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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation

How do you say “Van Gogh”?

Q: I’m a pre-kindergarten teacher in New York and my British assistant is constantly correcting my pronunciation. If I pronounce “emu” as EE-moo, she says it’s EE-myoo.  Now, we are at odds about the pronunciation of “Van Gogh.” I say van-GOH and she tells me it’s van-GOFF. Which one of us needs to go back to school?

A: Your assistant needs a couple of lessons in the history of English.

As we wrote in our book Origins of the Specious, British English (including pronunciation) is not more (or less) “correct” than American English.

This was such an important subject to us that we devoted our first chapter to it.

We’ve also written about this subject on our blog, including posts in 2010, 2009, and 2008.

The truth is that most of the characteristics that distinguish modern British pronunciation from our own developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after the American Revolution.

Having said that, we’ll move on to the pronunciations you mention.

The word “emu,” the name of a large flightless bird, has two proper pronunciations in American English.

We can say either EE-myoo or EE-moo, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

Both are standard American pronunciations, and both are given equal weight by Merriam-Webster’s.

But there’s only one standard pronunciation in British English: EE-myoo.

The name “Van Gogh” has three proper pronunciations in American English, according to most standard dictionaries: van-GOH (the most common), van-GOKH, and van-KHOKH (which comes closest to the Dutch).

The “-kh” in the second and third pronunciations are not the hard “k” of “kick,” but the guttural one we hear in the German pronoun ich and the Scottish word “loch.”

In Britain, the Dutch artist’s name can be heard as van-GOKH, van-GOFF, or van-GOH, according to the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit.

But the BBC recommends only the first, van-GOKH, with the  “-kh” sounded as in “loch.”  [Update, 2014: This opinion has been confirmed by a correspondent of ours from Oxford, who insists that the other two pronunciations are “nonsense” in British usage.]

This recommendation, the BBC says, “is codified in numerous British English pronunciation dictionaries” and “represents a compromise” between the English and Dutch pronunciations.

One source, the Collins English Dictionary, makes things easy. It gives only one pronunciation for American usage (van-GOH) and only one for British usage (van-GOKH). You can listen to them here: American and British.

And in case you’re interested, we wrote a blog entry last year about names with nobiliary particles (like the “van” in “van Gogh”).

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The SEE-ment pond next to Granny’s still

Q: I was interested (and enlightened) by your recent blog posting about the difference between “cement” and “concrete.” But why no comment on their pronunciations? Both are often mispronounced, with the accent on the wrong syllable.

A:  Your question brings to mind an old sit-com, The Beverly Hillbillies, in which the erstwhile backwoods Clampetts refer to their swimming pool as “the SEE-ment pond.”

It’s likely that most people pronounce the nouns “cement” and “concrete” as sih-MENT (second syllable stressed) and CON-kreet (first syllable stressed). But that’s not the end of the story.

The noun “cement” was originally pronounced SEE-ment back in the 14th century, and some people still say it that way, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The old pronunciation has since been “almost superseded” by sih-MENT, the OED says, because that’s the way the verb is pronounced.

Today, the OED gives both pronunciations as standard, and so does Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), though M-W indicates that SEE-ment is less common.

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives only one pronunciation, sih-MENT.

The noun “concrete” (the building material) is a relatively recent term, dating only to the 19th century, but the adjective (real, material, etc.) is much older, showing up in the 15th century.

Although the adjective has long been pronounced either CON-kreet or con-KREET, the OED says, the most popular pronunciation today is with the accent on the first syllable.

As for the building material, the dictionary adds, it’s universally pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: CON-kreet. And that’s the only pronunciation given in the OED.

But Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage give both pronunciations (CON-kreet and con-KREET) for the noun, with no preference for one over the other.

We’re not done yet. American Heritage adds that the first syllable can also be pronounced like “kong.”

The lesson here? English pronunciation is not written in concrete.

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Etymology Grammar Linguistics Usage

Hear Pat live today on WNYC

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

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Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation

Asses and big asses

Q: I know this might sound slightly vulgar, but I’m really curious. I’ve been wondering how to classify the word “ass” in a phrase like, “That’s a big-ass house.” What part of speech is this?

A: “Big ass” alone isn’t hard to classify, as in “My big ass makes it difficult to zip my jeans.” Here, “big ass” is a noun phrase consisting of the adjective “big” plus the noun it modifies: “ass.”

But “big ass” can play the role of an adjective as well as a noun. In the sentence “That’s a big-ass house,” it’s an adjectival phrase modifying the noun “house.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has several citations for “big-assed” with a literal meaning (that is, having large buttocks).

The first is from a 1944 entry in H. L. Mencken’s diary: “The marines’ chosen name for their female aides is bams, from big-assed marines.”

An extended use of this literal meaning—applied to airplanes with big rear ends—was recorded in the military beginning in 1945.

Both the OED and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang have citations from that time, when a plane with a large tail section (especially the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress) was referred to as a “big-ass bird” or “big-assed bird.”

But in addition to these more or less literal meanings, both dictionaries have citations for “big-assed” and “big-ass” to mean simply big or impressive.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1945 article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology:

“A big white bastard stood up in front of the door, cop of course, hit me in my head with that big ass nightstick, which really rocked my brains.”

Here are a few more quotations from the OED and Random House:

“We ain’t enough, in case of a big-ass attack” (1955, from Thomas Anderson’s Your Own Beloved Sons, a novel of the Korean War).

“Abraham opened the door of his big-ass Cadillac” (1961-64, from Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn).

“He’ll sit there in this big-ass office downtown in Manila” (1977, from John Langone’s Life at the Bottom: The People of Antarctica).

“Somehow it seems daring for a big-assed conglomerate to put an artist in charge of a label’s direction” (1999, from Down Beat magazine).

In short, “big-ass” can be used adjectivally to mean simply big.

In similar adjectival usages, “smelly-ass” just means smelly; “jive-ass” means jive;  “sad-ass” means sad; “skinny-ass” means skinny, and so on. So in a sense, “ass” is a slang intensifier.

Your question gives us an excuse to explain a bit about the etymology of “ass”—or, rather, the etymologies.

Contrary to popular opinion, the two versions of “ass”—one for the posterior and one for the donkey—aren’t the same word. They’re unrelated etymologically and weren’t always identical.

The four-footed “ass” comes from an Old English word, assa, which was recorded sometime before 830 and may have been a diminutive form of an earlier word, esol.

The Old English was similar to words in Celtic, Teutonic, and Slavonic languages. But whatever its direct source, the Old English probably has its roots in the Latin asinus (donkey), which also gave us the word “asinine.”

The Latin asinus, like its Greek counterpart onos, is thought to have Semitic origins (in Hebrew, “she-ass” is athon).

But on to the anatomical “ass,” which is no relation to the donkey.

This “ass” was originally spelled “arse” (it still is in Britain).

“Arse” has its source in the far reaches of antiquity, a prehistoric Indo-European word that’s been reconstructed as orsos.

As you would expect, “arse” has counterparts from Ireland to Armenia, or “practically from end to end of the geographical range of the Indo-European language family,” as John Ayto puts it in his Dictionary of Word Origins.

The OED has citations for “arse” (spelled aers or ars in Old English) dating back to around 1000. The “ass” spelling and pronunciation originated in the 1930s in the US, where it’s chiefly used today.

Here are a couple of early citations:

“My ass to habeas corpus” (1930, from the John Dos Passos novel 42nd Parallel).

“You give me a pain in the ass” (1934, from John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra).

With that, we will demurely butt out.

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Etymology Punctuation Spelling Usage

Lurve affair

Q: One of the participants at the Daily Beast’s recent “Reboot America!” conference was reported as saying the US needed “innovation and luurve.” I’ve never seen “luurve” and can’t find it in my dictionary. Is this a typo?

A: You won’t find this word in standard dictionaries, but it’s not a typo. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a chiefly British colloquial term for “love.”

The OED’s entry for this noun spells it “lurve,” but it gives “lerv,” “lurv,” “lurrve,” and “luurve” as other spellings.

The dictionary defines the word this way: “Romantic infatuation; sex; love. Freq. when regarded as being treated (esp. in films, pop music, fiction, etc.) in a hackneyed or clichéd manner.”

The OED says the term represents “an emphatic, humorous, or arch pronunciation” of the word “love.”

It adds that the pronunciation sometimes parodies “the slow, smooth, crooning” of “love” in popular songs, and may reflect “British perceptions of the U.S. pronunciation” of the word.

The earliest citation for the noun is from a 1936 issue of the Daily Mirror that describes a situation in which “(a) you’re in Lurve, but (b) you’re not sure he’s in Lurve with you.”

However, the OED has an entry for an older verb, with even more spellings, including some with the “u” or “r” occurring four or more times.

The first citation for the verb is from The War in the Air, a 1908 novel by H. G. Wells: “I am pleading the cause of a woman, a woman I lurve.”

Here’s an example of a three-“u” version from a 1989 issue of the British magazine Q: “I luuurve that jacket, Bobby!”

And here’s a three-“r” version from Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary: “I kept saying the words, ‘Self-respect’ and ‘Hug’ over and over till I was dizzy, trying to barrage out, ‘But I lurrrve him.’ ”

Although the word in its various guises is mainly seen in Britain, it’s not unknown in the US as you’ve noticed.

And the usage may survive—in whole or in part—when a British book crosses the Atlantic.

For example, Luuurve Is a Many Trousered Thing, a book for teens by the British writer Louise Rennison, arrived in the US with the title Love Is a Many Trousered Thing.

But Rennison’s labor of “luuurve” wasn’t entirely lost. The word appears throughout the text of the American edition.

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High satiety

Q: I’m proofreading a book that has a pronouncer for the word “satiety.” My Web 10 gives two possibilities: (1) suh-TIE-uh-tee; (2) SAY-shuh-tee. How do you (personally) pronounce it?

A: Our newer MerriamWebster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) gives three possibilities: (1) suh-TIE-uh-tee;  (2) SAY-shuh-tee; (3) SAY-shee-tee.

We’ve never uttered the word, but we’d go for #1 if we were to use it.

That resembles the sole pronunciation in the Oxford English Dictionary and the only one in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

The OED and AH pronunciations are roughly suh-TIE-ih-tee (the next-to-last vowel is like the “i” in “pit”).

A similar pronunciation, suh-TIE-eh-tee (the penultimate vowel is like the “e” in “silent”), is the only one given in our 1956 copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

This would seem to indicate that the variants with the “sh” sounds have come along in the last 60 years.

In the current M-W Collegiate, number 2 (SAY-shuh-tee) and number 3 (SAY-shee-tee) are given as “also” variants, meaning they’re “appreciably less common” but standard nonetheless. (The quote comes from the explanation at the front of the dictionary.)

Why have these two also-rans popped up? Perhaps because they resemble the “sh” sounds in “satiate” and “satiated.”

The presence of #3 (SAY-shee-tee) seems a bit odd, however, since it’s hard to pronounce (two long “e” sounds in a row).

The word “satiety,” in case you’re interested, was adapted in the 16th century from the French satiété.

The French was an adaptation of the Latin satietatem (abundance, satiety), from satis (enough).

And with that, we’ll say, “Enough!”

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Punctuation Usage

Hyphen notions

Q: I often see a hyphen used in sentences like this: “Different animals live in fresh- and saltwater.” Is the hyphen really necessary? I think it’s ugly.

A: The short answer is that a hyphen isn’t necessary in that sentence. We’ll explain why later, but let’s first discuss what’s going on here.

To keep things simple, we’ll use another example: “He has a stomachache and a headache.”

The two nouns in that sentence are compound words, the first made up of “stomach” and “ache,” the second of “head” and “ache.” Compounds can also be hyphenated (“mayor-elect” and “governor-elect,” for example).

To get rid of an “ache” in the sentence above, the usual style is to replace it with a hyphen: “He has a stomach- and a headache.”

As The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) explains it, when the second part of a  compound is omitted, a hyphen is used, followed by a space. It gives this example: “both over- and underfed cats.”

Note, however, that the second part of the compound, “fed,” is the same in both words. This hyphen business doesn’t work when the second part is different.

As the Chicago Manual points out, you would write “overfed and overworked mules,” but not “overfed and -worked mules.”

We’ve simplified this a lot. If you’d like to read more about dropping parts of compounds, check out page 374 in the Chicago Manual.

Getting back to your question, why isn’t a hyphen necessary in the sentence you ask about?

Because four of the five dictionaries we checked consider the noun versions to be two words, “fresh water” and “salt water”—noun phrases, in other words.

They appear as two words, for example, in both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) is the lone dissenter, but we’ll let the majority rule here.

Since these two noun phrases aren’t compounds, no hyphen is needed when a word is removed: “Different animals live in fresh and salt water.”

However, the adjectives “freshwater” and “saltwater” are solid compound words in four of the five dictionaries we looked at.

So a hyphen is needed if the adjectives are used in a similar sentence and part of the first one is dropped: “The aquarium has both fresh- and saltwater fish.”

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Grocery business

Q: When I lived in Ohio in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I noticed that people pronounced “grocery” as GRO-shree instead of GRO-sir-ee. I live in New Jersey now and hear both pronunciations. Is GRO-shree an example of a shift in pronunciation, or is it a mistake?

A: Pat added a  chapter on pronunciation to the third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I. Her advice on “grocery” is clear cut: “There’s no ‘sh’ in grocery. Say GRO-sir-ee.”

This pronunciation—three syllables and no “sh”—is also the only one given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).  

Another source, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), says either the two-syllable GRO-sree or the three-syllable GRO-sir-ee is acceptable.

Garner’s, which lists “grocery” among the most frequently mispronounced words in American English, calls GRO-shree a mispronunciation. 

But people who say GRO-shree do have one authority on their side. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it among three acceptable variants (along with GRO-sree and GRO-sir-ee).

The “sh” pronunciation doesn’t appear, though, in our 1956 copy of Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary (the unabridged second edition).

This suggests that the Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers have recognized a shift in pronunciation. Will other dictionaries follow suit? We’ll see.

Both “grocer” and “grocery,” by the way, are very old words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Grocer” first appeared in writing in 1321 and originally meant “one who buys and sells in the gross.”

It acquired a “y” suffix in 1436 and gave us “grocery” (originally “the goods sold by a grocer”), according to the OED.

The word “grocery” didn’t mean a grocer’s shop until the early 1800s.

But back to pronunciation. Our advice is to leave the “sh” out of “grocery,” but not to fret too much about people who leave it in.

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Why is it “moral,” not “morale,” support?

Q: I’m puzzled by the phrase “moral support.” Why do we use the word “moral” here when “morale” is being supported? Was it once “morale support”?

A: No, it’s been “moral support” ever since the expression first showed up in English in the mid-19th century.

This may be because there was a brief period during the 19th century when the adjective “moral” could refer to morale.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that sense of “moral” is now obsolete or rare, though it wasn’t in 1852, the date of the OED’s first citation for “moral support.”

The dictionary’s entry for “moral support” doesn’t specifically mention morale boosting, however. It defines the phrase as simply “support or help which is psychological rather than physical.”

Now for a brief history of these upstanding words. Both have their roots in Old French and ultimately in the Latin moralis (having to do with morals, manners, or customs).

The word “moral,” which is accented on the first syllable, came into English in the 1300s. It’s both an adjective and a noun. 

As an adjective, it generally means something like “ethical” (as in “He is studying moral philosophy”).

As a noun it means a lesson or a maxim (as in “Does this book have a moral?”). The plural “morals” means ethics or principles (“Sharks have no morals”).

“Morale,” which is accented on the second syllable, is exclusively a noun and came into English much later, in the 1700s.

As the OED explains, it first meant moral principles or practice, but it acquired its modern sense in the early 1800s.

As used today, the OED says, “morale” means “the mental or emotional state (with regard to confidence, hope, enthusiasm, etc.) of a person or group engaged in some activity; degree of contentment with one’s lot or situation.”

This is an example: “When a team loses a game, its morale suffers.”

Now here’s a sentence using both words: “The moral of the story is that living a moral life can bolster one’s morale.”

It’s been said, according to the OED, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and other sources, that the Roman orator Cicero coined moralis as the Latin counterpart of the Greek ethikos (“ethical”).

Cicero, by the way, was a champion word-minter.

He’s credited with coining the Latin versions of many English words and phrases, including “alter ego,” “beatitude,” “evolution,” “favor,” “intelligence,” “irony,” “logic,” “magnum opus,” “non sequitur,” “notion,” “quality,” “religion,” and “republic.”

Inventions like those inspired the Italians to coin a word—one we borrowed—for a learned guide or mentor: “cicerone.”

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A controversial pronunciation?

Q: Do we (that is, we Americans, who should be the authorities on proper English) prefer con-truh-VUR-shul or con-truh-VUR-see-yul?

A: We won’t get into the issue of American versus British English here.

We’ve discussed this in several posts on the blog, including one in 2008 that was prompted by a reader who thought US English had gone astray.

We’ve also written extensively about US and UK English in the first chapter of our book about language myths, Origins of the Specious.

As for the adjective “controversial,” you can’t go wrong here. It has two pronunciations in American English.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list both the four-syllable pronunciation ending in shul as well as the five-syllable one ending in see-yul.

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for the word lists only one pronunciation:  con-truh-VUR-shul.

However, the OED says it’s an adaptation of the Latin controversialis (a word with all the vowels pronounced).

This suggests to us that “controversial” may have had the longer pronunciation when it entered English in the 16th century.

And in case you’re interested, the OED’s entry for “controversy” also has only one pronunciation, CON-truh-vur-see (not the pompous kun-TRUV-ur-see).

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Bean counting

Q: For years, I’ve wondered about the origin of the American pronunciation of “been” as BIN.  Do you have any historical information on this unique pronunciation of the word that British speakers pronounce as BEAN?

A: Most Americans pronounce “been” as BIN or BEN. Most speakers of British English now say BEAN, but this was not always the case.

In the past, “been” was pronounced as BIN (and probably BEN) in Britain too.

We checked an old edition of John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, published in London in 1791, and found that the usual British pronunciation of “been” at that time was BIN.

In his entry for “been,” Walker writes: “It is scarcely ever heard otherwise than as the noun bin, a repository for corn or wine.”

In English Spelling and Spelling Reform (1909), Thomas R. Lounsbury, a professor of English at Yale, writes that British speakers in the 19th century began pronouncing “been” as BEAN primarily because of the word’s spelling.

“There is little question—there is, indeed, no question—that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and even much later, the digraph ee in this word had in cultivated speech the sound of short i,” Lounsbury says. (The term “digraph” refers to two successive letters with a single sound.)

He adds that  the pronunciation of “been” to rhyme with “seen” was sometimes heard, but “it was then so limited in use that orthoepists hardly thought it worth while to recognize its existence.” (Orthoepy is the study of pronunciation.)

Lounsbury goes on to say that the 18th century’s two leading authorities on orthoepy, John Walker and Thomas Sheridan, “admitted no pronunciation of been save that which made it ryme with sin.”

“Yet,” Lounsbury writes, “with no support from the most prominent lexical authorities, the pronunciation of been to ryme with seen instead of sin, steadily gained ground in England during the last [the 19th] century. There it seems to have become finally the prevalent one.”

The past participle “been” has been spelled many ways over the years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, including beon, ben, beyn, buen, bene, byn, been, and bin.

Historically, the spellings of English words often reflect the pronunciations of the day. From the various spellings of “been” in the OED, it appears that the pronunciations have fluctuated over the centuries, with long e sounds and short i or e sounds often trading places.

The BEN pronunciation apparently first showed up in the 1300s, while BEAN and BIN appeared in the 1500s. However, BIN seems to have been the dominant pronunciation from the 1500s well into the 1800s.

In the case of “been,” Americans preserved two old British pronunciations that were in popular use before the Revolution.

Something similar happened with another word, “creek.”

John S. Kenyon, in his book American Pronunciation (10th ed., 1966), says “creek” has historically had multiple pronunciations in British English, with the ee pronounced as either a long e or a short i.

The British have retained only the long-e version, KREEK, while Americans have preserved both KREEK and KRIK.

Although many Americans frown on KRIK, US dictionaries list the two pronunciations as standard.

As Kenyon says, the prejudice against KRIK “is due to ignorance of actual historical usage and to reverence for the spelling.” 

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Franglais speaking

Q: I am a physician who frequently attends professional meetings where the first syllable of “centimeter” is often pronounced SAWN as opposed to SEN. The former strikes me as the old syndrome of Frenchifying a word that’s English despite its Gallic origin. Am I correct?

A: Yes, you’re correct.

The word “centimeter” entered English two hundred years ago as a borrowing from the French centimètre. It means one-hundredth of a meter, and the roots of the French word are centi (a prefix for “hundred”) and mètre (“meter”).

However, “centimeter” is now an English word. There’s no reason to pronounce it as if it were foreign. We don’t pronounce “toilet” as twa-LAY.

Besides, the words “cent” and “meter” entered English many centuries before “centimeter” was adopted from French in 1801, so they were already long familiar to English speakers.

The word “cent,” ultimately from the Latin centum, was used in English to mean “hundred” before the year 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And the derivative “percent” entered the language in the 1500s.

“Meter” has been an English word since at least as far back as the ninth century, according to the OED.

It comes partly from the Latin metrum (meaning poetic meter or an object used for measuring), and partly from the Greek metron (poetic meter, measure, rule, length, size).

Obviously, there was never any reason for “centimeter” to retain a French pronunciation. 

We’ve written before about the tendency of some English speakers to impose French (and even faux-French) pronunciations on what are now firmly established English words.

Take “niche,” for instance. We wrote a blog item last year about the relatively recent appearance of the Frenchified NEESH pronunciation in English.

Our book Origins of the Specious has a whole chapter on fractured French, with many examples of the peculiar lexical relations between English and French.

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English English language Etymology Expression Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

The daughter of time

Q: On a recent Leonard Lopate show, you indicated that the silent “gh” in “daughter” derives from Anglo-Saxon. That got me to wondering: Is this English “gh” related to the German “ch” in tochter? The “ch” is pronounced in German, and makes a rough, throaty sound.

A: Yes, “daughter” came into English from Germanic sources (English being a Germanic language, after all). And, as I must have mentioned on WNYC, the silent “gh” in “daughter” was at one time sounded too.

“Daughter,” which was dohtor in Old English in the eighth century, has Germanic cognates (think of them as cousins) in Old Saxon (dohtar), Old Frisian (dochter), Old and Middle High German (tohter), Old Icelandic (dottir), Gothic (dauhtar), and of course modern German (tochter).

Cognates from outside the Germanic languages are found in Greek (thygater), Sanskrit (duhita), Persian (duxtar), Lithuanian (dukte), and Old Slavic (dusti). All have their origins in an ancient Indo-European root.

“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter”) and DAW-ter, the one we have today.

The word history above comes from the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog entry earlier this year about the “gh” combination and how it has developed since Middle English.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Linguistics Phrase origin Pronunciation Slang Usage Word origin

In search of the wild kudo

[NOTE: This post was updated on Aug. 25, 2020.]

Q: What is the source of the word “kudos”? Is there such a thing as a “kudo” in the wild?

A: The word “kudo” arose as a mistake, and the majority opinion is that it’s still a mistake.

The correct word, “kudos,” is a singular noun and takes a singular verb, say most usage guides, including the new fourth edition of Pat’s book Woe Is I. “Show me one kudo and I’ll eat it,” she says.

That’s the short answer, the one to follow when your English should be at its best. But English is a living language, and the singular “kudo” and the plural “kudos” are out there kicking up their heels, never mind the word mavens.

Where did “kudo” come from? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s a back formation resulting from the erroneous belief that “kudos” is plural. (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

Pronunciation may have played a part here. Originally “kudos”—like its singular Greek cousins “chaos,” “pathos,” and “bathos”—was pronounced as if the second syllable were “-oss” (rhymes with “loss”). A later pronunciation, “-oze” (rhymes with “doze”), probably influenced the perception that the word was a plural.

Now for some etymology. “Kudos” comes from the ancient Greek word κῦδος (kydos), a singular noun meaning praise or renown. And it was a relative latecomer to English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says the Greek term “was dragged into English as British university slang in the 19th century.” The first published reference for “kudos” in the OED dates from 1831, when it meant glory or fame.

Although “kudos” was officially singular, it was often used in a general way without a direct or indirect article, which may have blurred its sense of singularity.

In a typical early citation in the OED, for instance, Charles Darwin writes in an 1859 letter that the geologist Charles Lyell read about half the manuscript of On the Origin of Species “and gives me very great kudos.”

In its earliest uses, according to Merriam-Webster’s, “kudos” referred to the prestige or glory of having done something noteworthy. But by the 1920s, it had developed a second sense, praise for an accomplishment.

And it was during the ’20s, the usage guide says, that “the ‘praise’ sense of kudos came to be understood as a plural count noun, much like awards or honors. Time magazine, according to M-W, may have helped popularize the usage.

Here’s a 1927 example from Time that suggests plurality: “They were the recipients of honorary degrees—kudos conferred because of their wealth, position, or service to humanity.”

And the usage guide also cites a 1941 citation from the magazine that’s clearly plural: “There is no other weekly newspaper which in one short year has achieved so many kudos.”

Once “kudos” was seen in Time and other publications as a plural, M-W’s usage guide says, “it was inevitable that somebody would prune the s from the end and create a singular.”

The OED’s earliest sighting of “kudo” shorn of its “s” dates from a book of slang: “Kudo, good standing with the management” (Jack Smiley’s Hash House Lingo, 1941).

Oxford also cites a 1950 letter from Fred Allen to Groucho Marx, in which Allen hyperbolically describes approval for a TV show expressed by customers at the Stage Delicatessen in New York: “A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.”

Merriam-Webster’s includes quite a few examples of the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos.” Here are a couple from mainstream publications:

Saturday Review (1971): “All these kudos spread around the country.”

Women’s Wear Daily (1978): “She added a kudo for HUD’s Patricia Harris.”

OK, the singular “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are the result of mistakes. But a lot of legitimate words began life in error. Are “kudo” and “kudos” becoming legit as they spread like kudzu?

Merriam-Webster’s thinks so—sort of. The usage guides says the two usages “are by now well established,” though “they have not yet penetrated the highest range of scholarly writing or literature.”

Other usage commentators aren’t so open minded. In its entry for “kudos,” Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says that “in standard usage it has no plural nor is it used with the indefinite article a.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of Fowler’s, says “the final -s is sometimes misinterpreted as marking a plural.” But “kudo as a singular,” he writes, is not “desirable or elegant.”

“No other word of Greek origin,” Butterfield adds, “has suffered such an undignified fate.”

Lexicographers are also skeptical for the most part. Of the ten standard dictionaries we usually consul, only three (two of them published by the same company) accept the singular “kudo.”

Reflecting the majority opinion is Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries online), which says this in its entry for “kudos”:

“Despite appearances, it is not a plural form. This means that there is no singular form kudo and that the use of kudos as a plural … is incorrect.” Lexico provides an incorrect example (“he received many kudos”) and a corrected one (“he received much kudos”).

The three that accept the singular word “kudo” and the plural use of “kudos” are Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabrided, and Dictionary.com (which is based on the former Random House Unabridged).

Dictionary.com, for instance, accepts word in two senses: (1) meaning “honor; glory; acclaim,” as in “No greater kudo could have been bestowed”; and (2) meaning “a statement of praise or approval; accolade; compliment,” as in “one kudo after another.”

For now, we still don’t recommend the usage.

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Vice isn’t nice!

Q: At my place of employment, management has circulated a memo requiring employees to use the word “vice” instead of “versus.” So a company document might read: “Consider performing maintenance vice replacing the faulty part.” I would appreciate any insight you can provide.

A: Your bosses are recommending a term that’s not common, except perhaps in the military. This is the use of the preposition “vice,” a Latin borrowing, to mean “instead of” or “in place of.” 

(Think of the related term “vice versa,” which is also from Latin and means “conversely,” or “in reversed order.”)

This “vice” can be pronounced as one syllable (rhyming with “nice”) or as two (VYE-see), according to standard dictionaries.

A Google search finds that your bosses aren’t alone in using “vice” instead of “versus,” though this is certainly not common in ordinary English. These days, the “instead of” sense of the word is more common in prefixes and adjectival nouns in titles.

For example, we use it (pronounced as a single syllable) in terms like “vice president” and “vice consul,” where it means someone who represents or serves in place of a superior. A  “viceroy,” to use another example, rules a province or country as the representative of his sovereign.

The preposition “vice” as used by your bosses first showed up in written English in a military usage in the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the OED citation: “6th reg. of foot: Capt. Mathew Derenzy to be Major, vice John Forrest; by purchase.” (From a 1770 issue of the Scots Magazine.)

[Note: The military use is still alive. Two readers of the blog report that “vice” is used for “in place of” in armed-forces documents.]

Later OED citations include uses in sports, diplomacy, and music. Here’s one from a book Pat is currently reading:

“He was gardener and out-door man, vice Upton, resigned.” (From William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Pendennis, 1849.) 

As a noun, of course, “vice” can mean a lot of nasty things: depravity, corruption, evil, and so on. The OED says the noun, first recorded in English in 1297, is from a different Latin source: vitium (“fault, defect, failing, etc.”).  

But getting back to your company’s memo, we see nothing wrong with “versus,” a preposition meaning “against” that’s been in steady since the 15th century. Like the prepositional “vice” and its derivatives, “versus” is from Latin, in which it means “against.”

As you’re probably aware, “versus” may have inspired a popular colloquial usage: the word “verse” as a verb meaning to compete against. We recently wrote on the blog about  this use of “verse.”

[Note: This post was updated on Oct. 13, 2016.]

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Herbal remedies

Q: I can’t help responding to your blog posting regarding “a herb” vs. “an herb.” Any word that starts with a vowel has “an” in front of it. “Herb” does not start with a vowel, no matter how the word is pronounced. No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense. A vowel is a vowel and that’s that. A herb is a herb too! Thanks much for listening (I hope!).

A: Sorry to disappoint you. When using an indefinite article (that is, “a” or “an”) before a word, the determinant is the SOUND the word begins with, not the letter of the alphabet.

Check any reference source you want and you’ll learn this. The word’s spelling is irrelevant.

If the word begins with a vowel SOUND, the article is “an” (as in “an apple,” “an hour,” “an honor,” “an herb,” “an umbrella”).

If the word begins with a consonant SOUND, the article is “a” (as in “a hotel,” “a house,” “a utopia,” “a unit,” “a university,” “a use,” “a European,” “a one-time offer,” “a once-over”).

In American English, the “h” in “herb” is not sounded; it is silent, so it’s preceded by “an.” In British English, the “h” in “herb” is sounded, so it’s preceded by “a.”

You say, “No other words with silent letters get singled out with such nonsense.” Of course they do! All words beginning with a silent “h” are preceded by “an.” Are you telling me you actually say “a honorary degree from an university”?

What I’m telling you is common knowledge. Check any dictionary or usage guide.

I’ll quote The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.): “The form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant sound, regardless of its spelling (a frog, a university). The form an is used before a word beginning with a vowel sound (an orange, an hour).”

And this is from The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by Robert H. Burchfield (who uses “AmE” for American English, “BrE” for British English): “AmE herb, being pronounced with silent h, is always preceded by an, but the same word in BrE, being pronounced with an aspirated h, by a.”

I can cite many, many more authorities if you’re still unconvinced.

American Heritage has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. I quoted it in that earlier post, but it bears repeating:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

In case you’re wondering, the “h”-less American “herb” is the original pronunciation in Middle English, when the word was usually spelled “erbe.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the h was mute until the 19th cent., and is still so treated by many.”

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Spice craft

Q: BAY-zul or BAZZ-ul? KYOO-min or KUM-in? The first pronunciation in each pair is the one I hear most often today; the second is the pronunciation I grew up with. I’m wondering if cooking shows are responsible for this. Julia Child most certainly pronounced them the way I was taught. This will not change the world or stop global warming. It’s just something I want to get off my chest.

A: The pronunciation of herbs (and the word “herb” itself!) comes up a lot in my email. Many herbs have several acceptable pronunciations, as you’ll find when you look them up.

But even dictionaries can change their stripes. “Cumin” is an interesting example.

My 1956 Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.) says “KUM-in” is the only correct pronunciation. But things appear to have changed in contemporary usage.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list three pronunciations without comment (meaning all are acceptable): KUM-in; KOO-min; KYOO-min.

As for “basil, American Heritage and Merriam-Webster’s list two acceptable pronunciations: BAZZ-ul (with a short “a” like the one in “jazz”) and BAY-zul (with a long “a” like the one in “bay”).

If you’re curious about “herb,” I’ve written a blog entry on why Britons pronounce the “h” and Americans don’t. The short answer is that the “h” in “herb” wasn’t pronounced on either side of the Atlantic when the Colonies were being settled.

You wondered about cooking shows. I suspect that TV chefs have little influence on how we pronounce herbs – and perhaps less on how we use them!

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Herbal treatment

Q: I’m a South African and I wonder why Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB. Isn’t this a French affectation?

A: Americans pronounce “herb” as ERB because that’s the way the word was spoken when the Colonists left England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Britons began pronouncing the “h” in “herb” in the early 19th century. Before then, both Brits and Americans pronounced it ERB.

In fact, the word was usually spelled “erbe” for the first few hundred years after it was borrowed from the Old French erbe in the 1200s.

The “h” was added to the spelling later as a nod to the Latin original (herba, or grass), but the letter was silent in English.

Today, Americans pronounce “herb” the way Shakespeare did, with a silent “h,” while the Bard wouldn’t recognize the word in the mouths of the English.

If you’d like to read more about British-vs.-American English, check out my latest book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart Kellerman.

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Why don’t “laughter” and “daughter” rhyme?

Q: Why do words like “caught,” “ought,” “thought,” “bought,” “naught,” “laugh,” and “should” have endings with no bearing on the way the words sound?

A: I think you’ve asked a much larger and more complicated question than you realize!

Our spelling system began as an attempt to reproduce speech. But because most spellings became fixed centuries ago, they no longer reflect exact pronunciations.

As a result, spelling is about more than pronunciation; it also reflects a word’s meaning and etymology and history. And in the case of English words, their spellings often have very idiosyncratic histories hidden within.

You mention “caught,” “ought” and others. The appearance of “gh” in words like these is annoying to people who’d like to reform English spelling. Many wonder, for example, why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme. Well, they once did.

“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter’”) and DAW-ter. We know which one survived.

The Middle English letter combination “gh” is now pronounced either as “f” (as in “cough/trough/laugh/enough”) or not at all (“slaughter/daughter/ought/through,” etc.).

The word “night,” to use another example, went through dozens of spellings over 600 years, from nact and nigt and niht, and so on, eventually to “night” around 1300. It’s a cousin not only to the German nacht but probably to the Greek nyktos and the Old Irish innocht, among many others.

The odd-looking consonants in the middle of “night” (as well as “right” and “bright”) were once pronounced with a guttural sound somewhere between the modern “g” and “k.” But though the pronunciation moved on, the spelling remained frozen in time.

You also mention “should,” a word in which the letter “l” looks entirely superfluous. But the “l” in “should” and “would” was once pronounced (as it was in “walk,” “chalk,” “talk,” and other words).

Same goes for the “w” in “sword” and the “b” in “climb.” They were once pronounced. Similarly, the “k” in words like “knife,” “knee,” and “knave” was not originally silent. It was once softly pronounced. But while pronunciation changed, spelling did not.

There are several reasons that English spellings and pronunciations differ so markedly.

Much of our modern spelling had its foundation in the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500). But in the late Middle English and early Modern English period (roughly 1350 to 1550), the pronunciation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval.

Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift, and it’s too complicated to go into in much detail here. To use one example, before the Great Vowel Shift the word “food” sounded like FODE (rhymes with “road”).

Melinda J. Menzer’s Furman University website can tell you more about the Great Vowel Shift. I’ve also touched on it briefly in a blog item.

While the pronunciations of many words changed dramatically, their spellings remained largely the same. Why? Because printing, which was introduced into England in the late 1400s, helped retain and standardize those older spellings.

Complicating matters even further, the first English printer, William Caxton, employed typesetters from Holland who introduced their own oddities (the “h” in “ghost” is an example, borrowed from Flemish).

In addition, silent letters were introduced into some English words as afterthoughts to underscore their classical origins. This is why “debt” and “doubt” have a “b” (inserted to reflect their Latin ancestors debitum and dubitare).

Sometimes, a letter was erroneously added to reflect an imagined classical root. This is why “island” has an “s” (a mistaken connection to the Latin isola). I’ve written a blog entry about this.

Still other English spellings came about in the Middle Ages when scribes found that the letters “m,” “n,” “u,” and “i” caused readers difficulty because of all those vertical downstrokes of the pen (“m” + “I” was hard to tell from “n” + “u”). So “o” was substituted for “u” in words like “come,” “some,” “monk,” son,” and “wolf.”

Apart from ease of reading, “o” was sometimes swapped for “u” because, as Dennis Freeborn writes in his book From Old English to Standard English, “u was an overused letter. It represented the sound v as well as u, and uu was used for w.”

Another authority, David Crystal, has pointed out that England’s “civil service of French scribes” following the Norman Conquest in the 11th century also influenced the spelling of English words.

Crystal writes in his book The Fight for English that not only did consonants change (the French “qu” replaced the Old English “cw” in words like “queen,” to use just one example), but vowels “were written in a great number of ways.”

“Much of the irregularity of modern English spelling derives from the forcing together of Old English and French systems of spelling in the Middle Ages,” he says.

As you can see, this is a vast subject. In summary, spellings eventually settle into place and become standardized, but pronunciations are more mercurial and likely to change.

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Do you pronounce ‘t’ in ‘often’?

Q: I just discovered your site and I plan to return often. Oh, that reminds me – it makes me crazy to hear people pronounce the “t” in “often.”

A: The word “often” can be pronounced with a silent “t” (the more common pronunciation) or with an audible “t.” How “correct” is the second pronunciation? That depends on the dictionary you consult.

Both are correct, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

However, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) treats the version with the audible “t” as a variant that occurs in educated speech but is considered unacceptable by some. [Update, May 25, 2018: The online edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has dropped that label and now has the word “nonstandard” before the second pronunciation.]

American Heritage has an interesting usage note after its entry for “often.” During the 15th century, it seems, English speakers stopped pronouncing some sounds within consonant clusters, making the language easier to articulate. Examples include the “d” in “handsome” and “handkerchief,” the “p” in “consumption” and “raspberry,” and the “t” in “chestnut” and “often.”

With the rise of public education and people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, according to the dictionary, sounds that had become silent were sometimes restored. This is what happened with the “t” in “often.”

You might be interested in knowing that “often” was originally just “oft,” and “oft” was commonly used as a prefix in word combinations that are archaic and unrecognizable today.

Even a word like “oftentimes,” which appears in modern dictionaries, seems dated and has musty, quaint overtones. It’s also a term that drives people crazy because of its apparent redundancy. But in fact, the words “oftentime,” “oftentimes,” and “oftime” date back to the early 1400s, and “ofttimes” was first recorded in the 1300s, so they have a venerable history.

[Note: This post was updated on May 25, 2018.]

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Stormy weather

[An updated and expanded post about “nor’easter” appeared on the blog on March 2, 2015.]

Q: Where does the word “nor’easter” come from? Is it short for “northeastern”? I live in Brooklyn and we recently experienced a nor’easter.

A: The word “nor’easter” is a contraction of “northeaster,” which is a noun meaning a strong northeast wind or a storm with heavy winds from the northeast.

The prevailing opinion among American broadcast and print journalists, who choose the contraction “nor’easter” by a wide margin over the longer version (just check Google), seems to be that “nor’easter” represents a regional New England pronunciation. This seems to be a myth, however. Many linguists and a great many coastal New Englanders insist that no such pronunciation existed in the region, and that locals have always pronounced the word without dropping the “th.”

According to the University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman, “nor’easter” is a “literary affectation.”

The earliest published reference to “nor’easter” in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from an 1837 translation of an Aristophanes comedy, The Knights: “Slack your sheet! A strong nor’-easter’s groaning.” The English poet Alfred Austin (he was poet laureate from 1892 to 1913) used both “nor’-easters” and “sou’-westers” in his writing, according to the OED.

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Do we say “an herb” or “a herb”?

Q: Tarragon, dill, rosemary, and thyme are herbs. The “h” is silent in describing them generically. Ergo, does one say tarragon is an herb or tarragon is a herb? My Microsoft Office spell-checker is flagging the latter.

A: In the United States, the “h” in “herb” is silent. In Britain, it’s sounded. We say “an ’erb” while the British say “a herb.”

No matter which side of the Atlantic we hail from, we generally use the article “an” before a vowel sound (like a silent “h”) and “a” before a consonant sound (like a pronounced, or aspirated, “h”).

If you’re an American, give your spell-checker a pat on the back. If you’re a Brit, give it a good, swift kick. Spell-checkers can be useful (say, to point out typos or repeated words), but if you automatically make all the changes they suggest, your writing will be riddled with errors (often hilariously so).

PS: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) has an interesting Usage Note on the “h” in “herb” and similar words that English has borrowed from French. Here it is, broken into paragraphs to make it more readable:

“The word herb, which can be pronounced with or without the (h), is one of a number of words borrowed into English from French. The ‘h’ sound had been lost in Latin and was not pronounced in French or the other Romance languages, which are descended from Latin, although it was retained in the spelling of some words.

“In both Old and Middle English, however, h was generally pronounced, as in the native English words happy and hot. Through the influence of spelling, then, the h came to be pronounced in most words borrowed from French, such as haste and hostel. In a few other words borrowed from French the h has remained silent, as in honor, honest, hour, and heir. And in another small group of French loan words, including herb, humble, human, and humor, the h may or may not be pronounced depending on the dialect of English.

“In British English, herb and its derivatives, such as herbaceous, herbal, herbicide, and herbivore, are pronounced with h. In American English, herb and herbal are more often pronounced without the h, while the opposite is true of herbaceous, herbicide, and herbivore, which are more often pronounced with the h.”

By the way, the “h”-less American pronunciation of “herb” is the original pronunciation of the word in Middle English, when it was usually spelled “erbe.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “the h was mute until the 19th cent., and is still so treated by many.”

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