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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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To “the,” or not to “the”

Q: I was reading The Magician’s Nephew, a 1955 Narnia novel by C. S. Lewis, and I saw this sentence: “ ‘That was the secret of secrets,’ said the Queen Jadis.” Why does the writer put a “the” before “Queen Jadis”?

A: The definite article “the” was once common before a high title preceding a personal name, as in “the Queen Jadis,” but the usage isn’t seen much now.

The Oxford English Dictionary has examples from the 12th to the 20th century of “the” used before “higher titles of rank identified by a following personal name.” The dictionary’s examples include “the Emperor Napoleon,” “the Grand Duke Michael,” and “the Empress Josephine.”

Today, the dictionary says, “except in formal use, the is not now usual with higher titles when followed by the personal name, as King George, Prince Edward, Duke Humphrey, Earl Grey, Earl Simon, etc.”

However, the old convention survives with other kinds of titles, like those identified by a following place name or title of office (OED examples include “the Duchess of Windsor,” “the Lord Privy Seal,”  “the Queen of the Netherlands”), and courtesy titles (“the Right Honourable,” “the Honourable,” “the Reverend”).

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the definite article used in front of a high title (with “the” written as þe in early Middle English), is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written sometime before 1200:

“Þe abbed an horse leop; & æfter Uortiger rad & sone gon of-ærne þe eorl Uortigerne” (“The abbot leaped upon his horse and rode after Vortigern, and soon began to overtake the earl Vortiger”). Vortigern was a fifth-century king of the Britons, according to some medieval accounts.

We’ve found quite a few examples of the usage in Shakespeare, such as this remark by Polonius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “You go to seek the Lord Hamlet; there he is” (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2, circa 1600).

In the OED’s latest example, the usage is clearly formal: “Her Majesty’s Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms under the command of the Lord Denham” (from the Nov. 5, 1981, issue of the Daily Telegraph in London).

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several posts about the definite article, including one in 2008 about its idiomatic use, one in 2009 about its pronunciation (THEE vs. THUH), and one in 2018 about its use with a foreign article.

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When ‘damn’ became a swear word

Q: What is the origin of the expression “don’t give a damn”? Was it ever expletive free?

A: Let’s begin with “damn.” When the word showed up in Middle English in the 14th century, “damn” was a verb meaning to condemn. It wasn’t until the 16th century that “damn” was used profanely.

English borrowed the term from Old French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin damnāre or dampnāre, meaning to damage or condemn. (In fact, “condemn” ultimately comes from the same Latin source as “damn.”)

In Middle English, according to Oxford English Dictionary citations, “damn” had three related meanings: (1) to doom to eternal punishment; (2) to pronounce a sentence; (3) to denounce or deplore.

Here’s an OED example for sense #1 from a homily dated at around 1325: “Sain Jon hafd gret pite / That slic a child suld dampned be” (“John the Baptist had great pity / That such a child should be damned”). Collected in English Metrical Homilies (1862), edited by John Small.

We’ve expanded this OED’s citation for sense #2: “For, sir, hit is no maystrie for a lord / To dampne a man with-oute answere of word” (“For, sire, it is no triumph for a lord / To condemn a man without answering a word”). The Legend of Good Women, circa 1385, by Geoffrey Chaucer.

And here’s an example for #3: “For hadde God comaundid maydenhede, / Than had he dampnyd weddyng with the dede” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in The Canterbury Tales, circa 1386, by Chaucer).

The OED says the verb “damn” began to be “used profanely” in the late 16th century “in imprecations and exclamations, expressing emphatic objurgation or reprehension of a person or thing, or sometimes merely an outburst of irritation or impatience.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an anonymous religious tract attacking critics of the Anglican hierarchy: “Hang a spawne? drowne it; alls one, damne it!” From Pappe With Hatchet (1589), believed written by John Lyly or Thomas Nashe.

In the early 17th century, according to OED citations, “damn” showed up as a noun used “as a profane imprecation”—that is, a curse.

The earliest example is from Monsieur Thomas, a comedy by the English playwright John Fletcher, believed written between 1610 and 1616: “Rack a maids tender eares, with dam’s and divels?”

And here’s an early 18th-century example in the OED: “What! he no hear you swear, curse, speak the great Damn.” From The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe.

But by the mid-18th century—and here’s where your question comes in—the profane sense of “damn” began weakening as it was “used vaguely (in unconventional speech) in phrases not worth a damn, not to care a damn, not to give a damn,” the OED says.

The earliest such phrase, according to the dictionary, is of the “not to care a damn” variety. Here’s the first known use:

“Not that I care three dams what figure I may cut.” From Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762), a novel in the form of letters purportedly written by a Chinese traveler and offering an outsider’s views of Britain.

In searches of old newspaper databases, the earliest example we’ve found for “not give a damn” is from a late 18th-century American newspaper:

“Burk … exclaimed, that he believed it was true, and if so that he would not give a damn for the Federal villains in this country.” From the Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, July 6, 1798.

As for “not worth a damn,” the earliest use we know of is cited in Green’s Dictionary of Slang: “To play second fiddle to Brougham … would not be worth a dam.” From a letter written by the English politician Thomas Creevey on Oct. 18, 1812.

Interestingly, the noun “curse” was once used in similar constructions. Here are the earliest known appearances—at least in Modern English—of the corresponding “curse” expressions, all cited in the OED:

“I do not conceive that any thing can happen … which you would give a curse to know” (in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 20, 1763).

“For, as to wives, a Grand Signor Need never care one curse about them!” (Thomas Moore’s Intercepted Letters, 1813).

“The Chapter on Naval Inventions is not worth a curse” (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1826).

Oxford says the use of “curse” in such expressions “possibly comes down from the Middle English not worth a kerse, kers, cres” (those are medieval spellings of “curse”). The Middle English usage dates from the late 1300s, according to Oxford citations.

But if there is a link between “not worth a curse” and the medieval “not worth a kerse,” it’s not traceable. As the dictionary adds, “historical connection between the two is not evidenced, there being an interval of more than 300 years between the examples of the Middle English and the modern phrase.”

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Getting our ducks in a row

Q: What’s the history behind the expression “to get one’s ducks in a row”? And did anyone ever get ducks to line up?

A: We’ll answer your second question first. Yes, a mother duck does somehow manage to get her ducklings to line up in a row and follow her. Did this inspire the usage? Well, it’s one of several theories, but we haven’t found much evidence to support any of them.

As far as we can tell, the expression “to get [put, have, etc.] one’s ducks in a row,” meaning to be well prepared or organized for something, first appeared in late 19th-century American usage.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from a 19th-century African-American newspaper in Detroit: “In the meantime the Democrats are getting their ducks in a row, and their ticket is promised to be very strong” (the Plaindealer, Nov. 15, 1889).

The next example is a newspaper headline in South Carolina: “His Ducks in a Row” (Watchman and Southron, Sumter, July 22, 1891). The article describes “the extensive and handsome improvements” made by a businessman to increase “his space as well as his usefulness and activity” for “the accommodation of those who desire to be well served.”

A few months later, this headline appeared on an advertisement for a clothing sale: “Getting Our Ducks in a Row” (The Evening Visitor, Raleigh, NC, Nov. 20, 1891). After a list of items in the sale (“Ladies all wool vests, white, 50c,” “Men’s heavy undershirts, 17c,” etc.), the ad says these are “only a few stray shots and will be followed by the heavy sharp shooting and cannonading in quick succession.”

The use of firearm metaphors here raises the possibility that the usage may have originated as a figurative reference to the “duck shoot” attraction at fairgrounds, carnivals, and amusement parks, where visitors fire at a row of mechanical ducks. However, that’s pretty speculative. We haven’t seen any other etymological evidence to support the “duck shoot” theory.

We’ve also seen little or no evidence for two other theories about the source of the expression: (1) a row of real ducklings following their mom, or (2) duckpin bowling, a sport with pins that are smaller and squatter than those in the more common ten-pin bowling.

In fact, duckpin bowling first appeared in the early 1890s, after the expression showed up in Detroit. And we’ve seen no evidence that references in 19th-century books and newspapers to a row of real ducks inspired the figurative usage.

However the expression originated, it reminds us of Make Way for Ducklings (1941), Robert McCloskey’s book for children, which helped popularize the image of a mother duck leading a row of ducklings.

We’ll end, however, with an example from an earlier children’s book, Goodrich’s Fifth School Reader (1857), by Samuel Griswold Goodrich. Here a mom is teaching her ducklings how to walk in a straight line to a pond:

“Yes,” said the ducklings, waddling on. “That’s better,” said their mother;

“But well-bred ducks walk in a row, straight, one behind the other.”

“Yes,” said the little ducks again, all waddling in a row.

“Now to the pond,” said old Dame Duck—splash, splash, and in they go.

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Time and again

Q: I have long been familiar with the expression “time and time again,” but in the last week I have heard it truncated to “time and again.” What’s going on here? Is the latter simply a shortened form with the same meaning, or is it meant to convey something different?

A: You’ll be surprised to hear this, but “time and again” isn’t a truncated version of “time and time again.” The longer expression is an inflated version of the shorter one.

The expression appears to have originated in early 19th-century America. The earliest examples we’ve found in historical databases are from newspapers published in Virginia and Massachusetts.

The oldest mention we’ve seen is from a criticism of England’s Prince Regent (and later King George IV), credited to the Boston Patriot, and reprinted in the Richmond (Va.) Enquirer, April 28, 1812:

“This right illustrious personage is adding with careless prodigality to the vast circle of misery and ruin, by incurring obligations which he has no means of discharging, by rioting on the wealth of industry and labor, and calling time and again on the honest farmer and the plodding mechanic to pay for his thoughtless riots and unbounded profusion.”

And this sighting appeared a few years later: “The government has time and again been called upon, to adopt measures to render our commerce secure, and to prevent the violation of our neutrality.” From the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette & Daily Advertiser, Sept. 7, 1818.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, also has the shorter “time and again” version:

“Application was made, time and again, relative to the College, and no change could be obtained, when it was necessary” (from a Nov. 24, 1820, speech at an 1820-21 constitutional convention in Massachusetts).

The next citation in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, appeared a decade later (note the plural): “It has been recommended, times and again, not to give horses grain unbroken on this account” (New England Farmer, Feb. 23, 1831).

The first Oxford example for the longer version showed up in print four years later, and we haven’t found any earlier ones: “We know that this has been reported of it time and time again” (Baltimore Southern Pioneer and Richmond Gospel Visiter, March 28, 1835).

The shorter version is not only earlier, but it’s apparently more popular. “Time and again” has been the more common form since the usage first appeared in the early 19th century, according to a search in Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

The OED’s most recent citation is for the original version: “Time and again she had to make difficult decisions about disputed words and phrasing.” From “Towards a Scholarly Edition of Samuel Beckett’s Watt,” an essay by Chris Ackerley in Textual Scholarship and the Material Book (2009), edited by Wim van Mierlo.

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One of the only

Q: Are you as upset as I am over the growing use of the meaningless phrase “one of the only”? I keep seeing it used by journalists and other professional writers! Do you know how it started? I’m guessing it was coined by an advertising copywriter trying to impart exclusivity to his client’s pedestrian product.

A: We’re sorry to disappoint you, but we see nothing wrong with “one of the only” followed by a plural noun. It’s not unusual and it’s not new either, since it’s more than 400 years old.

Perhaps you object because you think “the only” implies just one, but that’s not the case. In some constructions, “only” is used legitimately in a plural sense to mean very few.

For instance, if “only three people” know a secret, they’re “the only three people” who know it. And if Jack is among them, then he’s “one of the only three people” who know it. Nothing wrong there, either grammatically or logically.

Merriam-Webster Online, in its entry for “one of the only,” says it’s an idiom meaning “one of very few” or “one in a small class or category.”

The dictionary gives two examples: “That was one of the only times I ever saw my father cry” and “This is one of the only places in the world where the plant is found.”

M-W is the only standard dictionary with a separate entry for the phrase “one of the only.” But others include the plural sense of “only” in their definitions of the adjective (we’ve underlined the plural senses):

Cambridge: “We use only as an adjective to mean that there is just one or very few of something” … Dictionary.com: “being the single one or the relatively few of the kind” … Lexico: “Alone of its or their kind” … Webster’s New World: “alone of its or their kind; by itself or by themselves” … Macmillan: “used for showing that there are no other things or people of the same kind as the one or ones that you are mentioning” … Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “being one or more of which there exist no others of the same class or kind.”

As we mentioned, “one of the only” isn’t a recent construction. The earliest example we’ve found is from a book on exploration published in 1599:

“From thence passing many dayes trauell, I came vnto a prouince [province] called Casan, which is for good commodities, one of the onely prouinces vnder the Sunne.” From The Principal Nauigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt. (The passage translates the Latin account of a Franciscan friar’s travels to the East. The friar, Odoric of Pordenone, dictated the memoir on his deathbed in 1330.)

And this example was recorded a few years later: “he was one of the only men that sought the ouerthrow of their Dominion.” From The Historie of Iustine (1606), George Wilkins’s translation of the Latin original by the Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus.

In old book and newspaper databases, we’ve found many other examples from every century since then. Here’s a smattering of examples, and as you’ll notice, “one of the only” is often followed by a number plus a plural noun:

“one of the onely three supposed to haue preached” (1633); “one of the only three honest, valuable men in England” (1770); “a piece of Roman architecture; one of the only pure pieces perhaps in England” (1772); “one of the only two genera which constitute this order” (1819); “one of the only four surviving patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence” (1820); “one of the only two candidates that have ever been seriously thought of” (1824); “one of the only two ships” (1825); “one of the only two persons on board” (1827); “one of the only three brethren who could preach to the natives” (1832).

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has no separate entry for “one of the only.” But the phrase appears in a few of the dictionary’s citations for other words and phrases.

This one is found in an OED entry for the noun “Clarisse,” the name of an order of nuns: “One of the only two nunneries of the Clarisses in Scotland existed at Aberdour” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1879).

And the dictionary’s entry for “static” has this: “J. H. de Magellan, writing in 1779, said that he had seen a static barometer started by Sisson (one of the only two such instruments in Europe at the time).” From English Barometers 1680-1860 (2nd ed., 1977), by Nicholas Goodison.

In short, “one of the only” has been an established usage for centuries, in literary and scientific writing as well as everyday English.

No one, as far as we can tell, objects to the phrase without “the,” as in “one of only three dissenting voices” or “one of only four survivors.” But judging from comments on the Internet, many people are bothered by the phrase with the article, whether or not a number follows, as in “one of the only three dissenting voices” or “one of the only survivors.”

However, we see nothing wrong, grammatically or logically, with those constructions. If a litter of puppies includes two girls and eight boys, there’s nothing illogical in the sentence “We reserved one of the only two females.” In other words, “Of the only two females, we reserved one.”

Of course, without “the,” that sentence would still make sense (“We reserved one of only two females”). But “the” doesn’t make it wrong or illogical. In fact, we think “the only two” is more emphatic than “only two.” The presence of the article emphasizes the smallness (or fewness) of the number of girls in the litter.

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A degenerate gambler?

Q: It seems that “degenerate” is now the only term that the media applies to a long-time gambler. In the past, the more common, almost stock, term was “inveterate,” or sometimes “unregenerate.”  Of course, many dedicated gamblers can be degenerates, but the prior terms seem more apropos.

A: Any of those adjectives—“degenerate,” “inveterate,” or “unregenerate”—could legitimately be used to describe a gambler. But we agree with you that someone who gambles habitually and perhaps addictively is best described as “inveterate” or “unregenerate.”

“Inveterate” means long-established or habitual, and “unregenerate” means unable or unwilling to change. When used to modify “gambler,” both suggest that the gambling is long-established, hard to stop, and so on. Those adjectives are largely meaningless if used alone: “He’s inveterate” … “He’s unregenerate.” An inveterate or unregenerate what?

Unlike those words, “degenerate,” which means debased or corrupt, is a character trait in itself. It can be used alone: “He’s degenerate.” When used to modify “gambler,” it describes an incidental characteristic of a gambler. In other words, “He’s a degenerate gambler” would mean “He’s not only a gambler, but also degenerate.”

A comparison of the three phrases in Google’s Ngram viewer shows that “inveterate gambler” is by far the most common. It gets about three times as many hits as the runner-up, “degenerate gambler.” Trailing distantly in last place is “unregenerate gambler,” which barely registers. (Probably because it’s not a very common word.)

Here are examples of each from newspapers:

“He had been invited to join the poker table of that inveterate gambler—and big-time cheat—King Farouk” (Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2015).

“Las Vegas shooter was a degenerate gambler” (New York Post headline, Oct. 2, 2017).

“Anyone who saw [Jackie] Robinson play has to laugh when Pete Rose, the unregenerate gambler, is held up as the paragon of hustle” (Washington Post, April 8, 2004).

All the adjectives are derived from Latin and came into English in the early 1500s.

We’ll start with “inveterate,” from the Latin adjective inveteratus (grown old, of long standing, chronic), derived from the verb veterare (to make old). Here the in- prefix is an intensifier.

The English term was first recorded in writing in 1528, when it meant “full of obstinate prejudice or hatred; embittered, malignant; virulent,” the Oxford English Dictionary says. That’s no longer a standard usage.

Later in the 1500s, “inveterate” acquired a new sense: “firmly established by long continuance; long-established; deep-rooted; obstinate,” uses the dictionary says now apply mostly to “things evil.” And a couple of centuries later it was also being used more mildly, to mean “settled or confirmed in habit, condition, or practice; habitual, hardened, obstinate.” Those are the common meanings today.

A few examples of both senses: “huyrmongyn [whoremongering] inveterat” (1563); “inueterate malice” (1597); “inveterate, sinfull Habits” (1692); “an inveterate prejudice” (1735); “inveterate sportsman” (1832); “an inveterate smoker” (1859).

By the way, the word “veteran” is related, since it’s derived from the Latin vetus (old, long-established, belonging to the past). As the OED says, the classical Latin veteranus was a noun for an experienced or mature person and an adjective meaning mature or experienced, with the adjective used “especially of troops.”

Consequently, “veteran” (both noun and adjective) had military meanings upon entering English in the 1500s. The noun (1509) originally meant “a person with long experience in military service or warfare,” the OED says, and the adjective (1548) meant “having long experience in military service or warfare.” The other meanings, involving maturity or long experience in general, came later.

Moving on to the other two adjectives, “degenerate” and “unregenerate,” they have in their genes the Latin gener-, from genus (race or kind).

To be “degenerate” in the early 1500s was to depart from some virtue or quality that one would be expected to have. The OED’s definition: “having lost the qualities proper to the race or kind; having declined from a higher to a lower type; hence, declined in character or qualities; debased, degraded.”

The adjective was first recorded in the phrase “degenerat & growen out of kynde” (1513).

A more current use of the word is illustrated in this later OED example, a reference to Roman Catholic bishops: “The degenerate representatives of a once noble institution” (The History of England From the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth, 1856, by James Anthony Froude).

And an example in Merriam-Webster Online—“a degenerate schemer”—illustrates what M-W calls an especially common definition: “having sunk to a lower and usually corrupt and vicious state.”

As for “unregenerate,” it didn’t come straight from the Romans but was formed within English. It was modeled on the earlier adjective “regenerate” (reborn, reformed), which the OED says did come from Latin and was first recorded around 1435.

When “unregenerate” was first noted in writing in 1561, it meant “not regenerate or reformed, spiritually or (now usually) morally or intellectually,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s most recent citation: “A currency whose strength would be undiluted by unregenerate profligates and spendthrifts in Ireland and in Club Med” (Daily Telegraph, Nov. 17, 2010).

Both adjectives, “degenerate” and “unregenerate,” developed noun forms later in the same century—“degenerate” (a person who fits the description) in 1555, and “unregenerate” (ditto) in 1578. The first also became a verb in that century. To “degenerate” (1545) means, in a general sense, “to decline in character or qualities, become of a lower type,” Oxford says.

The Latin gener- and degener- have given English a tremendous number of words, all ultimately traceable to a prehistoric Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as genə– (to give birth or beget), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

Derivatives of this root generally have to do with “aspects of procreation” as well as with “familial and tribal groups,” American Heritage says. Here are some of the better-known English offspring of this ancient root, many of which reflect phonic alterations over the centuries:

benign, cognate, congenial, congenital, engender, engine, gendarme, gender, gene, genealogy, general, generate, generation, generic, generous, genesis, genial, genital, genitive, genius, genre, genocide, genotype, gent, genteel, gentile, gentle, gentry, genuine, genus, germ, German, germane, germinate, gingerly, gonad, kin, kind, kindred, king, heterogeneous, impregnate, indigenous, ingenious, ingenuous, innate, jaunty, kindergarten, malign, miscegenation, nada, naive, nascent, natal, nation, native, nature, née, neonate, Noël, pregnant, progeny, puny, renaissance, wunderkind.

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Try and stop us!

Q: How old is the use of “and” in place of “to” to join infinitives?  For example, “He wants to try and kill her” instead of “He wants to try to kill her.” I heard the usage on British TV, so it’s not just American.

A: The use of “and” to link two infinitives is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. And as you’ve discovered, it’s not just an American usage. In fact, the use of “try and” plus a bare, or “to”-less, infinitive (as in “He wants to try and kill her”) is more common in the UK than in the US.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “and” is being used here for “connecting two verbs, the second of which is logically dependent on the first, esp. where the first verb is come, go, send, or try.” With the exception of “come” and “go,” the dictionary adds, “the verbs in this construction are normally only in the infinitive or imperative.”

In other words, the “come” and “go” versions of the usage can be inflected—have different verb forms, such as the future (“He’ll come and do it”) or the past (“He went and did it”). But the “try” version is normally restricted to the infinitive (“He intends to try and stop us”) or the imperative (“Try and stop us!”).

The earliest example of the construction in the OED is from Matthew 8:21 in the West Saxon Gospels, dating from the late 900s: “Drihten, alyfe me ærest to farenne & bebyrigean minne fæder” (“Lord, let me first go and bury my father”). The verbs “go” (farenne) and “bury” (bebyrigean) here are infinitives.

The dictionary’s first citation for a “try” version of the construction is from the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh. A 1599 entry reports that the council “ordanis the thesaure [orders the treasurer] to trye and speik with Jhonn Kyle.”

However, we’ve found an earlier “try” example in the Early English Books Online database: “they are also profitable for the faithfull / for they trye and purefye the faith of goddes [God’s] electe.” From A Disputacio[n] of Purgatorye, a 1531 religious treatise by John Frith, a Protestant writer burned at the stake for heresy.

In the 19th century, some language commentators began criticizing the use of “try and” with a bare infinitive. For example, George Washington Moon chided a fellow British language authority, Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, for using “try and” in a magazine article based on Alford’s A Plea for the Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling (1863):

“Near the end of a paragraph in the first Essay occurs the following sentence, which is omitted in the book:— ‘And I really don’t wish to be dull; so please, dear reader, to try and not think me so.’ Try and think, indeed! Try to think, we can understand. Fancy saying ‘the dear reader tries and thinks me so’; for, mind, a conjunction is used only to connect words, and can govern no case at all” (The Dean’s English: A Criticism on the Dean of Canterbury’s Essays on the Queen’s English, 1865).

Moon was apparently bugged by Alford’s use of “try and think” because the phrase couldn’t be inflected. But as we’ve shown, English writers had been using “try and” phrases this way for hundreds of years before any commentator raised an objection.

Although some later language authorities have echoed Moon’s objection to the usage, others have said it’s acceptable, especially in informal English.

As Henry W. Fowler says in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), “It is an idiom that should not be discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.” It meets “the proper standard of literary dignity,” he writes, though it is “specially appropriate to actual speech.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the fourth edition of Fowler’s usage guide, expands on those comments from the first edition, adding that the “choice between try to and try and is largely a matter of spontaneity, rhythm, and emphasis, especially in spoken forms.”

In Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Bryan A. Garner describes “try and” as a “casualism,” which he defines as “the least formal type of standard English.” And Pat, in her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I (4th ed.), recommends “try to” for formal occasions, but says “try and, which has been around for hundreds of years, is acceptable in casual writing and in conversation.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which has dozens of examples of “try and” and similar constructions used by respected writers, says, “About the only thing that can be held against any of these combinations is that they seem to be more typical of speech than of high-toned writing—and that is hardly a sin.” Here are few of the usage guide’s “try and” citations:

“Now I will try and write of something else” (Jane Austen, letter, Jan. 29, 1813).

“ ‘Stand aside, my dear,’ replied Squeers. ‘We’ll try and find out’ ” (Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, 1839).

“The unfortunate creature has a child still every year, and her constant hypocrisy is to try and make her girls believe that their father is a respectable man” (William Makepeace Thackeray, The Book of Snobs, 1846).

“to try and soften his father’s anger” (George Eliot, Silas Marner, 1861).

“We are getting rather mixed. The situation entangled. Let’s try and comb it out” (W. S. Gilbert, The Gondoliers, 1889).

“If gentlemen sold their things, he was to try and get them to sell to him” (Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, 1903).

Some linguists and grammarians describe the “and” here as a “quasi-auxiliary,” and its use in “try and” constructions as “pseudo-coordination,” since “and” is functioning grammatically as the infinitive marker “to,” not as a conjunction that coordinates (that is, joins) words, phrases, or clauses.

Getting back to your question about the usage in American versus British English, Lynne Murphy, an American linguist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, discusses this in The Prodigal Tongue (2018). She cites two studies that indicate “try and” is more popular in the UK than in the US.

One study found that the British “used try and (where they could have said try to) over 71% of the time in speech and 24% of the time in writing,” Murphy writes. “The American figures were 24% for speech and 5% in writing.” (The study she cites is “Try to or Try and? Verb Complementation in British and American English,” by Charlotte Hommerberg and Gunnel Tottie, ICAME Journal, 2007.)

Another study, Murphy says, shows that older, educated people in the UK “prefer try to a bit more, but those under forty-five say try and 85% of the time, regardless of their level of education.” (The study here is “Why Does Canadian English Use Try to but British English Use Try and?” by Marisa Brook and Sali A. Tagliamonte, American Speech, 2016.)

In a Dec. 14, 2016, post on Murphy’s website, Separated by a Common Language, she has more details about the studies. She also notes a theory that some people may choose “try and get to know” over “try to get to know” because of a feeling that the repetition of “to” in the second example sounds awkward. Linguists refer to the avoidance of repetition as horror aequi, Latin for “fear of the same.”

Some grammarians and linguists have suggested that there may be a difference in meaning between the “try and” and “try to” constructions. But the linguist Åge Lind analyzed 50 English novels written from 1960 to 1970 and concluded: “If a subtle semantic distinction exists it does not seem to be observed” (from “The Variant Forms Try and/Try to,” English Studies, December 1983).

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A precipitous drop for the better?

Q: I keep seeing “precipitous decline” used for a drop that’s beneficial. For example, “a precipitous decline in the deficit” during the Obama administration (Daily Kos), or “a precipitous decline in Covid-19 cases” in New York (USA Today). Isn’t a drop that’s “precipitous” supposed to be alarming or dangerous?

A: In our opinion, “precipitous” describes a decrease that’s both steep and negative. Like you, we’ve occasionally seen news stories that use “precipitous” in a positive way, but we think a better word for a beneficial decrease would be “dramatic” or “sharp” or “steep.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, is on our side. “The core, literal meaning of precipitous is ‘sheer like a precipice; dangerously high or steep,’ ” Fowler’s says. “Derived from this is a metaphor to describe a change for the worse in a situation or condition, i.e., meaning ‘dramatic.’ ”

Notions of disaster are built into the word. Etymologically, as we’ll explain, someone or something whose fall is “precipitous” has been thrown off a cliff.

Of course, a word’s etymological meanings don’t always survive into modern times or influence how it’s used now. But we think that even today, a “precipitous” fall implies a change for the worse, not for the better.

The word came into English in the early 1600s when it was borrowed from French (precipiteux), the Oxford English Dictionary says. The French adjective had two general senses—(1) rash, impetuous, abrupt, and (2) steep or vertical.

It was derived from the Latin adjective praeceps, meaning not only steep but also headlong. (The literal sense of the Latin word is “head first”; it’s formed from the prefix prae- for “before” and caput for “head.”)

The OED’s earliest written example of “precipitous” is from 1646, but we’ve found more than a dozen earlier ones, all used in the sense of impetuous, rash, ill-advised, overly hasty, and so on. A few of the early sightings, including the first one, imply danger as well as haste.

Here’s the oldest use we’ve found so far: “Mankind runneth head longe to sinne when it is forbidden him; For euen as a torrent or land-floud [flood] running a violent and precipitous course, and meeting with any stop by the way becomes the more furious, and with redoubled force makes selfe way, and beareth downe al before it.” From The First Part of a Treatise Concerning Policy, and Religion (1606), by Thomas Fitzherbert.

Here are a few more of the early uses we’ve found: “rash & precipitous censure” (1609); “an act of extreme impiety or precipitous arrogancie” (1612); “so precipitous & inconsiderate” (1620); “Folly, lightnesse, unadvisednesse, and a precipitous nature” (1622); “the precipitous nature of the Prince, and the ill offices he had done already” (1632); “not precipitous a whit to attempt any thing unadvisedly” (1632); “the assaultes of a most precipitous Death” (1632); “a precipitous torrent, which when it rages, over-flows the plaines” (1640); “their precipitous hastinesse” (1644).

A slightly earlier form of the word was “precipitious” (sometimes spelled “praecipitious”), which was borrowed from the classical Latin adjective praecipitium (precipice-like). Originally, in the early 1600s, “precipitious” had dual meanings, according to the OED: (1) “acting or done in excessive haste; rash, unthinking”; (2) “involving risk of sudden fall or ruin; dangerous, precarious.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from 1612, but we found an earlier one in a book about the sin of pride. The author warns against boasting of great bodily strength, because strength is slow in ascending to its height, “but the descent is precipitious” (The Arraignment of Pride, 1600, by William Gearing).

And in this 1613 example, “precipitious” seems to mean disastrous: “glory and honour to the victor, euer deare and honest to the winner, precipitious and shamefull to the looser” (Sir Antony Sherley His Relation of His Trauels Into Persia, 1613).

We’ve also found an early use of “precipitously,” the adverb derived from “precipitous.” This appeared in a 1619 translation, from Italian, of the life of the Florentine Carmelite nun Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi: “For sometimes the Diuell [Devil] strocke her ouer the head, sometymes he cast her downe precipitously.”

In fact, “precipice” itself once had twin meanings. In its earliest uses, the OED says, it meant (1) “a headlong fall or descent,” used mostly in a  figurative way for “a fall into a disastrous situation or condition” (1606), and (2) “a high and vertical or very steep rock face; a crag, a cliff” (1607).

However, we’ve found an earlier use from 1603, in which the word (spelled “praecipice”) is used figuratively to mean the brink of disaster: “the deere Lord and treasure of my thought … / To such a headlong praecipice is brought.” (From The Tragedie of Darivs [Darius], a drama in verse by the Scottish poet William Alexander, first Earl of Stirling.)

It’s no surprise that “precipice” meant disaster early on, since it had that meaning in the languages it came from.

It was borrowed into English partly from Middle French and partly from Latin. In Middle French in the 1500s, précipice meant danger or disaster as well as a steep place. And in classical Latin, the noun praecipitium meant both a “steep place” and a “fall or jump from a great height,” the OED says, while in post-classical Latin it also meant ruin or disaster.

A couple of other English words starting with “precip-” had ominous beginnings, “precipitation” and “precipitate.” Both come from the Latin verb praecipitare, meaning to cast down or throw headlong.

In the 1400s, “precipitation” was a form of murder or capital punishment; it meant throwing someone (or being thrown) from a great height. In the 1500s, it took on other meanings, like abruptness and rashness; the weather senses—rain, snow, and so on—came along in the late 1600s.

And in the 1500s, to “precipitate” someone meant to throw him over a cliff, while the participial adjective “precipitate” meant “hurled downwards, as over a precipice,” the OED says. (In the same century, the verb and adjective “precipitate” also had meanings related to haste, speed, and rashness, similar to the senses they still have today.)

So as you can see, English words descended from Latin and beginning with “precip-” have long had a dual sense, implying both a sheer vertical drop and a hasty, headlong fall. And “precipitous” has retained those dual connotations, which is why you found it jarring when used to describe a sharp change for the better.

But what do current dictionaries say? Is a “precipitous” decline necessarily a bad one?

In their entries for “precipitous,” all of the 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult include definitions like overly hasty, abrupt, or done without thought. And all but one of the dictionaries indicate either directly or indirectly that a “precipitous” change is also dangerous or bad.

Three British dictionaries are the most specific about the negativity of “precipitous.” In their definitions, Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include “dangerously high or steep,” and Lexico adds: “(of a change to a worse situation or condition) sudden and dramatic.” Collins says it can mean “very steep and often dangerous” as well as “sudden and unpleasant.”

Six of the remaining seven dictionaries say something “precipitous” resembles a “precipice,” which in addition to its literal meaning of a steep rock face or high cliff is described as a dangerous situation in the following definitions:

“a greatly hazardous situation, verging on disaster” (Webster’s New World); “the brink of a dangerous or disastrous situation” (American Heritage); “a dangerous situation that could lead to harm or failure” (Cambridge); “a situation of great peril” (Dictionary.com); “the brink of disaster” (Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged). Collins, mentioned earlier, has a similar reference to “precipice.”

By the way, we sometimes see “precipitous” used to describe a steep rise (as opposed to a drop). Is this legit? Well, it’s a little odd but we haven’t found any evidence that it’s not acceptable in standard English.

Most dictionaries don’t address that question in their definitions, though their examples almost always describe falls, declines, drops, decreases, slides, and collapses. (Two examples to the contrary illustrate increases that are changes for the worse: “the precipitous cost increases at state universities,” in Longman, and “a precipitous increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce,” in Lexico.)

The definitions in only a couple of dictionaries specifically say that rises as well as falls can be “precipitous.”

Here’s Merriam-Webster, which seems to accept “precipitous” rises in only a literal (that is, geological) sense: “very steep, perpendicular, or overhanging in rise or fall” … “having a very steep ascent” (our underlining). All the examples given apply to a place or a geological feature. So clearly, you could justify saying that a street or slope or rock face had a “precipitous” ascent (or rose “precipitously”) to a great height.

Cambridge goes further and accepts figurative rises in its definition: “If a reduction or increase is precipitous, it is fast or great.” But no examples of precipitous increases are given.

A final word. For over 400 years, the adjectives “precipitous” and “precipitate” have been used to mean overly hasty or ill-considered. No one objected to this use of “precipitous” until the 1920s, so if you’ve heard such objections, ignore them. All ten standard dictionaries say “precipitous” and “precipitate” can be used synonymously.

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Jiggs dinner

Q: I would be interested to know where the term “Jiggs dinner” comes from. I grew up in Newfoundland, where it referred to a boiled salt-beef dinner, though my family never used the term.

A: The expression “Jiggs dinner” comes from Bringing Up Father, a comic strip created by the cartoonist George McManus in the early 20th century. The strip, which ran from Jan. 12, 1913, to May 28, 2000, featured Jiggs and Maggie, an Irish-American couple. Jiggs’s favorite meal, corned beef and cabbage, became known as a “Jiggs dinner.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines the terms “Jiggs” and “Jiggs and Maggie” as “corned beef and cabbage,” and says the usage was popularized in the comic strip. The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a Wisconsin newspaper: “ ‘Jiggs’—corned beef and cabbage” (Waukesha Freeman, Jan. 24, 1940).

However, we’ve found several earlier examples, such as a produce ad in a Colorado newspaper for “ ‘Jiggs’ Dinner Necessaries,” including “Cabbage, per lb., 5c,” “Parsnips, 4 lbs., 25c,” “Rutabagas, 8 lbs., 25c,” and “Carrots, 7 lbs., 25c” (Montrose Daily Press, Jan. 22, 1920).

The Canadian Encyclopedia website says “Jiggs’ dinner is a staple of outport (rural) Newfoundland cuisine. It is also called boiled, cooked or Sunday dinner, as it is usually served on Sunday.” It adds that “Jiggs” here “is a reference to the protagonist” of Bringing Up Father.

“Jiggs was an Irish immigrant living in America who regularly ate corned beef and cabbage, a precursor to the Newfoundland dish,” the dictionary says. “Much of the settlement in Newfoundland came from Irish immigration, so it is not surprising that so much of the food and culture has Celtic ancestry.”

The encyclopedia includes this recipe for Jiggs dinner with pease pudding, or porridge, on the side:

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On ‘willy-nilly’

Q: Your “willy-nilly” entry (from 2006) dates it at 1608. Mightn’t it come from Hamlet, which was written a few years earlier? From Act V, Scene 1: “If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he nill he, he goes.” Just my 2 cents.

A: Thanks for drawing our attention to that 2006 post about “willy-nilly,” one of the oldest posts on our blog, and one in need of an update. So here goes.

As it turns out, early versions of “willy-nilly” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, seven centuries before the usage appeared in Shakespeare. In Old English, forms of the verbs wyllan (to want something) and nyllan (to not want it) were combined in various expressions meaning “whether (one) will or not; willingly or unwillingly; voluntarily or compulsorily,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although “willy-nilly” usually means haphazardly or carelessly today, that early sense (willingly or unwillingly, whether you like it or not) is included in all 10 of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

For example, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) defines “willy-nilly” as (1) “in a disorganized or unplanned manner; sloppily” and (2) “whether one wishes to or not; willingly or unwillingly.”

The earliest Old English ancestor of “willy-nilly” in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is “sam we willan sam we nyllan” (whether we wish to or wish not to). Here’s the citation from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“we sceolon beon nede geþafan, sam we willan sam we nyllan, þæt he sie se hehsta hrof eallra goda” (“We must grant, whether we wish to or not, that He is the crowning pinnacle of all things good”).

A shorter version, “wille we, nelle we” (willingly or unwillingly, one way or another) showed up a century later:

“forðan þe we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, wille we, nelle we” (“Therefore we are sinners and shall be humble, willingly or unwillingly”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.

A reverse version of the expression, “nil we, wil we,” showed up a few hundred years later in Middle English:

“ded has vs wit-sett vr strete; nil we, wil we, we sal mete” (“Death surrounds us in all places; one way or another, we shall meet”). From Cursor Mundi, an anonymous poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300.

Shakespeare, who apparently liked the expression, used it at least twice—first in The Taming of the Shrew, believed written in the early 1590s,  and then in Hamlet, said to be written in the late 1590s or early 1600s.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio tells Katherine that he’ll marry her, whether she wants to or not: “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.”

In the passage from Hamlet that you mentioned, a gravedigger comments on whether Ophelia deserves a Christian burial after a suspicious drowning. The expression “will he nill he” isn’t in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest published version of the play, but it’s in the Second Quarto (1604-5) and the First Folio (1623.)

Here’s an expanded version from the Second Quarto of the gravedigger’s remarks: “if the man goe to this water & drowne himselfe, it is will he, nill he, he goes, marke you that, but if the water come to him, & drowne him, he drownes not himselfe.”

The earliest example in the OED for “willy-nilly” spelled the usual modern way (but minus the hyphen) is from Salmagundi, a 19th-century satirical periodical created and written by Washington Irving and others. Here’s an expanded version of the April 25, 1807, citation:

“Woe be to the patient that came under the benevolent hand of my aunt Charity; he was sure, willy nilly, to be drenched with a deluge of decoctions: and full many a time has my cousin Christopher borne a twinge of pain in silence, through fear of being condemned to suffer the martyrdom of her materia medica.”

We suspect that the “willy-nilly” spelling may have caught on because of its similarity to two other reduplicative usages, “wishy-washy” (1693) and “shilly-shally” (1700). As we’ve noted several times on the blog, reduplication is the complete or partial repetition of linguistic elements.

Interestingly, the OED’s entry for “willy-nilly,” which hasn’t been fully updated since 1926, cites an early 17th-century satirical play as the first written example of the expression: “Thou shalt trust mee spite of thy teeth, furnish me with some money, wille nille” (from A Trick to Catch the Old-One, 1608, by Thomas Middleton).

The Old English and Middle English passages that we’ve cited as early versions of “willy-nilly” are from the dictionary’s entries for the verb “will” and the archaic verb “nill.” We assume that the OED will eventually note the earlier usages in an updated “willy-nilly” entry.

As of now, the dictionary doesn’t have any examples of “willy-nilly” in the usual modern sense of haphazardly. As far as we can tell, the expression took on that meaning in the mid-19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the English poet Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

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On Main St. and in the High St

Q: Any wisdom on why Americans say “on Main Street” and the British say “in the High Street” for, well, the main street in a town?

A: “High Street,” a chiefly British term for the main shopping road in a town or city, is much older than “Main Street,” its American counterpart.

(If you’re wondering why “Main St.” has a period in the title of this post and “High St” doesn’t, the first illustrates American usage and the second British usage.)

When the British term “high street” showed up in Anglo-Saxon days, it wasn’t the name of a specific street, but merely referred to “a main road, either in a town or city or constituting a principal connecting route,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The term “high” here meant chief, principal, or main.

The first OED example is from an Old English land charter that describes boundary markers in the village of Whittington in Worcestershire: “andlang sices þæt to þære hæhstræte, andlang stræte þæt in langan broc” (“along the stream to the high street, along the street with the long brook”). Published in Worcestershire Anglo-Saxon Charter-Bounds (1990), edited by Della Hooke.

Since “high street” was originally a descriptive term, it was often accompanied by a definite article and lowercased, as in “the high street.” In later use, the OED says, the term was capitalized as the name of “the main street of a town or city,” chiefly “the main shopping street.” And “in some (esp. British) towns, names of this type still retain the definite article.”

The term came to mean a specific road in Middle English. Oxford says it “is apparently earliest attested unambiguously with reference to a particular street in an English town (Oxford)” in this citation: “Þoruȝ al þe heiȝe strete” (“through all the high street”). From The Life of St. Edmund Rich (circa 1300), in The Early South-English Legendary (1887), edited by Carl Horstmann.

And here’s a late 14th-century citation from Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem by William Langland: “Riȝt as syȝte serueth a man to se þe heighe strete” (“right as sight serveth a man to see the high street”).

We’ve expanded this 20th-century example in the OED: “ ‘Maureen is sometimes quite coarse,’ said Marjorie to Jack over carré of lamb from the butcher in the High Street who delivered, and put frills on the cutlets.” From “Rode by All With Price,” a short story by Jane Gardam in London Tales (1983), a collection edited by Julian Evans.

As for “main street,” the earliest Oxford citation for the term is from an Italian-English dictionary published in London: “Rióne, a maine streete, a high way.” A Worlde of Words, or Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598), by John Florio.

Although the term first showed up in London, Oxford defines “main street” now as “the principal street of a town, esp. in North America. Frequently without article, and as a proper name”—thus capitalized.

The first American citation is from a 1687 entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, a judge in Massachusetts: “At night a great Uproar and Lewd rout in the Main Street.” Sewall is better known as one of the nine judges at the 1692-93 Salem witch trials—the only one to apologize publicly for his role.

Americans continued using the definite article with “Main Street” in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to OED citations, but began dropping the article in the 19th century. Here’s a 20th-century example, which we’ve expanded, from The Bear, a short story in William Faulkner’s collection Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories (1942):

“Twenty years ago his father had ridden into Memphis as a member of Colonel Sartoris’ horse in Forrest’s command, up Main street and (the tale told) into the lobby of the Gayoso Hotel where the Yankee officers sat in the leather chairs spitting into the tall bright cuspidors and then out again, scot-free.”

As for “in the High Street” versus “on Main Street,” the preposition “in” is standard with such constructions in Britain, while “on” is standard in North America, according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.). The OED notes that “on” is also used with streets in British regional and Irish English.

In fact, “on” was sometimes used in the sense of “in” in Anglo-Saxon days, “almost to the elimination of the preposition in from West Saxon and the dialects influenced by it,” Oxford notes. And “in early southern Middle English,” according to the dictionary, “on still included the sphere of both ‘on’ and ‘in.’ ”

Since “on” has been encroaching on the territory of “in” since Old English and Middle English, it’s not at all surprising that in Modern English a British tea shop is “in the High Street” while an American coffee shop is “on Main Street.”  

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‘I’m so not coming here again’

Q: In a TV film I caught, an American teenager expostulates, “I’m so not coming here again.” I’ve been dimly aware of this “so not” construction for about 10 years, but till now I’ve never asked myself where it comes from and what it’s doing.

A: The “so not” in statements like this means “emphatically not,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The “so” is an intensifier that emphasizes the “not.”

You could paraphrase “I’m so not coming here again” as “I’m sure not [or definitely not or certainly not] coming here again.”

The usage has been found in published writing since the late 1990s, but it was undoubtedly heard sooner in casual speech. And as we’ll explain later, this use of “so” is a variation on a theme. In earlier incarnations, “so” is used similarly but without “not.”

The OED’s earliest example of “so not” in this kind of statement is “Napoleons are so not fun to eat” (New York Magazine, Aug. 25, 1997). The next two citations are both from novels:

“We guess communism just got buried in the rubble there somewhere. And those Ceauşescus? So not missed” (Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 1999).

“You’ve seen the carousel and it’s so not cool to be seen here if you’re over nine years old” (Jan M. Czech’s Grace Happens, 2005). Note that the author uses italics to emphasize “so,” reflecting the way the word is pronounced in this usage.

The OED includes those “so not” examples within a broader category, one in which “so” is used as “an intensifier, forming nonstandard grammatical constructions.” It describes these constructions as “slang” and “chiefly U.S.”

In the earliest such uses, the OED says, the word means “extremely, characteristically,” and modifies a noun, adjective, or adverb that “does not usually admit comparison.”

The dictionary’s earliest example, an outlier, is from Ronald Firbank’s 1923 novel The Flower Beneath the Foot: “What can you see in her? … She’s so housemaid.” Oxford calls this “an isolated use, apparently without influence on later development of the sense.”

The dictionary’s continuous examples begin with this one from the screenplay of Manhattan (1979), written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman: “Yale: ‘He’s a big Bergman fan, you know.’ Mary: ‘Oh, please, you know. God, you’re so the opposite! I mean, you write that absolutely fabulous television show.’ ”

The next citation, also from a film script, is a line in Heathers (1988), written by Daniel Waters: “Grow up, Heather. Bulimia’s so ’86.”

In the next variation on the theme, “so” is used to mean “definitely” or “decidedly” and modifies verbs, Oxford says. This usage was first recorded in the early 1990s, and again the OED’s earliest examples are from scripts—the first from a shooting draft for a film and the second for an eventual TV series:

“Oh thank you, Josh, I so need lessons from you on how to be cool” (Clueless, written by Amy Heckerling, 1994).

“We so don’t have time” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, written by Joss Whedon in 1996).

An article in Brill’s Content in August 2000 summed up expressions like these as “the sort of slangy, informal use of so you might hear a teen of the MTV set employ, as in: ‘Omigod, I would so marry Carson Daly if he asked me.’ ”

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Hard of sleeping?

Q: After reading your article about “hard” and “hardly,” my thoughts wandered to “hard of hearing.” Where did this originate? Would the opposite be “soft of hearing”? Why don’t we talk about “hard of seeing,” “hard of tasting,” etc.? I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking about this. Am I hard of sleeping?

A: The phrase “hard of” has been used in this way since the early 14th century. And yes, it’s been used for other things that some people find hard to do—like seeing, believing, and understanding. Here’s the story.

Since Old English, “hard” has been both an adjective (firm, solid, unyielding, difficult to do) and a noun (for a difficult experience or difficult times), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The noun “hard,” in the sense of a hardship or difficult times, was often linked with “nesh” (something soft). So the expression “in nesh and hard” meant in all circumstances—that is, in easy times and hard.

The OED’s first citation for the noun is from a riddle in a 10th-century poem: “Him on hand gæð heardes and hnesces” (“Into its hand goes hard and soft”). From Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn in The Red Book of Darley, MS 422, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

(In the riddle, Saturn asks “what is the wonder” that feeds on “all that dwell on the ground, fly in the air, swim in the sea”? Solomon answers, “Old age is powerful over all things on earth.” It “destroys the tree,” “defeats the wolf,” “outwits the rocks,” “bites iron with rust,” and “does the same to us.”)

In the early 14th century, writers began using the noun in various phrases with the sense of a difficulty, hardship, misfortune, and so on, the OED says.

The dictionary’s first citation is from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330 or earlier: “Y com fram Lombardy, Of hard y-schaped for þe maistrie” (“I come from Lombardy, from hardship of the highest degree”).

Of course, the noun today is used much less than the adjective, which is where your question comes in.

In its earliest uses, the adjective meant firm and unyielding, as in heard ssweord (hard sword), a phrase recorded in Beowulf, possibly written as early as the 700s.

Here’s a similar use, from a collection of Old English medical remedies copied into a 10th-century manuscript known as Bald’s Leechbook:

“Wiþ heardum swile þæs magan” (“For a hard swelling of the stomach”). The title of the manuscript comes from its Latin colophon, or publication details: “Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit” (“Bald owns this book, which he ordered Cild to compile”).

At the same time, the adjective was being used to mean difficult or hard to accomplish, as in this OED citation: “Þa þuhte me swiðe heard & uneaðe” (“That seems to me very hard & not easy”). From Bishop Wærferth’s translation, done in the late 800s or early 900s, of Gregory’s Dialogues, which were written in Latin the sixth century.

And in Middle English, the combination “hard + of” took on the sense you’re asking about. Oxford says the adjective was coupled with “of” (also sometimes “to” or “in”) to describe a person “not easily able to do something or capable of doing something”—a usage that survives today (excepting humorous examples) only in the phrase “hard of hearing.”

The dictionary’s earliest known example for “hard of” is in the anonymous Middle English poem Cursor Mundi, written sometime before 1325: “Men sua herd of vnder-stand” (“Men are hard of understanding”).

The phrase “hard of hearing” appeared in writing more than two centuries later: “The testatrixe was hard of hearinge.” From a deposition in a 1564-65 case about a will, cited in Child-Marriages, Divorces, and Ratifications, etc. in the Diocese of Chester, 1897, edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.

Finally, here are a few unusual “hard of” usages from the OED:

“To those that are dull and hard of vnderstanding, or long time besieged with euill customes, the rust of their mindes must be rubbed off” (from The Workes of Lucius Annæus Seneca, 1614, translated from the Latin by Robert Lodge).

“They are hard of digestion, causing nauseating eructations” (Dictionnaire Oeconomique; or, The Family Dictionary, 1725, by Richard Bradley). The subject is radishes.

“In Portugal men are melancholy, sanguine, and robust, but slow and hard of intellect” (Werner’s Magazine, January 1896).

“Riots, too, are a form of language in which the voiceless get the attention of those who are ‘hard of listening’ ” (The Drama of Social Life, 1990, by T. R. Young).

May you be soft of sleeping the next time 3 a.m. comes along.

[Update, Oct. 24, 2020. A reader sent this excerpt from “The Smelly Car” episode of Seinfeld, first aired April 15, 1993: “Jerry: ‘Boy, do you smell something?’ Elaine: ‘Do I smell something? What am I, hard of smelling?’ ”]

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Like as the waves

Q: I have a question about this passage from Shakespeare: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore.” I’ve never seen “like as” used this way before. Is it a poetic usage? Or was it once more common?

A: The use of “like as” to introduce a clause, a group of words with its own subject and verb, was once fairly common, but it’s now considered colloquial, nonstandard, obsolete, or rare.

When “like as” introduced a clause, the word “like” was “an emphatic modifier” of “as,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the dropping of “as” from “like as” probably contributed to the use of “like” by itself to introduce a clause, a usage often criticized by sticklers.

As the OED explains, “the use of like as a conjunction,” which was “often deprecated by usage writers and prescriptivists during the 19th and 20th centuries,” was probably influenced by “an ellipsis of as in the phrasal conjunction like as.”

(As we note in a 2013 post, “like” had introduced clauses for hundreds of years before language commentators began objecting to the usage.)

When the phrase “like as” first appeared in the late 14th century (spelled “lich as,”), it meant “as if” or “as though,” a usage that the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels colloquial or nonstandard now.

In the first Oxford citation, which we’ve expanded, the Roman Emperor Constantine is suffering from leprosy. But as he’s baptized, his skin lesions fall off and lie in the water like fish scales:

“And evere among the holi tales / Lich as thei weren fisshes skales, / Ther fellen from him now and eft / Til that ther was nothing beleft.” From Confessio Amantis (circa 1391), a Middle English poem by John Gower.

In the early 15th century, “like as” came to mean in the manner that, to the same extent as, just as, etc., senses that are now obsolete. The OED cites a 1414 entry in the rolls, or records, of Parliament:

“We … ne oughte not to answere lyk as bondemen of byrthe shulde, for the whiche the forseide Statut was made.” From Rotuli Parliamentorum (1767-77), edited by John Strachey.

A bit later in the 15th century, “like as” began being used “for emphasis or clarity” when introducing a subordinate clause “preceding the main clause introduced by anaphoric so,” according to Oxford. (The anaphoric so here refers readers to the subordinate clause).

The OED, which describes the usage as rare now, cites a manuscript, circa 1425, at the British Library: “Like as lecteture [a lecture] put thyng in mende [mind] / Of lerned men, ryght so a peyntyde fygure / Remembryth [reminds] men unlernyd in hys kende” (from Cotton MS Julius B. XII in Reliquiæ Antiquæ, 1845, edited by Thomas Wright et al.).

The passage from Shakespeare that you’re asking about introduces a subordinate clause at the beginning of Sonnet 60: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, / So do our minutes hasten to their end.”

We’ll end with an expanded OED citation from Agnes Grey (1847), Anne Brontë’s first novel. Here Nancy Brown uses “like as” in the sense of “as if” as she tells Agnes about hearing Edward Weston, the curate, read to her:

“An’ then he took that Bible, an’ read bits here and there, an’ explained ’em as clear as the day: and it seemed like as a new light broke in on my soul; an’ I felt fair aglow about my heart, an’ only wished poor Bill an’ all the world could ha’ been there, an’ heard it all, and rejoiced wi’ me.”

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Come hell or high water

Q: I was wondering if you know the origin of the expression “come hell or high water.” I just used it to say I intend to vote in November come hell or high water. I must have learned it from my mother, who used many colorful sayings that I don’t hear anymore

A: Before getting to that expression, let’s look at the word “hell,” which has been used in a hell of a lot of ways since it first appeared in Old English writing, first as the dwelling place of all the dead, then as a place where the wicked were punished after death.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Vespasian Psalter, a ninth-century manuscript in Latin and Old English that uses the term to mean “the abode of departed spirits” and “a place of existence after death.”

In the citation, the Latin passage “veniat mors super illos et descendant in infernum viventes” is translated in Old English as “cyme deað ofer hie & astigen hie in helle lifgende” (“let death come upon them and descend into the living hell”).

The first OED citation for “hell” used in the sense of “the dwelling place of devils and condemned spirits” and “the place or state of punishment of the wicked after death” appeared in the 10th-century Blickling Homilies:

“Se gifra helle bið a open deoflum & þæm mannum þe nu be his larum lifiaþ” (“The greedy hell is open to the devil and the men who now live by his teaching”).

Notions of hell have inspired many expressions over the years, including “until hell freezes over” (meaning never, 1832); “to hell and back again” (a very long way, 1844); “raise hell” (cause great trouble, 1845); “to hell and gone” (to ruin or destruction, 1863); and “not a hope in hell” (impossible, 1923).

The expression you’re asking about—“come hell or high water,” meaning despite all obstacles—first appeared a century and a half ago in a somewhat different form. The earliest OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a congressional report on a disputed 1870 House race in Arkansas.

In testimony on May 25, 1871, a witness notes that Gov. Powell Clayton intended to run for the US Senate, and quotes him indirectly as saying, “they might fight him as much as they were a mind to, but he was going there in spite of hell and high water.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the exact phrase you use is from Land Below the Wind, a 1939 memoir by Agnes Newton Keith about her life in North Borneo (now Sabah). Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“Too puny a voice mine to say, like Queen Victoria, ‘Let empires be built!’—and, come hell or high water, they build ’em. Likewise too untutored a mind mine to attempt the argument, ‘Let empires be destroyed!’—and, come hell or high water, they blast ’em.”

Although your version of the expression is the usual one, the OED notes that the conjunction linking “hell” and “high water” is sometimes “and,” “also,” or “nor.”

Getting back to the early beginnings of “hell,” John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says that etymologically it means “a hidden place.” Its ultimate source is a prehistoric Proto-Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as kel- (cover, hide).

Ayto says the “cover” sense of the ancient root gave English the word “hall” while the “hide” sense gave it “hell,” so “hall and hell were originally ‘concealed or covered places,’ although in very different ways: the hall with a roof, hell with at least six feet of earth.”

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The polka in polka dots

Q: I’m wondering if the “polka dot” pattern has any connection to the “polka” dance.

A: Yes, we can connect the dots here. The term “polka dot” comes from the dance in 2/4 time (two quarter notes per bar), which was especially popular in the 19th century. During the polka craze, the name was often attached to fabrics, clothing, and fashion accessories as a marketing tactic.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “The use of polka as a commercial name developed in the 1840s due to the huge popularity of the dance in that period.”

The name of the dance, according to the dictionary, was used “prefixed to or designating various items, esp. textiles, fashion accessories, or articles of clothing, as polka hat, polka pelisse, etc.”

Elsewhere in its entry for the noun “polka,” the dictionary mentions “polka jacket,” “polka gauze,” and “polka curtain-band” (for looping up curtains). The OED adds that the usage is “now historical except in polka dot.”

The first Oxford citation for “polka” used as a commercial prefix is from the Nov. 8, 1844, issue of the Times (London): “Splendid and magnificent novelties … the Czarina, the Polka Pelisse, and Marquise Pelerine.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “polka dot,” which we’ll expand here, is from the May 1857 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine published in Philadelphia: “Scarf of muslin, for light summer wear. It is surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots; two full volantes, or flounces are edged with the same.”

As for the dance, it originated in the Czech region of Bohemia in the 19th century, according to the OED, and spread through Europe and the US. The dictionary says the name ultimately comes from polka, a Czech term for a Polish woman; it’s the feminine form of polák, Czech for Pole.

Oxford says the dance was “probably so named as an expression of sympathy with the Polish uprising of 1830-1” against the Russian Empire, but it adds that “the earliest English examples present difficulties.”

Although the dance may have been named for the Polish cadets who rose up against the Russians, the term “polka” had appeared a few years earlier in the US, apparently in reference to a musical composition used to accompany a dance rather than to a dance itself.

The dictionary says the use of “polka” for “a piece of music typically written in 2/4 time as the accompaniment to a characteristic dance” appeared first in Miss George Anna Reinagle Music Book for Fancy Tunes, an 1825 manuscript by Pierre Landrin Duport at the Library of Congress. The citation consists of the word “polka” alone. Duport was a French-born musician and dancing teacher in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.

The OED’s first clear example of “polka” used for the dance itself is from a letter written in 1837 by Mary Austin Holley, author of the first known English-language history of Texas. Here’s an expanded version of the citation:

“It was announced that a Mr. Karponky & his scholars would dance the grand Polka. He is a Pole—has taught 3,000 persons the Polka in these U.S.” From Letters of an Early American Traveller: Mary Austin Holley, Her Life and Her Works (1933), by  Mattie Austin Hatcher.

Finally, here are a couple of obsolete polka terms cited by the OED, along with their earliest appearances: “polkery,” a noun for a polka dance party (“Morning polkeries in Grosvenor-square,” 1845) … “polkaic,” an adjective meaning polka-like (“He thought Offenbach too polkaic,” 1884).

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Cue up or queue up a video?

Q: When you’re readying a video for viewing, do you cue it up or queue it up?

A: Although both “cue up” and “queue up” appear in the mainstream media in the sense of to prepare an audio or video recording to play, the language authorities who’ve commented on the issue prefer the phrasal verb “cue up.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “To cue up a videotape, an audio tape, a compact disc, or a DVD is to have it ready for playing at a particular point.” Garner includes these two examples from the news media:

  • “His brother cued up the tape, the rousing theme song from ‘Rocky’ ” (Hartford Courant, Sept. 17, 1996).
  • “You can bet your remote control clicker that every network has already cued up video of the glowering Dole, eyes flitting, hanging that warmonger tag on an astonished Mondale” (Boston Globe, Oct. 4, 1996).

As we’ll show later, this use of “cue up” is at least as old as the 1970s. Of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult, four of them include this sense of “cue up,” while none mention a similar use of “queue up.”

American Heritage says one meaning of the verb “cue” is “to position (an audio or video recording) in readiness for playing.” It gives this example: “cue up a record on the turntable.”

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, says “cue” can mean to “set a piece of audio or video equipment in readiness to play (a particular part of the recorded material).” The dictionary has this example: “there was a pause while she cued up the next tape.”

Longman describes “cue something up” as a phrasal verb meaning “to make a record, CD, DVD etc be exactly in the position you want it to be in, so that you can play something immediately when you are ready.” Example: “The DVD player’s cued up and ready to go!” And Webster’s New World defines “cue” as “to ready (a recording) to play back from a certain point: often with up.”

But, as we said above, both spellings are seen in the media, as in these examples:

  • “It’s why he could cue up the video and manage an uncomfortable smile” (from an article in the July 14, 2020, issue of Newsday on the Yankee pitcher Masahiro Tanaka’s recovery after getting hit in the head by a line drive).
  • “First, queue up the video you want to play and start a Zoom meeting” (from “How to Host a Virtual Watch Party,” Wired, July 4, 2020).

In a recent search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares terms in digitized books, “cue up the video” appeared, but not “queue up the video.” And in searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of terms from online newspapers and magazines, “cue up the video” edged out “queue up the video,” though the results for both were scanty.

In contemporary English, the verb “cue” has several meanings: (1) to use a cue in pool, billiards, or snooker; (2) to prompt someone or something; (3) to insert (usually “cue in”) something in a performance; (4) to prepare (usually “cue up”) a recording to play.

The word “queue” also has several senses today. The verb can mean to arrange or form a queue (a waiting line), and to line up or wait in such a line, a usage that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as chiefly British.

In the computer sense, the OED says, the noun “queue” means “a list of data items, commands, etc. stored so as to be retrievable in a definite order, usually the order of insertion,” and the verb means “to place (data, tasks, etc.) in a queue.”

One could argue, of course, that to prepare a recording to play at a specific time is similar to putting it in a waiting line or a queue of data, which may account for why both “cue up” and “queue up” appear in this sense in some edited publications. For now, though, “cue up” seems to be the preferred usage.

(We wrote a post in 2014 on the use of “queue” in the UK and “line” in the US to mean a line of people. As it turns out, the British once used “line” for what they now call a “queue.”)

As for the etymology, the use of the verb “queue” to mean line up is derived from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French term for a tail (spelled variously keu, kue, que, queue, and so on). In Old French, an animal’s tail was a cue.

When the noun showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant a tail-like band of parchment used to seal a letter. The earliest example in the OED refers to a “dowbylle queue” (a forked or double tail). It’s from “Gregory’s Chronicle” (circa 1475), published in The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (1876), edited by James Gairdner.

The next OED citation refers to a forked tail in heraldry: “Gold ramping Lion queue doth forked hold” (from The True Vse of Armorie Shewed by Historie, and Plainly Proued by Example, 1592, by William Wyrley).

In the early 18th century, the noun “queue” came to mean “a long plait of hair worn hanging down at the back, from the head or from a wig; a pigtail,” according to the dictionary. The earliest known use is from a newspaper advertisement for “All Sorts of Perukes” (wigs) including “Qu-Perukes and Bagg-Wiggs” (Dublin Gazette, Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 1724).

The next Oxford citation has the usual spelling: “The largeness of the doctor’s wig arises from the same pride with the smallness of the beau’s queue” (An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774, by Oliver Goldsmith).

By the early 19th century, the noun was being used to mean a lineup: “That talent … of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes … the French People” (The French Revolution: A History, 1837, by Thomas Carlyle).

When the verb “queue” appeared in the 18th century, it meant to tie up the hair in a pigtail, a usage that the OED describes as obsolete or rare now.

In the early 20th century, the verb took on its modern sense of to form a line or wait in a line. The dictionary’s first example is from the Oct. 7, 1920, issue of the Times (London): “Taxi-Cabs queued up for their supplies of ‘Shell.’ ”

A half-century later, the verb was being used in its computer sense: “checking for transmission errors, and storing and queuing the messages received” (from Interactive Computing in BASIC, 1973, by P. C. Sanderson).

The OED doesn’t have any examples of “queue” used in the sense of preparing an audio or video recording to play. The earliest use we’ve found of the verb spelled this way is from 86’d, a 2009 novel by the American writer Dan Fante: “The rap disc I chose was by a singer named Sam’yall K. I’d never heard of the guy but I queued the disc up and pressed play on low to test my selection.”

As for “cue,” the sense you’re asking about is derived from the word’s use as a noun to mean a theatrical prompt. Originally, according to Oxford, it referred to “the concluding word or words of a speech in a play, serving as a signal or direction to another actor to enter, or begin his speech.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the mid-16th century (note how the word is spelled): “Amen must be answered to the thanksgevyng not as to a mans q in a playe.” (From a 1553 reference, published in Ecclesiastical Memorials, 1721, by the English historian and biographer John Strype.)

The OED says the source of this sense of the noun “cue” is uncertain, but there’s no evidence that it comes from “queue.” A more likely explanation is that it’s derived from the use of “Q,” “q,” and “qu” in the 16th and 17th centuries “to mark in actors’ copies of plays, the points at which they were to begin.” The term is said to be short for the Latin qualis (what) or quando (when).

However, the verb “cue” had nothing to do with prompts when it first appeared in English in the 18th century. It originally meant to twist hair into a pigtail, a usage that did indeed come from “queue.”

The OED cites this passage from an Aug. 20, 1774, entry in the journals of Capt. James Cook about the hair of indigenous people on a Pacific island: “They separate it [their hair] into small locks and wold [wind] or cue them round with the rind of a slender plant.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the verb “cue” took on the sense of to prompt. The first OED example is from the February 1928 issue of Melody Maker, a British music magazine: “The 1st alto had melody cued-in.”

The dictionary’s next citation is a definition from a glossary of early radio terms: “Cue someone, to give a signal indicating ‘proceed with the pre-arranged routine.’ ” (From “Radio Dictionary,” by Leonard Lewis, published first in the April 1937 issue of Printer’s Ink Monthly and later as a booklet.)

As of now, the OED doesn’t have an entry for “cue” or “cue up” used to mean prepare an audio or video recording to play. However, the usage appears in a 1975 citation for the noun “VJ,” someone who introduces and plays music videos: “VJs, or video jockeys, at MTV’s studio cue up as many as 13 videos an hour” (from American Way magazine, June 1983).

We’ve found several earlier examples, including this one from a short story in the November 1974 issue of Boys’ Life: “Pushing aside some debris, he cued up the record, carefully lowered the needle, made a little bow, and stepped back” (“The $20 Guitar,” by A. R. Swinnerton).

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Are you teed off?

Q: I assume that when you’re “teed off” at someone, the usage comes from golf, but I can’t for the life of me see a connection. What’s the story?

A: Yes, the metaphorical use of “teed off” to mean angry or annoyed comes from golf. We’ve seen two theories as to how it got from there to here.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes it among figurative uses of “tee off” (literally, to hit a ball from the tee in golf), and labels the usage North American slang. The OED says the golfing metaphor probably originated as a “euphemistic alteration” of “peed off” used in the sense of “pissed off.”

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary says “teed off” in the sense of angry or annoyed probably comes from the informal verb phrase “tee off on,” which it defines as “to speak about (someone or something) in an angry way.”

In either case, our guess is that people thought whacking a golf ball from a tee was a pretty good figure of speech for being angry.

The figurative use of the verbal phrase “tee off on” showed up in the 1930s as sporting jargon meaning to attack. The first example we’ve found is from a California newspaper: “The Giants teed off on the Mississippi cat, Guy Bush, and his successor, Charlie Root, for six runs in the third inning” (San Bernardino Sun, July 19, 1934).

By the early 1940s, “tee off on” was being used in the sense of a political attack. We found this example in a Texas newspaper: “Attorney General Gerald Mann teed off on both O’Daniel and Johnson” (Borger Daily Herald, June 22, 1941). Mann was a candidate in a special election in which Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel narrowly defeated Rep. Lyndon Baines Johnson for a Senate seat.

The use of the adjectival phrase “teed off” to mean angry appeared a few months later in the diary of an American pilot who served with the Flying Tigers in Burma and China during World War II:

“Apparently the old man was still teed off about Ricketts’s landing yesterday, for no flying was scheduled today.” From a Nov. 19, 1941, entry in A Flying Tiger’s Diary (1984), by Charles R. Bond Jr. with Terry H. Anderson, a Texas A&M historian. (The pilot mentioned had damaged a plane when landing with the wheels only half down.)

The use of “tee” for the wood or plastic peg from which a ball is hit at the start of each hole in golf began life in Scottish English in the early 17th century. It was originally spelled “teaz” and referred to a small heap of earth or sand.

The earliest OED citation is from a Latin grammar book using sporting examples: “Statumen, the Teaz” (statumen is Latin for a support). From Vocabula cum Aliis Latinae Linguae Subsidiis, written sometime before 1646 by David Wedderburn, a schoolmaster at Aberdeen Grammar School.

The dictionary’s first example with the usual spelling, which we’ve expanded, is from an early 18th-century Scottish poem: “Driving their baws frae whins or tee / There’s no nae gowfer to be seen” (“Driving their balls from rough or tee, / There’s nary a golfer to be seen”). From “An Ode to Ph—” (1721), by Allan Ramsay.

The OED describes “tee” as “apparently a clipped form of teaz, used in 17th cent., the origin of which is not ascertained.” The dictionary compares the development of “tea” from “teaz” to that of “pea” from “pease,” a subject we discussed in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions:

The singular “piose” (from the Latin pisum) entered English in Anglo-Saxon days, eventually becoming “pease,” as in this 1580 quotation: “As like as one pease is to an other.” But people began mistaking “pease” for a plural, so a singular had to be invented. That’s how “pea” burst from its pod in the 1600s. The old “pease” lives on, however, in a nursery rhyme many of us remember from childhood:

Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old.

Split-pea soup is a relative of pease porridge (or pease pudding), a thicker dish made from dried peas, boiled and mashed. It’s often served in northeastern England and Newfoundland.

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On the status of status quo

Q: As a judge, I would like to know about the origins of “status quo” and statu quo, the former in English and the latter in French legal language.

A: “Status quo” and statu quo, English and French terms meaning “the present state of affairs,” are both believed to come from an expression in post-classical Latin, in statu quo.

In Latin, status and statu are different forms of the same noun. As a subject (in the nominative case), it’s status; as an object of a preposition (in the ablative case), it’s statu.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, status quo (Latin for the state in which) showed up in the fifth century in the writings of Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine), and was “probably extrapolated from in statu quo” (in the state in which).

Although “status quo” is the usual spelling of the phrase in English whether it’s a subject or an object, “statu quo” is sometimes seen in English writing in the expressions “in statu quo” and “in statu quo ante,” prepositional constructions that are generally used adverbially. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) defines both as “in the same state of affairs that existed earlier.”

The OED says a subject version of that last construction, “status quo ante” (the former state of affairs), was “perhaps formed within English, by clipping or shortening” the expression status quo ante bellum (modern Latin for the state of affairs before the war) or perhaps by extrapolation from the post-classical Latin in statu quo.

All of the dictionary’s early English examples for “status quo” and its relations italicize the expressions. In the OED’s first citation for “in statu quo,” from the early 17th century, it’s part of the expression “in statu quo prius” (in the same as the prior state of affairs):

“The seculars are but in statu quo prius, and cannot be in a worse then they are in at this present.” From Decacordon of Ten Quodlibeticall Questions (1602), a religious treatise by William Watson, an English Roman Catholic priest who was executed for treason in 1603. (A “decachord” is a 10-stringed musical instrument; “quodlibetical” means purely academic.)

The OED’s earliest English example for the phrase “status quo” is in a collection of British trial records from the late 14th to the early 18th century. The passage cited is from the 1678-85 impeachment proceedings against Thomas, Earl of Danby, for high treason:

“The Impeachments, Appeals, &c. and the Incidents … should stand in Statu Quo; so that (as is already observed) the Status Quo (as to him) he again said, was to put him into a State of Liberty.” From A Compleat Collection of State-Tryals and Proceedings Upon Impeachment for High Treason and other Crimes and Misdemeanours (1719). Danby was imprisoned in the Tower of London for five years.

The first Oxford citation for “status quo ante” is from an anonymous play printed at the beginning of the 19th century: “I know nothing I can do, but give security, on my estates in Andalusia, for, I fear, it is too late to expect the status quo ante.” From The Systematic or Imaginary Philosopher: A Comedy, in Five Acts (1800).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “status quo ante bellum” is from an 18th-century political tract by the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke about divisions among Whigs in Britain over the French Revolution:

“My Lord Grenville [William, Baron Grenville] truly described the relative state of the Contracting Parties, when he made the uti possidetis the basis of the Negotiation on the part of the French, whilst the British were obliged to submit to the status quo ante bellum.”

In Burke’s 1791 tract, An Appeal From the New to the Old Whigs, the Latin uti possidetis is short for uti possidetis, ita possideatis (as you possess, so may you possess), a principle in international law that territory held at the end of a war remains with the possessor, unless otherwise stipulated by treaty.

The OED cites several other modern Latin expressions that may have influenced the development of “status quo,” including in eum statum quo ante bellum fuerant (in the conditions that had existed before the war, 1625 or earlier) and quo ante bellum fuerant (which had been before the war, 1772 or earlier),

Finally, here are a couple of relatively rare humorous terms cited in the dictionary: “statu quo-ism” (“partiality for, or inclination to maintain, the existing state of affairs,” 1834) and “statu quo-ite” (“a person who favours the existing state of affairs; spec. one who believes that human society remains in more or less the same state throughout history, neither progressing nor deteriorating”).

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Can sex or gender be ‘assigned’?

Q: The terms “gender assignment” and “sex assignment” give me pause. The use of the verb “assign” and noun “assignment” in this sense strikes me as off-pitch. Assigning is what the Sorting Hat does in sending a Hogwarts student to one of the school’s four Houses. Is there an interesting story here?

A: The use of the terms “sex assignment” and “gender assignment” for designating the sex of a newborn child is relatively rare, though an etymological case could be made for this sense of “assignment.”

We’ve found only 42 examples of “sex assignment” and 100 of “gender assignment” in recent searches of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present.

None of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have entries for “gender assignment” and only one includes “sex assignment.” Dictionary.com, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines it as “the determination or assignment of a baby’s sex, based on the appearance of external reproductive organs, and, sometimes, chromosomal testing.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include either term, though it has examples dating back to the 14th century of the verb “assign” used to mean determine, designate, specify, classify, categorize, and so on. Here are a few examples:

“And til seynt Iames be souȝte þere, I shal assigne / That no man go to Galis” (“And till Saint James be sought there, I shall assign [specify] that no man go to Galicia” (Piers Plowman, 1377, by William Langland). We’ve expanded the OED citation.

“Folke whom I neyther assigne bi name, nor as yet knowe not who they be” (The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance, 1533, by Thomas More).

“Who all assign its Altitude to be but about 27 inches” (Experimental Philosophy, 1664, by Henry Power).

And here are a few examples from contemporary standard dictionaries:

“assigned the new species to an existing genus” (American Heritage).

“However, further investigations are needed before assigning these Mexican specimens to a new status” (Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online).

“Though assigned male at birth, she appears most comfortable and in her element wearing a skirt and high-heeled sandals when riding a big-wheel or playing with a tea set” (Merriam-Webster). The dictionary includes this among examples in which “assign” means to “fix or specify.”

The use of “sex assignment” or “gender assignment” for determining the sex of a newborn is relatively new. And the subject can be controversial, especially when the evidence is ambiguous, as in the earliest example we’ve found. This passage was published in the 1950s in a medical paper on intersexuality, having both male and female sexual organs or characteristics:

“Equally clearly the medical practitioner and the paediatrician need to be helped to form a correct opinion in the first place on the sex assignment and rearing of the intersexed infant.” From “Psychosexual Identification (Psychogender) in the Intersexed,” by Daniel Cappon, Calvin Ezrin, and Patrick Lynes, in the Canadian Psychiatric Journal, April 1959.

The first example we’ve seen for “gender assignment” uses the phrase in the linguistic sense—that is, in reference to languages that use gender to classify nouns, pronouns, and related words:

“Of course there may be dialect differences in the gender assignment of nouns” (from Plains Cree: A Grammatical Study, by the linguist H. Christoph Wolfart, published in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, November 1973).

And here’s the earliest example we’ve seen of “gender assignment” used in the sense you’re asking about: “Gender assignment is based on the existing anatomy and a full understanding of the pathologic and endocrinologic reasons for the ambiguity” (Practical Gynecology, 1994, by Allan J. Jacobs and ‎Michael J. Gast).

By the way, all but one of the standard dictionaries we consult have entries for “sex reassignment” or “gender reassignment,” commonly known as “sex change.” Some add the word “therapy” or “surgery” to the term.

The OED defines “gender reassignment” as “the process or an instance of a person adopting the physical characteristics of the opposite sex by means of medical procedures such as surgery or hormone treatment.”

The earliest Oxford example is from the late 1960s: “After gender reassignment surgery, some previously rejecting fathers become very affectionate” (“The Formation of Gender Identity,” by Natalie Shainess, Journal of Sex Research, May 1969).

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss words of the pandemic.

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Dead-on balls accurate

Q: My friend uses the phrase “dead-on balls accurate,” which I looked up because of its ridiculousness. I know it was in My Cousin Vinny. Do you guys have any idea when “balls” was added? Was it in the movie or sometime before that?

A: As far as we can tell, “dead-on balls accurate” showed up for the first time in My Cousin Vinny. In the 1992 comedy, Mona Lisa Vito (played by Marisa Tomei) uses the expression in an argument with Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) over whether she’s properly closed a dripping faucet. We’ll have more on the film later.

In fact the “balls”-free version, “dead-on accurate,” apparently appeared in print only 15 years before the movie, though “dead” had been used to mean utterly or absolutely since the 16th century and “dead-on” to mean quite certain or sure since the 19th.

Your friend isn’t the only person to use the longer version, which shows up every once in a while in various contexts. Here, for instance, is the headline of a Jan. 1, 2019, customer review on Amazon.com: “Dead on balls accurate! Excellent thermometer!”

The word “balls” in the expression is an intensifier, a word that adds emphasis, like “absolutely,” “extremely,” or “incredibly.” You can see this more clearly if we replace “balls” with a more common vulgar slang intensifier: “dead-on fucking accurate.”

As it turns out, the intensive use of “balls” is relatively rare. We couldn’t find it in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.  However, the collaborative Wiktionary defines “balls” used adverbially as “(slang) Very, Intensifier,” and has this example: “It is balls cold out there.”

None of our etymological or slang dictionaries have entries for the use of “balls” as an intensifier, but several include entries for the phrase “balls naked,” where “balls” is used intensively to mean completely.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for example, cites Somebody Up There Likes Me, a 1955 memoir by the middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano, written with Rowland Barber: “I’m on the scales, balls naked.”

And Random House notes a similar and much earlier usage in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), where “bollock,” a term for testicle that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, is used as an intensifier: “See them there stark bollock-naked.”

The earliest example for “balls naked” in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from Go-Boy! Memories of a Life Behind Bars, a 1978 prison memoir by Roger Caron: “The two rascals disappeared … emerging a moment later balls naked.”

Green’s has an earlier, expanded version of the expression from The Run for Home, a 1958 novel by Leland Frederick Cooley, who once wrote and produced The Perry Como Show: “I see this miserable shit, balls-ass naked, hanging by his hands from an overhead beam.”

When the noun “ball” first appeared in writing in the 12th century, spelled bal in early Middle English, it meant a hill or a spherical object in a game. This ball-playing example in the OED is from the Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Al þe wa of þis world is ieuenet to helle alre leaste pine, al nis bute bal plohe” (“all the woe of this world compared to the very least pain of hell is nothing but ball play”).

By the 13th century, “ball” was being used to mean a testicle. The first OED citation, which we’ll expand here, is from a plainspoken passage in The Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice written in verse around 1250:

“Þe maide þat ȝevit hirsilf alle / oþir to fre man, oþir to þralle / ar ringe be ſet an honde, / and pleiit with þe croke and wiþ þe balle, / and mekit gret þat erst was smalle, / Þe wedding got to sconde. / ʒeve þi cunte to cunnig, and crave affetir wedding, quod hending” (“the maid that giveth herself all / either to free man or thrall [serf] / ere ring be set on hand, / and playeth with the crook [penis] and with the ball, / and maketh great what once was small, / the wedding is a shame. / ‘give thy cunt with cunning / and crave after wedding,’ quoth Hending”).

In other words, a woman should wait for Mr. Right to say “I do.”

Getting back to the movie, Vinny isn’t Mr. Right and Lisa hasn’t waited, but she’s cunning about getting what she craves. Here’s a transcript of the scene in which Vinny and Lisa squabble over whether she’s properly turned off a dripping faucet:

Vinny: Is that a drip I hear?
Lisa: Yeah.
Vinny: Weren’t you the last one to use the bathroom?
Lisa: So?
Vinny: Well, did you use the faucet?
Lisa: Yeah.
Vinny: Why didn’t you turn it off?
Lisa: I did turn it off.
Vinny: Well, if you turned it off, why am I listening to it?
Lisa: Did it ever occur to you that it could be turned off and drip at the same time?
Vinny: No, because if you turned it off, it wouldn’t drip.
Lisa: Maybe it’s broken.
Vinny: Is that what you’re saying? It’s broken?
Lisa: Yeah, that’s it; it’s broken.
Vinny: You sure?
Lisa: I’m positive.
Vinny: Maybe you didn’t twist it hard enough.
Lisa: I twisted it just right.
Vinny: How can you be so sure?
Lisa: If you will look in the manual, you will see that this particular model faucet requires a range of 10 to 16 foot pounds of torque. I routinely twist the maximum allowable torquage.
Vinny: How can you be sure you used 16 foot pounds of torque?
Lisa: Because I used a Craftsman model 1019 Laboratory edition, signature series torque wrench. The kind used by Cal Tech high-energy physicists and NASA engineers.
Vinny: In that case, how can you be sure that’s accurate?
Lisa: Because a split second before the torque wrench was applied to the faucet handle, it had been calibrated by top members of the state and federal Departments of Weights and Measures, to be dead-on balls accurate. Here’s the certificate of validation. (She tears a page from a magazine)
Vinny: Dead-on balls accurate?
Lisa: It’s an industry term.

[Note: The appearance of “cunt” in the Proverbs of Hendyng is the first written example of the word used for the female genitals. But as we say in a 2014 post, the term was used earlier within surnames and street names in red-light districts.]

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A vast minority?

Q: John Campbell, a YouTube celebrity offering Covid advice, has said a “vast minority” of young people are not observing social distancing. Although “vast majority” is a common collocation, I had never heard “vast minority” before. Did Campbell invent it, or does it have a history?

A: No, Campbell didn’t coin the phrase “vast minority.” It appeared in writing more than two centuries earlier.

The oldest example we’ve found is from an anonymous 19th-century religious tract ridiculing a writer who had referred to Roman Catholics as “a large portion of the inhabitants” of Ireland:

“you ought to have called the Papists, at once, the vast minority of the inhabitants: you could not gain less credit.” (A Vindication of the Most Rev. John Thomas Troy, D.D., Roman Catholic Archbishop in the Church of Dublin, 1804, by “a Roman Catholic of Dublin.”)

And here’s an example from a letter in the October 1839 issue of the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine that uses the expression in reference to Protestants:

“The press in Baltimore, with but few exceptions is a political press, and yet under the guise of preserving the peace of the city, they advocate the cause of the minority; yes a vast minority, a minority of more than three hundredths, for the protestants in wealth and number exceed the sum of the Catholics as a hundred to three.”

In a more recent appearance, the expression describes fans of the singer Mel Tormé: “Carlos Gastel, his longtime manager, told Tormé in 1947, ‘you will never be the mass star you want to be, but there is a vast minority of people out there who will always support your work.’ ”

(From an article by Terry Teachout in Commentary, December 2014. The phrase was also in the title and text of a March 9, 1981, profile of Tormé in the New Yorker.)

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have a citation for “vast minority.” The dictionary’s first example of “vast majority” is from the early 18th century:

“The People of the Earth, that is, a vast Majority of Mankind, are represented by Moses, as voluntarily journeying from one part of the Earth to another.” (The Original and Institution of Civil Government, Discuss’d, 1710, by Benjamin Hoadly.)

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