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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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Black sheep

Q: You say the phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century. That might be true, but it’s only the result of an even earlier meaning. “Black sheep” is actually a very old weaving term. Black sheep were considered unlucky because you couldn’t dye the wool any other colors.

A: We haven’t found any evidence of “black sheep” used as a weaving term, either before or after the phrase came to mean a disreputable member of a group.

In fact, today the undyed wool of so-called “black sheep” (they actually come in various shades of black, brown, and gray) is prized for its beauty and its natural qualities.

However, in earlier times the difficulty of dyeing their wool may have contributed to the “disreputable” usage, along with a biblical reference to black sheep and a negative sense of “black” that dates from Anglo-Saxon days.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “black sheep” meaning a bad character is from a 17th-century religious treatise about the conversion process in Congregational churches of New England:

“Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.” From The Sincere Convert (1640), by Thomas Shepard, an English-born minister of the First Church in Cambridge, MA, and of Harvard College.

We’ve seen several earlier examples of “black sheep” used negatively, though not quite so strongly. An anonymous satirical ballad believed written in the 16th century, for example, uses the term to attack mendicant friars.

Here’s the refrain: “The blacke shepe is a perylous beast; / Cuius contrarium falsum est.” (The Latin means “Which nobody can deny.”)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the negative use of “black sheep” may originally have alluded to passages in English or German translations of Genesis in the 16th century.

It describes the usage as “perhaps originally with allusion to Genesis 30:32, where Jacob selects ‘all blacke shepe amonge the lambes’ ” (from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 English translation of the Bible), or perhaps after the German “alles, was schwartz ist vnter den lemmern” (from Martin Luther’s earliest draft of the passage in 1523), or “alle schwartze schafe [vnter den lemmern]” in Luther’s final 1545 German Bible. We added the bracketed German.

The passage from Genesis refers to Jacob’s offer to care for Laban’s flock of sheep if he can keep all the black and spotted lambs as payment. Laban accepts, apparently believing black sheep to be less valuable than white. The passage is translated differently in other versions of the Bible. The King James Version, for example, has it as “all the brown cattle among the sheep.” (“Cattle” was once a collective term for cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and other domestic animals.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed., 2013), by Christine Ammer, suggests that the use of “black sheep” for a disreputable person “is based on the idea that black sheep were less valuable than white ones because it was more difficult to dye their wool different colors.”

Writers have commented since classical times on the difficulty of dyeing the wool of black sheep (a more accurate description might be dark sheep).

The earliest remark we’ve seen on the subject is from Historiae Naturalis, an encyclopedic work by the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder: “lana ovis nigrae, cui nullus alius color incursaverit” (“black sheep whose wool will be dyed no other color”).

Pliny’s work was well known among English scholars. A 17th-century dictionary of English and Latin terms, for example, translates the passage above as “the wool of a black sheep mixed with no other colour” (A Copious Dictionary in Three Parts, 1678, by Francis Gouldman).

Among the various theories about how “black sheep” became a negative term, the pejorative use of the word “black” in English may have played a significant role.

As we’ve said, “black” has had negative connotations since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage that the OED describes as “widespread in other European languages, frequently in an antonymic relationship with senses of words meanings ‘white.’ ”

The dictionary says this usage “became particularly strong in the medieval Christian tradition” and would “proliferate in the early modern period … probably connected in part with negative cultural attitudes towards black people prevalent in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.”

As we say in a 2009 post (“The light and dark of language”), the word “black” may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. A prehistoric Indo-European root has been reconstructed as bhleg (“burn”).

In Old English, the adjective “black” could mean “very evil or wicked; iniquitous; foul, hateful,” according to the dictionary. The earliest Oxford citation is from a scientific and theological treatise written by a Benedictine cleric in the late 10th century:

“Hig ne þicgeað þæs lambes flæsc þe soð Crist ys, ac þæs dracan þe wæs geseald þam blacan folce to mete, þæt ys þam synfullum” (“they [the faithless] don’t partake of the flesh of the lamb, the truth of Christ, but the Devil was given to provide for those black people that are sinners”). From the Enchiridion (Manual) of Byrhtferð, a monk and priest at  Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire.

Finally, here’s a Middle English example, which we’ve expanded, that uses “black flocks” (“blake flokkes”) much as “black sheep” was later used:

“Whanne þe Romayns were a goo, þanne breke out blake flokkes of Scottes and of Pictes, as wormes brekep out of here holes aʒeinst þe hete of þe  sonne” (“When the Romans were gone, then the black flocks of Scotts and Picts broke out, as snakes break out of their holes anticipating the heat of the sun”). From Polychronicon, John Trevisa’s translation, written sometime before 1387, of a 14th-century Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden.

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How nasty is ‘mean-spirited’?

Q: I’ve always thought “mean-spirited” meant petty or selfish. Increasingly, I’ve seen it used to mean nasty. Is this an American usage?

A: The phrase “mean-spirited” is defined variously as malicious, small-minded, selfish, inconsiderate, and so on in standard American and British dictionaries.

We don’t see a significant difference in the way the dictionaries treat the phrase, though the adjective “mean” by itself tends to be nastier in the US references.

The 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) define “mean” variously as selfish, petty, small-minded, unkind, unpleasant, spiteful, cruel, malicious, violent, offensive, nasty, troublesome, etc. US dictionaries are more likely to use the harsher definitions, though some UK dictionaries include them too.

An essay on Merriam-Webster’s website (“How ‘Mean’ Became Nasty”) notes that the nasty sense of “mean” has “become so widespread in American English” that it is “without question the most frequently used today.”

We suspect that the nastiness of “mean” in the US is influencing the way Americans use “mean-spirited.” However, the “nasty” sense of the phrase hasn’t yet made its way into definitions of “mean-spirited” in US dictionaries.

Interestingly, the selfish, nasty, and violent senses of “mean” all showed up around the same time in the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And all three appeared first in American English.

Etymologically, there are three distinct words spelled “mean” in English: (1) a verb with the sense of intend or signify; (2) an adjective or noun for a mathematical average as well as average people or things; (3) the adjective you’re asking about, the one with all those senses mentioned earlier.

We’ll limit ourselves here to “mean” #3. We’ll get to current usage in a while, but let’s look first at how the adjective arrived at its modern senses.

When the adjective “mean” first appeared in early Old English writing (spelled gemæne), it meant minor, lesser, or inferior, and was used to describe a minor rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the statutes of a religious guild, or prayer group, in medieval Exeter:

“And se mæssepreost a singe twa mæssan … & ælc gemænes hades broður twegen salteras sealma” (“and let the mass priest sing two masses … and every brother of mean condition two psalters of psalms”). From Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici, a collection of charters dated from as far back as the 6th-century reign of King Æthelbert of Kent, edited by Benjamin Thorpe (1865).

An aphetic form of the adjective (that is, minus the first syllable) showed up later in Old English as mæne, and referred to things held in common or jointly. The first OED citation is from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:

“Swa forð andlangas þæs broces forð þæt hit cymð to hryxies mæne weig” (“so forth along that it comes to the island of rushes held in mean way”). From Charters of Burton Abbey, published by Peter Hayes Sawyer (1979).

In Middle English, the senses of inferior and common broadened, perhaps influenced by the disparaging use of average in “mean” #2 above, according to the OED. As a result, “mean” came to describe people of inferior social status, ability, or education, as well as things considered inferior, second-rate, or contemptible. Here are some Oxford examples:

“Þe grete … in þe gaiest wise, & menere men as þei miȝt” (“the great … in their most ornate fashion, and the mean [common] men as they might be”). From William of Palerne (circa 1350), an English translation of a French romance.

“Þe comyn lettre of Mathew is ful skars, for mene men myȝte vnderstonde” (“the Gospel of Matthew is one that mean [unlearned] men might scarcely understand”). From John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a Latin work of history and theology.

“ ‘Suffre hem lyue,’ he seyde, ‘and lete hem ete with hogges, / Or elles benes and bren ybaken togideres, / Or elles melke and mene ale’ ” (“ ‘Suffer them to live,’ he said, ‘and let them eat with hogs, / Or else beans and bran baked together, / Or else milk and mean [second-rate] beer’ ”). From Piers Plowman (circa 1378), by William Langland.

(In the last citation, which we’ve expanded, Piers is referring to shirkers who would rather sing and drink ale than plow. Beans and bran were fed to pigs, and poor people sometimes added beans to grain when not enough grain was available for baking bread.)

In the 17th century, according to the OED, the adjective turned even more negative and came to describe someone “lacking moral dignity, ignoble; small-minded.” The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand here, warns that those in high positions are in danger of acting immorally and of despising the immorality of less important people:

“as a throne exposes those that sit on it to peculiar temptations to vice, so …. the sublimity of such a condition would make any soul, that is not very mean, despise many mean things, that too often prevail upon inferiour persons.” From Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects (1665), by the Anglo-Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle.

As we’ve said above, the selfish, nasty, and vicious senses of “mean” all first appeared around the same time in 19th-century American English, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s first example for the stingy or miserly sense is from the July 1840 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. A letter from Salonica, Turkey (now Thessaloniki, Greece), says no one can live in the city without a Jewish agent: “And you may depend it is a trial to Christian patience: for ‘as mean as the Jews of Salonica’ is an Eastern proverb.”

The earliest OED example for the nasty sense appeared a year later: “One [girl] thought me real mean for uttering such super-diabolical sentiments.” From Short Patent Sermons (1841), by Dow, Jr., pseudonym of Elbridge G. Paige. The book is a collection of Paige’s columns for the Sunday Mercury in New York.

The first Oxford citation for the vicious sense refers to an uncontrollable horse: “He’s a monstrous mean horse, gentlemen.” From Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, &c., in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835), by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest example in which “mean” is used for vicious people: “He [a cowboy] gets all-fired mean sometimes when he’s full.” From Saddle and Mocassin (1887), by Francis Francis Jr.

Getting back to the phrase “mean-spirited,” the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded here, uses it to mean half-hearted—in this case, not fully committed to living a Christian life:

“Away then with that mean spirited Religion which thus lessens and confines our Happiness; let us unfold our Hands, and pluck them out of our Bosoms, and encourage our selves in a vigorous Pursuit of an excellent Piety.” From Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Saviour (1694), by Francis Bragge, a vicar in Hertfordshire in southern England.

The next OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, uses “mean-spirited” in the sense of impudent or ill-mannered: “I mentioned to him one day that I was of the opinion he very seldom spoke the truth. What do you think he did? he kissed my hand! Impertinent, meanspirited wretch!” From a letter written on Jan. 3, 1825, by Jane Baillie Welsh to Thomas Carlyle. (They were married in 1826.)

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “mean-spirited” used in the sense you’re asking about (ungenerous, petty or selfish), but we’ve found many in searches of digitized books, including this one from the early 18th century:

“That these of Publick Employments should be of publick Spirits, it is a shame to be mean Spirited, and taken up with self interest.” From a sermon delivered Nov. 24, 1700, by John Hamilton, an Edinburgh clergyman.

The use of “mean-spirited” for nasty appears to have shown up in the late 20th century. The earliest example we’ve found refers to the news media:

“The watchdog role of the free press can often appear as mean-spirited. How do the government and public protect themselves from its excesses?” From “The Role of the Media in a Democracy,” an article by George A. Krimsky, a former AP editor, published in Issues of Democracy, a journal of the United States Information Agency, February 1997.

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Independence ‘of’ or ‘from’?

Q: In an essay on teaching, Bertrand Russell says it’s hard for teachers to maintain their “independence of” the people who pay them. Shouldn’t that be “independence from” those people?

A: In that essay, “The Functions of a Teacher,” Russell uses the phrase “independence of” in a way that was common in the past but is less so today.

He argues that teachers need freedom to follow their intellectual impulses “but in the realm of the mind it is becoming more and more difficult to preserve independence of the great organised forces that control the livelihoods of men and women.”

(The essay appeared originally in the June 1940 issue of Harper’s magazine, and was reprinted in Unpopular Essays, 1950.)

In the past, the noun “independence” was used in such constructions with the prepositions “on,” “upon,” “of,” and “from.” Of those prepositions, “from” had apparently been the least common.

At least that’s what we assume from this comment in the Oxford English Dictionary’s “independence” entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1900: “Const. on, upon, of, rarely from.” Here are a few OED examples:

“The dignified clergy … pretended to a total independence on the State” (David Hume, The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Accession of Henry VII, 1761-62).

“A pretence of independence upon secular power” (Oliver Goldsmith, The History of England, From the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, 1771).

“Our habitual independence of conventional rules” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, 1852).

We wouldn’t say Bertrand Russell’s use of “independence of” is wrong or even unusual, but it’s less common these days and modern readers might find it jarring or perhaps confusing.

Today, “independence from” would be the usual construction, as in this Merriam-Webster example: “She asserted her independence from her parents by getting her own apartment.”

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‘Buck naked’ or ‘butt naked’?

Q: Thanks for your recent post about “butt” and “buttock.” How about “butt naked” and “buck naked”? Everyone I’ve asked claims “buck naked” is correct, but that makes no sense to me.

A: The older term is “buck naked,” first recorded just before World War I. The variant “butt naked” appeared half a century later.

Both versions are widely used, and neither should be considered incorrect. In fact, “butt naked” may be the more popular term today, as we’ll show later. No doubt many people feel, like you, that it makes more sense than “buck naked.”

Most standard dictionaries label the two adjectives “informal,” though a few regard the “butt” version as “slang.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels them “colloquial,” meaning they’re more likely to be found in common speech than in formal English.

The dictionary gives them nearly identical definitions: “buck naked” is “completely without clothing; stark naked,” and “butt naked” is “completely naked, stark naked.” It says the two terms originated and are chiefly used in North America.

Over the years, etymologists and lexicographers have puzzled over the meaning of “buck” here. The OED suggests two possibilities:

It may be derived from the “buck” that means a male animal, like a deer or goat, a usage that dates back to Old English. Or it “may allude to the resemblance of the smooth and pale skin of the buttocks to buckskin.”

In a similar way, the dictionary points out, the word “buff” has been used since the 17th century as a colloquial term for a person’s bare skin (“in the buff” still means naked). The term “buff” originally referred to leather of a light brownish yellow called “buff-skin” or “buff leather.”

But the use of “buck” could have more sinister origins. It may perhaps allude to “the common practice of stripping slaves naked for inspection by potential buyers,” Oxford says.

In the 19th century, the dictionary notes, the noun “buck” was also a racial slur used for a male Native American, African-American, or Australian Aborigine.

However it developed, “buck naked” was first recorded in early 20th-century American newspapers. Keep in mind, though, that colloquial expressions are used in conversation long before they make it into print. This is the OED’s oldest published example:

“A negro Adam, buck naked and believing himself to be in the Garden of Eden, was tried. … After hearing the evidence, the case was turned over to an insanity commission.” (The Daily Times Enterprise, Thomasville, GA, Dec. 6, 1913.)

And we found this example in an anecdote, rendered in black dialect, explaining the meaning of the word “tact”:

“ ’Tother day I’m visitin’ in a house an’ I goes to the bath room an’ opens de door—taint locked—and dere in de tub sits a woman, buck naked. Right away quick I slams dat door and yells: ‘ ’Scuse me, SUH!’ Dat’s tact!” (The Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, AZ, Dec. 19, 1919.)

The newer “butt naked” appeared several decades later. The OED’s earliest example is presented as only a possible sighting:

“Leaping out to confront her bare-butt naked might lead to misunderstandings” (from Aaron Marc Stein’s 1959 novel Never Need an Enemy).

The dictionary’s first definite example is from the late 1960s: “You read a National Geographic and there is some far off native girl standing butt-naked for the cameraman” (Melvin Van Peebles’s 1968 novel A Bear for the FBI).

The Dictionary of American Regional English says that from 1966 to 1970 its field researchers recorded uses of “butt naked” in Arkansas and New York and “butt nekkid” in Michigan. However DARE doesn’t include the dated quotations.

The older term, “buck naked,” was more popular until recently. However, “butt naked” seems to be the more popular term today.

A recent search of the NOW Corpus, a database of 4.3 billion words in web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present, shows these results: “butt naked,” 314 examples; “buck naked,” 187.

A less up-to-date comparison of the two terms with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books, has “buck naked” still ahead as of 2010, but shows “butt naked” closing the gap.

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Working hard or hardly working?

Q: I’m curious about the use of “hard” and “hardly” in that old play on words, “Are you working hard or hardly working?” Do the two usages have the same derivation or are they from different sources?

A: In Old and Middle English, “hardly” was an adverb meaning energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely. And “hard,” which was an adverb as well as an adjective, had similar adverbial meanings.

But today in Modern English, as you know, “hardly” usually means scarcely, probably not, certainly not, or with great difficulty, while “hard” (a bare or flat adverb with no “-ly” ending) still has those Old and Middle English adverbial senses.

The meaning of “hardly” began changing in the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though some of its old senses still show up once in a while.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t explain why the meaning of “hardly” changed so dramatically. Our guess is that the “-ly” adverb evolved from emphasizing the energy needed to cope with a difficult situation to emphasizing the difficulty of the situation itself.

In Old English, the adverbs “hardly” and “hard” were heardlice and hearde (-lice and -e were adverbial endings). Both can be traced to hardu-, a root reconstructed from prehistoric Germanic, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The ultimate source was apparently the Proto-Indo-European root kar- or ker- (hard).

The earliest OED citation for “hardly” is from an Old English translation of a Latin passage in which the fifth-century historian Paulus Orosius tells Romans that they were as hard as whetstone when Carthage was crushed, but had become as soft as malmstone (a flinty sandstone) under Christianity. In this excerpt, heardlice (that is, “hardly”) is used the way we now use the adverb “hard”:

“Hit biþ … geornlic þæt mon heardlice gnide þone hnescestan mealmstan æfter þæm þæt he þence þone soelestan hwetstan on to geræceanne” (“It is necessary that a man rub hardly if he intends to turn the softest malmstone into the best whetstone”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), by Orosius.

The earliest OED example for the adverb “hard” is from Crist III, an anonymous Old English poem about the Last Judgment: “Nis ænig wundor hu him woruldmonna seo unclæne gecynd … hearde ondrede” (“It is not any wonder how hard he dreaded the unclean nature of man on earth”).

In the 16th century, English writers began using “hardly” to mean “to an insignificant degree; scarcely, barely; not quite; almost not at all,” according to the dictionary, which describes this as “now the usual sense.”

The first OED example is from Glasse of Truthe, an anonymous 1532 work supporting Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Scholars believe the king either wrote it or directed its writing. Here’s the relevant passage:

“Hit is hardelye possible for any man to endite [put into words] or conuey any worke of suche sorte, that no man shall fynde a faute therin specially captious folke & maligners.”

Thus the two adverbs went their separate ways. The OED says the Old English and Middle English senses of “hardly” (energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely) are now archaic, obsolete, or rare.

We’ll end with a rare sighting from Original Sin, a 1994 novel by P. D. James: “He was ashamed of the Ilford House and ashamed of himself for despising what had been so hardly won.”

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Running low on champagne

Q: Stress can weaken the immune system, while humor can strengthen it. So when friends call to ask how we’re coping with the coronavirus, I reply, “We’re running low on champagne, but otherwise we’re OK.” Now, why do I say “running low on” something that’s running out?

A: The verb phrase “to run low on” combines a usage from the late 16th century (“to run low,” meaning “to become scarce”) with one from the early 20th (“low on,” meaning “short of”).

The story begins in the 12th century when English adopted the adjective “low” (the opposite of “high”) from various Scandinavian languages. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, with “low” spelled lah in early Middle English, is from a homily about Jesus at Cana in Galilee:

“Þær wass an bennkinnge lah” (“there was a low row of benches”). From the Ormulum, a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk who identifies himself as Orm in one place and Ormin in another.

In the 16th century, according to OED citations, writers began using the adjective to describe “a supply of something: almost exhausted; running out. Frequently in to run low.”

At first, the adjective referred to liquids, as in this example of wine running out: “For wyne wherof they spende Gooth lowe, and draweth fast vnto an ende.” From “The Fyftene Ioyes [Joys] of Maryage” (1509), an English translation of a work by the French writer Antoine de La Sale.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb phrase “to run low” also describes a diminishing supply of wine: “When that the wine, hath ronne full lowe, / Thou shalt be glad, to drinke the lyes [lees].” From A Pleasaunte Laborinth Called Churchyardes Chance (1580), a collection of verse by Thomas Churchyard.

And here’s a 17th-century monetary example: “It will bee a reasonable vsefull pawne at all times, when the current of his money falles out to run low.” From The Guls Horn-Booke (1609), a portrait of young men of fashion in London by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Dekker.

At the beginning of the 20th century,  the phrase “low on” appeared, meaning “short of, deficient in,” according to Oxford citations. Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “I’m low on coin … but I know where I can get plenty more to-morrow.” Confessions of a Criminal: True Stories of Dick Lane Told by Himself (1904).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the longer expression “to run low on” appeared a couple of years later: “If one knows that he is running low on water there is little danger to be apprehended.” Standard Mechanical Examinations on Locomotive Firing and Running (1906), edited by W. G. Wallace.

The OED’s only citation for the full expression appears within its entry for the phrase “to run low”: “Human beings began as nomads, upping sticks whenever they ran low on food or water.” The New Statesman (April 7, 2003).

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Shedding a little night light

Q:  To quote James Taylor, would you please “shed a little light” on this? Is the fixture a “night light,” “night-light,” or “nightlight”?

A: It depends on which standard dictionary you consult.

The word is hyphenated, “night-light,” in four US dictionaries: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged).

However, it’s two separate words, “night light,” in Webster’s New World and in a British dictionary, Collins. And it’s a single unhyphenated word, “nightlight,” in these four British dictionaries: Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Macmillan, Cambridge, and Longman.

Our vote goes to the British foursome, and “nightlight.” As we’ve written several times on the blog, most recently in 2019, many compounds start out as two words, then acquire a hyphen, and finally become a single word.

We predict that as time goes on, the form “nightlight” will become more widely adopted in standard dictionaries.

When the term entered English, hyphenated at first, it didn’t mean something plugged into an electrical outlet, or even using candlelight. It meant “the faint natural light perceptible at night,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED, which gives the term as “night light,” cites this 17th-century example as the earliest known use in writing: “Nachtlicht, night-light, Night-shine” (from a 1648 Dutch-English dictionary by Henry Hexham).

Elizabeth Barrett (before she married Robert Browning) used this sense of “nightlight” poetically in her verse play A Drama of Exile (1844), rhyming the line “In the sunlight and the moonlight” with “In the nightlight, and the noonlight.”

But by that time, “nightlight” had also become a household item. The OED defines this sense as “a light source designed to provide faint illumination in a room at night; spec. a small, thick, slow-burning candle or an electric light of low power, used in the bedroom of a child or sick person.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a long poem by Robert Bloomfield, Good Tidings, first published in London in 1804. Here he describes a mother at her son’s sickbed: “Hour after hour, when all was still beside, / When the pale night-light in its socket died, / Alone she sat.”

Such a useful word was bound to survive into the age of electricity. This OED citation is from the late 20th century: “The light’s meager appetite for electricity … makes it the most environmentally sensible night-light around.” (From a British magazine, Harrowsmith Country Life, Dec. 14, 1994.)

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San fairy ann: Why a duckboard?

Q: During World War II, my soldier brother used to say “san fairy duckboard” instead of “san fairy ann” when he meant “it doesn’t matter.” I asked him once why he replaced “ann” with “duckboard,” and he said duckboards were everywhere in the army. Do you have any information about this usage?

A: The expression “san fairy ann,” meaning “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s nothing” or “never mind,” originated as a World War I infantryman’s version of the French phrase ça ne fait rien.

And “duckboard,” another WWI term, was what soldiers called the slatted flooring placed in muddy trenches and camps.

We haven’t found a single published example that combines the terms into “san fairy duckboard,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used in speech by the American doughboys, British Tommies, Australian diggers, and other English speakers who fought in the war.

And assuming they used the phrase, we can guess what it meant—something like “it doesn’t mean duckboard” or “it’s not worth duckboard” or “it doesn’t matter any more than duckboard.” In such an expression, “duckboard” could have been a euphemistic substitute for an obscenity.

We do know that another word familiar from trench warfare, “sandbag,” was merged with “san fairy ann.” The phrase “sandbag Mary Ann” was used as a variation on “san fairy ann.” Well, the French used by English-speaking soldiers may have been wanting, but their English was certainly inventive.

The OED’s entry for “san fairy ann” calls it a “jocular form representing French ça ne fait rien ‘it does not matter,’ said to have originated in army use in the war of 1914–18.” The dictionary defines it as “an expression of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase, spelled somewhat differently, is from Walter Hubert Downing’s Digger Dialects (1919), a collection of Australian soldier slang:  “San ferry ann … it doesn’t matter.”

As for “duckboard,” the OED says that during WWI it was used, generally in the plural, to mean “a slatted timber path laid down on wet or muddy ground in the trenches or in camps.”

The dictionary’s earliest use is from a British wartime magazine: “Walking wounded are helped along the duck-boards that flank the light railways.” (The War Illustrated, March 17, 1917.)

In short, soldiers familiar with both “san fairy ann” and “duckboard” may very well have combined the expressions, even though we can’t point to a published example.

The original “san fairy ann” has had many variants, according to findings in the OED as well as our own researches.  The first element can be “san” or “son”; the second “fairy,” “faery,” or “ferry”; and the third “Ann,” “Anne,” “Anna,” “Han,” or “Aunt.”

It’s also been mushed together as “sanfairyann” and “sanferriens.” And besides the aforementioned “Sandbag Mary Ann,” we’ve seen “Sally fair Ann,” “Aunt Mary Ann,” and “Send for Mary Ann.” Finally, as the OED says, it’s been shortened to the simple “Fairy Ann.”

While “san fairy ann” originated during WWI and was mostly used a century ago, it survived into the WWII era and beyond, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED includes a 1956 example from a story by the novelist Frederick B. Vickers, who served in the Australian armed forces during WWII. We’ll quote a slightly different part of the passage to clarify the speaker’s meaning: “ ‘Don’t mention it, Joe,’ I said. … ‘San ferry ann, Joe.’ ” (From “Make Like You,” published in the story collection Coast to Coast, 1956.)

And this example, also cited in the OED, is from a British novel: “ ‘I wish you’d thought of my ulcer before you—’ he began, and then broke off. ‘Oh, san fairy anne!’ ” (It’s a Free Country, 1965, by Leonard Brain.)

Finally, Oxford quotes a 1970s newspaper advertisement: “San fairy Ann. … It doesn’t matter to us.” (The Times, London, June 22, 1973.)

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Drunk as a skunk

Q: I wonder about the derivation of “drunk as a skunk” and other skunkish expressions.

A: Through no fault of its own (or none that it can help), the unfortunate skunk has inspired many expressions, none of them complimentary.

But we believe that “drunk as a skunk,” an American expression that originated in the 1920s, is merely rhyming slang and has no real connection with skunkdom.

We say this because for more than 600 years, the inebriated have been described as “drunk as a” something-or-other, animate or inanimate. And generally the noun of comparison has little to do with alcohol consumption.

The formula “drunk as a …” began appearing in the late 14th century “in various proverbial phrases and locutions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original version was “drunk as a mouse,” the OED says. This is from “The Knight’s Tale” (1385), the first of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and we’re expanding the Oxford citation to add context:

“We fare as he þt dronke is as a Mous / A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous / But he noot which the righte wey is thider” (“We act like one that is drunk as a mouse. / A drunk man knows well that he has a house, / But he does not know which is the right way there”).

We found another use by Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “If that I walke or pleye unto his hous. / Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous” (“If I go for amusement to his house, / You come home as drunken as a mouse”).

The association of mice with drunkenness may have begun with an ancient fable about a tipsy mouse who’s rescued by a cat after becoming trapped in a vessel of wine or beer. Versions of the fable, first recorded in Latin by Odo of Cheriton in his Parabolæ in the early 1200s, was much repeated in various collections during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it may be that “mouse” was chosen simply to rhyme with “house.” In several songs and poems after Chaucer’s time, lines ending “drunk as a mouse” rhymed with “house” or “alehouse.”

But as we mentioned, the expression “drunk as a …” has accommodated a Noah’s Ark of animals. Since Chaucer’s time,  according to slang dictionaries, “mouse” has been joined by “swine,” “hog,” “sow,” “pig,” “duck,” “owl,” “dog,” “cat” “kit,” “rat,” “monkey,” “jaybird,” “loon,” “bat,” “coon,” “fish,” “fly,” “fowl,” “tick,” “donkey,” “coot,” “goat,” and of course “skunk.”

Humans have also joined the inebriated crew, and “drunk as a …” has included “lord,” “earl,” “emperor,” “pope,” “fiddler,” “beggar,” “bastard,” “piper,” “poet,” “sailor,” “cook,” “parson,” “porter,” and “tinker.”

And let’s not forget inanimate objects: “drum,” “sack,” “besom” (a broom), “log,” “wheelbarrow,” “top,” and “little red wagon.” We can certainly imagine a couple of those wobbling erratically.

In this long litany of inebriation, many of them hundreds of years old, “skunk” is a latecomer. The OED’s earliest use of “drunk as a skunk” is less than a century old: “O Dan, you’re drunk! You’re drunk as a skunk!” (From The Heart of Old Kentucky, collected in New Plays for Mummers, 1926, by Glenn Hughes.)

Our bet is that earlier uses of “drunk as a skunk” will turn up, because the “drunk”/“skunk” rhyme scheme had already suggested itself generations earlier. We found a couple of 19th-century examples:

“My wife she is a hateful scold, / And when I am half drunk, / She will begin to fret and scold, / And call me a dirty skunk.” (From “Soliloquy of a Drunkard,” published in the Philadelphia Scrap Book, April 26, 1834.)

“Ter see a man come home so drunk / It makes her loathe him like a skunk.” (From a temperance poem in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, January 1876.)

So much for skunks and alcohol. You asked about other “skunkish expressions,” and most of them have to do with things (or people) that are to be avoided or scorned.

Since the early 19th century, the OED says, “skunk” has been a colloquial noun for “a dishonest, mean, or contemptible person,” a usage the dictionary describes as “chiefly North American.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is about politics: “There were five skunks, who apostatized from Republicanism, within a few months back, and voted the Federal ticket on Monday last” (the Maryland Republican, Annapolis, Oct. 12, 1813).

And the adjectives “skunk-like” (1815) and “skunkish” (1831), the OED says, have meant “dishonest, mean, or contemptible” … “reminiscent of a skunk, esp. in odour or appearance” … “resembling or suggestive of a skunk.”

The word has also been a verb since the 19th century. To “skunk” someone means to defeat or get the better of (1832), as in “I skunked her at backgammon.” It can even mean to swindle or defraud someone (1867), as in “He skunked me out of $10.” Both senses are also used passively, and to be “skunked” is to be unsuccessful or to be cheated.

“Skunk” is also etymologically interesting. The animal is a native of the Americas, and its name is thoroughly American too.

As the OED says, it was borrowed into English from a “Southern New England Algonquian language.” And it’s apparently connected to the notion of a urinating fox.

Though the original Algonquian source is uncertain, the word has cousins in related languages: Western Abenaki (segôgw), Unami Delaware (šká:kw), and Meskwaki (shekâkwa), the last of which consists of the Algonquian elements shek– (to urinate) and wâkw– (fox).

In English, the word was first recorded as “squuncke” in 17th-century New England, the OED says. The earliest known use is in a list of animals likely to rob a henhouse: “The beasts of offence be Squunckes, Ferrets, Foxes” (from New Englands Prospect, 1634, by William Wood).

[Note: An Australian reader of the blog writes on June 19, 2020, with a courtroom quip attributed to the early 20th-century British statesman and lawyer Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead: “Smith (to the Court): At the time, my client was as drunk as a judge.  Judge (interjecting): Mr. Smith, I think you’ll find the phrase is ‘as drunk as a lord.’ Smith: As your lordship pleases.”]

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Wrapped around the axle

Q: I learned the expression “don’t get wrapped around the axle” from my husband, and I frequently use it as a less vulgar way of saying “don’t get your panties in a twist.” He now tells me that the axle expression comes from an exceedingly vulgar joke that I won’t repeat here. I am mortified if this is true. I’m an old lady who gives garden talks, not one prone to jokes in poor taste. Please set me straight.

A: The phrase “wrapped around the axle” conjures up the image of a frustrated wagon driver whose reins have gotten tangled in the undercarriage. In fact, that pretty accurately evokes its literal meaning in days gone by.

Originally, the phrase was used to describe things like reins, straps, drive belts, baling wire, articles of clothing—even mangled bodies—that had literally become wrapped around the axles of wheels on horse-drawn vehicles, railway cars, or industrial machinery.

Today the expression has a much less dramatic meaning. Though it’s not found in any of our slang dictionaries, we did a find couple of definitions online. These were provided by contributors to Urban Dictionary: “to be confused by something, to the point of paralysis,” or “to be extremely or overly upset.”

We’ve also seen it used on few leadership and self-help websites, where “don’t get wrapped around the axle” seems to mean don’t get sidetracked by small issues or caught up in bureaucracy.

The earliest example we’ve seen of the phrase in its original sense is from a 19th-century account of a mishap at a California woolen mill. The accident happened when a belt driving a piece of machinery, broke and “became wrapped around the axle or shaft of the wheel” (Sacramento Daily Union, Dec. 16, 1867).

And we like this account of a plucky Nebraska woman who eventually stopped a team of runaway horses: “When the lines, by some fortunate circumstance, became wrapped around the axle tree of the buggy in such a position as to bring them within her reach by leaning out over the dash board, she promptly did so, and while she could not loosen them, so guided the team as to keep them in the road, and probably saving her own life” (the Columbus Journal, May 17, 1882).

We will spare you the dozens of 19th- and early 20th-century examples that had less happy endings, most of them involving people killed by trains.

As far as we can tell, figurative uses of “wrapped around the axle” didn’t appear until the 1970s, when the phrase meant rule-bound or tangled in bureaucracy. Servicemen apparently were early adopters. Both of the following examples are from weeklies published at Fort Hood in Temple, Tex.

One is a complaint about an officious hospital nurse, “a civilian who’s so wrapped around the axle of routine that she’s forgotten about serving soldiers” (the Armored Sentinel, May 26, 1972).

Another is from a humorous column about the overuse of clichés: “We’re behind the power curve already and if we don’t get our feet on the ground it might fall through the crack or get wrapped around the axle” (the Fort Hood Sentinel, Jan. 6, 1977).

Both the literal and the figurative uses of “wrapped around the axle” are still around today.

Literal uses show up in news items about materials caught in the axles of everything from bicycles and tractors to 18-wheelers.

This is from a car-racing site: “Johnson hit the wall early and went three laps down making initial repairs after the tire carcass wrapped around the axle” (Frontstretch, Aug. 11, 2019).

Not surprisingly, figurative uses in recent news items are mostly about Covid-19 and its many anxieties. This example is from an Omaha weekly: “While it’s easy to get wrapped around the axle of all that seems to be going wrong, a lot of Omaha is righting itself in profound and beautiful ways” (the Reader, April 7, 2020).

Getting back to your question, your husband may have been referring to the slang use of “axle” to mean the penis and the slang phrase “getting his axle greased” to mean having sex with a woman.

However, those slang usages have no connection to “wrapped around the axle.” We haven’t found any examples of “wrapped around the axle” used in reference to sex.

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Depart … or depart from?

Q: My impression is that we used to “depart from” a location but that now, under the influence of airline-speak, we just “depart.” Example: “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland.” I’m a copy editor. Should I put that “from” back in, or is it acceptable without it?

A: The verb “depart” can properly be used with or without “from,” though it’s more often found with the preposition.

The two versions represent different uses of the verb—one transitive and the other intransitive. Both forms of “depart” have been in use since the 14th century, and both are still recognized as standard English.

In “The Grand Princess departs the Port of Oakland,” the verb is being used transitively—that is, with a direct object.

Here are some other examples: “the train departed the station” … “the enemy has departed our shores” … “the judge has no plan to depart the bench” … “she departed this life in 1902” … “he departed the office of ombudsman last year.”

Used intransitively—without a direct object—the verb may or may not be followed by a prepositional phrase (like “from the Port of Oakland”). The prepositional phrase is used adverbially.

Here are other intransitive examples, using different prepositions or none at all: “he departed for home” … “the boat departs in 15 minutes” … “the bus departs at 5 p.m.” … “we departed on time” … “they’re ready to depart” … “the ship departs soon.”

You’ve probably noticed that the first bunch of examples, the transitive ones, have a somewhat formal or literary feeling—a jargony one in in the case of the ship’s departure. (Airlines in particular seem to prefer “depart” without “from” or “at,” as in “Flight 202 will depart Gate 5” and “it now departs 12:45.”)

The intransitive “depart,” used with “from” (or “at”), seems more natural to us than the transitive use without the preposition. But as we’ve said, both transitive and intransitive uses have been around since the Middle Ages.

The intransitive use was known earlier. The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s implied in a 12th-century manuscript, though more definite sightings showed up in the 14th century.

A few examples, with and without prepositions: “we fra þe depart” (“we from thee depart,” c. 1300); “departed well erly from Parys” (1490); “yff I depart” (1526); “depart from Portsmouth” (1817); “the train departs at 6.30” (1895).

The transitive version of “depart”—with a direct object and without “from”—has been used to mean “to go away from, leave, quit, forsake” since about the mid-1300s, according to OED citations.

A range of examples: “departe vs nouȝt” (“depart us not,” circa 1340); “departed their company” (1536); “to depart the toune [town]” (1548); “may depart the Realm” (1647); “to depart Italy” (1734); “to depart the kingdom” (1839).

The dictionary says the transitive use is “now rare except in to depart this life.” But the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says it hasn’t “fully updated” its entry for “depart” since it was published in 1895. And none of the examples—for any senses of the verb—go beyond the 1800s.

We don’t agree that the transitive “depart” is rare, and neither does Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. “If the transitive was rare at the end of the 19th century, it no longer is,” the usage guide says, adding that “it seems common enough in American English.”

However, it may be that the use has declined in British English over the years. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2015), says “except in the formal or literary phrase departed this life, the construction no longer forms part of the standard language in Britain.”

Opinion is mixed in current standard dictionaries. The ten that we usually consult—five American and five British—all recognize the transitive “depart” as standard English. However, three of the five British dictionaries label it a North American usage. Apparently, a use that once was ordinary in both varieties of English has fallen off in the UK but survives in the US.

Nevertheless, some American news organizations have discouraged the use of “depart” without a preposition since at least as far back as the 1970s.

The revised 1977 edition of a stylebook adopted jointly by the Associated Press and United Press International has an entry for “depart,” with examples, saying it must be followed by a preposition. The entry concludes, “Do not drop the preposition as some airline dispatchers do.”

The most recent editions of the AP stylebook still have that entry for “depart,” identical except for the admonition at the end. The entry now reads, “Follow it with a preposition: He will depart from LaGuardia. She will depart at 11:30 a.m.

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