either an ohon [an expression of grief] or sweet Jesus” (Itinerarium, 1744, by Alexander Hamilton).

The phrase appeared a few years later in the erotic novel popularly known as Fanny Hill: “after tossing and turning the greatest part of the night, and tormenting myself with the falsest notions and apprehensions of things, I fell, through mere fatigue, into a kind of delirious doze” (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1749, by John Cleland).

Finally, here’s a transcript of the “toss and turn” routine that Demetri Martin tweeted on Feb 24, 2020:

When people don’t sleep well, they say they tossed and turned. And I’ve definitely had rough nights where I turned a lot in my sleep, know what I mean? But I’ve never slept so poorly that I ended up, like, lightly throwing things around the room. It’s four in the morning, and I’m like, “Oh, shit. I’m tossing. Stop it. The hell am I doing? Go to sleep, man. Stop it. You’re tossing. Stop it.” You wake up the next day and there’s this crap everywhere. I’m like, “Oh, my God. I slept very poorly. And why do I own so many beanbags? This is making it worse.”

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Let’s be negative

Q: Your recent “Let’s you and him fight” article brings to mind another expression, “don’t let’s,” as in “Don’t let’s go to the movies.” Do you know the origin of that construction?

A: There are three ways of making the contraction of “let us” negative: “(1) let’s not,” (2) “don’t let’s,” and (3) “let’s don’t.”

As the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage explains, #1 is “widely used,” #2 is “chiefly found in British English,” and #3 is “typical of speech and casual writing” in American English.

Some language writers have criticized #3 as nonstandard because the “let’s” in “let’s don’t” cannot be read as a contraction of “let us” (it functions as a single word introducing a negative first-person plural imperative phrase, such as “let’s don’t go”).

Technically, according to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “let and ’s have fused syntactically as well as phonologically, and are no longer analysable as verb + object: they form a single word that functions as marker of the 1st person inclusive imperative construction.”

So is the American usage legit? We say yes. It’s standard informal English in the US. The Oxford English Dictionary agrees, labeling it “U.S. colloquial.” A colloquial usage, the OED says, is “characteristic of or proper to ordinary conversation, as distinguished from formal or elevated language.”

As for the etymology, “let’s not” was the first of these negative usages to appear in English. The earliest example we’ve found is from Volpone, a satirical play by Ben Johnson that was first performed in 1605: “And, reuerend fathers, since we all can hope, Nought, but a sentence, let’s not now despaire it.”

The first example we’ve found for “don’t let’s” is from the mid-19th century: “Don’t let’s have any deception” (from The Love Match, an 1845 novel by the English author Henry Cockton).

The “let’s don’t” version appeared a decade later. The earliest OED example contracts it in an odd way: “A shabby trick! Let’s do n’t” (from Blondel, an 1854 play by George Edward Rice based on a legend about Richard the Lionheart and his minstrel, Blondel).

The first example we’ve found with the usual “let’s don’t” spelling is from an essay in an American magazine: “ ‘Now let’s don’t talk and be jolly,’ would give us no very high idea of the social qualities of the most respectable people” (“Thoughts About Talking,” by “A Lady of Augusta, Georgia,” Scott’s Monthly Magazine, February 1866).

The Merriam-Webster usage guide, in defending “let’s don’t,” cites this example of its use by “one of the most resolutely literary men” of the 20th century: “In all events, let’s don’t celebrate it until it has done something” (from a letter written Jan. 26, 1918, by the New Yorker critic and commentator Alexander Woollcott).

We’ll end by citing a less literary, more political source: “So our crowd said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and their crowd said, ‘Let’s don’t’ ” (from remarks by President Bill Clinton at a  Democratic National Committee luncheon on July 24, 1999, in Aspen, CO).

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Cut and dried … or dry?

Q: I saw the expression “cut and dry” the other day on the legal scholar Jonathan Turley’s blog. I had always thought it was “cut and dried,” a distinction I learned by a correction in a high school biology paper—in 1961, as I recall. Any thoughts about this?

A: The expression as it first appeared in the mid-17th century was “cut and dried.” But the other version, “cut and dry,” was also used early on, and it’s not incorrect. Most standard dictionaries accept both forms, giving “cut and dry” as a variant or less common version.

To say that something is “cut and dried”—a decision, speech, proposal, etc.—means that it’s been decided or settled in advance. Some dictionaries add that it can mean clear and unambiguous.

The phrasal adjective is figurative, but it was adapted from a literal notion: herbs already harvested, dried, and prepared for sale in herbalists’ shops, “as contrasted,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “with growing herbs.”

Thus, the dictionary defines the figurative “cut and dried (also cut and dry)” as “ready-made and void of freshness and spontaneity,” or “ready shaped according to a priori formal notions.” The phrase is used mostly in reference to “language, ideas, schemes or the like,” the OED adds.

The dictionary’s examples begin in the early 18th century, but in searches of historic databases we found earlier ones from the mid- to late 17th century. The oldest examples are preceded by “ready,” and some use “dried” (spelled various ways) while some use “dry.”

The two oldest we’ve found appear in the same pamphlet (note how the author is careful to define his meaning):

“I being informed of their Intentions or Determinations before, I made this Reply to them, I did know that it was ready cut and dryed; my meaning was, that it was ready done to their hands.” He repeats the expression later in italics: “I soberly answered, It was ready cut and dryed; that is, to speak after the smilitude, it was ready done to their hands.” From “The Cause of the Innocent Pleaded, His Accusers Pretended Charge Confvted,” by Samuel Bradley (1664).

We’ve found several more in pamphlets and books of the later 1600s:

“a Catholick Answer ready cut and dried to all Indictments drawn up against them” (“The Tragical History of Jetzer,” by Sir William Waller, 1679).

“those Informations, which they kept ready cut and dryed for service upon all occasions” (“An Exact and Faithful Narrative of the Horrid Conspiracy [etc.],” by Titus Oates; written April 1679, published 1680).

“the whole Scheme of the Project ready cut and dry’d” (“The Character of a Papist in Masquerade,” by Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1681).

“the Excuses which I had always ready cut and dry’d” (A Late Voyage to Constantinople, John Philips’s translation from the French of Guillaume-Joseph Grelot, 1683).

“presented unto the Council ready cut and dry” (The History of the Eucharist, John Walker’s translation from the French of Matthieu de L’Arroque, 1684).

The OED’s first citation is dated 1710: “Your Sermon was ready Cut and Dry’d” (Letter to Sacheverell, a poem by Joseph Addison, pseudonymously signed “J.B.”).

As we mentioned above, “cut and dried” is more common than “cut and dry,” a preference that’s demonstrated by a comparison on Google’s Ngram viewer.

Why does “cut and dry” persist? It may have been reinforced in the early 18th century, when smokers began referring to tobacco as “cut and dry.” As the OED says, “cut and dry” was a noun phrase used elliptically to mean “cut and dried tobacco.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrasal noun is from a letter written to Jonathan Swift by his good friend Dr. John Arbuthnot (Jan. 30, 1718). The OED quotes only a line of Arbuthnot’s letter, but we think his anecdote is entertaining enough to quote in its entirety:

I knew a pretty young Girl in a Country Village, who, over-fond of her own Praise, became a Property to a poor Rogue in the Parish, who was ignorant of all Things but Fawning. This Fellow us’d to wait on Mrs. Betty every Morning, and she being a Shopkeeper, his usual Salutation was, Lord love your Heart, Mrs. Betty, you be main handsome, will you give me a Pipe of Tobacco? Am I, Isaac? (answers Mrs. Betty) let me see your Box; and then she fills it. Thus Isaac extolls her out of a Quartern of Cut and Dry every Day she lives; and tho’ the young Woman is really handsome, she and her Beauty are become a By-word, and, all the Country round, she is call’d nothing but Isaac’s Best Virginia.”

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From ‘agog’ to ‘go-go’

Q: I was recently reading a novel and “agog” jumped out at me. Where did this weird-sounding word come from? Does it have anything to do with being goggle-eyed? I’m all agog to know.

A: “Agog,” meaning excited, astonished, or expectantly eager, probably isn’t related to goggling or goggly eyes or, for that matter, to goggles.

But there’s an etymological trail leading from “agog” to “go-go” dancing and “go-go” boots—and if you don’t remember those, you’re not of our generation. Here’s how it all came about.

“Agog” entered written English in the early 1400s. Though the word’s source is uncertain, etymologists say it’s likely to have come from the Middle French phrase en gogues (amused, entertained), formed with the plural of the Old French noun gogue (fun, amusement).

When “agog” was first recorded in English, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it was an adverb meaning “in excited readiness, expectation, or desire; in or into a state of great eagerness, enthusiasm, excitement, suspense, or (in later use) astonishment.”

The dictionary’s oldest example uses the word to mean in expectation or suspense:

“He shal be hourled so in high courte and holde so agogge, That hym were bettre lose his lande þenne long so be toylid” (“He shall be so attacked in high court and held so agog [in such suspense], that it would be better for him to lose his land than to be so long in litigation”). From Mum and the Sothsegger, an anonymous poem dated circa 1405. The “Mum” in the title is one who’s silent; the “Sothsegger” (soothsayer) tells the truth.

In this later example, “agog” is used to show excited readiness or desire:

“I suppose you now sit all agog, / In hopes to hear a smutty Epilogue” (from Nicholas Amhurst’s Poems on Several Occasions, 1720).

The word began appearing predicatively as an adjective in the 1600s. The OED’s earliest example is from John Wilson’s tragedy Andronicus Comnenius (1664): “They are all agog, / And may do mischief.”

The OED defines the adjective as “excited, eagerly expectant, enthusiastic; (in later use) astonished. Also: on the move, busily astir.”

But most often the adjective seems to express eager expectation, as in this poetic example: “And she too fires my Heart, and she too charms, / And I’m agog to have her in my arms” (John Oldham’s Poems, and Translations, 1683).

As we mentioned earlier, etymologists trace “agog” to the Middle French phrase en gogues, formed with the plural of the Old French noun gogue (amusement, fun).

And gogue, the OED says, is probably the source of the Middle French phrase à gogo, which originally meant “joyfully, uninhibitedly, extravagantly,” and later came to mean “galore, aplenty.” It was this latter sense of à gogoOxford says, that gave English the swinging-’60s term “a-go-go.”

This all began, the dictionary says, when a nightclub and discotheque opened in Paris in 1952 with the name Whisky à Gogo (literally, “Whisky Galore,” apparently after a 1949 British film by that name).

The club “quickly became a favourite with the young and fashionable set,” and in a few years “many clubs and discotheques bearing the same name and playing the latest music on disc had sprung up in France and elsewhere in Europe,” the OED says.

“The first club of this name in the United States (Whisky a Go Go) opened in Chicago in 1958,” the dictionary notes, though the most famous one opened in 1964 on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It became “a leading venue for popular music in the 1960s and popularizer of go-go dancing.”

Meanwhile, Oxford says, “a-go-go” came to mean “fashionable, modish, up to date, ‘with it,’ ” as well as “lively, ‘swinging.’ ”

Finally, about those “goggle” words. As we said, etymologists see no connection between them and “agog.” However, both “goggle” and “agog”are probably imitative in origin—that is, they imitate a sound, a motion, a feeling, etc.

The probable source of “agog,” the French gogue (fun and merriment), comes from “a Romance base of imitative origin,” the OED says. Which means that to the French, gogue sounded like fun.

As John Ayto puts it in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “it may perhaps be imitative of noisy merry-making.”

But the verb “goggle,” first recorded as “gogelen” (circa 1380), is thought to be from an onomatopoeic element “expressive of oscillating movement” of the eyes, the OED says.

The dictionary defines the verb this way: “To turn the eyes to one side or other, to look obliquely, to squint.” Later it meant “to look with widely-opened, unsteady eyes; to roll the eyes about,” the OED adds. The other “goggle”-type words are derived from the verb.

The adjective phrase “goggle-eyed” was first recorded (as “gogil yȝed”) around 1384. However, the adjective “goggle” by itself, as in “goggle eyes,” didn’t appear in writing until 1540; “goggly” followed in the late 1600s. And “goggles,” the noun for the eyewear, made its appearance in 1715.

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Regarding ‘in terms of’

Q: Have you ever discussed the awful overuse of “in terms of” in current everyday parlance?

A: You’re right that the phrase “in terms of” is getting quite a workout these days.

The expression was little used in the 19th century, as a search with Google’s Ngram viewer shows. But it began rising steadily around 1910 and arrived at a sharp peak in 1980. Since then it has fallen slightly and leveled off, but it remains at a relatively high frequency of usage.

A comparison chart shows that “in terms of” is now clearly more popular than its usual synonyms, listed here in order of frequency: “regarding,” “concerning,” “in relation to,” “with respect to,” “as far as,” and “with regard to.”

The chart shows that “in terms of” was the least popular a century ago, but now it’s the favorite. Why? We can’t say. Perhaps it strikes people as more scholarly or scientific than the alternatives.

In fact, “in terms of” had scholarly beginnings. It was first recorded in the early 18th century as a mathematical expression meaning “by means of or with reference to specified variables or quantities,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED’s earliest written use is from a technical dictionary, John Harris’s Lexicon Technicum (1704): “Square number A mix’d Number … whose Fractional Part is exprest in Terms of a Vulgar Fraction.”

These examples from the next three centuries more clearly illustrate the expression’s technical meaning:

“The nearest distance of the orbits of Venus and the earth was concluded in terms of the earth’s diameter” (Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects, 1866, by John Frederick William Herschel).

“Solve the given equation for y in terms of x” (College Mathematics, 2nd ed., 1951, by William Whitfield Elliott and Edward Roy Cecil Miles).

“Write down an expression, in terms of x, for the amount Dan received” (Cambridge O Level Mathematics, 2012, by Audrey Simpson).

The nontechnical meaning of “in terms of” emerged in the early 19th century. It’s defined in the OED as “by means of or in reference to (a particular concept); in the mode of expression or thought belonging to (a subject or category); (loosely) on the basis of; in relation to; as regards.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the phrase used in this sense is from a work by the philosopher and jurist Jeremy Bentham: “Contradictoriness … manifested, in terms of a certain degree of strength, towards some proposition or propositions, that have been advanced by some one else” (The Elements of the Art of Packing, as Applied to Special Juries, 1821).

These later examples show how the usage has evolved:

“Most persons, on being asked in what sort of terms they imagine words, will say ‘in terms of hearing’ ” (The Principles of Psychology, 1890, by William James).

“System design is discussed here in terms of fact finding, developing specifications, meeting specifications, and matching equipment with the system” (Automatic Data-Processing Systems, 1960, by Robert Henry Gregory and Richard L. Van Horn).

“We need to recognise metropolitan and CBD business remain the major engine of growth in terms of new employment” (Australian Financial Review, May 25, 2000).

The phrase as we know it today, the dictionary says, is sometimes influenced by a use of the plural “terms” in a sense that dates from the late 14th century: “words or expressions collectively (usually of a specified kind); manner of expression, way of speaking; language. Chiefly preceded by in.”

Familiar expressions using this sense of “terms” include “in general terms,” “in layman’s terms,” “in the strongest terms,” and “in no uncertain terms.”

So “in terms of,” the OED says, sometimes comes close to meaning “in the language or terminology of.”

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Wild swimming

Q: When did the term “wild swimming” become common? I first I heard it a few years ago in an episode of the BBC mystery series Vera. Since then I’ve noticed it more and more. When I was a kid, we swam where there was enough water: a pond, a river, a lake, a pool. We called it all swimming.

A: The phrase “wild swimming”— swimming outdoors in natural waters—has been around since the late 1990s. It originated as a British usage, which is why you first noticed it while watching that BBC mystery series.

The Vera episode you mention first aired in the UK in 2012. In the script, Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope briefs colleagues about a murder victim whose body was found on a riverbank:

“Jenny Lister. Forty-one years old. Social worker. Wild swimming enthusiast. Now according to Billy, she was stunned by a blow to the head, probably with a rock, and then held under the water until she drowned.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the phrase “wild swimming” as “chiefly British” and defines it as “the practice or activity of swimming for pleasure in natural waters, typically rivers and lakes.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use is from Waterlog: A Swimmer’s Journey Through Britain (1999), by Roger Deakin: “With so much twenty-four-carat water everywhere, there’s a tradition of wild swimming in all the towns and villages.”

In the book, Deakin, an environmentalist and documentary maker who died in 2006, describes a swimming tour he made in 1997 through Britain’s waterways, starting at the Isles of Scilly and ending at the North Sea.

When it was published in 2000 in the US, the trade magazine Kirkus Reviews called Deakin’s book “the foundational text for the international ‘wild swimming’ movement.” Since the book appeared, it has inspired a documentary and dozens of books on the appeal of swimming in open waters.

Deakin can probably be credited with inventing the term “wild swimming” as it’s popularly used. We’ve found only one earlier example, but it’s probably an outlier, since it appears to use “wild” in the sense of unauthorized or in an undesignated area:

“Tourist traffic at dams and banks, wild swimming and wild camping, sports fishermen and pedestrians cause damages in forests, at embankments and at structures.” (From Developments in River Basin Management, 1987, edited by Kokei Uehara et. al., a collection of papers presented at a conference in Brazil in August 1986.)

The OED’s 21st-century examples include two from British newspapers: “Wild swimming is much more fun, it is a sort of communion with nature” (The Bath Chronicle, Aug. 3, 2004) … “It’s an old quarry that is now an oasis that empties and fills with the tides, and it’s a wonderful place for wild swimming” (The Times, May 17, 2015).

Not everyone is fond of the term. In a column in The Guardian last year, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote: “I’ve never been a fan of the phrase ‘wild swimming’; in Snowdonia [Wales], where I grew up, we always just called it swimming. To call it ‘wild,’ I feel, is to centre the urban, the municipal and the populated, and to place the rural and the natural at the margins.”

We can see her point. The use of the modifier (“wild”) implies that the default mode of swimming is in an artificial pool built for the purpose. This is analogous to the phrase “woman doctor,” which implies that the default doctor is a man.

As for the adjective “wild,” it’s been in written English since the early eighth century in its general sense—existing in a state of nature. It was inherited from the Germanic languages; the OED points to the Old Saxon wildflêsc (“wild meat”) and the Middle Swedish wilskin (“wild leather”).

When first recorded in English, “wild” was used to describe plants and animals. It meant “living in a state of nature; not tame, not domesticated” (as applied to an animal), and “growing in a state of nature; not cultivated” (as applied to a plant or flower).

The earliest known uses in writing are from a Latin-Old English glossary dated around 725: “Indomitus, wilde” and “Agre[s]tis, wilde” (the first used for animals, the second for plants). The citations are from the Corpus Glossary, so named because the manuscript is held at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University.

Beginning in the 800s, the adjective was used more broadly—at first to describe uncultivated or uninhabited places, and later it was applied to people in senses both good and bad. It could mean free or unrestricted on the one hand, but uncivilized, unruly, or immoral on the other.

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Mixing and matching

Q: I hear “mix and match” where merely “mix” is meant, as in a Bloomberg article about Covid-19 that quotes a doctor as saying “there is evidence that mixing and matching different vaccines may actually boost the immune response.” How long has “mix” been needlessly expanded? I’m ready to hear you say this has been going on for approximately 1,000 years. Well, at least 300.

A: No, not quite 1,000 years. Nor even 300. “Mix and match” apparently showed up about 60 years ago.

We agree that “mix and match” can often be replaced by “mix” alone, but the full expression suggests something more than merely mixing, especially when it’s used as retailese to promote things like a summer wardrobe, a sound system, or a cable TV package.

Standard dictionaries generally define the verb phrase “mix and match” as to combine different but complementary things—compatible items that complete or improve one another. So you can “mix” two clashing pieces of clothing, but “mix and match” only compatible ones.

The doctor quoted by Bloomberg seems to be using the expression in the dictionary sense. She uses it to mean combining compatible Covid vaccinations to improve their effectiveness.

It seems odd that a doctor would use a retailing expression to promote a Covid treatment, but people fighting the pandemic, and the news media covering them, have apparently adopted this usage. Here are some recent headlines:

“ ‘Mix and match’ UK Covid vaccine trial expanded” (BBC News, April 14, 2021).

“Can you mix and match Covid vaccines? Here’s what we know so far” (CNBC, April 9, 2021).

“Can We Mix and Match COVID-19 Vaccines? Experts Say Not Yet” (Healthline, March 27, 2021).

“Getting One Vaccine Is Good. How About Mix-and-Match?” (The New York Times, March 30, 2021).

“Scientists get serious about mixing and matching COVID-19 vaccines” (Medical Press, March 1, 2021).

As for the etymology, the expression emerged in the 1960s as both a verb and an adjective, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, though similar phrases in the 1940s and ’50s anticipated the usage.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the verb phrase means “to select and combine different but complementary items (originally of clothing) to form a coordinated set.” It has a similar definition for the adjective.

The dictionary cites this forerunner of the verb: “Tropical separates … Of crisp tropical rayon suiting nicely tailored … You can either ‘mix ’em or match ’em’ ” (from an ad in The Baltimore Sun, April 3, 1948).

And here’s a precursor of the adjective: “Mix-match styles, casual jackets and skirts which match or contrast, but are sold separately” (The Fashion Dictionary, 1957, by Mary Brooks Picken).

Interestingly, the first Oxford example for the actual verb phrase refers to mixing and matching laboratory glassware, not clothing. It comes from an ad that we’ve found in an earlier publication and expanded here: “Mix and match! Order anything in the complete Kimble line … mix Kimax rod, tubing and pipe with lime glass or Kimax volumetric ware” (Analytical Chemistry, Jan. 1, 1960).

The earliest OED citation for the adjective, which we’ve also expanded, is from an article about various terms for leotards and tights: “The leotard look in tights also appeared under the names of color-cued tights, Glamour Gams, streamlined stretch tights, full-fashioned tights, casual tights, Gotham-tites, mix-n-match Tights” (“Leotards and ‘Tightsomania,’ ” by Kelsie B. Harder, American Speech, May 1960).

From what we’ve seen, the phrase “mix and match” usually appears in the sense of combining and complementing things, not just combining them. And the items combined are compatible, not clashing. However, we don’t find the expression used much in general writing or conversation.

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A seafarer’s middle ground

Q: Was “middle ground” originally a nautical and/or cartographic term? It’s still used commonly by mariners and mapmakers, but outside the seagoing community it seems mostly to be used figuratively.

A: Yes, “middle ground” was originally used by sailors and mapmakers. When it appeared in the 17th century, it referred to “a shallow place such as a bank or bar, esp. as a navigational obstruction,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the earliest OED example, the term is used as a proper name: “Within them lyeth a plate on the starboard side, a little to the n. wards of the Haven, called the Middle-ground” (from A Description & Plat of the Sea-Coasts of England, 1653, a guide for sailing in English waters).

The most recent Oxford citation is from a late 19th-century description of Humboldt Bay on the north coast of California: “Their burdens of detritus find fitful equipoise on the spit terminals, on the middle ground within, or on the bar without the entrance” (Overland Monthly, October 1896).

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the nautical sense of the term is now obsolete, but two of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult have entries for it.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “a shoal in a fairway having a channel on either side,” while Dictionary.com says it’s “a length of comparatively shallow water having channels on both sides.”

As you point out, the expression “middle ground” is still used by mariners and mapmakers. For example, the online International Dictionary of Marine Aids to Navigation describes the term this way: “Island or shoal which divides a fairway into two shipping channels; these subsequently join again into a single channel.”

And a glossary of nautical terms on the website of Practical Boat Owner, a British magazine, defines it as “A shallow bank which divides a channel or fairway into two parts. It is marked with Middle-ground buoys which usually indicate the deeper of the two channels so formed.”

As for the other senses of “middle ground,” in the 18th century it came to mean the middle distance in an artistic composition. The earliest OED example describes how painters divide their compositions “into fore-ground, middle-ground, and distance or back-ground” (from The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, by the English painter William Hogarth).

The modern figurative sense of “middle ground” showed up in the early 19th century, according to Oxford citations. The dictionary defines it as “a (metaphorical) place or position halfway between extremes; an area or position of moderation or possible compromise.”

The first OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a treatise on religious imagination:

“But when, either by the refinements of rationalism—a gross misnomer—or by superstitious corruptions, the central facts of Christianity are obscured, no middle ground remains between the apathy of formality and the extravagance of enthusiasm.” (From Natural History of Enthusiasm, 1829, by Isaac Taylor.)

The dictionary’s most recent figurative example is from the late 20th century: “With Labour’s Tony Blair seeking to steal the political middleground by talking of lower taxes … the Tories will be under pressure to match the promises” (Daily Telegraph, London, Aug. 17, 1994).

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Fair enough?

Q: Would you consider an article on the origin of “fair enough”? I recently read an online comment that suggested it originated in wooden boat building. I’m skeptical, but stumbling around on Google hasn’t gotten me an answer.

A: There’s no evidence that “fair enough,” an expression dating from the early 19th century, has its origins in boat building. All of the early examples we’ve seen are from ordinary conversation.

The oldest we’ve found is from an opinion piece originally published in the Baltimore Whig: “G. Your plan seems fair enough. T. Fair enough! Can any thing be fairer?”

The article, an imaginary dialogue between “Gaius” and “Titus” on political subjects, was reprinted in the Virginia Argus (Richmond) on Oct. 28, 1813.

That example uses “fair enough” as the adjectival complement of a verb (as in “sounds fair enough,” “looks fair enough,” “that’s fair enough,” “appears fair enough,” and so on), not as an expression that stands alone.

The stand-alone expression “fair enough” emerged slightly later, and is the equivalent of “that’s reasonable” or “I accept that,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And again, all of the OED’s examples are from everyday dialogue.

This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Two per cent discount—fair enough.” From The Itinerant (Vol. VI, 1817), a memoir by the English actor Samuel William Ryley. (The discussion is about lodgings at an inn.)

And Oxford has this example from conversation in a British novel: “ ‘Let me hear what the service is, and then I will answer you.’ ‘Fair enough.’ ” From The Adventures of Captain Blake: Or, My Life, by William Hamilton Maxwell (1835).

We’ve also found mid-19th-century examples in newspapers published in the US and in Australia: “Fair enough! cried I” (New York Daily Tribune, July 25, 1844) … “ ‘Fair enough,’ said he” (Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, March 19, 1853). So the expression was familiar to speakers of British, American, and Australian English.

But none of the OED’s examples of “fair enough” refer to boat building, and neither do any 19th-century examples we’ve found in old databases.

The dictionary’s only marine-related definition of the adjective “fair” is this one, in reference to weather: “Of the wind, etc.: favourable to the course of a ship, aircraft, etc.” Written uses date from late Old English.

And the dictionary’s only construction-related definition of the adjective is this one: “Of a line, curve, or surface: free from roughness or irregularities; smooth, even.”

For instance, phrases like “fair line,” “fair curve,” “fair plane” and so on mean a line (curve, etc.) that’s perfectly smooth—in any kind of carpentry, not specifically boat building.

Written examples of that usage in carpentry date from the late 15th century, but the OED’s only boat-building examples are modern ones—from Popular Mechanics in April 1939 (“to level everything off to a fair line”), and from a 2003 book, Don Danenberg’s How to Restore your Wooden Runabout (“to achieve fair surfaces”).

We should also mention that a verb, to “fair,” emerged in carpentry in the early 19th century and meant to smooth or blend the lines of a ship (later, an aircraft or motor vehicle). But this verb first appeared in 1822, which was after the conversational expression “fair enough,” so any connection is highly unlikely.

In websites devoted to boat construction and restoration, we’ve seen many uses of the verb “fair” and its derivatives in reference to the smoothing of a hull or other surface.

For example, enthusiasts speak of “fairing” a surface,” the “fairing” process, “fairing compound” or “fairing mix,” and they occasionally use “fair enough” to mean smooth enough. But all these uses came long after “fair enough” was a general expression for “I accept that.”

As for the etymology of the adjective “fair,” it was inherited from Germanic languages in which it meant beautiful, pleasant, bright, etc. It’s been known in writing since early Old English (fæger), where at first it was mostly used to describe good-looking men, a sense later transferred to women.

That general use of “fair”—for attractiveness in people or things—is “now somewhat archaic and literary,” Oxford says. It’s still sometimes found in uses like “your fair city,” “the fair sex,” “my fair companion,” and other courtly-sounding phrases.

From its early Old English senses of beautiful, agreeable, and pleasing, “fair” moved on and acquired additional meanings in Old and Middle English.

Because Germanic notions of beauty were often associated with lightness and brightness, “fair” sometimes meant light-colored hair or complexion. Other senses implied abstract notions rather than physical attributes: favorable, unbiased, honest, just, equitable, legitimate, reasonable, and so on.

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Let’s you and him fight

Q: Would you please comment on a recent headline in The New York Times: “ ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ Review: Let’s You and Him Fight.” I like the “Him,” but not the grammar. Perhaps the writer meant “Let’s Let You and Him Fight”?

A: This is a joke—a rather old joke, in fact—on the “let’s” construction (short for “let us”). And it’s not supposed to be grammatically correct.

The normal construction, for a speaker offering to do something jointly, would be either “Let’s fight,” in which the participants are understood to be “me” and “you,” or “Let’s you and me fight,” in which the pronouns are added in apposition to “us” (more fully: “let us, you and me, fight”).

In the Times headline, the sentence begins with the contracted “let us,” but the writer then substitutes “him” for “me.” The joke is that the speaker declines the honor.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “let’s you and me (do something)” as an “irregular phrase” that’s colloquial in the US. Its citations date from the 1920s.

But we see nothing particularly irregular about it, and we’ve found numerous examples dating back to the mid-19th century in both American and British publications. To cite just a few:

1856: “let’s you and me make a bargain to try and get away” (from The Refugee: Or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, collected by the Boston abolitionist Benjamin Drew).

1858: “let’s you and me walk along the street together, and chat about this business” (The Young Duchess: Or, Memoirs of a Lady of Quality, a novel by George W. M. Reynolds, published in London).

1859: “let’s you and me be off” (Tighe Lyfford, a novel by Charles James Cannon, published in New York).

1862: “let’s you and me take a little country walk” (A Tangled Skein, a novel by Albany de Grenier Fonblanque, serialized in The St. James’s Magazine, London).

The construction was common enough to get the attention of textbook writers, who apparently regarded it as a normal English usage. Their only concern seemed to be that the proper pronoun case be used: “let’s you and me,” not “let’s you and I.”

Josephus Collett, in his Complete English Grammar (1891), parsed the phrase this way: “A common form of command or entreaty is expressed by an auxiliary verb followed by an infinitive—Let us (indirect object) go (to go, direct object); or, Let’s you and me go = Let us, you and me (appositive), go.”

In English Grammar and Composition for Higher Grades (1901), Gordon A. Southworth explained that only an object pronoun can be the object of a verb, then asked students to choose correctly here: “Let’s you and (I, me) bring the sleigh.” Similarly, Alfred M. Hitchcock, in his Composition and Rhetoric (1917), asked students to choose the correct pronoun here: “Let’s you and (me, I) go home.”

Publications for adults offered the same advice. In the business-writing column of the journal Correct English (April-May 1920), a reader questioned the correctness of a phrase spotted in a circular, “let’s you and I get together.” The editor replied: “ ‘let’s you and me get together’ is the correct form, the objective case being required after the verb let.”

Of course, there are other ways to say this: “let’s X,” “let us X,” “let you and me X,” even “let us X then, you and me.” (Poets are licensed to break the rules, as T. S. Eliot did in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky.”)

As we mentioned above, “let’s you and him fight” is an old joke.

It dates as least as far back as the early 1930s, when it was a catchphrase of J. Wellington Wimpy, a character in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theatre” comic strips, starring Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl.

Finally, for your viewing pleasure, “Let’s You and Him Fight” was the title of a Paramount Productions cartoon short featuring a boxing match between Popeye and Bluto, released in February 1934.

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The jig is up

Q: I am familiar with the phrase “the jig is up,” though I am not familiar with its origin. And I keep hearing people mispronounce “jig” as “gig.” Maybe they think “gig” makes more sense.

A: In the expression “the jig is up,” the noun “jig” means a trick or a joke. When “the jig is up,” the trick has been exposed and the game is over. The “j” is pronounced like the one in “jolly.”

The word “jig” has had this meaning since the late 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “a piece of sport, a joke; a jesting matter, a trifle; a sportive trick or cheat.”

(The other word you mention—“gig” in the sense of a job or engagement to perform—dates from the 1920s. As we wrote in a 2010 post, it’s probably of African-American origin. Here, “g” sounds like the one in “golly.” )

Interestingly, some people are misusing the expression in writing too, as in this HuffPost headline from Nov. 20, 2020:

Joe Scarborough Lays Down Ultimatum To Mitch McConnell Over Trump Support

“The gig is up,” the MSNBC “Morning Joe” host said in a withering monologue aimed at the Senate GOP leader.

However, sometimes “the gig is up” is a pun, as in this headline about independent-contractor jobs: “The Gig Is Up for Uber in the U.K.” (Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2021).

Here’s the earliest OED example for the “jig” that’s a con or a trick (the plural “jigs” is spelled “Iygs,” with a capital “i” instead of the modern letter “j”):

“Looke to it you Bookesellers & Stationers, and let not your shops bee infected with any such goose gyblets or stinking garbadge, as the Iygs of newsmongers.” From Thomas Nashe’s 1592 satire Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Diuell [Devil]. (Nashe is railing against the pamphleteers of the day; we’ve expanded the quotation to give more context.)

This OED example has the modern spelling: “When the Major now perceived the Jig, and how Kitchingman had fooled him, he could have pulled the Hair off his Head.” From Flagellum (1663), James Heath’s biography of Oliver Cromwell.

As for “the jig is up,” it means “the game is up” or “it is all over,” says the OED, which labels the usage “now dialect or slang.”  These are the dictionary’s earliest examples, starting with an older version, “the jig is over”:

“Mr. John Miller came in and said, ‘The jig is over with us’ ” (The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, June 17, 1777).

“As the Baltimore paper says, ‘The Jigg’s up, Paddy’ ” (The Philadelphia Aurora, Dec. 17, 1800).

William Dean Howells left no doubt about the phrase’s meaning when he wrote, “The die is cast, the jig is up, the fat’s in the fire, the milk’s spilt” (Harper’s Magazine, February 1894).

And since we can never resist quoting P. G. Wodehouse, here’s a final example: “You’re in the soup, Miss Briggs. The gaff has been blown, and the jig is up” (Service With a Smile, 1961).

The origin and history of “jig” are uncertain. Several similar and apparently related nouns spelled “jig”—a lively dance, the music for such a dance, a comic entertainment, as well as the “jig” that’s a trick or con—all emerged in the last half of the 16th century. And the order in which those senses developed isn’t clear.

What the dictionary suggests is that “jig” may simply be onomatopoeic in origin, “the large number of words into which jig- enters indicating that it has been felt to be a natural expression of a jerking or alternating motion.” (It’s interesting that in the late 1590s, when a “jig” was a joke or a con, a “jerk” could mean a witticism or an insult.)

The OED dismisses suggestions by some etymologists that the noun “jig” came from Old French, in which a gigue was a medieval stringed instrument. The Old French word, Oxford says, “had none of the senses of jig, it was also obsolete long before jig is known to have existed.”

Furthermore, the modern French gigue, for the dance and the music, came a century after the English noun, in the last half of the 17th century. It didn’t come from the earlier word for the stringed instrument, the OED says, noting suggestions that it was “simply adopted [from] English jig.”

There’s also a verb “jig,” first recorded in 1598. Some of its senses—to sing or dance or play a jig, or to move jerkily—“evidently” came from the noun, the OED says.

The dictionary also dismisses any connection between the verb “jig” and earlier, obsolete French verbs meaning to frolic (giguer) or kick (ginguer): “this resemblance may be merely accidental, or due to parallel onomatopoeic influence.”

In fact, “jigging” has long been associated with jerking, jogging, and fidgeting. The phrase “jig-a-jig” (or “jig-a-jog”), from the early 1600s, was used adverbially to mean “with a jigging or jogging motion,” the OED says, and arose from “imitative words expressing reiteration or alternation of light, short, jerky movements.”

We’re reminded of an old nursery rhyme that evokes a creaky wagon bumping its way home. There have been many iterations over the centuries, but we like the Mother Goose version:

To market, to market to buy a fat pig;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.

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A fly in the ointment

Q: I heard Pat say on Iowa Public Radio that the earliest example for “a fly in in the ointment” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 19th century. I thought the expression came from Ecclesiastes.

A: The expression was probably inspired by Ecclesiastes 10:1, but as far as we know, that exact phrase—“a fly in the ointment”—doesn’t appear in any English translation of the Bible, nor in any of the Latin, Greek, or Hebrew texts.

In the King James Version of 1611, for example, the verse reads: “Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.”

And here’s Ecclesiastes 10:1 in  the Leningrad Codex, dating from around 1010, the oldest surviving complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible:

זבובי מות יבאיש יביע שמן רוקח יקר מחכמה מכבוד סכלות מעט

The passage could be translated as “Dead flies make the perfumer’s oil stink, as does a little folly a reputation for wisdom and honor.”

When an early version of “a fly in the ointment” appeared in a collection of 17th-century sermons, the expression meant something that spoils what otherwise would have been a success:

“the pharisees did the will of god in giving alms, but that which was a dead fly in the ointment, was, that they did not aim at gods glory, but vain-glory.” From A Body of Practical Divinity (1686), by Thomas Watson, a Puritan preacher. Watson’s use of “dead fly” is clearly an allusion to Ecclesiastes 10:1.

The earliest OED example is from “Poor Relations,” a humorous essay by Charles Lamb (London Magazine, May 1823). We’re expanding the citation here:

“A poor relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature, … —Agathocles’ pot,—a Mordecai in your gate,—a Lazarus at your door,—a lion in your path,—a frog in your chamber,—a fly in your ointment,—a mote in your eye.”

Lamb’s inclusion of “a fly in your ointment” among various expressions derived from the Bible suggests that he too is alluding to Ecclesiastes 10:1.

The OED, an etymological dictionary, says the expression means “some small or trifling circumstance which spoils the enjoyment of a thing, or detracts from its agreeableness.” Most of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult agree with that general definition, though the circumstance may not be small or trifling.

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No pants, let alone a jacket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lie and lay: the flip side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ask, and it shall be given

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suffrage, then and now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Congregate or congregant care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On and off the grid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To welsh on a bet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who was that masked-up man?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The first wordsmith in chief

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday, George.

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When maitre d’s are possessive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ding-dong, ‘the which’ is dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prior analytics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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