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Birth of the conspiracy theory

Q: I read with interest your posts about “false flag” and “crisis actor.” But you used the term “conspiracy theory” without explaining its origin. I’ve read online that it was invented by the CIA after the assassination of JFK to discredit people who thought the shooter didn’t act alone.

A: The CIA did not invent the phrase “conspiracy theory.” It’s been in circulation since at least as far back as 1868, almost 100 years before President Kennedy was assassinated and nearly 80 years before the CIA existed.

Of course there have been conspiracy theories since ancient times—alternate views of history that interpret events as the products of secret conspiracies designed to conceal the truth.

One of the best known is the hypothesis that the Emperor Nero, for one reason or another, secretly orchestrated the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. (Modern scholars think the fire probably started by accident.)

But while conspiracies (both real and imagined) have always been a part of human history, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was recorded in writing.

Before we get to the early examples of the expression, though, let’s look at its definition.

A “conspiracy theory,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties.”

More specifically, the dictionary adds, it’s “a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.”

The definitions in standard dictionaries are similar though shorter, like this one: “A theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators” (Merriam-Webster Unabridged).

It’s interesting that the two earliest examples of “conspiracy theory” that we’ve found are from the same year but in different countries—the US and England.

The first is from a news story in the Boston Post on April 16, 1868:

“The testimony of Gen. Sherman has blown the conspiracy theory of Gen. Butler to the winds; and, of course, it was in a sure anticipation of such a result that he so steadily and brazenly objected to nearly every question put by the counsel for the defence which was calculated to bring it out.” (The testimony was given in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson.)

Later that same year, a British periodical printed the phrase in an article about a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle in Scotland:

“She may seem to award to her present Premier a degree of favour which, considering how direct and plain her dealings have ever been, appears to denote her sympathy with his policy, but she surely comprehends that his conspiracy theory is a mere party battle-horse for which she need not find stable room.” (The London Review of Politics, Society, Literature, Art, and Science, December 1868.)

In the 1870s and afterward, examples of “conspiracy theory” become much more common.

In April 1870, for example, another British periodical, The Journal of Mental Science, used the term in replying to allegations that mental patients were being severely beaten by keepers in insane asylums. The journal advanced another hypothesis to account for the patients’ injuries, and called the allegations of beatings a “conspiracy theory.”

Many sightings of “conspiracy theory” in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s are from news stories about crimes and courtroom proceedings. In such articles, it usually meant a hypothesis that an act was committed by more than one person.

This quotation, for example, is from a San Francisco newspaper’s account of a murder trial in which charges against a family of four were dismissed:

“The conspiracy theory was too intricate. He [the judge] was certain Blanche was not in it and how she could be left out he could not understand.” (The Daily Alta California, Aug. 30, 1873.)

And in a report about a far more sensational case, Henry Ward Beecher’s trial for adultery, this headline appeared: “How Bessie Turner’s Testimony Upsets the Conspiracy Theory.” (The Nashville Union and American, June 25, 1875.)

The first use of “conspiracy theory” in reference to a presidential assassination was in connection with the shooting of James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881. (Garfield died several weeks later.)

This small headline appeared within one news report: “President Garfield and all His Cabinet Reject Conspiracy Theory.” The fact that New York police detectives had been called to Washington, the newspaper said, “started the sensational report that there had been a conspiracy to murder the President.” (Indianapolis Evening Star, July 4, 1881.)

The hypothesis—soon disproved—that the assassin did not act alone was also labeled “The Conspiracy Theory” in a headline on a different story published that same day in the Indianapolis Star.

Predictably, the expression got a good workout 20 years later after another president was assassinated.

By Sept. 8, 1901, two days after President William McKinley was shot by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, “conspiracy theory” began popping up in the news. The theory here—that the shooting was an anarchist plot—was never proven. But it had some credibility, since Czolgosz admitted that he had been inspired by the writings of other anarchists.

For example, the headline “Conspiracy Theory Confirmed” appeared above a report that “an Italian” had been standing in front of Czolgosz until just before he fired the shots. (From a bulletin wired from London Sept. 8 and published the next day in the Adelaide Register in Australia.)

Citations in the OED haven’t yet caught up to these earlier sightings of “conspiracy theory.” The dictionary’s first example is from 1909:

“The claim that Atchison was the originator of the repeal may be termed a recrudescence of the conspiracy theory first asserted by Colonel John A. Parker of Virginia in 1880.” (From a review of a book, The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, in the American Historical Review, July 1909.)

Published appearances of “conspiracy theory” continued right through the 20th century—with a spurt of activity after the JFK assassination—and on into our own time.

Along the way, a parallel term developed, “conspiracy theorist,” a noun phase that’s included in the OED and in standard dictionaries. Most don’t define it, however. An exception is the Cambridge Dictionary online: “someone who believes in a conspiracy theory.”

We haven’t found any examples of “conspiracy theorist” that predate the first citation given in the OED. It’s from the May 1, 1964, issue of the New Statesman:

“Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed by the absence of a dogmatic introduction.” (The comment was about a literary magazine’s transition to a broader coverage of the arts.)

Over the years, these terms have taken on a darker meaning. Today the “conspiracy” goes beyond the notion of someone’s acting with accomplices instead of alone. It also implies the involvement of entire governments or vast interests, not mere individuals.

Many of the OED’s citations reflect this broader use of “conspiracy theory,” like this one from the early 1950s:

“I call it the ‘conspiracy theory of society.’ It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon.” (From Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, rev. 2nd ed., 1952.)

And we found this early example from the 1970s of the wider meaning of “conspiracy theorist”:

“An invisible ‘supergovernment’ consisting of ‘organized crime, intelligence fronts, and war industry’ controls America, conspiracy theorist Rusty Rhodes told an audience of 250 last night in Cubberley Auditorium.” (The Stanford Daily, May 16, 1974.)

Rhodes, according to the article, went on to say that this “supergovernment … committed such wildly diverse acts as the assassination of President John Kennedy and the kidnaping [sic] of Patty Hearst.”

In short, the CIA did not invent the phrase “conspiracy theory.” And we’ve found no evidence that the agency tried to popularize it to make critics of the Warren Commission report look foolish.

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Backstage with ‘crisis actors’

Q: Thanks for answering my question about “false flag.” Now, who came up with the term “crisis actor”? I can’t believe what’s happening to the English language. This whole country has gone crazy. It makes you want to pull out your brain and give it a good shake.

A: Now that you’ve vented, let’s take a look at “crisis actor,” a relatively new term that’s being used to question the legitimacy of victims or survivors of mass shootings.

When the phrase first appeared in print 50 years ago, “crisis actor” was a term in political science that referred to a country in conflict.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Proceedings of the International Peace Research Association Second Conference: Poverty, Development and Peace (1968):

“McClelland argues that performance characteristics of crisis actors, both in crisis and non-crisis behavior, can be identified, and that phase characteristics of particular crises and of crises in general as one type of international behavior, can be distinguished.”

The reference is to a 1965 paper (“Systems Theory and Human Conflict”) by the political scientist Charles A. McClelland. Though he refers to countries in conflict as “actors” in “crisis,” he doesn’t actually use the phrase “crisis actor” or “crisis actors.”

The phrase took on a new sense a few months after the July 20, 2012, mass shooting inside a movie theater in Aurora, CO.

On Oct. 31, 2012, Visionbox, a nonprofit acting group in Denver, issued a press release announcing that it was offering actors to help shopping malls prepare for dealing with the victims of mass shootings:

“Visionbox Crisis Actors are trained in criminal and victim behavior, and bring intense realism to simulated mass casualty incidents in public places,” the press release says.

The release adds that the actors can “help first responders visualize life-saving procedures, and assist trainers in delivering superior hands-on crisis response training.”

However, the phrase was soon co-opted by people who questioned the official version of the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

The earliest written example we’ve seen for the new usage is in a Dec. 25, 2012, article on the Washington Examiner website that includes a “partial list of interesting questions being raised all over the internet” about Sandy Hook, including this one:

“Was the school part of the shooting spree an emergency response exercise using paid crisis actors funded by a grant from our federal government?” The article has a link to the Visionbox press release.

The now-deleted article, by Lori Stacey, was captured on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine and tracked down by the linguist Ben Zimmer.

“That tenuous chain of reasoning was enough for conspiracy theorists to begin imagining that Newtown was a staged event populated with ‘crisis actors,’ ” Zimmer wrote in a March 2, 2018, article in the Wall St. Journal.

Days before the Washington Examiner piece appeared, people were raising questions online about Sandy Hook, as Jason Koebler points out in a Feb. 22, 2018, article on the Motherboard website.

For example, James Tracy, a professor of communications at Florida Atlantic University, suggested in a Dec. 20, 2012, post on his Memory Hole Blog that the official Sandy Hook account was a “meticulously crafted façade” with a “made-for-television storyline.”

Tracy, who was later fired by the university, didn’t use the phrase “crisis actor” in that post but a Dec. 22 comment to it used the term “actors” in suggesting that the mass shooting was staged by broadcasting “gunshots and mayhem over the intercom system.”

The commenter, using the handle “andrew.w,” says such a broadcast “adds a bit of zing to what is essentially a drill and allows the actors and children to actually relate what they heard and did with a bit more reality.”

Enough. We’d better stop here or we’ll have to pull out our brains and give them a good shake.

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The true history of false flags

Q: I simply don’t understand how “false flag” has come to mean (I guess) a staged tragedy to create sympathy for a group or to push an agenda such as outlawing automatic weapons. It supposedly relates back to pirate ships flying false flags, but that doesn’t seem parallel.

A: Yes, the term “false flag” conjures up images of pirates on the high seas, flying friendly colors to conceal their larcenous motives. However, we haven’t found any evidence that the phrase was ever used literally for a real flag on a real pirate ship.

In the 16th century, when the phrase first appeared in writing, it was strictly a figurative expression. It wasn’t used literally—to mean an actual flag—until almost 300 years later. And pirates weren’t mentioned.

“False flag” is one of those expressions that exist almost solely in figurative use. And its meaning hasn’t changed over the centuries.

In figurative contexts, the Oxford English Dictionary says, a “false flag” means “a deliberate misrepresentation of someone’s affiliation or motives; something used deliberately to misrepresent in this way.”

It first appeared, according to the OED, in a religious tract published in the mid-1500s: “Of this sort was Gardiner that abused K. Henry with a false flagge of religion, when he made hys booke of true obedience” (from Thomas Norton’s A Warning Agaynst the Dangerous Practises of Papistes, 1569).

At that time, the word “flag” itself was still new. The noun for a square or rectangular piece of cloth, varying in color and design and flown “as a standard, ensign or signal, and also for decoration or display,” first appeared in writing in 1530, the OED says.

The dictionary’s next example of “false flag” is also figurative, though the writer alludes to pirates. In a sermon published in 1689, George Halley called Roman Catholicism “a Religion that acts in disguise and masquerade, changes frequently its colours, and puts out a false Flag to conceal the Pyrate.”

Similar uses of “false flag,” mostly in political writing, have continued into the 21st century. This is the most recent one in the OED: “These are the true Tory colours, not the false flag of convenience he flies for the working poor” (from the Daily Mirror, London, 2008).

As we said, it wasn’t until the 19th century that “false flag” showed up in the literal sense, defined in the OED as “a flag used to disguise a ship by misrepresenting its nationality, allegiance, intent, etc.”

Here is Oxford’s earliest example: “The boarding officers must, in their discretion, decide, whether this be a true or false flag, and of the character of the vessel” (from a May 29, 1824, article in the Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, DC, that refers to searching merchant vessels sailing under foreign flags).

And here’s the OED’s most recent literal citation: “The Obama administration is urging global port authorities to be on the watch for Iranian shipping vessels flying false flags or sailing under fraudulent registrations” (from an Associated Press article that appeared in print and online on July 19 and 20, 2012).

As Oxford notes, the term “false flag” is also used adjectivally, as in “false flag operation” (first recorded in 1982) and “false flag provocation” (2002).

In this sense, the dictionary says, the term describes “an event or action (typically political or military in nature) secretly orchestrated by someone other than the person or organization that appears to be responsible for it.”

Here’s the OED’s latest citation: “Some of those who believe that the 7/7 London bombings were a ‘false flag’ operation by state forces rejects [sic] as fake all the state’s evidence” (from a British monthly, Fortean Times, May 23, 2011).

More recently, an April 3, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times about the Parkland, FL, high school shootings says “conspiracy theorists deemed the incident itself a hoax, or false flag, something that’s further marred the aftermath of every major shooting, including at Sandy Hook Elementary.”

As in those examples, the phrase is often used by people who argue that widely publicized mass shootings, bombings, and so on are actually “false flags” or “false flag operations,” staged by the government or interest groups for political purposes.

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Are the Clintons a dynasty?

Q: For years, Bill & Hillary Clinton have been called a “dynasty” in the mainstream media. But “dynasty” properly refers to a ruling family that wields power over generations. A married couple does not constitute a dynasty. However, this improper usage is catching on. Do you have any idea where it comes from?

A: Yes, “dynasty” did have a generational sense when it showed up in English in the 15th century, and that sense is often lost when the word is used today. Is this newer usage legit? Here’s the story.

English borrowed “dynasty” from the French dynastie, but it’s ultimately derived from δυναστεία, or dunasteia, classical Greek for power, lordship, or domination.

When “dynasty” showed up in English writing, it meant a “succession of rulers of the same line or family,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example in the OED is from John Capgrave’s Abbreuiacion of Cronicles, an abbreviated history that the dictionary dates from sometime before 1464, the year Capgrave died: “Than entered þat lond [Egypt] þei of Tebes tyl xxxvi Dynastines had regned.”

But in the 1800s, “dynasty” took on various figurative and other extended meanings, weakening its generational sense. An “Aristotelian dynasty,” for example, might refer to Aristotle and his followers.

The earliest figurative citation in the dictionary is from John Reeves’s On Psalms (1800): “The next dynasty of theologists, the schoolmen.”

And in the 20th century, according to the OED, “dynasty” took on a figurative sports sense: “A run of success (by a team or club) which lasts for several seasons; a team or club achieving such success.”

The dictionary’s first sports example is from the Aug. 20, 1925, issue of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun: “It may be that the present Athletics and Pirates, setting most of the pace in this year’s pennant battles, are about to create new dynasties.”

The word “dynasty,” as you’ve noticed, is often used loosely, from the  original TV Dynasty to the newer Duck Dynasty and the book Kardashian DynastyIs it now acceptable to refer to a “Clinton dynasty”?

Most of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult have expansive definitions for “dynasty” that would apply to the Clintons, especially if Mrs. Clinton is the next president.

For example, the definition of “dynasty” in Oxford Dictionaries online, a different entity from the OED, includes this sense: “A succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) includes this sense: “A succession of rulers from the same family or line.”

Cambridge Dictionaries online defines “dynasty” as “a series of rulers or leaders who are all from the same family,” while the Collins English Dictionary says it can refer to “any sequence of powerful leaders of the same family.”

Merriam-Webster Online defines it as, among other things, “a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time.”

And the Macmillan English Dictionary’s definition includes this sense: “a family whose members are very successful in business or politics for a long period of time.”

As we often remind our readers, especially the traditionalists among them, language changes. And the word “dynasty” has been changing since it showed up in English more than five centuries ago.

We think it’s legitimate to call the Clintons, like the Bushes and the Kennedys, a dynasty.

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Is “pussy” a dirty word?

(Note: We’re repeating the following post because of its newsworthiness this weekend. It originally ran on Dec. 28, 2015.)

Q: Two Fox contributors were benched this month for using inappropriate language. One of them used the word “pussy,” which refers not to the female genitalia, but to a coward, from the same root as “pusillanimous.” Why can’t we use this word?

A: To recap, on Dec. 7, 2015, Ralph Peters, a Fox Business analyst, called President Obama “a total pussy,” and Stacey Dash, a Fox News cultural commentator, said, “I felt like he could give a shit” about terrorism.

Bill Shine, the executive vice president of programming at Fox, then suspended Peters and Dash for two weeks, saying “the comments were completely inappropriate and unacceptable for our air.”

As to your question, get serious. Unless you’re emailing from Alpha Centauri, you must know that the noun “pussy” can refer to a woman’s genitals as well as a coward or a sissy.

Did Fox overreact about the use of “pussy”? In our opinion, no. Dictionaries generally label the the first of these slang senses as vulgar and the second as offensive.

We’d describe the Fox decision to suspend the two contributors for using “shit” and “pussy” on the air as a matter of prudence rather than etymology.

Etymologically, the noun “pussy” has referred to a woman’s genitals for hundreds of years. And it probably comes from Germanic sources, not from pusillanimis, the Latin source of “pusillanimous.”

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is a naughty reference in A Choice Collection of New Songs and Ballads (1699), by the English writer Thomas D’Urfey:

As Fleet as my Feet Could convey me I sped; / To Johnny who many Times Pussey had fed.”

The noun “pussy” has also referred to a sweet man, or to an effeminate one, for more than a hundred years. The OED’s first citation is from God’s Good Man, a 1904 novel by the British writer Marie Corelli: “I shall invite Roxmouth and his tame pussy, Mr. Marius Longford.”

And this example is from Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novel Arrowsmith: “You ought to hear some of the docs that are the sweetest old pussies with their patients—the way they bawl out the nurses.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, this sense of “pussy” evolved to mean a coward or a weakling, according to examples in the dictionary.

The earliest citation for the new sense is from Pimp: The Story of My Life, a 1969 memoir by Iceberg Slim, the street name of Robert Beck:

“Look Preston, I got lots of heart. I’m not a pussy. I been to the joint twice. I did tough bits, but I didn’t fall apart.”

And here’s an example from If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, a 1973 memoir by Tim O’Brien about his experiences in Vietnam: “You afraid to be in the war, a goddamn pussy?”

As “pussy” came to mean a coward, its sexual sense changed. Before then, the word had appeared in family publications and (in the words of the OED) referred to “a man likened to a house-cat; a dependent or ‘domesticated’ man.”

Since around 1970, the lexicographer Jonathan Lighter says in an Aug. 17, 2005, posting on the Linguist List, there’s “little doubt of its misogynistic genital origin.”

That explains why The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “pussy” as “informal” if it refers to a cat, “vulgar” if it means the vulva, and “offensive” if it refers to man regarded as weak, timid, or unmanly.

When the noun “pussy” showed up in writing in the 1500s, it referred to “a girl or woman exhibiting characteristics associated with a cat, esp. sweetness or amiability,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), an attack against the customs of the times, by the social reformer Philip Stubbes:

“You shall haue euery sawcy boy of x, xiiij, xvi, or xx yeres of age, to catch vp a woman & marie her … so he haue his pretie pussie to huggle withall, it forceth not, for that is the only thing he desireth.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation to add context.)

The dictionary says “pussy” is derived from a somewhat earlier noun “puss,” which it defines as “a conventional proper or pet name for a cat” that’s often “used as a call to attract its attention.”

The OED’s first citation is from a 1533 comedy by the English playwright John Heywood: “I haue sene the day that pus my cat Hath had in a yere kytlyns eyghtene.”

The feline meaning of “puss” is somewhat of a mystery, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

“It appears to have been borrowed from Middle Low German pus, but there the trail goes cold,” Ayto says. “Since it is basically used for calling cats, it may have originated simply in an exclamation (like pss) used for gaining their attention.”

He suggests that “pussy the slang term for ‘cunt’ may be of Low German or Scandinavian origin (Low German had puse ‘vulva’ and Old Norse puss ‘pocket, pouch.’ ”

As for the other unfortunate remark on Fox, we’ve discussed “shit” several times on our blog, including posts in 2009 and 2007. We’ve also written about “cunt” and “twat,” but not about the naughty senses of “pussy.” We did, though, discuss the feline sense of the word in 2009.

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Can a woman be testy?

Q: A headline on Politico about an exchange between Hillary Clinton and an NPR reporter said, “Hillary gets testy over gay marriage.” It strikes me as inappropriate to use a word derived from the male reproductive organs to describe a woman.

A: The word “testy” doesn’t refer to the testes. It comes from an entirely different part of the human anatomy—the head.

In the 14th century, English adopted “testy” from testif, an Anglo-French term derived from teste, the Old French word for head and the ancestor of the modern French word tête.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is testa, the classical Latin term for an earthenware pot. In the post-classical period, Ayto notes, testa “was used humorously for ‘head.’ ”

When “testy” first showed up in English in the 1300s, according to Ayto, it meant headstrong or impetuous. But by the 1500s the meaning of “testy” had evolved from impetuous to impatient to irritable.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary (used in the headstrong sense) is from Chaucer’s Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1374), in which Diomede is described as “Hardy, testyf, strong and cheualrous.”

The first OED citation for “testy” used in the irritable sense is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 treatise by William Bonde: “Whiche wyll suffre his pacient though he be neuer so testy or angry.”

None of the Oxford citations use “testy” to describe a woman, but we’ll end with an example from Buried Alive (2011), Myra Friedman’s biography of Janis Joplin.

Dave Richards is quoted as saying he was initially terrified by Joplin when he was hired to help with the band’s equipment: “She was testy, testy about masculinity, about femininity, about everything.”

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Speechifying therapy

Q: In this political year, I have been hearing “speechify” more. This appears to be a needlessly circular formation, but it serves a humorous purpose by describing needlessly long speaking. Is this word an old or recent construction?

A: The word “speechify” has been around for a few hundred years, which seems just about as long as some of the speechifying we’ve had to sit through.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “speechify” as “to make or deliver a speech or speeches; to harangue or ‘hold forth’; to speak or talk at some length or with some degree of formality.”

In ordinary use, the OED says, “speechify” and its derivatives are “chiefly employed as a humorous form or with depreciatory suggestion.”

Standard dictionaries use adjectives such as “boring,” “annoying,” “tedious,” and “pompous” to describe all that speechifying.

The OED cites this description of the usage from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848): “a rather low word, and seldom heard except among bar-room politicians.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun “speechifying” is from a 1723 edition of the Briton, a weekly edited by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett: “He has an excellent Talent at Speechifying.”

The OED’s first two examples of the verb “speechify” are from The Orators, a 1762 play by the British dramatist Samuel Foote: “And have you speechify’d yet?” … “I did speechify once at a vestry.”

Finally, the earliest Oxford example of “speechifying” used as an adjective is from a March 18, 1803, letter in The Life and Correspondence of John Foster (1846): “The man who has just conquered his speechifying antagonist.”

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Kick the can down the road

Q: The use of “kick the can” now in vogue among pundits and politicians has nothing to do with the childhood game I played 60 years ago. How did kicking the can “down the road” become such a common cliché?

A: The expression “kick the can down the road,” meaning to procrastinate or put off solving a problem until later, isn’t quite as new as you may think.

It first showed up in the 1980s, according to a search of newspaper and literary databases, though of course it’s not nearly as old as the game kick-the-can, which has been mentioned in print since the late 1800s.

In the game, a variation of hide-and-seek, the kid chosen to be “it” tags, or captures, players and puts them in a holding area near the can.

The game is over when “it” captures all the other children. But if one of the free players sneaks up and kicks the can, the captured children are released.

We’ve found several 19th-century mentions of the game. Here’s one from The Story of Aaron, an 1896 children’s book by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories:

“ ‘Oh, come and help us, Drusilla!’ cried Sweetest Susan, as gleefully as if she were playing hide-the-switch, or kick-the-can.”

(In hide-the-switch, another children’s game, the child who finds the switch is allowed to hit one of the players with it.)

The earliest example we could find for the expression “kick the can down the road” is from an Associated Press article that ran on Feb. 26, 1985, in the Galveston (TX) Daily News, the Gettysburg (PA) Times, and other newspapers:

“Whether or not the reason for the delay is exclusively for technical reasons, this official said the delay ‘kicks the can down the road’ in terms of making it a less pressing problem with the Soviets.”

William Safire, commenting on the usage in a 1988 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, suggests that the children’s game inspired the expression:

“What a superb use of metaphor. Who has not, as a kid, played kick-the-can, or in less organized fashion kicked a can or other nonbiodegradable container ahead?”

We haven’t found any evidence proving that the game kick-the-can is the source of the expression “kick the can down the road.” But we’ve seen some evidence that suggests a connection.

For example, Twilight Zone: The Movie, which appeared in 1983 shortly before the expression showed up in print, includes a “Kick the Can” segment in which the game helps transform residents at a retirement home into their youthful selves.

We didn’t see the movie, but the 1959 TV segment on which it was based begins with kids kicking a can around in an aimless way (or, to use Safire’s phrase, “in less organized fashion”) before playing the actual game.

Did that aimlessness suggest the procrastinating sense of “kick the can down the road”? Perhaps, but another explanation may lie in the etymology of the verb “kick.”

Since the early 1800s, the verb phrases “kick about” and “kick around” have meant “to walk or wander about; to go from place to place, esp. aimlessly,” according to the OED. The dictionary describes the usage as a colloquialism that originated in the US.

The earliest example of this usage in the dictionary is from A New Home—Who’ll Follow, an 1839 book by the American writer Caroline Matilda Kirkland: “We heard that he was better, and would be able to ‘kick around’ pretty soon.”

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has 20th-century examples of a similar expression, “kick it around,” which it defines as to carouse.

Here’s the earliest citation, from Ceiling Zero, a 1936 Howard Hawks film starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien: “You gotta learn to kick it around. Look at Dizzy—he’s having a great time.”

We’ve probably spent way too much time thinking about this can-kicking business, but there’s one other way of looking at the relationship between the game kick-the-can and the expression “kick the can down the road.”

In kick-the-can, the kicking frees the captured children and delays a resolution of the game, which could loosely be described as putting off a solution to a problem.

Sorry we can’t be more definite about this, but we’ve given you a few ideas to kick around.

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Can the White House talk?

Q: Quick question. What is the term for a statement like “the White House replied” or “the Mayor’s office said” or “the record company claimed”? In other words, what is it called when inanimate objects make statements?

A: It’s amazing how many of the quick questions that pop up in our inbox aren’t so quick to answer.

There are several terms for giving inanimate objects human attributes. But do the phrases “White House,” “mayor’s office,” and “record company” refer strictly to inanimate objects?

We don’t think so, and many dictionaries agree with us.

Let’s look at “White House” first. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: “The popular name for the official residence of the President of the United States at Washington; hence, the President or his office.”

So the term “White House,” according to the OED, can refer to the president’s residence, the president himself, or the presidency.

We’d expand on that, as the online Macmillan Dictionary does, to include “the people who work at the White House, including the President.”

Many standard dictionaries also offer expansive definitions of the term “office.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says it can refer to “the administrative personnel, executives, or staff working in such a place.”

The online Collins English Dictionary says it can mean “the group of persons working in an office” while Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.) says it can mean “all the people working in such a place.”

The word “company” has been people oriented since it first showed up (spelled compainie) around 1250, according to the OED.

It originally meant companionship, and etymologically refers to people sharing bread. In Latin, com- means “with” and panis means “bread.”

In modern English, the word “company” still has that sense of companionship, as in having “company” over for dinner or keeping “company” with someone.

In the commercial sense, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), it refers to “an association of persons for carrying on a commercial or industrial enterprise.”

What, you ask, is the technical term for the phenomenon that occurs when a building or an office or a company issues statements?

Well, one possibility is “personification,” a figure of speech in which inanimate objects are given human qualities. For instance, “The house welcomed us back after our long vacation.”

Another possibility is “metonymy,” which refers to substituting a word or phrase for a related one. For example, the use of “Hollywood” to stand for the American film industry, including the people in it.

Still another possibility is “pathetic fallacy,” a literary term for giving human feelings to a natural phenomenon, like “somber clouds” or “nasty wind.”

The 19th-century British critic John Ruskin coined the term “pathetic fallacy” in attacking sentimentality in poetry.

No matter what you call it, we suspect that the usage originated as newspaper shorthand. Why waste all that ink and paper on “Whosis Q. Whatsis, a spokesman for the president,” when “the White House” gets the point across?

The earliest examples we could find were in newspaper articles from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Here’s a “company” example from a March 3, 1888, article in the New York Times about  a strike against the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad: “Local freights, the company says, are being moved in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska.”

And here’s one from an Aug 6, 1889, article in the Deseret News in Salt Lake City about a dispute between the postmaster general and Western Union about telegraph rates:

“The company says the Postmaster-general has thus been able to occupy and use streets in large cities regardless of local authority, and almost regardless of the public opinion.”

A Nov. 23, 1912, article in the Boston Transcript has 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue mum about an offer by Andrew Carnegie to provide pensions for American presidents:

“The White House is silent, for obvious reasons, but close friends of the President are confident that Mr. Taft would not accept a pension from this source.”

An Oct. 9, 1913, article in the New York Times about a confrontation between the White House and the Senate notes that “what the White House said appeared to mollify those senators who had let their angry passions rise.”

As for “office,” here’s an example from an Oct. 30, 1938, article in the Pittsburgh Press about a proposed agreement to end a strike by retail clerks against 35 department stores:

“The Mayor’s office said that the pact was a ‘tentative agreement’ which must obtain approval of both the union and the retailers’ council.”

If you’d like to read more about personification, we had a post on the blog some time ago about referring to countries and ships as “she.”

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That’s all, folks!

Q: In the past few weeks, I’ve heard TV anchors refer to Edward Snowden as being in “that transit lounge” and in “that Moscow airport.” The use of “that” instead of “the” sounds odd to my ear. Is this a trend? A coincidence? Or maybe some journalistic usage? Perhaps anchors have always spoken this way and I never noticed.

A: This isn’t a new usage, though it seems to have become popular lately among TV anchors or commentators trying to convey a casual, familiar tone on the air. 

An anchor who uses “that” instead of an article—as in “that transit lounge” instead of “the transit lounge” or “a transit lounge”—assumes the audience knows the story already.

The use of “that” here implies the transit lounge has been mentioned before, and suggests the anchor and the audience have just been discussing it.

Everybody’s on the same page—or that’s the assumption—and the listener won’t respond by thinking, “What transit lounge? What Moscow airport? What’s this person talking about?”

As you can see, this use of “that” conveys a looser, more familiar tone than would be appropriate in straight news coverage—especially in newspaper reporting, where a professional distance is generally maintained between journalist and reader.

But network anchors, as well as many broadcast and print commentators, allow themselves a more personal tone.

In constructions like “that transit lounge” and “that Moscow airport,” the word “that” is a demonstrative adjective.

In explaining the use of “that” in such constructions, the Oxford English Dictionary says the demonstrative adjective is being used “in concord with a n. which is the antecedent to a relative (expressed or understood).”

In plain English, this means “that” is being used with a noun to introduce a relative clause that’s actually present (“that transit lounge, which we were just talking about”) or merely understood (“that transit lounge”).

The OED says the use of “that” in such constructions is “often interchangeable with the … but usually more emphatic.”

In a 1532 Oxford’ citation for this usage, Thomas More illustrates how “that” may be more emphatic than “the” by contrasting two examples:

“A manne may saye ‘the man that we spake of was here,’ or ‘that man that we spake of was here.’ ”

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Problems, problems

Q: Many people use “problematic” to mean “posing a problem,” as Frank Luntz did when he told a group of college students that Rush Limbaugh and right-wing talk radio were “problematic” for the Republican Party. Isn’t this usage problematic?

A: Luntz, a Republican political consultant and pollster, made his comment on April 22, 2013, to students at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater.

He said Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and other conservative radio personalities were “problematic” for Republicans and “destroying” their ability to connect with more voters.

Is this usage problematic—that is, questionable? We don’t think so.

Luntz was using “problematic” as an adjective meaning “presenting a problem or difficulty,” a usage that’s been around since the early 1600s.

In addition, “problematic” (or “problematics”) has been used as a noun since the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s how the OED defines the adjective: “Of the nature of a problem; constituting or presenting a problem or difficulty; difficult to resolve; doubtful, uncertain, questionable.”

And this is how the dictionary defines the noun: “A thing that constitutes a problem or an area of difficulty, esp. in a particular field of study.”

English adopted the adjective “problematic” from the French problématique, which was derived via Latin from the Greek problematikos (pertaining to a problem).

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that problema, the Greek word for “problem,” combines the prefix pro, or forward, with the verb ballein, or throw (source of the English word “ballistic”).

“Things that are ‘thrown out’ project and can get in the way and hinder one,” Ayto says, “and so problema came to be used for an ‘obstacle’ or ‘problem’—senses carried through into the English problem.”

If you’d like to read more, we discussed “problematic” and the older adjective “problematical” in a posting five years ago.

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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 the English language and take questions from callers. A University of Iowa professor will join Pat to discuss how Watergate changed our language and our culture.

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NOO-kya-lur reactions

Q: The more I learn about English, the more I find myself wondering whether something is an error or just an acceptable variant. Now for my question: Is it acceptable to pronounce “nuclear” as NOO-kya-lur instead of NOO-klee-ur?

A: We discussed this subject several years ago on our blog when a reader complained about President George W. Bush’s pronunciation of the word.

As we wrote back in 2008, Bush was far from the only US president to take liberties with “nuclear.” At least three others—Eisenhower, Carter, and Clinton—did so too.

Although the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation is very widespread, we said in that posting, it’s frowned on by many.

We wrote then that both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) noted the objections.

We’ve now checked a newer edition of American Heritage and a newer printing of Merriam-Webster’s, but not much has changed.

A usage note in the new fifth edition of American Heritage says the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation “is generally considered incorrect” and is “an example of how a familiar phonological pattern can influence an unfamiliar one.”

AH adds that the “usual pronunciation of the final two syllables” is klee-ur, “but this sequence of sounds is rare in English.”

The usage note says the kya-lur sequence is “much more common” and “occurs in words like particular, circular, spectacular, and in many scientific words like molecular, ocular, and vascular.

It says the “NOO-kya-lur” pronunciation “is often heard in high places” and “is not uncommon in the military in association with nuclear weaponry.”

Despite “the prominence of these speakers,” American Heritage concludes, the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation “was considered acceptable to only 10 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2004 survey.”

A usage note from the latest printing of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate  says the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation is “disapproved of by many.”

But Merriam-Webster’s notes that the pronunciation is “in widespread use among educated speakers,” including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, cabinet members, and presidents.

The dictionary adds that the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation has “also been heard from British and Canadian speakers.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage makes many of the same points and suggests that people use the variant kya-lur ending because they have trouble pronouncing “nuclear” with klee-ur at the end.

The usage guide adds that “there is no other common word in English” with a klee-ur ending. (The italics are in the entry.)

We take issue with this last point. At least two common English words, “likelier” and “sicklier,” have that ending. And English speakers don’t seem to have problems pronouncing them.

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“Inalienable” or “unalienable”?

Q: When President Obama quoted from the Declaration of Independence in his Inaugural Address, he used the word “unalienable.” But I’ve also seen the word as “inalienable.” Which is correct English? Which is actually in the Declaration?

A: Both “inalienable” and “unalienable” are legitimate English words, and they have identical meanings.

The word in the final version of the Declaration of Independence is “unalienable,” though it’s “inalienable” in earlier versions of the document. Here’s the word in context:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

You can see an image of the final version on the National Archives page for the Declaration. Click “read transcript” to see a copy in ordinary print.

President Obama has used both words over the years. In his Inaugural Address on Jan 21, 2013, he referred to “unalienable rights,” but in remarks about gun violence on Jan 16, 2013, he used the phrase “inalienable rights.”

Although both words are correct, the one we see most often now is “inalienable.” And that’s the word some dictionaries seem to prefer.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has an entry for “inalienable” (defined as “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred”). But under “unalienable,” the dictionary simply says it means “inalienable.” 

Many other Americans have puzzled over the years about which word is “correct” and which one actually appears in the Declaration. The nonprofit Independence Hall Association, based in Philadelphia, has a page devoted to this question on its website.

As you’ll see, the site has photocopies of the various drafts of the Declaration, some with “inalienable” (in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting) and some with “unalienable” (in John Adams’s).

The website quotes a footnote from Carl Lotus Becker’s The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922):

“The Rough Draft reads ‘[inherent &] inalienable.’ There is no indication that Congress changed ‘inalienable’ to ‘unalienable’; but the latter form appears in the text in the rough Journal, in the corrected Journal, and in the parchment copy. John Adams, in making his copy of the Rough Draft, wrote ‘unalienable.’ Adams was one of the committee which supervised the printing of the text adopted by Congress, and it may have been at his suggestion that the change was made in printing. ‘Unalienable’ may have been the more customary form in the eighteenth century.”

As we said, both words are legitimate. They’ve been part of the language since the early 17th century.

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Gramm-ology: “Sequester”

Q: My friend and I are having difficulty figuring out how the government selected the word “sequester” for the current fiscal crisis. Any ideas on this?

A: Let’s begin with a little history.

When the verb “sequester” showed up in English in the late 14th century, it meant to set aside or separate, and it still has that meaning.

The word, which first appeared in the Wycliffe Bible, was adapted from the Late Latin term sequestrare (to place in safekeeping), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The noun “sequester” also showed up in the late 14th century and the noun “sequestration” followed in the mid-15th century.

Over the years, the verb (as well as the nouns) has taken on many different senses related to setting aside or separating: to excommunicate or isolate someone, to confiscate something, to seize the possessions of a debtor, to set apart property in dispute, to isolate a jury, and so on.

In the sense you’re asking about, the term refers to budget sequestration, a process for controlling the size of the federal budget by setting spending limits and enforcing them with automatic cuts.

The term “budget sequestration” was first used in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985. Senators Phil Gramm, Warren Rudman, and Ernest Hollings were the main sponsors.

The measure provided for “sequesters” (automatic spending cuts) if the federal deficit exceeded targets.

The term was later used in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and in the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012.

How, you ask, did the word “sequester” come to be used in this sense?

Tracey Samuelson, a reporter on public radio, quotes former Senator Gramm, one of the sponsors of the 1985 legislation, as saying, “To me, sequester conjured up taking something off the table, withholding something.”

Gramm, a Texas Republican, said Congress had also considered the word “impoundment” before settling on “sequester,” according to Samuelson’s American Public Media report.

“It’s always helpful if when you invent a term, if it already conjures up what you’re trying to say,” he said, adding, “If a sequester is what you got to do to get people’s attention, I would do it.”

So, did Gramm coin the usage? Not exactly, according to Samuelson’s report. Gramm said the former House majority leader Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, had suggested this use of the term “sequester” to him.  

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Wigs, bigwigs, and big Whigs

Q: A recent headline in the Salt Lake Tribune: “GOP big-whigs suggest Romney quietly go away.” I initially assumed that “big-whigs” was an error (albeit an amusing one), but a quick look on the Internet suggests that there might be a historical basis for this mistake. Can you enlighten me?

A: The headline writer for that post-election article no doubt meant “bigwigs,” not “big-whigs.” The chances are pretty slim that the writer intended a pun on the Whig political parties in Britain or the United States.

Even if a pun was intended, it wouldn’t have been appropriate, since the Whigs—at least in Britain—were known for being liberal.

But a few years ago another headline writer did manage such a pun. In 2007, the Telegraph of London used this headline on a review of a book about the 18th-century British prime minister Robert Walpole: “First of the big Whigs.”

There were Whigs in Britain in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and in the United States in the 19th century. The last Whig president was Millard Fillmore, who left office in 1853.

Certainly many big Whigs in 17th-century England wore big wigs (probably curled and powdered), but etymologically “Whig” and “wig” are not related.

The origin of “Whig” has never been pinned down. It might possibly be from “whiggamer” or “whiggamore,” one of a group of Scottish rebels who marched on Edinburgh in 1648, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word “wig,” for the hairpiece, was first recorded in the 1600s as a short form of “periwig,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Two words for a hairpiece, “periwig” and “peruke,” came into English in the 1500s, and both were derived from a Middle French word spelled perrucque or perruque, the OED says.

The French terms originally referred to a natural head of long hair, but “periwig” and for most of its history “peruke” have meant artificial hairpieces.

They’re not heard much these days, but here’s a 19th-century example of “peruke.” It comes from a primer on Shakespeare written in 1875 by Edward Dowden:

“That a most Christian king should each morning receive his peruke inserted upon a cane through an aperture of his bed-curtains is entirely correct; for the valet cannot retain faith in a perukeless grand monarch.”

And “bigwig”? We call important people “bigwigs,” according to the OED, because “of the large wigs formerly worn by men of distinction or importance.”

The term “bigwig” was first recorded in 1703 in a weekly journal called English Spy: “Be unto him ever ready to promote his wishes … against dun or don—nob or big-wig—so may you never want a bumper of bishop.”

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: the language of Watergate, 40 years later. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

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A humbling victory?

Q: Amid the spate of post-election coverage, a lot of politicians have described their victories as “humbling” experiences. My dictionary doesn’t support this use of “humble.” Is the usage correct?

A: To be “humble” is to be lowered. The word comes down to us from Latin, in which humilem means lowly or insignificant and humus means the ground or earth.

So one is “humbled,” or has a “humbling” experience, when reminded of one’s insignificance or lowliness.

And you’re right—we hear “humble” a lot at the end of election cycles. “Humble” is the opposite of proud, and many successful candidates say they’re “humbled” by the experience, or “proud yet humble” to find they’ve been elected.

This isn’t necessarily a misuse of the word “humble.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines the adjective “humble” this way:

“1. Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude, or spirit; not arrogant or prideful. 2. Showing deferential or submissive respect: a humble apology. 3. Low in rank, quality, or station; unpretentious or lowly: a humble cottage.”

So the use of “humble” by a victorious politician isn’t incorrect, if he means he’s proud of winning yet humbled by the responsibilities of office. But we have to say there’s something disingenuous about this “proud yet humble” formula.

It’s all too easy to call yourself “humble” when you’re on top. In fact, it’s really the loser who’s lowered or humbled, not the winner. But rarely does the loser say he’s been “humbled” by his loss. Such is politics.

The adjective “humble” has been around since about 1250, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. As we said, it means the opposite of proud or exalted—lowly, modest, unpretentious, of low esteem.

It’s often applied to people, as in phrases like “humble folk,” “humble suitor,” and “humble servant.” But it’s applied to things too, as in “humble thanks,” “my humble opinion,” “humble bed,” “humble origins,” “humble abode,” and so on.

The adjective gave rise to the verb “humble,” first recorded in the late 1300s.

The verb first meant “to render oneself humble” or “to assume a humble attitude,” as in bowing or doing obeisance, the OED says.

Later the verb came to mean “to render humble or meek in spirit” or “to cause to think more lowly of oneself,” the OED says.

An example is this passage from Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona (early 1590s): “Love’s a mighty Lord, / And hath so humbled me.”

Another meaning of the verb is “to lower in dignity, position, condition, or degree; to bring low, abase.”

The OED’s first citation for this sense of the word comes from William Caxton’s 1484 translation of Aesop’s Fables: “The prowde shall be allway humbled.”

Another example is from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594): “All humbled on your knees.”

If the word “humiliate” occurs to you here, there’s a reason. It has the same Latin ancestry as “humble”—the Latin humilis, which is also derived from humus.

“Humiliate,” first recorded in the 1500s, means to humble or make low, and originally also meant to abase or prostrate oneself.

The earlier noun “humility” (circa 1315) originally meant the quality of being humble, “the opposite of pride or haughtiness,” says the OED.

No winning candidate wants to appear haughty or full of pride—unless of course the pride is leavened by “humility” or a sense of being “humbled.”

But one point is worth making. You can’t feel humbled—that is, brought low—unless you have a rather high opinion of yourself in the first place. This reminds us of an anecdote.

In 1969, the Israeli politician Simcha Dinitz spoke to the New York Times about Golda Meir, who had just become Israel’s Prime Minister: “She is always telling people: ‘Don’t be so humble—you’re not that great.’ ”

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