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How ‘Mrs.’ became ‘missus’

Q: Your recent post about “Mr.” and “mister” aroused my curiosity about “Mrs.” and “missus.”

A: The story begins with the word “mistress,” which English adopted in the 1300s from words in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, as we noted in 2013.

The courtesy title “Mrs.” showed up in the late 1400s as a shortening of “mistress,” which meant a woman in authority or a female head of a household.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “Mrs.” as a “title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a married woman having no higher or professional title, often with her first name, or that of her husband.”

The first example in the OED is from a 1485 entry in the churchwardens’ accounts for the London parish of St. Mary at Hill:

“Item, a pyx [box] clothe of sipers [Cyprus] frenged with grene sylke and red … of Mres. Sucklyng’s gyfte.” (The bracketed definitions are ours.)

From the 15th to the 18th century, the abbreviation was variously spelled “Mres.,” “Mris.,” and “Mrs.” (Like “Mr.,” it sometimes appeared with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.)

At first, writers used either the abbreviation or the full courtesy title, as in a 1463 will cited by the OED in which the testator bequeaths to “maistresse Clopton a spoon of berell” (beryl).

As with “Mr.,” the title “Mrs.” was originally a “graphic abbreviation” and later developed “a distinct spoken realization,” according to the OED.

It’s unclear when “Mrs.” began being pronounced, though the pronunciation apparently evolved proclitically (from “mistress” to “missis”), similar to that of “Mr.” (from “master” to “mister”). A proclitic is a word that changes as it attaches itself to the following word.

By the end of the 18th century, “Mrs.” was being pronounced much the way it is today.

In his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, John Walker writes that “Mrs.” as “a title of civility” should be pronounced “missis,” and that to pronounce the word as “mistress” would “appear quaint and pedantick.”

At the end of the 19th century, the predominant pronunciations were “misis” and “misiz,” as Joseph Wright notes in The English Dialect Dictionary, published from 1898 to 1905.

“The contracted pronunciation became, for the prefixed title, first a permitted colloquial licence, and ultimately the only allowable pronunciation,” the OED explains. “When this stage was reached, Mrs. became a distinct word from mistress. As to the chronology of these changes evidence is lacking.”

Although the pronunciation of “Mrs.” as MISS-uz or MISS-us has been standard since the late 18th century, the use of “missis” or “missus” as spelled-out words for a married woman is considered regional or colloquial, according to Oxford.

When the spoken form first appeared in writing in the late 1700s, it was spelled “missess.”

In the 1800s, it appeared variously as “mizzes,” “mis’ess,” “mis’s,” “misses,” “missis,” and finally “missus.”

C. T. Onions, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, describes “missis” or “missus” as a “slurred pronunc.” of “mistress” and the “oral equivalent” of “Mrs.”

The earliest written example in the OED  is from Manners and Customs in the West India Islands (1790), by J. B. Moreton: “Then missess fum me wid long switch.” (The citation is from a Jamaican song about slavery.)

The next example is from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “The servant of all work, who, under the plea of sleeping very soundly, has utterly disregarded ‘Missis’s’ ringing for half an hour.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

Finally, you didn’t ask, but we should mention that the title “Miss” (prefixed to the name of a girl or unmarried woman) is also a shortened form of “mistress.”

The first Oxford example is from a March 7, 1667, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Little Mis Davis did dance a Jigg after the end of the play.”

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How ‘master’ became ‘mister’

Q: I wonder how “master” became “mister,” and why “master” refers to a young man, and “mister” to an older man. Can you enlighten me?

A: We discussed the origin of “master” on the blog in 2015, but we’ll summarize it here to set the stage for the appearance of “mister” and the evolution of “master” as a term for a boy or young man.

The term “master” (spelled mægstermagester, or magister in Old English) was borrowed from Latin, where a magister was a chief, head, director, or superintendent.

The “master” spelling gradually evolved in late Old English and Middle English after the Norman Conquest, influenced by the Anglo-Norman spellings maistre and mastre.

When the word first appeared in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a person (predominantly, a man) having authority, direction or control over the action of another or others.”

The dictionary’s first written citation is from King Ælfred’s Old English translation in the late 800s of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I, commonly known in English as Pastoral Care:

“Ðonne he gemette ða scylde ðe he stieran scolde, hrædlice he gecyðde ðæt he wæs magister & ealdormonn” (“When he saw the sin that he should punish, he showed that he was master and lord”).

In late Old English and early Middle English, “master” was also a title prefixed to a man’s first name or second name, initially for men in the gentry and later for men in general. (Before the Conquest, inherited surnames didn’t exist.)

The earliest example in the OED is from the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon writing at the Exeter Cathedral Library.

An undated Exeter document, perhaps written in the late 10th or early 11th century, refers to “mestre Odo, & mestre Leowines.”

The next citation is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Maister nichole of guldeforde, / He is wis and war [wary] of worde.” (We inserted the bracketed definition.)

In late Middle English, people began using “Mr.,” an abbreviated version of “master,” as a title “prefixed to the surname or first name of a man without a higher, honorific, or professional title,” according to the OED.

The abbreviation sometimes appeared  with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.

The first Oxford example is from Letters and Papers of John Shillingford, Mayor of Exeter 1447-50, edited by Stuart Archibald Moore in 1871. The citation, dated sometime before 1449, uses “Maister” and “Mr.” as titles:

“Maister John Gorewyll Maister John Waryn Mr William Filham Sr Richard Kelyer and other som tyme chanons of þe [the] said churche.”

(We’ve gone to the original document to expand the citation, and we’ve added the bracketed definition.)

Initially, the OED says, “Mr.” was an unspoken “graphic abbreviation,” but it later developed “a distinct spoken realization.”

When people began speaking it, “Mr.” was pronounced like “master,” but “from the 16th cent. it was, at least in rapid or careless speech, treated proclitically, with consequent alteration of the vowel of the first syllable,” according to the dictionary.

By “proclitically,” the OED means that the pronunciation of “Mr.” gradually evolved from “master” to “mister” over the 16th and 17th centuries as the term attached itself to the following word.

“Hence at the beginning of the 18th cent. master and Mr were already regarded as distinct words,” the OED says, and “mister” was “merely an occasional rendering of the pronunciation of the word of which ‘Mr’ is the accepted spelling.”

When the word represented by “Mr.” first showed up in writing in the early 1500s, according to OED citations, it was spelled “myster,” which probably reflected the way the term was pronounced at the time.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1523 entry in the Account Book of the Hospital of St. John, Canterbury, 1510–1556:

“Paied to a carpenter by grete for mendyng of Myster Collettis house.”

The first written example in the OED for the word spelled “mister” is from a March 15, 1642, letter by the wife of the mayor of Waterford, Ireland, during the Irish Confederate Wars:

“This passadge of Mister Richard Buttler hapened the day affter the Twelve Day.”

While “mister” was developing in the 16th century as a prefixed title for a man, the dictionary says, the word “master” took on a new sense, “as a prefix to the name of a boy or young man not considered old enough to be called ‘Mr.’ ”

At first, the child’s title was often expanded to “little master” or “young master,” especially when used by servants in referring to the children of the gentry or nobility.

For example, the OED cites a reference to “yonge mayster Dauyd” in The Answere to the Fyrst Parte of the Poysened Booke, a 1533 religious tract by Thomas More.

And this example, without a modifier, is from a letter written around the same time to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII, by Henry Dowes, tutor to Cromwell’s son Gregory:

“It pleased your Maistershipp to give me in charge not onlie to give diligent attendaunce uppon Maister Gregory, but also to instructs hime w’t good letters, honeste maners, pastymes of Instruments, and such other qualities as sholde be for hime mete [fitting] and conveniente.”

(We’ve expanded the OED citation to get in more of the interesting letter, and added the bracketed definition.)

The dictionary notes that “master” took on this juvenile sense “subsequent to the phonetic separation of mister,” though apparently before the word “mister” actually appeared in writing.

Once “mister” was established as a courtesy title for a man, “master” was free to take on the new role of a courtesy title for a boy.

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Isn’t that a coinkydink?

Q: A delightful teenager in my life just texted the word “coinkydink.” I used this term for a coincidence at her age (circa 1975). Any idea when it was coined? I have a vague memory of hearing it in some old black and white movie.

A: The earliest example we’ve found for “coinkydink” (often spelled and pronounced “kawinkydink”) is from the June 1952 issue of Trolley Topics, a publication of the San Francisco Municipal Railway. The term appears in an “Office News” item about trolley employees:

“Just after bowling his massive 696 series in the Association sweepstakes, Jimmy ‘The Arm’ Dickinson reached into his wallet for a look at a raffle ticket that he holds. Lo and behold, the number it bore was 696 also! A charming ‘coinkydink,’ as Jim Pagee says.”

The Random House Dictionary of American Slang describes “coinkydink” as an “intentional malapropism” used jocularly to mean a coincidence. (A malapropism, as we wrote on the blog in 2007, is an unintentionally comic misuse of a word.)

The earliest example for “coinkydink” in Random House is from a 1969 episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC-TV: “Isn’t that a coinkydink?” This may have been the source of your vague memory of having heard it in an old movie.

We haven’t found “coinkydink” (also spelled “coinkidink” and “kwinkydink”) in any standard dictionary, though readers have submitted the term to Merriam-Webster Online‘s Open Dictionary as well as to the collaborative Urban Dictionary. And the popular online reference Wiktionary describes it as a “jocular alteration of coincidence.”

The use of “coinkydink” for “coincidence” is sometimes referred to as “eye dialect,” though that term (coined by the language scholar George P. Krapp in 1925) usually refers to the literary use of a nonstandard spelling to indicate the pronunciation of a poorly educated speaker.

The lexicographer Grant Barrett, in an April 2, 2008, post entitled “Saying it wrong on purpose,” says he and his wife, a linguist, often mispronounce words deliberately, as do many other English speakers.

“People speak that way because saying a word wrong on purpose is a form of wordplay,” he writes. “It adds variety, colour, and whimsy to our speech. It’s a common characteristic of slang, which is partly built upon fooling around.”

Barrett says he and his wife “sometimes say chimbly instead of ‘chimney,’ fambly instead of ‘family,’ and liberry instead of ‘library,’ ” among other deliberate mispronunciations.

“Many Americans also say coinkydink instead of coincidence,” he adds. “It’s sometimes spelled kwinkydink or kawinkydink and is almost always used in a light-hearted or goofy way. It refers to when two or more things happen in the same way, at the same time, at the same place, or to the same people in a way that is surprising. Although you know they’re not related, they seem to be. Coinkydinks are interesting but unimportant.”

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Does Sam Weller speak cockney?

Q: I’ve read that Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers is supposed to be a cockney. But the main peculiarities of his speech (using “v” where there should be a “w,” and “w” where there should be a “v”) doesn’t sound like any cockney accent I’ve heard.

A: You’re right. The dialect spoken by Sam Weller in the novel, which Charles Dickens originally published as a serial in 1836-37, is different from the cockney spoken in London now.

In fact, it’s different from the cockney spoken 40 years later, when George Bernard Shaw arrived in London. But as Shaw came to learn, Sam Weller’s dialect was indeed cockney.

In an explanatory note about the cockney used by Frederick Drinkwater, a character in his 1900 stage comedy Captain Brassbound’s Conversion, Shaw writes:

“When I came to London in 1876, the Sam Weller dialect had passed away so completely that I should have given it up as a literary fiction if I had not discovered it surviving in a Middlesex village, and heard of it from an Essex one.”

Shaw adds that he used the Drinkwater character to educate people about how cockney was really spoken at the turn of the century.

“So I have taken the liberty of making a special example of him, as far as that can be done without a phonetic alphabet, for the benefit of the mass of readers outside London who still form their notions of cockney dialect on Sam Weller.”

In Shaw’s play, Drinkwater pronounces “v” and “w” normally, and speaks with many of the characteristics of modern cockney, such as pronouncing “lady” as LIE-dy, “ever hear” as HEV-er EAR, and “likely” as LOI-kly.

Shaw uses an “aw” instead of “oi” to render the cockney “likely” in his script, but he’s apparently referring to the same sound. “This aw for i, which I have made Drinkwater use, is the latest stage of the old diphthongal oi,” Shaw writes.

In Cockney Past and Present (2015), which traces the evolution of the dialect from the 16th century to modern times, William Matthews indicates that the use of “v” for “w” and “w” for “v” were features of cockney at least as far back as the 1700s.

He notes that the educator James Elphinston, who translated the odes of Martial into English in 1782, used one of the Roman writer’s odes to illustrate the cockney speech of Elphinston’s time. Here are the opening lines:

Ve have at length resoom’d our place,
And can, vith doo distinction, set;
Nor ve, the great and wulgar met.
Ve dooly can behould the play,
Sence ve in no confusion lay.

Matthews points out several other literary examples of “v” and “w” swapping from the 1700s and 1800s.

In The Waterman, a 1774 opera by the British composer and dramatist Charles Dibdin, the cockney character Tom Tugg pronounces “w” in the usual way, but “v” comes out as “w” when he says “you’ll never catch me at your Cupids and Wenisses.”

And in Fanny Burney’s 1796 novel Camilla, the cockney actor playing Othello pronounces “w” as “v,” and “v” as “w,” but not every “v” is transformed: “I vil a round unwarnish’d tale deliver.”

As we’ve written many times on the blog, the English of yesterday isn’t the English of today, and today’s English won’t be tomorrow’s. The same is true of English dialects.

However, literary cockney isn’t necessarily the same as the cockney spoken on the streets. Writers pick and choose whichever sounds of speech serve their fiction best.

In Dickens’s Pickwick, for example, Sam is much more likely to use “w” for “v” than “v” for “w,” and sometimes both letters are pronounced the usual way. Here are a few examples of Sam’s speech (minus the interpolations):

“Wy, that’s just the wery point as nobody never know’d” … “They von’t be long, Sir, I des-say” … “Yes every man slept vere he fell down” … “Vell all I can say is, that I vish you may get it.”

And here’s an example written around the same time, from Renton Nicholson’s Cockney Adventures (1837-38): “We went in a wan cowered all over with bows, and I vos dressed as smart as a new pin.”

It’s clear that cockney speakers did once pronounce “v” as “w,” and “w” as “v,” but not necessarily in the precise way Sam Weller renders them. Dickens was a novelist, after all, not a phonologist.

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Words of prey

Q: As a birdwatcher in Florida, it grates on my  ears to hear the town of Osprey referred to as OSS-pree. The bird’s name rhymes with “prey,” which works since the Osprey is a bird of prey. Why does the town’s name rhyme with “spree,” as in a shopping spree?

A: The bird’s name literally means “bird of prey,” so we can see why you assume the last syllable should sound like the word “prey.”

But the usual American pronunciation of the bird’s name rhymes with “spree,” so the townspeople of Osprey aren’t guilty of any disrespect to this wonderful bird.

The word apparently came into English in the late Middle Ages from the French ospreit, which was derived from post-classical Latin avis prede (“bird of prey”).

It was first recorded in English, spelled “hospray,” about 1450, the OED says. The “h” soon disappeared, as in this citation: “Every goos, teele, Mallard, Ospray, & also swanne.” (From John Russell’s Boke of Nurture, written sometime before 1475.)

Shakespeare mentions the bird in his tragedy Coriolanus (possibly 1605-08): “I think he’ll be to Rome / As is the Aspray to the fish, who takes it / By sovereignty of nature.”

The “osprey” spelling didn’t become the norm until around the mid-18th century, according to OED citations.

The bird is defined in the OED as “a large, long-winged, dark brown and white bird of prey” whose taxonomic name is Pandion haliaetus. It lives principally on fish—both marine and freshwater—and is found almost worldwide.

Getting back to how “osprey” sounds, the OED says it’s pronounced differently in Britain and in the US. In British English it’s OSS-pray, while in American English it’s OSS-pree.

The online Cambridge Dictionary, published in Britain, also gives OSS-pray as the British pronunciation and OSS-pree as the American.

Three standard American dictionaries—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.)—give both pronunciations, listing OSS-pree first and OSS-pray second. They use OSS-pree for their online pronouncers.

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Prix fixe or prefix menu?

Q: A “prefix” menu? I’ve been seeing a lot of this. Since “prix fixe” is so pretentious, I’m inclined to let them get away with it, especially now that England has severed ties with Europe. It’s an opportunity to de-Francify the lingo. Nu?

A: In English, as you know, “prix fixe” refers to a fixed-price meal of several courses. In French, however, prix fixe is a more general term that refers to products sold at a fixed price, such as ball bearings, petroleum, taxi rides, and food.

Here’s an example from a French energy website: Avantages et inconvénients des offres de gaz à prix fixes” (“Advantages and disadvantages of gas offers at fixed prices”).

Although a bill of fare that includes several courses at a fixed price can be referred to as a menu à prix fixe in France, it usually appears on a restaurant’s list of offerings as simply a menu or a formule at a specific price

For example (as of this writing), Restaurant La Marée at the port of Grandcamp Maisy in the Calvados region has a  three-course Menu à 27 euros. And Le Petit Prince de Paris has a two-course Formule à 18 euros.

Similarly, Les Toqués du Coin in Strasbourg has a two-course, 15.50-euro special called Menu de la semaine, while Les Ombres, the restaurant at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, calls its three-course lunch Formule Déjeuner un Billet > 51,00 € TTC (the price includes taxes and a ticket to the museum).

So how should we spell and pronounce a term like “prix fixe” that’s borrowed from French but has a life of its own in English? Just the way English speakers generally spell it and pronounce it.

It’s the job of lexicographers, the people who compile dictionaries, to determine standard spellings and pronunciations. All the dictionaries we regularly consult use the French spelling for the term, and all but one of them use only the French pronunciation: PREE-FEEKS (with equal stresses on the syllables).

The exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which also includes the Anglicized PREE-FIKS as a standard pronunciation.

We suspect that many English speakers prefer the French pronunciation because they mistakenly believe that “prix fixe” is the usual term for a meal at a fixed price on menus in France.

It’s not surprising, though, that various Anglicized spellings and pronunciations have shown up. We wouldn’t be shocked to see the PREE-FIKS pronunciation included in more dictionaries, but we don’t expect “prefix” or any of the other variant spellings to become standard in the near future.

Nevertheless, it’s easy to find “prefix” menus online and off, such as the “3 Course Prefix Menu” at Bistro Milano in Manhattan.

In a March 16, 2005, contribution to the Eggcorn Database, a collection of misconstrued word or phrase substitutes, the linguist Arnold Zwicky lists such “prix fixe” spelling variants as “pre-fix,” “pre-fixe,” “prefixe,” “pre-fixed,” and “prefixed.”

Zwicky drily describes “pre-fixe” as a “slightly Frenchier” version of “pre-fix.”

And an April 29, 2013, contribution to the related Eggcorn Forum cites this Facebook comment:  “A neighborhood restaurant advertises a ‘prefix’ dinner. Would that include ante-pasto, sub-sandwiches, and semi-cola?”

If you’d like to see some of the variant spellings in the wild, check out these photos in a July 16, 2015, posting to Tumblr.

The English writer Jeanette Winterson once asked a man working at a Vietnamese restaurant in New York why the signboard in front offered a “Pre Fix Menu.”

In a July 11, 2006, entry on her website, she gives his explanation: “ ‘We fix the Specials of the Day every morning,’ he explained, ‘but before we fix those, we fix the set menu of the day, so that’s why it’s called a Pre Fix.’ ”

“So now you know,” Winterson adds with a wink.

We’ll leave it at that, and go on to the etymology of “prix fixe.”

When English borrowed it a century and a half ago, the French phrase meant “fixed-price meal in a restaurant,” according to the OED. That’s still the meaning in English, though the term now has a wider meaning in French.

The dictionary defines “prix fixe” in English today as “a meal served in a hotel or restaurant at a fixed price, typically including several courses” and occasionally “the selection of dishes available for a fixed price.”

At first, “prix fixe” was italicized in English to show its foreign origins, and it’s sometimes still written that way.

The earliest Oxford citation is from the September 1851 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “We had experienced dinners both princely and penurious … and even with unparalleled hardihood had ventured into the regions of the prix-fixe.”

The dictionary’s next example is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of San Francisco in an 1883 issue of the Magazine of Art, an illustrated British periodical:

“You taste the food of all nations in the various restaurants; passing from a French prix-fixe, where every one is French, to a roaring German ordinary where every one is German.”

The OED describes “prix fixe” as a noun that’s frequently used attributively—that is, adjectivally. The dictionary says it’s the same as “a table d’hôte meal” and the opposite of a meal that’s “à la carte.”

We’d add that “table d’hôte” (like “prix fixe”) has different meanings in French and English. In English, “table d’hôte” refers to a restaurant meal at a fixed price, while in French it usually refers to shared dining at a guest house or bed and breakfast.

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And, voilà, “wallah”!

Q: I’ve noticed the increasing use of “wallah” for “voilà” in speech and writing. I suppose this because Americans are ignorant of other languages, and so use an American English pronunciation and spelling  for foreign-sourced words.

A: None of the standard US and UK dictionaries we usually consult include the “wallah” (or “walla”) spelling or pronunciation for the interjection.

The dictionaries spell it only two ways, “voilà” or “voila.” Some list the accented version first and some list it second. The pronunciation given is roughly vwa-LA, with an audible “v.”

We also couldn’t find a reference to the use of “wallah” for “voilà” in the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary with extensive etymologies.

However, the online collaborative reference Wiktionary includes “wallah” as an “informal” alternative form for “voila” and “voilà,” though it doesn’t give any examples.

Of course, standard dictionaries do have entries for “wallah,” a word of Hindi origin for someone involved in a particular occupation or activity, such as an “ice-cream wallah” or a “kitchen wallah.” That word is pronounced WAH-la.

The use of “wallah” for “voilà” seems to have shown up in print in the late 1990s. (A reader of the blog recalls hearing it in speech in Indiana in the 1960s and ’70s.)

In the earliest written example that we’ve found, the writer is clearly aware of at least one standard spelling, and he is using “wallah” humorously,

Here’s the quotation, from an Aug. 6, 1997, comment on a woodworking website about how to calculate the weight of hard maple from its specific gravity:

“The ‘specific gravity’ of materials is their weight divided by the weight of 1 cubic foot of water (which weighs 62.4 lbs/cubic foot). Voila (that’s ‘wallah’)!, so 0.63 X 62.4 = 39.3.”

And here’s an example, from a comment on a Dodge discussion group, followed by a correction from another commenter:

“Pull the cummins and install a powerstroke…Wallah!!!”

“thats ‘Voila’ to most of us.”

In early 2006, the use of “wallah” for “voilà” came to the attention of the Eggcorn Forum, a language discussion group. An eggcorn is a word or phrase substitution like “egg corn” for “acorn.”

The forum’s first of several “wallah”-vs.-“voila” threads began with this Jan. 5, 2006, comment: “As in, ‘be sure to beat the eggs thoroughly before you add them to the pan, and wallah! Your omelette will be perfect!’ ”

And here’s a Dec. 21, 2006, comment: “My best guess on the v > w change is that the w in the French (vwala) weakens the v to the point where it may be more like a beta, and then the process continues to drop the v entirely.”

In other words, some English speakers are Anglicizing the French word by dropping the “v” sound at the beginning of the usual vwa-LA pronunciation.

If that explanation is true, then “wallah” and wa-LA would be spelling and pronunciation variants rather than true eggcorns (word phrase substitutions).

In an Oct. 23, 2007, posting on the Language Log, the linguist Arnold Zwicky offers a “reflection on why ear spellings should be so likely for this word.”

“If you’ve heard the word, you probably know how to use it in sentences, but if you haven’t seen it in print (or don’t remember having seen it in print, or didn’t realize that the spelling ‘voilà’ represented this particular word), you’re in trouble,” Zwicky writes.

You’re supposed to look up words if you don’t know their spellings, he says, “but where do you look in this case?”

“If you don’t know French, or don’t recognize the French origin of the word, what would possess you to look under VOI in a dictionary, especially if your pronunciation of the word begins with /w/?”

Zwicky adds parenthetically that he thinks wa-LA “is the most common current pronunciation, at least for people who aren’t ‘putting on,’ or at least approximating, French.”

Over the years, contributors to the Eggcorn Forum have suggested several other theories about the source of the “wallah” spelling and wa-LA pronunciation. Perhaps the most interesting (and we think least likely) is that “wallah” comes from a similar-sounding modern Hebrew exclamation of surprise or delight. [A reader writes on Aug. 10, 2016, that in Arabic it means “I swear to God” or “Really!”]

As for the etymology of “voilà” itself, English borrowed it in the 18th century from French (the imperative of voir, to see, plus , there).

The earliest example in the OED is from an April 12, 1739, letter by the English poet Thomas Gray: “The minute we came, voila Milors Holdernesse, Conway, and his brother.”

Voilà!

[Note: This post was updated on April 5, 2018.]

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From “housewife” to “hussy”

Q: As you may know, the word “housewife” refers (in addition to a June Cleaver wannabe) to a sewing kit, also called a “hussif” or a “hussy.” But how did “hussy” come to mean a woman of some flamboyance (my definition)?

A: Yes, “housewife” is (or rather was) another word for a sewing kit. (Our acquaintance with such domestic trivia is what comes of reading old British novels.)

The sewing-kit sense of “housewife,” a meaning that originated in the mid-18th century, is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a small case or pouch for needles, thread, and other small sewing items.”

This often took the form of “a length of soft fabric, divided into pockets, that may be rolled up when not in use,” the OED adds.

There’s no explanation as to why a sewing kit was called a “housewife,” but the answer seems obvious—it contained items used by a housewife.

Perhaps for a similar reason, another word for the mistress of a household, “chatelaine,” was used in the 19th century to mean a bunch of decorative chains worn at a woman’s waist, for holding things like keys, ornaments, a watch, and small sewing articles.

The OED’s earliest citation for “housewife” to mean a sewing kit is from Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), a compendium of true-crime stories.

In this passage, a thief has surreptitiously cut the pocket from a woman’s skirts: “Upon turning the Pocket out, he found only a Thread Paper, a Housewife, and a Crown piece.”

The word for the sewing kit, as well as for the woman who used it, was also written as “huswife,” “hussive,” “hussif,” and even “hussy,” spellings that reflected alterations in the pronunciation.

Oxford provides an example of “hussy” used this way in Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740): “So I … dropt purposely my Hussy.”

And here’s a citation for “hussif,” from a 19th-century collection of regionalisms:

Hussif, that is house-wife; a roll of flannel with a pin-cushion attached, used for the purpose of holding pins, needles, and thread.” (From Edward Peacock’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, 1877.) 

You asked how “hussy” got its bad reputation. It’s a long story, so we’ll begin at the beginning.

The word “housewife” was spelled “husewif” when it showed up in Sawles Warde, an early Middle English homily written around 1200:

“Inwið beoð his hinen in se moni mislich þonc to cwemen wel þe husewif aȝein godes wille” (“Indoors, both his servants have a great many miserable thoughts about how to please the housewife against God’s will”).

The OED says “housewife” originally meant pretty much what it does today: “A (typically married) woman whose main occupation is managing the general running of a household, such as caring for her family, performing domestic tasks, etc.”

However, the dictionary has this interesting note: “There is some evidence that in Middle English the word housewife in the general sense ‘housekeeper’ could be applied to both men and women.”

For example, a 1416 description of the duties of the housekeeper at a poorhouse, the OED notes, refers to the “husewyfe, man or woman.”

And the word was apparently used as a surname too, Oxford adds, pointing to names like “Richard Husewif” (1192), “Richard Huswyf” (1302), and “Johannes Hosewyfe” (1327).

But getting back to the feminine sphere, we mentioned earlier that “housewife” was spelled and pronounced many different ways, including “hussif,” “hussive,” and “hussy.” And for centuries the variations generally meant the same thing, the female head of a household.

For example, when when “hussy” first showed up in the early 1500s, it meant the “mistress of a household” or “a thrifty woman,” according to the OED. The first citation is from a 1530 entry in the records of the Burgh of Edinburgh:

“Na seruandis [shall] tak vther clathis than thar masteris and husseis and thar houshaldis clathis to wesche” (“No servants shall take other clothes to wash than the clothes of their masters and hussies and households”).

But in the mid-16th century, “housewife” (in various spellings and pronunciations) took on an additional, pejorative meaning: a “frivolous, impertinent, or disreputable” woman or girl, according to the OED.

Here’s a negative example from a 1546 collection of proverbs by John Heywood: “Ye huswife, what wind blowth ye hyther.”

And here’s one from a 1599 letter by Hugh Broughton: “Sampsons heyfer was his wife, a skittish huswife.”

“Hussy” first took on this pejorative sense in the 1600s, when it came to mean a disreputable woman.

The OED’s earliest negative example is from the writings of the English clergyman and theologian John Trapp (1647): “Such another hussy as this was dame Alice Pierce, a concubine to our Edward III.”

The development of positive and negative senses for “housewife” and its variations led to differences in how these words were pronounced and spelled.

When using the words in a pejorative sense, English speakers frequently pronounced the first syllable as HUSS, the OED says.

As a result, the dictionary suggests, speakers using the words positively began pronouncing the first syllable as HOWSE to differentiate between the positive and the negative meanings.

It took several hundred years, but when the spellings, pronunciations, and meanings sorted themselves out, English had two words: “housewife” (a female head of a household) and “hussy” (a brazen or promiscuous woman).

It wasn’t until the 19th century, the OED says, that the modern HOWSE pronunciation of “housewife” became the norm in pronouncing dictionaries and its derogatory meanings became extinct.

By that time, “housewife” and “hussy” had gone their separate ways. “Housewife” retained the purely domestic meanings while “hussy” had all the fun, keeping only its disreputable character.

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Sizing up YOOGE

Q: Is the Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE strictly a New York thing?

A: The usual pronunciation of “huge” is HYOOGE, according to most of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked. The “hy” sound at the beginning is a consonant cluster that combines the sounds produced by the letters “h” and “y.”

In the pronunciation you’re asking about, the “hy” sound at the beginning of “huge” is reduced to a “y” sound, resulting in the variant YOOGE.

Several standard dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), accept the YOOGE pronunciation as an equal variant alongside HYOOGE.

However, the Dictionary of American Regional English says YOOGE occurs primarily in New York City and Long Island, NY, though it’s also heard in some other parts of the East Coast.

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, which linguists generally use in referring to these sounds, the “hy” cluster is written as /hj/ and the “y” sound as /j/.

Phoneticians, linguists that specialize in the sounds of speech, would say that the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the consonant cluster /hj/ is replaced by the phoneme /j/ when someone pronounces “huge” as YOOGE (judʒ in the IPA alphabet).

This process is similar to what linguists refer to as glide cluster reduction, in which the “wh” cluster (originally spelled “hw”) is reduced to “w” in words like “which,” “whether,” and “where.” We wrote about such “wh” words in our recent post about “h”-dropping.

To keep things as simple as possible here, we’ll use “hy” and “y” for the /hj/ and /j/ sounds, except when we quote linguists or lexicographers using the IPA alphabet.

The earliest evidence in DARE for the YOOGE pronunciation is from the early 1940s, but we suspect that the pronunciation is much older, perhaps dating back to the 1700s, and may have been more widespread.

The dictionary’s first citation for YOOGE is from a 1942 issue of the journal American Speech: “NYC, Long Island, Omission of initial [h] before [ju] … huge … This is a somewhat greater loss of [h] than in upstate speech.”

However, DARE has a much earlier example indicating that the word “humor” (now usually pronounced HYOO-mur) was pronounced YOO-mur in American English in the late 18th century.

In Dissertations on the English Language (1789), Noah Webster criticizes the pronunciation of “human, and about twenty other words beginning with h, as tho they were spelt yuman. This is a gross error.”

Webster doesn’t list the 20 other words, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they included “huge.”

Interestingly, Webster adds that the word “humor” should begin with a “y” sound: “The only word that begins with this sound, is humor, with its derivatives.” In other words, he considered the YOO-mur pronunciation of “humor” to be standard English.

In a footnote, Webster singles out for criticism the Scottish lexicographer William Perry, author of The Royal Standard English Dictionary (1775), which says “human” should be “pron. as if began with a y.”

“I am surprized that his pronunciation has found so many advocates in this country, as there is none more erroneous,” Webster says.

It’s apparent from Webster’s remarks that the “hy” pronunciation of “humor” and some similar words was unsettled in the late 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic, probably because of the difficulty some people had in pronouncing the cluster.

In fact, several 18th-century British language authorities agreed with Webster that “humor“ (“humour” in the British spelling) should be pronounced YOO-mur.

In An Essay Towards Establishing a Standard for an Elegant and Uniform Pronunciation of the English Language (1766), for example, James Buchanan endorses the YOO-mur pronunciation, as does John Walker in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791).

Several readers of our blog have asked if the pronunciation of “huge” as YOOGE by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (both native New Yorkers) is similar to the “h”-dropping in cockney, the working-class speech of England.

We don’t think so. In cockney, the “h” sound disappears and is not replaced by anything (as in “house” reduced to OUSE). In the New Yorkish pronunciation of “huge,” the consonant cluster “hy” is replaced by a “y” sound.

If the “h” in “huge” were a normal consonant, the word would be pronounced HOOGE, and dropping the “h” would result in the pronunciation OOGE. That’s not what is happening here.

Interestingly, people speaking the Norfolk dialect in England do change the “hy” sound in “huge” to “h,” resulting in the pronunciation HOOGE. Linguists refer to this phenomenon as yod-dropping, from the name of the Hebrew version of the letter “y.”

In fact, yod-dropping is heard on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s more common in the US and helps differentiate standard American pronunciation from Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent.

Most Americans, for example, usually pronounce “tune” and “news” as TOON and NOOZ, while someone speaking RP pronounces them TYOON and NYOOZ. (In parts of the American South, people also say TYOON and NYOOZ, as we’ve written on the blog.)

We could go on—and on and on. There’s much to be said about yod-dropping, an ongoing process that the linguist John C. Wells dates from the early 18th century, but we’ll leave that for another day.

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A “bona fide” pronunciation?

Q: A supercilious acquaintance looked down his nose at me when I pronounced “bona fide” as BOH-nuh-fied. He says the authentic pronunciation of this phrase borrowed from Latin should be boh-nuh-FEE-day. How would YOU pronounce it?

A: Like you, we say BOH-nuh-fied, as do most Americans. Your snooty friend’s pronunciation may be heard in Latin classes, but it isn’t found in English dictionaries in either the US or the UK.

The two most common English pronunciations of “bona fide,” according to the six standard dictionaries we’ve consulted, are BOH-nuh-fied (the end rhymes with “fried”), and boh-nuh-FYE-dee (the end rhymes with “tidy”).

The three-syllable version is more common in the US. In fact, it’s the default audible pronunciation given online by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

To hear it, go to their sites and click on the little loudspeaker icons.

The four-syllable pronunciation is standard in the UK, according to all the British dictionaries we’ve checked. To hear it, go to the UK English version of Oxford Dictionaries online.

Although the three-syllable pronunciation is more common in the US, American dictionaries also accept the four-syllable version, as well as some less common variations. The first vowel can also sound like the “o” in “bonnet,” for example. And the final vowel in the four-syllable version can sound like the “e” in “the.”

But while boh-nuh-FYE-dee is accepted by American dictionaries, it may not be advisable.

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), it’s “pedantic outside the law and precious even in legal contexts.”

Your friend’s pronunciation, boh-nuh-FEE-day, roughly corresponds to the Latin, but we’re talking about English here. (We doubt that your friend pronounces “Caesar” as KYE-zar or “vice versa” as WEE-keh WARE-sah, as the Romans once did.)

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its etymology of “bona fide,” says that even “classical scholars sometimes preserve the Latin quantity of the vowels … without the Latin vowel sounds.”

In Latin, bona fide means “with good faith.” In English, the OED says, it was originally an adverb meaning “genuinely,” “with sincerity,” or “in good faith.”

The adverb dates back to the time of Henry VIII, the dictionary says, when it was recorded in the Acts of Parliament for 1542-43: “The same to procede bona fide, without fraude.”

But “bona fide” has also become an English adjective meaning “genuine,” “sincere,” or “done in good faith.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the adjective is from John Joseph Powell’s An Essay Upon the Learning of Devises (1788): “Act not to extend to bonâ fide purchasers for a valuable consideration.”

“Bona fides,” the noun version, came into English in the mid-19th century. (The usual pronunciation, in both the US and the UK, is boh-nuh-FYE-deez. However, American dictionaries also accept a less-common, three-syllable variation whose ending rhymes with “tides.”)

The OED describes “bona fides” as a singular noun used in the law to mean “good faith” or “freedom from intent to deceive.” The dictionary’s only two examples are from 19th-century legal usage.

This one, from 1885, is a good illustration of the legal use: “It was said that this shewed bona fides on their part” (from Law Reports, Chancery Division).

In the mid-20th century, the noun “bona fides” developed a plural sense that the OED defines as “guarantees of good faith.”

The first example in the dictionary is from a 1944 issue of the journal Notes and Queries: “I notice in one of our best sellers the remark ‘If Mina’s bona fides are once questioned.’ ”

The OED regards this plural usage as a mistake: “Erroneously treated as pl. form of bona fide (assumed to be n. sing.)”

However, Oxford Dictionaries (a different entity from the OED) describes the usage as informal and gives this example: “‘Now, however, the bona fides of some of those ordinations are in question.”

And most of the other standard dictionaries we’ve checked accept without reservation the use of “bona fides” as a plural noun meaning good intentions, authentic credentials, proofs of legitimacy, and so on.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate has this example: “the informant’s bona fides were ascertained.” And American Heritage has an example that describes a singer whose “operatic bona fides were prominently on display.”

In addition, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage has citations that mention phrases like “the bona fides of a Soviet defector,” “social bona fides,” “literary bona fides,” and “his bona fides on this issue.”

In “this now-established new meaning,” the M-W usage guide says, the noun “very often occurs in contexts where it does not govern a verb.”

But when it is the subject of a verb, M-W adds, “the verb is usually plural,” as in this example: “Fritz Kolbe’s bona fides were unambiguously established” (from the New York Times Book Review, 1983).

OK, this use of “bona fides” is legit. But why use it at all? In our opinion, “bona fides” is a stuffy noun, and a word like “credentials” or “authenticity” or “legitimacy” would do a better job.

Bryan Garner, in his usage guide, agrees that the plural term has an “air of affectation.” And he adds: “Making bona fides singular sounds pedantic; making it plural is likely to offend those who have a smattering of Latin.”

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Why do the English drop aitches?

Q: Is there a linguistic relationship between the missing “h” sound in French and Eliza Doolittle’s aitch-dropping in Pygmalion and My Fair Lady?

A: The English have been dropping their aitches in speech and in spelling since Anglo-Saxon times, but the process accelerated as Old English gave way to Middle English in the 11th century.

Is French responsible for this “h”-dropping in English?

Well, Anglo-Norman, spoken by the Francophile upper classes in England for several hundred years after the Norman Conquest, is responsible for some of the “h” loss in Middle English, but not for Eliza’s cockney “h”-dropping.

Anglo-Norman, as well as Old French and Middle French, clearly influenced the absence of the “h” sound in some loanwords of Latin origin in Middle English, such as “honor,” “honest,” and “hour.”

But it’s uncertain whether Anglo-Norman, a Romance language formed from various French dialects, is responsible for any of the “h”-dropping in Middle English words of Anglo-Saxon origin.

One problem for linguists is determining how much of the “h”-dropping in Old English and Middle English writing reflected “h”-dropping in speech.

Some linguists have argued that the increase in “h”-dropping in Middle English texts was merely the result of errors by scribes who spoke Anglo-Norman, with its silent “h.”

But other linguists have said that the “h”-dropping in Middle English writing reflected “h”-dropping in speech, and that this was the result of the inherent weakness and instability of the phoneme, or unit of sound, represented by the letter “h.”

Today, “h”-dropping is associated with the cockney speech of working-class Londoners, but this loss of the “h” sound in words like “hammer,” “hat,” “house,” and “behind” is common in most regions of England, according to linguists.

In fact, “h” dropping is not unknown in Received Pronunciation, the standard British accent. In addition to dropping the “h” sound in the Gallic loanwords mentioned above, RP speakers used to drop it in “historic,” resulting in uses like “an ’istoric.”

RP speakers now pronounce all the letters of “historic,” but they’ve kept the indefinite article “an,” even though the article “a” would be standard before a word beginning with a sounded “h,” the phonetician John C. Wells writes in Accents of English (1982).

In A Course in Phonetics (1982), the phonetician Peter Ladefoged says “h” acts “like a consonant, but from an articulatory point of view is simply the voiceless counterpart of the following vowel.”

“It does not have a specific place of articulation,” he writes, “and its manner of articulation is the same as that of a vowel, only the state of the glottis is different.” (The glottis is made up of the vocal cords and the opening between them.)

As the linguist Larry Trask explains, “h” is “a very weak consonant, almost the last trace of anything we can call a consonant at all, and it disappears very easily.”

In classical times, Trask points out in a contribution to the Linguist List, the “h” sound “was completely gone in popular Latin speech by the first century BC, though it may have been retained for a while by a few pedants.”

“The Romance languages sometimes continue to write this long-lost /h/ in their orthographies,” he adds, “but this is purely for old times’ sake.”

However, the “h” sound was alive and well in Old English, according to linguists who have reconstructed Anglo-Saxon speech based on things like the rhyme in verse, the spelling of Latin loanwords, and related words in other Germanic languages.

The letter “h” had several pronunciations in Old English, which was spoken from about the 5th through the 11th centuries:

● In front of vowels, “h” sounded much as it does today.

● In front of consonants, it had a breathy sound.

● After a vowel pronounced at the front of the mouth (like “e” or “i”), “h” sounded like the “ch” in the German ich.

● After a vowel pronounced at the back of the mouth (like “a” or “o”), it sounded like the “ch” in the Scottish loch.

The use of “h” before consonants at the beginning of words began dying out in Old English and Middle English texts, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For example, the noun “ring” (the finger ornament), was hringae, hringiae, etc. in early Old English, but came to be spelled ringce, ryngc, ring, and so on in later Old English.

The noun “nut” (the seed) was originally hnut- or hnute- (in compounds) in Anglo-Saxon writing, and then nut-, nute, etc., in later Old English.

The adjective “loud” was hlúd in Old English and then lud(e), loude, lowd(e), and so on in Middle English.

The “h”-dropping in Old English texts presumably reflected the loss of the “h” sound in speech, according to phoneticians, linguists who specialize in phonetics.

However, scholars have debated the cause of the “h” loss in Middle English writing.

The 19th-century philologist Walter William Skeat attributed the loss of the letter “h” in Middle English writing to spelling errors by Anglo-Norman scribes.

But James Milroy, a 20th-century linguist, believed the scribes were representing the “h”-dropping in speech.

Milroy, who exhaustively studied “h”-dropping in England, writes in the Cambridge History of the English Language that in certain regions of medieval England “the syllable initial [h] was not present, or only variably present,” in speech.

Trask, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sussex, raises an interesting point on the Linguist List about contemporary “h” dropping in working-class speech in England.

Although the “h” sound in words of Anglo-Saxon origin (like “hair,” “heart,” “harm,” and “hit”) is “completely gone in the vernacular speech of almost all of England,” Trask writes, there’s no sign of such “h”-dropping in North America.

(The “h”-less US pronunciation of “herb” is not an American version of cockney “h”-dropping. It’s the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the Old French loanword was usually spelled “erbe.” As the OED notes, in British speech “the h was mute until the 19th cent.”)

Why is cockney-style “h”-dropping common among the English, but unknown among Americans?

In Accents of English, Wells, a professor emeritus at University College London, suggests that the American colonists didn’t take such “h”-dropping with them to the New World because they left before its widespread appearance in England.

“The fact that H dropping is unknown in North America strongly suggests that it arose in England only well after the American colonies were founded,” he writes.

Although “h”-dropping did occur in Old English and Middle English, as we’ve said, it apparently wasn’t common enough in England to get the attention of language commentators and novelists until the latter half of the 18th century.

In Talking Proper (1995), Lynda Mugglestone, an Oxford historian of the English language, says the first language writer to complain about “h”-dropping was the actor-educator Thomas Sheridan.

In A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762), Sheridan criticizes “the omission of the aspirate in many words by some, and in most by others.”

And in Propriety Ascertained in Her Picture (1786), a pronunciation and spelling guide, James Elphinston condemns the “lowliness” and “impropriety” of pronunciations like “uman,” “umor,” and “umbel” (for “human,” “humor,” and “humble”).

Later, Lindley Murray’s influential English Grammar (1795) describes the “h” sound as a requirement for “educated” speech, and blames “the negligence of tutors” and “the inattention of pupils” for its loss.

As for fiction, Winifred Jenkins, a maid in Tobias Smollett’s last novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), drops her aitches on and off, referring to “heart” as “art,” and “harm” as “arm.”

By the mid-19th century, working-class characters routinely dropped their aitches in novels. As Uriah Heep says in David Copperfield (1850):  “I am well aware that I am the umblest person going.”

(Although “humble” was the standard spelling of the word in Dickens’s day, its original spelling in Middle English was “umble.”)

We can’t conclude this discussion of “h”-dropping without mentioning the many Old English words that began with “hw” but now begin with “wh,” including hwæt (“what”), hwanne (“when”), hwǽr, (“where”), hwæs (“whose”), hwā (“who”), hwí (“why”), hwelc (“which”), hwæðer (“whether”), and so on.

The OED says the “normal Old English spelling hw was generally preserved in early Middle English,” and the “modern spelling wh is found first in regular use in the Ormulum,” a 12th-century religious work in which whillc is used for “which.”

“In Old English the pronunciation symbolized by hw was probably in the earliest periods a voiced bilabial consonant preceded by a breath,” according to the dictionary. (A voiced bilabial consonant is one in which the vocal cords vibrate and the air flow is restricted by the lips.)

Interestingly, the words that began with “hw” in Old English have given us two types of “wh” words today: those in which the “w” sound predominates (“why,” “where,” “when,” etc.) and those in which the “h” sound predominates (“who,” “whole,” “whose”).

In case you’re wondering, “whore” was originally spelled hóre in Old English, and retained its “h” pronunciation when the “wh” spelling of the word arose in the 16th century.

An 1830 edition of Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary gives two pronunciations, “höör, or höre,” and adds: “If there can be a polite pronunciation of this vulgar word, it is the first of these, rhyming with poor.”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several posts about “herb” and “historic,” including Herbal remedies in 2009 and Historic article in 2012.

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The 3 “ch” sounds: sh, tch, k

Q: Do English words with “ch” pronounced as sh (e.g., “Chicago,” “chute”) generally have French origins?

A: The short answer is yes—but there’s more to the story.

As you know, there are three ways to pronounce the letter combination “ch” in English.

It can sound like k (as in “chasm” or “school”), like sh (as in “charade” or “brochure”), and like tch (as in “champion” and “child”).

The “ch” words with the k sound are derived from classical Greek, while the “ch” words with the sh sound come from modern French.

Most of the “ch” words with the tch sound come from Old English and are Germanic in origin (like “child,” “church,” and “each”).

However, some tch-sound words (such as “chase,” “challenge,” and “chance”) are derived from Old French, where “ch” was pronounced tch.

The “ch” letter combination didn’t exist in Old English, which used the letter “c” for both k and tch sounds, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

After the Norman Conquest, Middle English scribes introduced the Gallic “ch” spelling. It was used in words from Old French that were already spelled with “ch,” as well in Old English words pronounced with tch and formerly spelled with “c.”

“French spelling habits were applied to native English vocabulary,” the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says, “and the word spelled cild in Old English, for instance, came to be spelled child in Middle and Modern English.”

Interestingly, the “ch” letter combination pronounced tch in Old French later came to be pronounced sh in modern French. But the English words with “ch” that came from Old French tended to retain the earlier tch pronunciation.

Finally, US place names in which “ch” is pronounced sh (like “Chicago” and “Michigan”) generally come from French versions of American Indian names.

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Why do we con-VICT a CON-vict?

Q: Why do words such as “refuse” and “project” have one pronunciation as a verb and another as a noun?

A: The usual pattern with these pairs is that the noun is accented on the first syllable while the verb is accented on the second, as with CON-vict (n.) and con-VICT (v.), REC-ord (n.) and re-CORD (v.).

[Note: A later post, on the pronunciation of “concept” as a verb (con-SEPT), appeared in June 2019.]

This is a long-established convention of English pronunciation, one that 18th-century lexicographers commented on.

Samuel Johnson, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), had this to say about such two-syllable pairs:

“Of disyllables, which are at once nouns and verbs, the verb has commonly the accent on the latter, and the noun on the former syllable.”

He gave several examples, including con-TRACT (v.) and CON-tract (n.).

“This rule has many exceptions,” Johnson added. “Though verbs seldom have their accent on the former, yet nouns often have it on the latter syllable,” he said, as with de-LIGHT and per-FUME.

There are scores (we’ve seen lists with more than 150) of these two-syllable pairs in English. They’re often called heteronyms or heterophones, a subject we wrote about in a 2012 post.

Obviously, there’s an advantage in having different pronunciations. The speaker can distinguish one word from the other and avoid ambiguity, an advantage that we don’t have in written English. (A linguist would say the differing pronunciations serve to “disambiguate” the words.)

Occasionally, as with the noun “record,” the accent varied in early pronouncing dictionaries, and only later did the first-syllable stress become the norm.

Johnson, in the entry for “record” in his 1755 dictionary, was on the fence: “The accent of the noun is indifferently on either syllable; of the verb always on the last.”

Thomas Sheridan, in A General Dictionary of the English Language (1780), stressed only the second syllable of the noun (re-CORD).

And John Walker, in A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1791), stressed the first syllable of the noun (REC-ord).

Walker noted that “the noun record was anciently, as well as at present, pronounced with the accent either on the first or second syllable,” but he urged speakers to accent the first.

Accenting the second syllable, he said, “is overturning one of the most settled analogies of our language, and … it would be to the advantage of pronunciation to lean to the obvious analogy in disyllable nouns and verbs of the same form.”

The convention of accenting the nouns and verbs differently, Walker said, “seems an instinctive effort in the language … to compensate in some measure for the want of different terminations for these different parts of speech.”

In the case of “record,” Walker’s advice was somewhat slow to take hold. As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Examples of stress on the second syllable can still be found in verse in the 19th cent.”

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Phobias, inside and out

Q: If people who spend all their time inside suffer from “agoraphobia,” do people who spend all (or much) of their time outside suffer from “claustrophobia”?

A: If “agoraphobia” is defined as fear of open spaces and “claustrophobia” as fear of closed spaces, then the two words would be opposites.

Those are the most common definitions in standard dictionaries, but some dictionaries have expanded on them to make the meanings overlap to a considerable degree.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, has the usual definitions, with “agoraphobia” defined as “fear of going outside and being in open spaces or public places” and “claustrophobia” as “fear of being in closed spaces.”

The online Oxford Dictionaries, however, defines “agoraphobia” as “extreme or irrational fear of crowded spaces or enclosed public places,” and “claustrophobia” as “extreme or irrational fear of confined places.”

We don’t see all that much difference between those Oxford definitions: “crowded spaces or enclosed public places” could well be described as “confined places.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (a different entity from Oxford Dictionaries online) expands the definition of “agoraphobia” further to include fear “of leaving one’s own home.”

The OED defines “agoraphobia” as “fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one’s own home, or of being in places from which escape is difficult.” It defines “claustrophobia” as “a morbid dread of confined places.”

So what do the two terms really mean? With dictionaries at odds, it’s your call. Pick whichever dictionary definition you’re comfortable with.

Getting back to your question, we might use those terms loosely to describe pathological fears that would keep people inside (“agoraphobia”) or outside (“claustrophobia”).

The noun “agoraphobia” was borrowed from the German agoraphobie, a term coined by Carl Friedrich Otto Westphal in 1871, according to the OED. The word appeared later that year in the British journal Clinic:

“Agorophobia [sic].—With this name Westphal denotes a neuropathetic affection which he has recently occasionally encountered. Its most essential symptom, is a most acute anxiety or fear, experienced in open places, long passages, theatres, concert saloons, etc., with no other cerebral disturbance.”

Westphal originally conceived of “agoraphobia” as simply the fear of large open spaces, though the word soon acquired wider meanings in psychiatric terminology.

The German psychiatrist formed it from the Greek agora (a public open space or marketplace) and –phobia (fear of).

“Claustrophobia” also has classical roots. It was formed from the Latin claustrum (confined space), the source of “cloister,” according to the OED.

The  noun was coined by an English-born French medical professor, Benjamin Ball, in his article “On Claustrophobia,” published in the British Medical Journal in September 1879.

It’s interesting that in his paper, which was published shortly afterward in Paris under the title “De la Claustrophobie,” Ball compared the two disorders.

He characterized “claustrophobia” as “a state of mind in which there was a morbid fear of closed spaces … apparently different from, but in reality similar to, agoraphobia or the dread of open spaces.”

One last point. The pronunciation of “agoraphobia” has evolved in recent years for many speakers, with the secondary accent moving from the first syllable (AG-or-a-PHO-bi-a) to the second (a-GOR-a-PHO-bi-a).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says in a usage note that the “variant has quickly gained acceptance” and is now accepted by almost three-quarters of its usage panel.

American Heritage now accepts both pronunciations. However, five of the other standard dictionaries we’ve checked list only the traditional pronunciation (AG-or-a-PHO-bi-a).

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PEE-a-nist or pee-A-nist?

Q: When I was growing up, almost everyone pronounced “pianist” as PEE-a-nist. But these days, even on classical music stations, it’s pee-A-nist. Is this a misguided attempt to avoid saying something that sounds slightly rude?

A: The word “pianist” has been pronounced both PEE-a-nist and pee-A-nist since the 19th century.

Today, American dictionaries include both pee-A-nist and PEE-a-nist as standard pronunciations, while British dictionaries list only PEE-a-nist.

The earliest example of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Jan. 5, 1820, issue of the Times (London): An accomplished Theorist, emphatic Pianist, and elegantly chaste Articulative Vocalist.”

The oldest dictionary we’ve found that includes the term is Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), which gives PEE-a-nist as the only pronunciation.

However, most of the other dictionaries we’ve seen from the 19th and early 20th centuries give pee-A-nist as the only pronunciation.

For example, A Dictionary of the English Language Exhibiting Orthography, Pronunciation and Definition of Words (1861), by Arnold J. Cooley, gives the pronunciation as pee-A-nist.

Similarly, the Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language (1874), by James Stormonth and P. H. Phelp, has pee-A-nist.

A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1881), by John Walker, with a 5,000 word supplement by Edward Smith, gives the pronunciation as pee-A-nist.

And a 1904 edition of the Stormonth-Phelp dictionary, updated by William Bayne, also offers only the pee-A-nist pronunciation.

Two of the most important standard dictionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—The Century Dictionary (1889-91) and Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)—also pronounce “pianist” as pee-A-nist.

However, James Murray’s early version of the Oxford English Dictionary lists PEE-a-nist as the only pronunciation.

Murray included the pronunciation in his June 1906 “Ph-Piper” fascicle, or installment, of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, which became the first edition of the OED. (Volume VII of the NED, covering the letters O and P, was published in 1909.)

Interestingly, the “pianist” entry in the online OED, which was updated in 2006, still accents the first syllable, PEE-a-nist, though the vowels are slightly different in the US and UK versions.

Finally, we’ve seen no evidence that prudery has had anything to do with the pee-A-nist pronunciation. A more likely influence may have been the pronunciation of the instrument itself, pee-A-no.

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Hallowe’en be thy name

(Note: This post originally appeared on the blog on Halloween a year ago.)

Q: My husband grew up in New York and says “HOLLOW-een.” I grew up in Chicago and pronounce it “HALLOW-een.” Which is right?

A: We answered a similar question five years ago, but this is a good day to revisit it!

As we wrote in 2009, dictionaries accept both pronunciations, but your preference (“HALLOW-een”) is more historically accurate. We’ll expand on our earlier post to explain why.

Back in the seventh century, the early Christians had more saints than they had days in the year. To commemorate the leftover saints who didn’t have a day all to themselves, the church set aside a day devoted to all of them, and in the next century the date was standardized as Nov. 1.

The Christian holiday became known as the Day of All Saints, or All Hallows Day. “Hallow,” an old word for a holy person or a saint, evolved from the Old English word halig, meaning “holy.”

Meanwhile, the pagan Celts of northwestern Europe and the British Isles were already celebrating Oct. 31, the final day of the year in the Celtic calendar. It was both a celebration of the harvest and a Day of the Dead, a holiday on which the Celtic people believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

As Christianity spread, these celebrations neatly dovetailed. The pagan Day of the Dead was transformed by Christianity into the Eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. This later became All Hallow Even, then was shortened to Hallowe’en and finally Halloween.

Pat spoke about this recently on Iowa Public Radio, and mentioned some of the whimsical names for the night before Halloween. Like the pronunciation of “Halloween,” these regional names vary across the country: Devil’s Night … Cabbage Night … Goosey Night … Clothesline Night … Mischief Night … Hell Night, and so on. (Sometimes, these occasions are excuses for vandalism and general bad behavior.)

Several Iowa listeners called and tweeted to say that in the small rural towns where they grew up, kids went “corning” on the night before Halloween, throwing handfuls of corn at neighbors’ windows and doors. Well, perhaps that’s better than throwing eggs or strewing trees with toilet paper!

Pat also discussed the etymologies of some of the more familiar Halloween words:

● “Ghost” came from the Old English gast (spirit, soul). It has roots in ancient Germanic words, and you can hear it today in the modern German geist (mind, spirit, ghost). The word “poltergeist” is from German, in which poltern means to rumble or make noise.

People didn’t begin to spell “ghost” with an “h” until the 1400s, probably influenced by the Dutch word, which began with “gh-.”

● “Ghastly,” from the old verb gast (frighten), didn’t always have an “h” either. It was written as “gastliche” or “gastly” in the 1300s. The “gh-” spelling 200 years later was influenced by “ghost,” but otherwise they’re unrelated.

● “Haunt” is derived from an Old French verb meaning “to frequent,” and in the English of the 1200s it meant to do something habitually or frequently. Later, in the 1500s, a figurative use emerged in reference to supernatural beings who would “haunt” (that is, frequently visit) those of us on earth.

● “Goblin” has a spooky history dating back to the fourth or fifth century in France. Legend has it that an extremely ugly and very nasty demon was driven out of the town of Évreux by an early Christian bishop. When the story was recorded later in a medieval Latin manuscript, the demon was called Gobelinus. Thus the word gobelin passed into Old French to mean an evil demon, and in the early 1300s “goblin” came into English.

● “Ghoul,” a relative latecomer, came into English in the late 18th century from Arabic, in which ghul means an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses. The Arabic word comes from a verb that means to seize.

● “Mummy” also has an Arabic ancestry. It can be traced to the Arabic mumiya (embalmed body), derived from mum, a Persian word for wax. The word passed into Egyptian and other languages, then into 14th-century English, where “mummy” first meant a medicinal ointment prepared from mummified flesh. By the 17th century, it had come to mean a body embalmed according to Egyptian practices.

● “Witch” has its roots in an Old English verb, wiccian, meaning to practice sorcery. There were both masculine and feminine nouns for the sorcerers themselves: a man was a wicca and a woman was a wicce. The “cc” in these words was pronounced like “ch,” so they sounded like witchen, witcha, and witchee. (Wicca, the pagan religion of witchcraft that appeared in the 20th century, is spelled like the Old English masculine wicca though its followers pronounce it as wikka.)

Eventually the nouns for male and female sorcerers (wicca and wicce) merged, the endings fell away, and the word became the unisex “witch” in the 13th century. Later in its history, “witch” came to be more associated with women, which explains a change in this next word.

● “Wizard” literally meant “wise man” when it entered English in the 1400s. But in the following century it took on a new job. It became the male counterpart of “witch” and meant a man who practices magic or sorcery.

● “Vampire” may have its roots in ubyr, a word for “witch” in the Kazan Tatar language spoken in an area of what is now Russia, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The OED suggests an origin in Magyar (vampir), the language of modern Hungary. However it originated, the word is now very widely spread and has similar-sounding counterparts in Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian, Bulgarian, Ruthenian, German, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and even modern Latin (vampyrus). When it came into English from French in the 1740s, it was spelled “vampyre,” which for some reason looks scarier in writing (perhaps it seems more gothic).

● “Werewolf” has come down from Old English more or less intact as a word for someone who can change (or is changed) from a man into a wolf. It was first recorded as werewulf around the year 1000. In those days, wer or were was a word for “man,” so “werewolf” literally means “wolf man.”

● “Zombie” has its roots in West Africa and is similar to words in the Kongo language, nzambi (god) and zumbi (fetish), as the OED notes. Transferred to the Caribbean and the American South in the 19th century, “zombie” was part of the language of the voodoo cult. It first meant a snake god, and later a soulless corpse reanimated by witchcraft.

● “Hocus-pocus” can be traced to the 1600s, when it meant a juggler, trickster, or conjuror. It may even have been the name of a particular entertainer who performed during the reign of King James I (1601-1625), according to a citation in the OED.

This man, the citation says, called himself Hocus Pocus because “at the playing of every Trick, he used to say, Hocus pocus, tontus talontus, vade celeriter jubeo, a dark composure of words, to blinde the eyes of the beholders, to make his Trick pass the more currantly without discovery.” (From A Candle in the Dark, a 1655 religious and political tract by Thomas Ady.)

It has also been suggested that “hocus-pocus” was a spoof on the Latin words used in the Eucharist, hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”), but there’s no evidence for that. At any rate, the phrase “hocus-pocus” eventually became a famous incantation. “Hocus” by itself also became a verb and a noun for this kind of hoodwinking, and the word “hoax” may be a contracted form of “hocus.”

● “Weird” once had a very different meaning. In Old English, the noun wyrd meant fate or destiny, and from around 1400 the term “weird sister” referred to a woman with supernatural powers who could control someone’s destiny. This is how Shakespeare meant “weird” when he called the three witches in Macbeth “the weyard sisters.” It wasn’t until the 19th century that “weird” was used to mean strange or uncanny or even eerie.

● “Eerie,” another much-changed word, is one we owe to the Scots. When it was recorded in writing in the early 1300s, “eerie” meant fearful or timid. Not until the late 18th century did “eerie” come to mean inspiring fear—as in spooky.

● “Jack-o’-lantern,” a phrase first recorded in the 17th century, originally meant “man with a lantern” or “night watchman.” It became associated with Halloween and carved pumpkins in the 19th century. And incidentally, the British originally hollowed out large turnips, carving scary eyes and mouths and putting candles inside. Americans made their jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins.

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They sore what they seen

Q: Is there a reason people use the pronunciation “sore” for “saw” or use “seen” instead of “saw,” as in “I sore her yesterday” or “I seen her last week”?

A: These are two entirely different issues, and they have different causes.

The use of what sounds like “sore” for “saw” is merely a regional pronunciation.

The speaker here is being grammatically correct, since he or she is actually using the word “saw” (and would write it that way), but is pronouncing it with a regional accent.

In this case, the accent represents a speech pattern often heard on the East Coast, and one that we’ve written about before on our blog.

As we wrote in 2008, the speaker inserts an “r” sound, sometimes called the intrusive “r.”

This “r” is sometimes inserted just before a word beginning with a vowel sound. So, for instance, the speaker would say, “That’s a bad idea” (normal pronunciation), but “That idear annoys me” (intrusive “r”).

As we’ve said, this pronunciation should not be considered a mistake, merely a regionalism.

The use of “I seen,” on the other hand, isn’t standard English; it’s a grammatical error.

The mistake is using the past participle (“seen,” the form used with “have” or “had”) instead of the simple past tense (“saw”).

The basic tense forms for the verb “see” are “I see” (present), “I saw” (past), “I have seen” (present perfect), and “I had seen” (past perfect).

Interestingly, “saw” has been spelled may different ways since it showed up in Old English, suggesting that its pronunciation has varied too.

The word is spelled “saeh” in the Lindisfarne Gospel of John, which is believed to date from the early 700s. Some other early spellings in the Oxford English Dictionary are “seah,” “sauh,” “saue,” and “sawhe.”

The use of “I seen” for “I saw” may not be standard English (the OED describes it as colloquial and dialectal), but it’s been around for quite a while.

The earliest Oxford example of the usage is from the Sept. 30, 1796, issue of the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper: “So fine a sight (says Yankee to his friend) I swear I never seen—you may depend.”

And here’s an 1861 example from Tom Brown at Oxford, a sequel to the better-known Thomas Hughes novel Tom Brown’s School Days: “ ‘Hev’ee seed aught o’ my bees?’ … ‘E’es, I seen ’em.’ ”

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A pronouncing primer

Q: I pronounce “primer,” the textbook, to rhyme with “trimmer.” But people I otherwise admire pronounce it to rhyme with “timer.” May I harbor ill will against them? Or are they simply using an acceptable alternate pronunciation?

A: The short answer is that “primer,” when it means an elementary textbook, is pronounced one way in the US and another in the UK.

It was pronounced with a short “i” (rhyming with “trimmer”) when it first showed up in English in the 14th century. Americans still pronounce it that way.

But in the late 19th century, the British began pronouncing it with a long “i” (rhyming with “timer”) and that’s now the usual pronunciation in the UK, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes that the long “i” pronunciation for the textbook “is the primary one given in all editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict.” (In 1917, the British phonetician Daniel Jones published the first edition of his English Pronouncing Dictionary, which has remained in print in various editions.)

We’ve checked the pronunciation of “primer” (used in the textbook sense) in ten standard dictionaries, five American and five British.

Eight of them say the word has a short “i” in American English and a long “i” in British English. The other two, one published in the US and the other in the UK, give only the short “i” pronunciation, with the UK dictionary labeling the word “old-fashioned US.” [Note: We updated the dictionary findings on Jan. 21, 2022.]

So which pronunciation is correct? Apparently that depends largely on which side of the pond you call home.

However, English speakers on both sides pronounce “primer” with a long “i” (as in “timer”) when it’s used in other senses (such as an undercoat of paint or a cap used to ignite an explosive). We wrote a post in 2012 about the use of “primer” in painting.

English adopted “primer” in its learning sense from primarium, medieval Latin for a prayer book. In classical Latin, primarius was an adjective meaning primary.

Such devotional books were often used to teach children to read, which soon led to the use of “primer” for a beginning (or first) school book, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The earliest OED example of the word used in its prayer-book sense is a 1378 reference to one red “primer,” recorded in M. T. Löfvenberg’s Contributions to Middle English Lexicography and Etymology (1946).

The earliest example for the textbook sense is from “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): “This litel child his litel book lernynge, / As he sat in the scole at his prymer.”

An interesting aside: Daniel Jones, whose pronouncing dictionary we cited earlier, may have been the inspiration for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Henry Sweet, a mentor of Jones, has also been mentioned.

[Note: This item updates and expands on an April 4, 2008, post about the pronunciation of “primer.”]

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When “mow” rhymes with “cow”

Q: I believe Pat misspoke on Iowa Public Radio the other day when she said the noun “mow,” as in “hay mow,” is pronounced the same as the verb. My family on my dad’s side are farmers from Wisconsin, and I’ve always heard it pronounced MAU, rhyming with “cow.” I’ve never heard it pronounced MOE, as in “Mow your yard.”

A: You’re right! Pat mistakenly pronounced the noun, a place for storing hay, as MOE, rather than MAU when she appeared on Talk of Iowa on July 8, 2015. Apologies are in order.

Despite similar spellings, the noun and the verb are pronounced differently. The noun rhymes with “plow” while the verb rhymes with “hoe.” Pat, who comes from Iowa, should have known better.

Why don’t these words sound alike? As it happens, they’ve been different for a very long time, because they come from different sources reaching far back into prehistory.

The “mow” where hay or straw or grain is stored can be traced to an Old English word, muha, dating from before 800, that meant a heap or pile.

The word’s cousins in old Germanic languages meant “crowd,” “flock,” and “common people,” the Oxford English Dictionary says.

Ultimately, however, the word goes even further back, to an ancient Indo-European root reconstructed as muk- (heap, pile), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The other “mow,” the one that means to cut down, has its distant beginnings in another Indo-European root, reconstructed as me– (to cut down grass or grain with a scythe).

According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, this prehistoric me– gave us three strains of English words:

(1) our verb “mow” (as in reap), which started out as mawan in Old English;

(2) “mead” and “meadow,” which come from words for a mown field;

(3) “math,” a nearly defunct agricultural word for a mowing (it survives today in the word “aftermath,” literally “after mowing”).

The archaic “math,” by the way, has nothing to do with numbers. We wrote about the two words spelled “math” in a 2012 post on the blog.

Given that both versions of “mow”—the noun and the verb—are so strongly associated with farming, one would assume their two pronunciations would have merged into one by now.

But it hasn’t happened. All modern dictionaries, as Pat has learned to her embarrassment, give MAU for one and MOE for the other. Live and learn.

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Plovers lane

Q: I was at a loss to explain the pronunciation of “plover” to the son of a friend. Some sources say it rhymes with “lover” and others with “rover.” A poll of birders indicates that PLUH-ver is favoured over PLOH-ver by a small majority. I bet there’s a worthwhile post lurking here.

A: You betcha! Both the PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver pronunciations are listed in standard dictionaries. Some have one, some the other, and the rest include the two of them.

So both pronunciations are standard English, though the eight dictionaries we’ve checked usually give only PLUH-ver for an online audio pronouncer.

(Some British dictionaries describe PLOH-ver as an American pronunciation, but the three US dictionaries we consulted include both PLUH-ver and PLOH-ver.)

Interestingly, the common name of the shorebird was spelled all sorts of ways  for hundreds of years after it showed up in English in the early 1300s. Those spellings undoubtedly reflected different pronunciations.

In fact, the first syllable was spelled—and pronounced—two different ways (plo- and plu-) in medieval Latin, the source of the English word. Here’s the story.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes several theories about the origin of “plover,” a collective name for any of various wading birds of the family Charadriidae.

One theory is that the name was influenced by the classical Latin word for rain, pluvia, because plovers arrived with the rainy season, or were active then, or were easily hunted in the rain.

Another theory is that the upper plumage of some plovers appears to be spotted with raindrops.

However, the OED leans toward the theory that the name “plover” is simply imitative of the cries of various plovers.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “plover” is a reference to “pluvers” from a manuscript, dated 1304-05, in the British Museum.

Over the next three centuries, the word was spelled in dozens of ways, including plouier, ploware, plowere, pluwer, plovere, plower, pluuer.

Here’s an example from The Unfortunate Traveller, a 1594 novel by Thomas Nashe: “As fat and plum euerie part of her as a plouer.”

It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that English speakers settled on “plover” as the proper spelling of the bird’s name.

For example, Robert Lovell’s 1661 translation of a Greek work on zoology and mineralogy has an entry for “plover” with this description: “The flesh is very pleasant, and better than the green Lapwing.” (The feathers were also used in hats.)

Plover populations were devastated by hunting in the 19th century, but the Migratory Bird Treaty Act now protects them in the US, Canada, and Mexico.

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A lowering sky

Q: How is “lowering” pronounced when used to describe a threatening sky? And is this usage related etymologically to things descending?

A: The “lowering” that we use to describe a threatening sky is not related to the “lowering” that means descending. It’s a different word entirely, with a different origin and a different traditional pronunciation.

The word found in expressions like “lowering clouds” or “a lowering sky” traditionally rhymes with “flowering,” “towering,” and “showering.” It was originally spelled “louring,” with the “our” pronounced as in “hour” or “sour.”

Its source was the verb “lour,” which was first recorded in the late 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. This verb initially meant “to frown, scowl; to look angry or sullen,” the OED says.

The earliest example Oxford cites is from The South English Legendary (circa 1290), a chronicle of the lives of the saints:

“He … lourede with sori semblaunt: and þeos wordes out he caste.” (“He loured with an angry countenance and these words he cast out.”)

By the late 16th century, people were using “lour” and “louring” in reference to menacing skies as well as to menacing looks. The OED’s earliest examples are from the stage:

“O my starres! Why do you lowre vnkindly on a King?” (from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, written sometime before 1593).

“The cloudes that lowrd vpon our house” (Shakespeare’s Richard III, 1597).

Note that by this time a “w” had crept into the spelling, and the old “lour” became “lower.” But thanks to poets and to early pronouncing dictionaries, we know that its pronunciation stayed the same.

For example, the Middle English poet Geoffrey Chaucer rhymed “loured” and “devoured” in The Hous of Fame (circa 1384). Centuries later, John Milton rhymed “hour” and “lowre” in Samson Agonistes (1671).

And in the 19th century, a satirical poet known only by the pseudonym Quiz wrote these lines in The Grand Master (1816): “His tone of insolence and pow’r, / Made all the passengers to low’r.”

Even today, the original pronunciation is the only one recognized by the OED and some standard dictionaries, like The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

But some others, like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), say this sense of “lower” now has two acceptable pronunciations. It can rhyme with “flower” or with “knower.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that with two words spelled “lower,” the more common one would influence the pronunciation—and even the meaning—of the lesser-known word.

As the OED notes, “The spelling lower (compare flower) renders the word identical in its written form with lower v., to bring or come down, and the two verbs have often been confused.”

In speaking of clouds, Oxford says, the “lower” that means to look threatening “has some affinity in sense” with the “lower” that means to descend, “and it is not always possible to discover which verb was in the mind of a writer.”

In fact, pronunciation may be a moot point here. It’s been our experience that the threatening sense of the word is seldom if ever used in speech. Most of the time we encounter it in writing—and rather elevated writing at that.

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English describes “lower” or “lour” as a literary term in British English. Longman gives as examples “lowering clouds” and “The other driver lowered at us as we passed him.”

As for its origins, the verb “lower” (to look threatening) has corresponding forms in old and modern Germanic languages. These words, the OED says, mean to frown, knit the brows, watch stealthily, spy, or lie in wait.

The other “lower”—the verb and adjective referring to height or position—comes from the adjective “low.” This word, the OED says, is descended from early Scandinavian, where it meant short, near to the ground, humble, or muted in voice.

Finally, a little detour to the barnyard.

That last sense of “low,” descriptive of a quiet or muted voice, may lead you to think of the “lowing” of cattle. But that’s another “low” entirely; it has nothing to do with the “low” that’s the opposite of “high.”

The “low” that refers to the sound of cattle (it rhymes with “toe”) was recorded in Old English (hlowan), but is much older. It’s been traced back to proto-Germanic (khlo) and to an even more ancient Indo-European root (kla), according to etymological dictionaries.

As you might suspect, the Old English hlowan and its predecessors were imitative in origin—they mimicked the resonant moo of a cow. As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the Indo-European root, kla, was onomatopoeic.

That ancient root was also the origin of noise-making words in Latin and Greek, specifically the verbs that mean something like “call”—clamare and calare in Latin, kalein in Greek.

Ayto says the Indo-European root that gave us the bovine “low” also produced these words: “Latin clarus (which originally meant ‘loud’ and gave English clear and declare), clamare ‘cry out’ (source of English acclaim, claim, exclaim, etc.), and calare ‘proclaim, summon’ (source of English council).”

But getting back to the barnyard, the old Germanic verbs corresponding to “low” meant “to moo, bellow,” the OED says. But nowadays, Oxford says, the English word represents “a more subdued sound than bellow, being roughly equivalent to moo but somewhat more literary.”

So now we know. Ordinary cows “moo,” but literary ones “low.”

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Is it loo-TEN-ant or lef-TEN-ant?

Q: My daughter wonders why “lieutenant” is pronounced lef-TEN-ant in the UK and loo-TEN-ant in the US. Do you have any clues?

A: The word “lieutenant” came into Middle English in the 1300s from French—lieu for “place” and tenant for “holding.”

(Originally a “lieutenant” was a placeholder, a civil or military officer acting in place of a superior. Think of the phrase “in lieu of” for “in place of.” )

But since the beginning, the British have commonly pronounced the first syllable of “lieutenant” as if it had an “f” or a “v.”

In the early days, this tendency was sometimes reflected in spellings:  “leeftenaunt” (1387), “luf-tenend “ (late 1300s), “leyf tenaunt” (early 1400s),” “lyeftenaunt” (circa 1425), “luff tenande” (late 1400s), “leivetenant” (late 1500s), and so on.

But long after the spelling stabilized and “lieutenant” became the dominant form in writing, the “f” sound has survived in British speech, where the usual pronunciation today is lef-TEN-ant. Nobody knows why.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the “f” and “v” sounds “is difficult to explain,” and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says it “remains uncertain.” In other words, we can only guess.

The OED says one theory is that English readers misinterpreted the letter “u” as a “v,” since in Middle English the two letters were not distinct.

But Oxford says this can’t account for the “f” and “v” pronunciations since it “does not accord with the facts.”

The dictionary is apparently referring to the fact that in Middle English spelling, the letter “v” was generally used at the beginning of a word and “u” elsewhere, regardless of the sound, which accounts for old spellings like “vpon” (upon) and “loue” (love). However, the “u” is in the middle of “lieutenant,” not the beginning.

The OED suggests two possibilities to explain the appearance of the “f” and “v” sounds in “lieutenant.”

One is that that some of the “f” and “v” pronunciations “may be due to association” with the noun “leave” or the adjective “lief.”

A likelier theory is “that the labial glide at the end of Old French lieu as the first element of a compound was sometimes apprehended by English-speakers as a v or f.” (A labial glide is a transitional sound in which air is forced through the lips.)

Oxford also notes the existence of “the rare Old French form leuf for lieu,” which may have influenced the English pronunciation. (The language researcher Michael Quinion cites a medieval form of the word, leuftenant, in the records of what is now a Swiss canton.)

However it came about, the usual pronunciation in Britain today begins with “lef,” and seems unlikely to change.

As Oxford notes, John Walker in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1793) gives the “actual pronunciation” of the first syllable as “lef” or “liv,” though he “expresses the hope that ‘the regular sound, lewtenant’ will in time become current.” Despite Walker’s advice, that pronunciation “is almost unknown” in Britain, the OED adds.

Noah Webster, in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), recommends only one pronunciation for the word, which he renders as “lutenant.”

American dictionaries have followed Webster’s lead and give loo-TEN-ant as the pronunciation, though they usually note the lef-TEN-ant pronunciation in Britain.

Finally, an aside. Another of our correspondents once suggested that the British pronunciation arose though squeamishness: “The Brits didn’t want to refer to their officers with the term ‘loo’!”

Intriguing, but untrue. The word “loo” wasn’t recorded in the bathroom sense until the 20th century. Another theory down the drain.

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How “colonel” became KER-nel

Q: How did a “colonel” in the military come to be pronounced like a “kernel” on an ear of corn?

A: The word for the military officer once had competing spellings as well as competing pronunciations. When the dust settled, it ended up being spelled in one way and pronounced in the other.

The word was actually “coronel” when it entered English in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the messy story of how a word once spelled “coronel” in English came to be spelled “colonel” and pronounced KER-nel.

English acquired the original “coronel” from the Middle French coronnel, which came from colonello, the Italian word for the commander of a regiment, the OED says.

Colonello is derived from colonna, Italian for a column, which in turn comes from columna, Latin for a pillar.

Oxford cites the English philologist Walter William Skeat as saying the colonello got his name because he led “the little column or company at the head of the regiment.”

The first company of the regiment—the colonel’s company—was called la compagnia colonnella in Italian and la compagnie colonelle in French, according to the OED.

The confusion began when the Italian colonello entered Middle French in the 16th century. The two “l” sounds apparently didn’t sit well with French speakers, so the first “l” changed to “r” and the word briefly became coronel.

The process by which two neighboring “l” sounds were “dissimulated” (or rendered dissimilar) was common in the Romance languages, the OED says.

However, the French coronel “was supplanted in literary use, late in 16th cent., by the more etymological colonnel,” according to the dictionary. (The word is now colonel in modern French.)

But meanwhile both English and Spanish had borrowed coronel, the dissimilated version of the word, from Middle French in the mid-1500s.

When it entered English, in 1548, it was spelled “coronel,” with a three-syllable pronunciation (kor-uh-NEL) similar to that of the Middle French word.

Although it’s still spelled coronel in Spanish, English speakers soon followed the French and returned to the more etymologically correct spelling.

As the OED explains, “under this influence [the French spelling change] and that of translations of Italian military treatises colonel also appeared in English c1580.”

By the mid-1600s, the OED says, “colonel” was the accepted English spelling and “coronel” had fallen by the wayside.

But the word’s pronunciation took much longer to get settled.

The two competing pronunciations (kor-uh-NEL, kol-uh-NEL) existed until the early 19th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, along with a popular variation, KER-uh-nel.

In the early 1800s, Chambers says, the KER-uh-nel pronunciation was shortened to KER-nel. (The awkward KOL-nel, a shortened version of kol-uh-NEL, was recorded in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, but it eventually fell out of use.)

Although the KER-nel pronunciation became universally accepted, Chambers says, “the familiar literary form colonel remained firmly established in printing.”

So you might say that the word’s spelling today reflects its Italian heritage while the pronunciation reflects its French side—that is, its brief period of dissimilation in French.

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On brooch, broach, and broccoli

Q: How come the ornament pinned over my wife’s clavicle, a “brooch,” is pronounced like “roach” and not like “smooch”?

A: Yes, “brooch” is usually pronounced in the US and the UK to rhyme with “roach,” but some American dictionaries recognize a variant pronunciation that rhymes with “smooch.”

And some US dictionaries also recognize the variant spelling “broach” when the word for the ornamental pin is pronounced like “roach.”

In fact, the noun was spelled neither “brooch” nor “broach” when it first showed up in Middle English in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (The OED has a questionable citation from the 1100s.)

The word was originally spelled “broche” when Middle English adopted it from broche, Old French for a pointed weapon or instrument.

In Middle English, “broche” was pronounced with a long “o” (as in “hope”), which accounts for the pronunciation you’re asking about, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

For a few hundred years, the word “broche” referred to both the ornamental pin and a pointed implement (lance, spear, skewer, awl, and so on). However, “brooch” was occasionally used for the pin, as in the OED‘s earliest example of the ornamental usage.

In the 1500s, English speakers began routinely using the “brooch” spelling for the ornament and the “broach” spelling for the sharp implement, but the spellings weren’t consistent and were often reversed, according to Oxford.

The contemporary acceptance of “brooch” for the pin and “broach” for the tapered tool is relatively recent. As Oxford explains, “the differentiation of spelling being only recent, and hardly yet established.”

In the OED’s earliest definite example for “broche” (from Legends of the Rood, circa 1305, a collection of tales based on the Bible), the word refers to a lance or spear: “A Broche þorw-out his brest born” (“A lance borne through his breast”).

The dictionary’s earliest definite example for the ornamental usage is from The Legend of Good Women, a poem by Chaucer from around 1385: “Send hire letters, tokens, brooches, and rynges.”

The usage ultimately comes from the classical Latin broccus (pointed or projecting). In late Latin, brocca referred to a pointed tool.

The Latin and French sources have given English several other words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The verb “broach,” for example, meant “to pierce” when it entered English in the 1300s, then came to mean to tap a keg in the 1400s. And English speakers began using “broach” metaphorically in the 1500s to mean “introduce a subject.”

The French verb brocher (to stitch), Ayto adds, has given both French and English the noun “brochure” (literally “a stitched work”).

Finally, the late Latin brocca has given English (via Italian) “broccoli.” (In Italian, brocco is a shoot or stalk, and broccolo is a cabbage sprout.)

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REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?

Q: You say in your post about the American term for a curriculum vitae that it can be spelled “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.” But how is it pronounced? If one uses two accents, for example, is it pronounced REZ-oo-may or RAY-zoo-may?

A: British dictionaries (which define the term as a summary, not a list of accomplishments) use two accents.  But American dictionaries (which accept both definitions) are all over the place.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), as we noted in our earlier post, lists the spellings in this order: “résumé” or “resume,” also “resumé.” (The wording indicates that the first two are equal in popularity, and the third is somewhat less common.)

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) lists the spellings this way: “resumé” or “resume” or “résumé.” (The wording indicates that the three are equally popular.)

In spite of differences in spelling, all the dictionaries we’ve consulted (three British and three American) list REZ as either the only or the primary pronunciation of the first syllable.

When English borrowed the word from French in the early 19th century, it meant only a summary of something.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Feb. 21, 1782, letter from Samuel Andrews to Benjamin Franklin: “I have taken the Liberty to send your Exellency two of my Résumé memoirs.”

The next example, from an 1804 issue of the Edinburgh Review, is clearer: “After a short resumé of his observations on coffee-houses and prisons, Mr. Holcroft leaves Paris.”

The word wasn’t used for a career summary until the 20th century, when this sense began appearing in the US and Canada.

The OED’s first citation is from an advertisement in the Jan. 10, 1926, issue of the Lincoln (Neb.) Sunday Star: “Send resume of previous business connections in letter of application.”

However, the dictionary encloses the entire citation in brackets, which “indicates a quotation is relevant to the development of a sense but not directly illustrative of it.”

The first unequivocal example is from an April 3, 1938, ad in the Hartford Courant: “Recent insurance company experience. $1800-$2000. Send full resume with snapshot.”

In Britain and France, a “résumé” is a summary while a list of accomplishments is a “curriculum vitae.”

Although some Americans also use the term “curriculum vitae” for a list of accomplishments, most refer to it as a “resume,” “resumé,” or “résumé.”

We prefer “resume.” Since the word is usually pronounced REZ-oo-may in English, it seems silly to keep the first accent and even sillier to leave only the second.

Yes, the noun and the verb would then be spelled the same, but it seems unlikely that anyone would confuse them in an actual sentence.

When English borrows words from other languages, they typically become anglicized over time, losing their accents and taking on new pronunciations. We think the time has come for “résumé” to be naturalized as “resume.”

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How do you say “long-lived”?

Q: Should “long-lived” and “short-lived” be pronounced with a long or a short “i”?  I have always wondered about that and I would appreciate your consideration of this issue.

A: The traditional pronunciation of “-lived” in a compound is with a long “i,” but current dictionaries say the vowel can now be either long (as in the noun “life”) or short (as in the verb “live”).

How did this change come about?  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), which accepts both pronunciations, sheds some light in a Word History note.

“Some uncertainty exists as to the correct pronunciation of long-lived,” the note says. “The answer depends in part on how one looks at the word.”

Historically, according to American Heritage, “the first pronunciation is the more accurate. The word was formed in Middle English times as a compound of long and the noun life, plus the suffix –ed.”

In Middle English, the editors note, “the suffix -ed was always pronounced as a full syllable, so long-lifed (as it was then spelled) had three syllables.”

Later, the dictionary continues, the “f” came to be pronounced as “v,” and “eventually, the spelling became long-lived to reflect the pronunciation.”

But this new spelling, American Heritage says, “introduced an ambiguity; it was no longer clear from the spelling that the word came from the noun life, but rather looked as though it came from the verb live.

Thus the new pronunciation was introduced, and over the years it has come to be accepted as standard English, along with the traditional pronunciation.

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Some words about the N-word

Q: In Origins of the Specious, you say the N-word is derived from Latin. I’ve read that it comes from the area of Africa called Niger. Slavers changed “Niger” to “nigger” as a form of humiliation.

A: “Nigger” dates back to the 16th century, when a group of words beginning with the letter “n” started showing up in English in reference to Africans or African Americans.

These words included “Negro,” “nigro,” “niegro,” “neger,” “neager,” “negar,” “niger,” and “nigger.” (Some of these terms were originally capitalized, but only “Negro” is today.)

All of these words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are ultimately derived from the classical Latin word for black, niger.

The OED says the N-word was spelled “niger” when it first showed up in the late 1500s, though “it seems likely that the form niger … is intended to represent the same pronunciation” as “nigger.”

The double-g spelling first appeared in the early 1600s, according to the dictionary, but “niger” was “the preferred form up to the end of the 18th cent.”

At first, Oxford says, the word “nigger” was used by whites “as a relatively neutral (or occas. positive) term, with no specifically hostile intent.”

It didn’t become a racial slur until sometime in the first third of the 19th century, according to Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, a 2001 book by the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy.

The earliest example of “nigger” in the OED (spelled “niger”) is from Edward Hellowes’s 1574 translation of a collection of Spanish epistles by Antonio de Guevara: “the Nigers of Aethiop, bearing witnesse.”

The reference to “the Nigers of Aethiop” here is simply an English translation of the original Spanish, “los negros en Ethiopia.”

The OED’s first example of the word with a double-g spelling is from a 1608 letter in the factory records of the East India Company: “The King and People [of ‘Serro Leona’] Niggers, simple and harmless.”

The dictionary says the comments in the letter, while “expressing patronizing views, reflect underlying attitudes rather than a hostile use of the word itself.”

Clearly derogatory uses began showing up in the early 1800s. Kennedy cites a comment from the abolitionist Hosea Easton about the negative usage.

In A Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States: And the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them (1837), Easton describes “nigger” as “an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race.”

Interestingly, the OED says the word “nigger” was initially “used by black people (esp. African Americans) as a neutral or favourable term.”

However, this statement is open to argument, since the dictionary’s early examples come from white writers describing the speech of African Americans, often in what would now be considered heavy-handed, if not racist, attempts at humor.

As for its etymology, the OED says that “nigger” (and the earlier “niger”) is “probably an alteration” of the even earlier “neger,” a term for a black person first recorded in writing in 1568.

This word “neger,” Oxford says, was adopted from nègre, a word first recorded in Middle French in 1516 as a noun meaning “black person.” The French nègre was adopted in turn from the Spanish noun negro. It was this Spanish noun, negro, that gave English the word “Negro.”

We can understand why you might think “nigger” comes from the geographic name “Niger,” but there doesn’t seem to be any documented evidence that would support this.

The area referred to as Niger is named for the River Niger in West Africa, but the origin of the river’s name is uncertain.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used similar names in referring to the River Niger, according to A Classical Dictionary: Containing an Account of the Principal Proper Names Mentioned in Ancient Authors, an 1841 reference by Charles Anthon.

Ptolemy, for example, called what appeared to be the River Niger “the Nigeir,” while Pliny the Elder called it “the Nigris.” Herodotus didn’t mention a specific name, but he described what seemed like the same river.

“From all, then, that has been stated,” Anthon writes, “it will satisfactorily appear, that the great river of the Libya of Herodotus, the Nigris of Pliny, the Nigeir of Ptolemy, and the Niger of modern geography, are one and the same river.”

However, it’s uncertain whether those classical names for the Niger, the third-largest river in Africa, were references to the color black or to an African name for the river.

One theory is that the early names referred to the color of the river’s water. But unlike the Rio Negro in Brazil, whose water is dramatically dark, the Niger isn’t black or blackish, according to online images. (The 18th-century Scottish poet James Thomson wrote of “Niger’s yellow stream.”)

Another theory is that the river was named for the black soil on its banks. A third hypothesis is that the classical names refer to the “river of the blacks.”

And a fourth is that the names are derived from a Tuareg phrase for the river: egerew nigerewen or egerew n-igerewen (“river of rivers”).

But as we’ve said, there is no evidence to support any of these theories. No matter how the classical names originated, English writers have been referring to the river as the “Niger” since around 1600, according to the OED.

The dictionary doesn’t have a citation for the usage, but here’s an example from Sylva Sylvarum or a Natural History in Ten Centuries, a posthumously published 1627 collection of scientific writings by Francis Bacon:

“And the confines of the River Niger, where the Negroes also are, are well watered.” (Was Bacon suggesting a connection between “Niger” and “Negroes”? It’s hard to say.)

Getting back to the derogatory nature of “nigger,” we wrote in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, that the word “is now the most bitterly resented racial slur a white person can utter.”

However, we noted that “young rappers now treat it as an honorific of the ’hood—repackaged as ‘nigga,’ ‘niggahz,’ etc.—to the dismay of some of their elders who have painful associations with the original.”

In a 2009 item on our blog, we mentioned that “nigger” (or “nigga”) had been reclaimed as a positive or neutral term by some African Americans. We explained that attempts to neutralize words of abuse or turn them to positive ends are examples of semantic bleaching.

We also directed readers to an interesting paper on the subject by Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at the City University of New York. His paper, published in the book African-American English (1998), discusses sexism in gangsta rap.

You might be interested in another post we ran a few years ago about the mythology of  blackness, and how lightness and darkness came to be identified with goodness and badness.

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How do you pronounce “err”?

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 29, 2021.]

Q: When I pronounced the verb “err” to rhyme with “hair,” a friend (a retired schoolteacher) corrected me and said it rhymes with “her.” Is she correct?

A: No, she erred in “correcting” you. The verb “err,” meaning to be in error or make a mistake, has two pronunciations in standard American English, and most Americans prefer yours.

You can hear both at Merriam-Webster.com’s entry for “err,” where the first pronunciation sounds like AIR and the second like UR. (The dictionary’s big sister, the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, on the other hand, gives both pronunciations in its text, but offers only one, AIR, at its audible “pronouncer.”)

Eight of the ten standard American and British dictionaries that we regularly consult give both pronunciations. Three of the UK dictionaries indicate that preferences are for AIR in American English and UR in British English.

Americans who use the UR version, by the way, pronounce it as if it rhymed with “her.” However, British speakers drop the “r” and sound only the vowel, as if they were saying “uh” or /ə/, a sound like the “a” in “ago.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, gives all three pronunciations: UR, AIR, and /ə/.

As it turns out, the original pronunciation sounded like AIR. The UR pronunciation, a later development, eventually became dominant and is still regarded as the “traditional” one by many. But in the last half-century or so, AIR has made a comeback.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged adds some perspective on this in a note.  Originally, it says, the initial vowel of the word “err,” as with “error,” was like the one in AIR.

But over time, the dictionary adds, the word also developed the UR pronunciation. A similar thing happened with the words “curt,” “word,” “bird,” and “were,” which originally had distinctly different vowel sounds that are now pronounced as UR.

Why did this happen? Because of the presence of “r.” As the dictionary says, “The sound of the letter r often colors a preceding vowel in English.”

In the case of “err,” the note continues, “Commentators have expressed a visceral dislike for the original pronunciation [AIR]; perhaps they believe that once usage has established a new pronunciation for a word there can be no going back.”

But, the editors conclude, “no sound reason prevents us from accepting again the [AIR] pronunciation of err, which is today also the more common variant in American speech.”

As we said, today most standard dictionaries accept both AIR and UR as equal variants. Two British dictionaries (like some older Americans who were brought up in the UR tradition) still regard UR or /ə/ as the only acceptable way to say the word “err.”

It’s been suggested that the words “error” and “errant” may have helped to reestablish the AIR pronunciation, which appears to have become acceptable to American lexicographers in the last 50 years or so.

Our 1956 printing of the unabridged Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (2nd ed.), known as Web II, has only the UR pronunciation, with the vowel described as sounding like the one in “urn.”

But AIR began appearing in dictionaries in the 1960s, and now, as we mentioned above, the Unabridged has both but offers only the AIR version on a pronouncer icon.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “in current usage” (we presume this means American usage) the AIR pronunciation “preponderates.”

As for its etymology, “err” (like “error,” “erroneous,” “erratic,” “errant,” and others) can be traced to a prehistoric Indo-European root reconstructed as er-, which meant “wandering about,” according to John Atyo’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

(Remember that a “knight errant” was an itinerant or traveling knight, roaming in search of adventure.)

As Ayto notes, “the semantic progression from ‘wandering’ to ‘making mistakes’ is reproduced in several other quite unrelated word groups in the Indo-European language family.”

The prehistoric root, he says, “produced Gothic airzei ‘error,’ Old High German irri ‘astray’ (source of modern German irre ‘angry’), Old English ierre ‘astray,’ and Latin errare ‘wander, make mistakes’—from which, via Old French errer, English got err.

The word was first recorded in English at the turn of the 14th century, when it meant both to go astray and to make a mistake. Each of those meanings, according to OED citations, appears in Robert Manning of Brunne’s 1303 work Handlyng Synne.

Cousins of “err” appeared later in English writing: “error” (circa 1320), “errant” (c. 1369), “erratic” (c. 1374), and “erroneous” (c. 1400).

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Immediately, if not sooner

Q: On radio and TV, I have lately been hearing the word “immediately” pronounced with the first syllable emphasized. Is this incorrect or am I just being a nitpicker?

A: You may be a nitpicker, but you’re right about the pronunciation of “immediately.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and the eight standard dictionaries we’ve checked all agree that the second syllable of “immediately” is the one that’s emphasized.

However, lexicographers at these dictionaries recognize a few variations in pronouncing the word.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, lists i-MEE-dee-ut-lee as the usual pronunciation.

However, M-W says Americans sometimes pronounce it i-MEE-dit-lee and Britons often say i-MEE-jit-lee. All three are standard.

The word can be an adverb (“It happened immediately” or “He was sitting immediately behind her”) as well as a conjunction (“Let us know immediately he arrives”). However, its use as a conjunction, meaning “as soon as,” is chiefly British.

The earliest citation in the OED for “immediately” is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1412-20), a Middle English poem about the rise and fall of the city: “Fro Troye were sente lettres …To pallamides inmediatly directe.”

Although English borrowed “immediately” from Latin, it ultimately comes from an Indo-European source that gave English the words “medium,” “mediocre,” and “mediate,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

Etymologically, Ayto says, the word “immediate” (and, of course “immediately”) refers to “acting directly, without any mediation.”

In case you’re interested, the expression “immediately, if not sooner” showed up in the 19th century. Here’s an early example from an 1833 issue of Fraser’s Magazine, a literary journal in London:

“He was determined to fight; right or wrong, fight he must, and fight he would—immediately, if not sooner.”

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“Jail” versus “gaol”

Q: I’m a native Polish speaker who’s learning vocabulary by solving English crosswords. During a coffee break at work, the clue “prison” suggested “jail” for these four spaces: “_A_L.” This sparked a debate with a British friend over “gaol” vs. “jail.” Your thoughts?

A: Both spellings have been around for hundreds of years. The traditional spelling has been “gaol” in Britain and “jail” in the United States.

Although “gaol” is still acceptable in Britain, it’s now considered a variant spelling of “jail” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and the four standard British dictionaries we’ve checked.

As Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.) explains, “gaol, gaoler, the traditional spellings in the UK, are now under severe and probably unstoppable pressure from jail, jailer, which are dominant in most other parts of the English-speaking world.”

Both pairs—“gaol, gaoler” and “jail, jailer”—are pronounced the same way, which leads to this question: why do the British have a “gaol” spelling if the word is pronounced “jail”?

The short answer, according to Oxford Dictionaries online, is that the word “gaol” was “originally pronounced with a hard g, as in goat.” Here’s a fuller answer.

“Etymologically, a jail is a ‘little cage,’ ” John Ayto says in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

Ayto explains that the English word is ultimately derived from caveola, a diminutive of cavea, Latin for cage (and the source of the English word “cage”).

Why do we have two spellings? Because Middle English (the language spoken from about 1100 to 1500) adopted two distinct versions of the word from French.

The “gaol” version comes from the Norman French gaiole or gaole, the OED says, while “jail” comes from the Old Parisian French jaiole or jaile.

Early versions of “gaol” (like gayhol and gayhole) first showed up in English in the 1200s, while early versions of “jail” (iaiole and iayll) appeared in the 1300s, according to Oxford citations.

“Until the 17th century,” Ayto writes, “gaol was pronounced with a hard /g/ sound, but then it gradually fell into line with jail.”

The two versions of the word were spelled all sorts of ways in Middle English, when our language had no letter “j”: gayhol, gayhole, gayll, gaylle, gaille, gayole, and so on. The “gaol” and “jail” spellings first showed up in the 1600s.

The OED describes “gaol” as an “archaic spelling” that’s still seen in writing “chiefly due to statutory and official tradition” in Britain. However, the dictionary adds that “this is obsolete in the spoken language, where the surviving word is jail.”

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A grizzly of a different color

Q: Here’s a question you can get your teeth into. An article in the Guardian about the eating habits of the Neanderthals included this sentence: “There are other, equally valid but decidedly more grizzly explanations to account for those microscopic fragments of herbs and plants found in Neanderthal teeth.” Any comment?

A: Well, the Neanderthals may have eaten like bears, but the Guardian writer probably meant “grisly.” (As one reader commented on the Guardian’s blog, “Bear with it.”)

These are two very different words. “Grizzly” essentially means gray or grayish (the grizzly bear is named for its color). The venerable old adjective “grisly” originally meant “scary” rather than what it means to most of us today—“gruesome.”

Let’s take a look at the histories of both, starting with the older one.

“Grisly” was first recorded in English sometime before the year 1150, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It came from an earlier word (grislic) in Old English, which came in turn from a verb, “grise,” which died out in the 1500s and meant to shudder with fear.

(This word “grise,” by the way, may be related to another old verb, “grue”—to shudder, to feel terror or horror—which is the source of “gruesome.”)

Originally, the OED explains, “grisly” meant “causing horror, terror, or extreme fear; horrible or terrible to behold or to hear; causing such feelings as are associated with thoughts of death and ‘the other world’, spectral appearances, and the like.”

In more recent times, the dictionary adds, it has meant “causing uncanny or unpleasant feelings; of forbidding appearance; grim, ghastly.”

In modern usage, according to standard dictionaries, “grisly” is often used in the sense of gruesome or repugnant.

For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) includes this among its “grisly” definitions: “inspiring disgust or distaste.”

The online version of the dictionary includes these examples: “The jurors saw grisly photos of the crime scene” … “recounted the visit to the murder scene in grisly detail.”

And The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) defines “grisly” as meaning “causing repugnance; gruesome.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that in 1900 the OED labeled “grisly” archaic or literary, but since then “its fortunes have recovered strongly, and it is now firmly part of the general language.”

The adjective “grizzly” is a horse of a different color—gray, to be specific. Since it was first recorded in 1594, the OED says,  it has meant “grey; greyish; grey-haired; grizzled.”

An earlier adjective, “grizzle” (1425), meant gray in color, and an even earlier noun form (1390) meant a gray-haired old man.

The phrase “grizzly bear” dates from early 19th-century North America. The OED defines it as “a large and ferocious bear, Ursus horribilis, peculiar to the mountainous districts of western North America.”

A member of the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first to record the bear’s name.  In 1807 Patrick Gass, in a journal of the expedition, wrote: “The bears from which they get these skins are a harmless kind, and not so bold and ferocious as the grizly and brown bear.”

“Grisly” and “grizzly” not only have different meanings, but they also have different ancestors.

“Grisly” is from Germanic sources. But “grizzly” comes from the Old French word grisel, from gris (gray).

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Lozenge or lozenger?

Q: This sets my teeth on edge: Why is it that so many people, especially in the NY area, say “lozenger” instead of “lozenge”?  Isn’t this incorrect?

A: The sweetened, medicated tablet is spelled “lozenge” and pronounced LAH-zinj in standard English, according to dictionaries in the US and the UK.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary says a variant spelling, “lozenger” (pronounced LAH-zin-jer), is present in the US and northern England.

The OED describes this variant as dialectal—that is, a regional or social variation from standard English.

The Dictionary of American Regional English says the variant is present in various parts of the US, though chiefly in the Northeast.

Although most DARE examples of the usage are from New England and the Middle Atlantic states, the regional dictionary has quite a few citations from other parts of the US, including Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, and Ohio.

The DARE editors suggest that the American usage may have crossed the pond with speakers of Scottish English and regional dialects in England.

The ultimate source, though, may be an obsolete usage that the OED traces to the early 1500s, when the term “lozenger” was apparently used to describe a diamond-shaped, four-sided figure—the original sense of the word “lozenge.”

However, Oxford has only one written example of this early usage, from a 1527 will in which the word is spelled “losinger.”

As for “lozenge” used in its geometric sense, the OED defines it as “a plane rectilineal figure, having four equal sides and two acute and two obtuse angles.”

The dictionary has several questionable citations dating from the early 1300s. The first clear example is from “The House of Fame,” a poem by Chaucer written around 1384: “Somme crouned were as kinges, / With crounes wroght ful of losenges.”

As we’ve said, the term “lozenger,” as well as the pronunciation LAH-zin-jer, isn’t standard English. But it’s common enough that the first item to come up when we googled the word was a Vicks ad for cough drops and similar products.

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Empire State-ments

Q: Why do we (OK, New Yorkers) pronounce the “Empire State Building” with emphasis on “State,” while we emphasize “Empire” when the words are just “Empire State”?

A: We’ve had this thought ourselves. When people (and not just New Yorkers) say the “Empire State,” they emphasize the first word over the second: “EMPIRE State.”

Similarly, residents of Connecticut refer to the “NUTMEG State,” Californians to the “GOLDEN State,” New Jerseyans to the “GARDEN State,” and so on.

So why does the principal stress shift to the second word when people say “the Empire STATE Building”?

In 2006, on the building’s 75th anniversary, the novelist Benjamin Kunkel wrote a small piece for the New York Times commenting on “our curious pronunciation of those four words.”

“Let’s say you had a building named, as ours would seem to be, after the Empire State, New York,” Kunkel wrote. “In that case, the usual way for a native speaker of American English to pronounce the two middle words of the name would be as a dactyl: ‘EM-pire state,’ you’d say. But we don’t say it like that. Instead we employ what in prosody is called an anapest: ‘em-pire STATE,’ with the accent, that is, on the word ‘state’ rather than on the word ‘empire.’ Say it and see for yourself: it’s ‘em-pire STATE build-ing,’ not ‘EM-pire state build-ing.’ ” 

But Kunkel didn’t offer a good reason why.

Generally, when an identifying adjective modifies “building,” the adjective is emphasized over the noun (“office building,” “apartment building,” etc.).

The same is true when a building has a proper name—the modifier gets the emphasis: “CHRYSLER Building,” “FLATIRON Building,” “WOOLWORTH Building,” “SEAGRAM Building,” and so on.

When “Building” is preceded  by a compound, then the principal emphasis falls on the word that’s normally emphasized in that compound: “Time-LIFE Building,” “LEHMAN Brothers Building,” “New York LIFE Insurance Building,” “Manufacturers Hanover TRUST Building,” “WARNER Brothers Building,” “Universal PICTURES Building,” “New York TIMES Building.”

So if we emphasize the first word in the phrase “EMPIRE State,” why don’t Americans call it the “EMPIRE State Building”? 

We have to admit that we don’t have an answer. And neither, apparently, does anyone else.

We did find a discussion of this subject on a respected language website, but it wasn’t much help.

The linguist Mark Lieberman, writing on the Language Log, noted that when “Building” is modified by a compound,” the main stress generally falls on the expected main stress” of that compound.

“Thus,” he wrote, “what used to be the Field Building in Chicago is now the LaSalle National Bank Building—and I assume (without ever having heard it pronounced) that the main stress ought to be on bank.”

He went on to say that “since New York is the Empire State—with main stress on state—it follows that the Empire State Building ought also to have main stress on state.”

But as we’ve said, and as some readers of the Language Log pointed out, the stress in the two-word phrase “Empire State” is on “Empire,” not on “State.” So that leaves us back where we started.

Of course, “Empire STATE Building” is easier to say than one strong syllable followed by five weak ones: “EM-pire-state-build-ing.” And yet, a string of unaccented syllables doesn’t seem to bother people who say (or used to say) “LEH-man-broth-ers-build-ing.”

Dictionaries aren’t much help here, either. The Collins English Dictionary says the phrase “Empire State Building” is pronounced with accents on the first syllables of “Empire” and “Building.” Well, perhaps by some English speakers, but not by Americans.

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online gives “Empire STATE Building” for both the British and the American pronunciations.

If we do find an answer to this mystery, you’ll be the first to know!

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From minutia to minutiae

Q: I never hear people say “minutia” and mean “minutia” (i.e., a minor detail). They always use it to mean “minutiae” (minor details). And they pronounce it mi-NOO-shee-uh or mi-NOO-shuh, which is understandable considering how ungainly mi-NOO-shee-ee is. Are we witnessing the conflation of these singular and plural forms?

A: Standard dictionaries define “minutia” as a small or trivial detail, and “minutiae” as small or trivial details. Yet “minutia” is often used to mean “minutiae,” and “minutiae” is often pronounced like “minutia.”

This is nothing new, however. Both words have been used as singulars and plurals since they first showed up in English in the 18th century. And their pronunciations have been all over the place.

Confused? Well, don’t look to Latin for help.

In classical Latin, “minutia” didn’t even mean a small or minor detail, nor did “minutiae” mean small or minor details. Here are the details.

The source of these two words was minutus, which meant small in classical Latin. Minutia and minutiae were singular and plural nouns for smallness—the quality or state of being small.

In the late Latin of the 4th century, minutiae came to mean small or trivial details, but minutia continued to mean smallness.

It wasn’t until “minutia” showed up in English in the 18th century that it took on its small or trivial sense—in both singular and plural versions!

The first of these Latin words to enter English was “minutiae,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it initially as a plural meaning “precise details; small or trivial matters or points.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Samuel Richardson’s 1748 epistolary novel Clarissa: “I have always told you the consequence of attending to the minutiæ.”

However, the dictionary also has examples from the late 18th century to the year 2000 of “minutiae” used in the singular to mean “a precise detail; a small or trivial matter or point”—that is, “minutia.”

The first OED citation for “minutiae” used in the singular is from The Beggar Girl and Her Benefactors, a 1797 novel by Anna Maria Bennett (she wrote as “Mrs. Bennett”): “Strict attention to every minutiæ of her domestic arrangement.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the singular “minutia” is from Elizabeth Blower’s 1782 novel George Bateman: “On the observance of some little minutias, no small share of the beauty … depended.”

The first Oxford example that refers to just one “minutia” is from Washington Irving’s 1841 biography of the poet Margaret Miller Davidson:

“That holy patriotism which could toil and bleed, ere it would yield one single minutia of that independence bequeathed to them by the valour of their immortal sires.”

The earliest written example of “minutia” used in the plural is from Charles Burney’s Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Abate Metastasio (1796): “Descending to the minutia of all the events and occasions which may be imagined.”

The OED offers the singular and plural versions of both “minutia” and “minutiae” with no warning labels—in other words, no indication that these usages are anything but standard English.

Only a handful of standard dictionaries in the US and the UK have entries for the singular “minutia,” perhaps because the word is used so rarely to mean a small or trivial detail. When we see “minutia” online, it’s almost always used as a plural.

In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language dropped its entry for the singular “minutia” from the latest edition, the fifth.

Pronunciation guides in standard American dictionaries indicate that “minutia” is pronounced mi-NOO-shee-uh and “minutiae” is pronounced mi-NOO-shee-ee,  mi-NOO-shee-eye, mi-NOO-shee-uh, or mi-NOO-shuh. The NOO in both words can also be NYOO.

However, our experience is that many, if not most, Americans pronounce “minutiae” as mi-NOO-shuh. And few Americans use “minutia” to mean a small detail.

As for British pronunciations, the OED says “minutia” can be either my-NYOO-shee-uh or mi-NYOO-shee-uh while “minutiae” can my-NYOO-shee-eye, mi-NYOO-shee-eye, my-NYOO-shee-ee, or mi-NYOO-shee-ee.

In other words, you can probably defend just about any likely use of “minutia” and “minutiae.”

As for us, we pronounce “minutiae” as mi-NOO-shuh. And we don’t use “minutia.” If we did want to refer to a small or trivial detail, we suppose we’d call it something like a “trifle,” a “triviality,” or perhaps even a “trivial detail.”

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Texicography

Q: Your July 9 blog about how to pronounce “texted” inspires me to write about a ubiquitous and annoying pronunciation of the past tense of “text” here in Cincinnati. Young people almost exclusively pronounce the present as “tex” and the past as “text.” Maybe the past would be spelled “texed,” but that doesn’t change the pronunciation. Have you heard this in your area?

A: No, we weren’t aware of the usage until you mentioned it.

But on looking into this we find that quite a few people consider to “tex” the infinitive, with “tex” or “texes” the present, and “text” the past.

Others consider “tex” or “texes” the present, and “texed” (pronounced TEXT) the past tense. And still others use “text” or “texts” for the present and “text” for the past.

Interestingly, these usages aren’t confined to speech. We got more than half a million hits in Google searches for “tex” and “texed” used in place of “text” and “texted.”

And the linguist Arnold Zwicky, in searches for past tenses and past participles, found roughly one example of “text” for every five of “texted.”

This isn’t an overnight phenomenon, either, and it’s not limited to Cincinnati.

A July 25, 2005, article in the Modesto Bee, for example, reported that a friend sent this text message to the cell phone of a California teenager killed in a car crash:

“Tex me when u get to heaven.”

(Family members found the message on 16-year-old Stephanie Blevins’s phone.)

In standard English, as you know, the infinitive or root verb is “text,” the present tense is “text” or “texts,” and the past tense (as well as the past participle) is “texted.”

Why all the variants? We think pronunciation has a lot to do with this.

Some people hear the verb “text” as if it were spelled “texed,” and assume it’s a past tense. Naturally, the present tense would be “tex” or “texes.” (Think of “fax,” “faxes,” and “faxed.”)

The phonetician John Wells notes on his blog that the confusion here apparently lies with the consonant cluster at the end of “text.”

“The final cluster [kst] is highly susceptible to losing its final consonant, particularly when followed by a consonant sound,” Wells writes.

In words with similar-sounding endings (like “next,” “boxed,” and “mixed”), he says, “it’s usual for the final [t] to be elided (lost) except in very careful (over-enunciated) speech.”

The linguist David Crystal, however, finds “nothing intrinsically difficult about the consonant cluster at the end of text.”

“But adding an -ed ending alters the pronunciation dynamic,” he writes on his blog. “We now have two /t/ sounds in a rapid sequence, as we had in broadcasted.”

Although it’s “very unusual to find a new irregular past tense form in standard English,” Crystal says, it “does happen, as we see with the preference for shorter broadcast.”

He predicts that lexicographers will one day recognize “texed” as a legitimate past tense. We’re not so sure, but we’ll let Crystal have the last word.

“Whatever the reasons, we do now find forms such as texed and tex’d being used with increasing frequency,” he writes. “I think it’s only a matter of time before we find it being treated like broadcast in dictionaries, and given two forms.”

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