English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Religion Usage Writing

Not to mention Paul

Q: Thank you for your article on “not to mention,” a funny phrase since the writer goes on to mention it anyway. Are you aware that the phrase is in Paul’s letter to Philemon (verse 19) and evidently much older than the 1644 example from Milton you cite?

A: You’re right that this use of “not to mention” appeared in English before the Oxford English Dictionary citation that we mention in our 2007 post, which we’ve now updated. But it didn’t show up quite as early as your biblical example suggests.

We’ve found several earlier 17th-century uses, including this one from a treatise on the Anglican liturgy that criticizes the servants of “Don Beel-zebub” for encouraging equivocation and deception:

“Not to mention here their vnsufferable correcting, yea corrupting of all Authors” (An Exposition of the Dominicall Epistles and Gospels Used in Our English Liturgie, 1622, by John Boys, Dean of Canterbury).

As far as we can tell, the use of “not to mention” in the Epistle to Philemon appears in only modern translations of the New Testament, not in older ones.

Here, for example, is Philemon 19 in the New King James Version (1982): “I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.”

But this is the passage in the original King James Version (1611): “I Paul haue written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I doe not say to thee how thou owest vnto me euen thine owne selfe besides.”

And here is Filemon 19 in the Wycliffe Bible, written in Middle English in the early 1380s:

“Y Poul wroot with myn hoond, Y schal yelde; that Y seie not to thee, that also thou owist to me thi silf” (“I, Paul, wrote this with my hand, I shall repay it; that I say not to thee, that also thou owest me thy self”).

That Middle English translation is in keeping with early Greek versions of Paul’s epistle. Here’s the relevant Greek passage: “ἵνα μὴ λέγω σοι” (“that not I say [or “may say’] to you”).

Although “Y seie not to thee” in the Wycliffe version has the same meaning as “not to mention” in modern translations of Philemon 19, the two usages are not etymologically related.

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Weak in the knees

Q: Can you write about the expression “weak in the knees”? I know it has to do metaphorically with fear or apprehension, but as someone who suffers from literal weak knees I’d like to know more about it.

A: The image of weak or unsteady knees as a metaphor for vacillation—being indecisive or afraid, lacking faith, not standing firm—came into English from biblical writings. It can be found in ancient Hebrew and Greek versions of the Bible and in later Latin translations.

The imagery was preserved in early English translations of the Bible, where the knees of people lacking spiritual stamina were first described as “trembling” and “feeble” (1300s) and later as “weak” (1500s).

And in wider, secular use, irresolute or faint-hearted people went from having “weak knees” to being “weak in [or at] the knees” (1700s) or “weak-kneed” (1800s).

Here’s a closer look at the history.

As we mentioned, the metaphoric equivalent of “weak knees” was known in biblical Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. The noun “knee” in Hebrew is ברך (berek), in Greek γόνατο (gonato), and in Latin genu. The adjectives used in the metaphor can be translated as feeble, weak, trembling, unable to move, and so on.

In Hebrew, various Old Testament figures who are struck with terror or who are unsteady in their faith are said to have weak or feeble knees, as in ברכים כרעות (birkayim karaot,  Job 4:4) and ברכים כשלות (birkayim kashalot, Isaiah 35:3).

This imagery was passed along in Greek translations of the Old Testament and of the New Testament as well.

For example, in Hebrews 12:12 in the New Testament, where the people are admonished to bear up and keep their faith, the Greek phrase used in describing their vacillation is παρaλυτα γόνατα (paralya gonata), literally “paralyzed knees.” Biblical scholars say the Greek verb παραλύειν (paralyein, paralyze) is used idiomatically here, so that to “lift up one’s paralyzed knees” means to gain courage, be unafraid, stand firm.

Biblical translations in Latin used similar imagery to express fear or faithlessness; genua trementia confortasti (strengthen trembling knees) in Job 4:4; genua debilia roborate (strengthen feeble knees) in Isaiah 35:3; soluta genua erigite (lift up weak knees) in Hebrews 12:12; omnia genua ibunt aquae (all knees will be weak as water) in Ezekiel 7:17.

By the way, the image of weak or trembling knees as a metaphor for fear was known earlier in Greek mythology and in Latin lyric poetry. It can be found, for example, in the Greek legend of Tiresias, whose knees shake in terror before the king, and in the Odes of Horace, where Chloe’s knees tremble in fear.

But we won’t dwell on the earlier literary sources, since the metaphor found its way into English via the Bible.

The earliest English version, the Wycliffe Bible, was made in Middle English in 1382 from late fourth-century Latin versions. And in rendering that metaphor, it has “knees tremblynge” (Job 4:4), “feble knees” (Isaiah 35:3), and “knees shall tremble” (Ezekiel 7:17).

As far as we know, the earliest example of the exact phrase “weak knees” used figuratively is in a translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale, published in 1534. Here’s Tyndale’s rendering of Hebrews 12:12, made from Greek and Hebrew texts: “Stretch forthe therfore agayne the hondes [hands] which were let doune & the weake knees.”

Tyndales’s work was completed and greatly enlarged by Miles Coverdale, whose 1535 translation from Greek and Hebrew was the first English version with both Old and New Testaments. Here’s how Coverdale rendered that passage: “Life [lift] vp therfore the handes which were let downe, and the weake knees.”

This image became a familiar theme of sermons and commentaries from the later 16th century onwards. For instance, John Calvin evoked it in a sermon delivered in January 1556: “It is the ministers charge to strengthen the weake knees.”

The figurative use of “weak knees” as a religious device became more or less official when the Anglican priest and scholar Thomas Wilson included it his popular book A Christian Dictionarie (1612), his attempt to define English words as used in the Old and New Testaments. Wilson defined “weak knees” as meaning “feeble, remisse, and slothfull mindes” (citing Hebrews 12:12).

Wilson’s dictionary went through many editions. A 1661 printing, edited after his death, added the literal condition of “weak knees” and also expanded the figurative meanings to include “dejected in courage, and faint-hearted,” “fearful and dejected in minde,” and “sluggish in the way of godliness” (citing Job 4:4, Isaiah 35:3, and Hebrews 12:12).

By the mid-1600s, “weak knees” was in secular use as well, meaning not only fearful and irresolute but disloyal. The earliest example we’ve found is in John Ford’s play The Chronicle Historie of Perkin Warbeck (1634), about a foiled plot to overthrow King Henry VII.

Here Sir Robert Clifford, a leader of the plot, has decided to plead for his life in return for betraying his co-conspirators:  “Let my weake knees rot on the earth, / If I appeare as leap’rous in my treacheries, / Before your royall eyes; as to mine owne / I seeme a Monster, by my breach of truth.”

The longer phrase “weak in the knees” didn’t appear in writing until the late 18th century, as far as we can tell. The earliest example we’ve found is in a work of astrology, where it’s listed among character faults attributed to people born under the sign of Capricorn:

“weak in the knees, not active or ingenious, subject to debauchery and scandalous actions; of low esteem, &c. amongst his associates.” (From Astronomy and Elementary Philosophy, Ebenezer Sibly’s 1789 translation of a Latin work written in 1650 by the Italian scholar Placidus de Titis.)

The variant phrase “weak at the knees” followed a half-century later. The oldest use we’ve found is from an anonymous collection of Irish verse: “What an ease to the minds of the mighty J.P.s, / Who felt chill at their hearts and grew weak at the knees” (The Lays of Erin, 1844).

The Oxford English Dictionary has no entries for “weak knees” or “weak in [or at] the knees.” But it does have an entry for the adjective “weak-kneed,” which it defines as “having weak knees,” and says is a “chiefly figurative” expression meaning “wanting in resolution or determination.”

We found this example in a Missouri newspaper: “So come out, you weak-kneed false-tongued slanderer of the Whig press of Missouri.” (From the Hannibal Journal, May 12, 1853, quoting a dispatch in the St. Louis News.)

The OED’s earliest example appeared a decade later: “But we must forego these comforts and conveniences, because our legislators are too weak-kneed to enact a tax law.” (From the Rio Abajo Press, Albuquerque, Feb. 24, 1863.)

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On Passover and Easter

Q: Why do the words for Passover and Easter sound similar in different languages? They can’t have the same origin, can they?

A: Words for Passover and Easter are similar in many languages, especially European languages, because the lookalikes are derived from the Hebrew word for the Jewish holiday, פסח (Pesach).

So “Passover” is Pâque in French, Passah in German, Pasqua in Italian, Påske in Norwegian, Pascha in Polish, Pascua in Spanish, etc.

Similarly, “Easter” is Pâques in French, Pasqua in Italian, Påske in Norwegian, Pascua in Spanish, and so on.

Two notable exceptions are in English and German, where “Easter” and Ostern are believed to be derived from prehistoric words for “east” and “dawn,” and may have been influenced by an ancient Germanic goddess of the spring.

Among other European exceptions are those in some Slavic languages that refer to Easter with various terms meaning “Great Night” or “Great Day.”

The Hebrew word פסח was first recorded in the biblical account of the freeing of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

In the Book of Exodus, it’s a verb usually translated as to pass over and a noun for the ritual sacrifice of a lamb on the first Passover, the meal eaten from it, and God’s passing over the homes of the Israelites.

In Exodus 12:23, the clause “ופסח יהוה” means “and the Lord will pass over”—that is, skip or omit—the homes of the Israelites during the last of the Ten Plagues (the killing of Egypt’s firstborn).

In other verses of Exodus 12, the noun פסח refers to the the sacrifice, the meal, and God’s passing over:

“פסח הוא ליהוה” (“a passover [sacrifice] to the Lord,” Ex. 12:11) … “ושחטו הפסח” (“and slaughter the Passover [sacrifice],” Ex. 12:21) … “זבח־פסח הוא ליהוה” (“a sacrifice to the Lord’s passover [passing over],” Ex. 12:27) … “זאת חקת הפסח” (“this is the rule of the Passover [meal],” Ex. 12:43).

The “pass over” sense of the verb פסח was first recorded in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament from the third-century BC. Although that’s the usual way the verb is translated in English versions of Exodus, the Hebrew term has been translated several other ways over the years, such as take pity or protect.

The term first appeared in English in William Tyndale’s 1530 translation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: “And ye shall eate it in haste, for it is the Lordes passeouer” (Exodus 12:11).

The English term showed up a few years later in the same passage from Myles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the New and Old Testaments: “and ye shal eate it with haist: for it is ye LORDES Passeouer.”

Most European languages refer to Easter with variations on pascha, post-classical Latin for “Passover.” (The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place during the seven days of Passover, according to the Christian Gospels.) The Latin pascha is a transliteration of πάσχα in Hellenistic Greek, which is in turn a rendering of פסחא, the Aramaic version of the Hebrew פסח.

In Old English, pasca (“pasch” in Modern English) could refer to either Easter or Passover, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. Both usages appear in Byrhtferð’s Enchiridion (1011), a wide-ranging compilation of information on astronomy, mathematics, logic, grammar, rhetoric, and more:

  • “Pasca ys Ebreisc nama, and he getacnað oferfæreld” (“Pasca is the Hebrew name, and it signifies Passover”).
  • “He abæd æt þam mihtigan Drihtne … þæt he him mildelice gecydde hwær hyt rihtlicost wære þæt man þa Easterlican tide mid Godes rihte, þæne Pascan, healdan sceolde” (“He prayed to the mighty Lord … that He kindly make known to him where under God’s law one should rightly observe the Pasch, the Easter season”).

However, an early version of “Easter” had appeared centuries before in Old English. The oldest recorded example in the OED is from an early eighth-century Latin manuscript in which the Northumbrian monk Bede discusses the origin of Old English names for the months.

In De Temporum Ratione (“The Reckoning of Time”), 725, Bede says the Old English Eostur-monath (“Easter-month”) is derived from Eostre, a goddess of the dawn celebrated by pagan Anglo-Saxons in Northumbria around the time of the vernal equinox or beginning of spring:

“Eostur-monath, qui nunc paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a dea illorum quae Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant, nomen habuit, a cujus nomine nunc paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquae observationis vocabulo gaudia novae solemnitatis vocantes.” (“Easter-month, which is now taken to mean the Paschal month, was once named for a goddess called Eostre, who was celebrated with a festival that month and whose ancient name is now used for a joyful new rite.”)

In its entry for “Easter,” the OED includes an extensive discussion of Bede’s etymology, but it notes that his “explanation is not confirmed by any other source, and the goddess has been suspected by some scholars to be an invention of Bede’s.” However, the dictionary adds that “it seems unlikely that Bede would have invented a fictitious pagan festival in order to account for a Christian one.”

The dictionary says the Old English term for the Christian holiday is probably derived from the same prehistoric Germanic source as “east,” which can be traced to an ancient Indo-European base with the probable meaning “to become light (in the morning).”

The first OED citation for an Old English version of “Easter” that refers to the holiday itself, not the month, is from a Latin-Old English glossary of the 10th century: “Phase, eastran” (Phase is a Latin term for “Easter”). From The Latin-Old English Glossary in MS Cotton Cleopatra AIII (1951), by William Garlington Stryker.

The dictionary’s next example is from De Temporibus Anni (“On the Seasons of the Year”), a 10th-century handbook by Ælfric of Eynsham: “On sumon geare bið se mona twelf siðon geniwod, fram ðære halgan eastertide oð eft eastron” (“In some years, the moon becomes new twelve times, from the holy Eastertide to Easter again”).

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A sod story

Q: I’m puzzled by the word “sod” in Genesis 25:29 of the King James Version of the Bible: “And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint.” I looked up several definitions of “sod,” but I can’t figure out what it means in this verse.

A: The word “sod” in that passage means “boiled” or “cooked,” and that’s the way it’s translated in most modern versions of the New Testament.

Here’s the passage in  the New International Version: “Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished.” And here it is in the American Standard Version: “And Jacob boiled pottage. And Esau came in from the field, and he was faint.” This is from the New King James Version: “Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary.”

As it happens, “sod” is an obsolete past tense of the verb “seethe,” which originally meant to boil a liquid or to cook food by boiling or stewing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest example for “seethe” in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is from Old English Leechdoms (circa 1000), a collection of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies:

“Gif mon syþ garleac on henne broþe” (“If a man seethes [boils] garlic in chicken broth”). The þ at the end of syþ, Old English for “seethes,” is a thorn, a letter pronounced like “th.”

The past tense of “seethe” was seaþ in Old English and originally seþseeth, etc., in Middle English, according to the dictionary. But the Middle English past tense was later “superseded by the form sod taken from the past participle” (soden or sodden).

The OED adds that the sod past tense for “seethe” is now obsolete, and sodden has “ceased to be associated with this verb.” By the 1600s “seethed” had replaced “sod” as the past tense, and by the 1700s it had replaced “sodden” as the past participle of the verb “seethe.”

The various contemporary uses of “sod” as a noun (a piece of turf, a contemptuous person, an annoying experience, etc.) aren’t etymologically related to the archaic Middle English past tense of the verb.

But “sodden” lives on as an adjective with the boiled-down sense of “having the appearance of, or resembling, that which has been soaked or steeped in water; rendered dull, stupid, or expressionless, esp. owing to drunkenness or indulgence in intoxicants; pale and flaccid,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for “sodden” used in this sense, which we’ve expanded, is from The Fountaine of Selfe-Loue; or, Cynthias Reuels (1601), a satirical play by Ben Jonson: “By Gods will, I scorne him, as I do the sodden Nimph that was heere euen now; his mistris Arete: And I loue my selfe for nothing else.”

The boiling sense of “seethe” is now archaic, but the verb is often used figuratively today for someone or something boiling with agitation, anger, excitement, rage, turmoil, and so on.

The OED defines this figurative sense as to “be in a state of inward agitation, turmoil, or ‘ferment.’ Said of a person in trouble, fever, etc.; of plans, elements of discontent or change; also of a region filled with excitement, disaffection, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Shakespeare’s play Troilus and Cressida (1602). Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, is talking here to a servant: “I come to speak with Paris from the Prince Troylus. I will make a complimentall assault vpon him, for my businesse seethe ’s.”

We’ll end with an example from Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem in blank verse: “She lay and seethed in fever many weeks, / But youth was strong and overcame the test; / Revolted soul and flesh were reconciled / And fetched back to the necessary day / And daylight duties.”

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True north, literal and figurative

Q: I am wondering about the origin of the phrase “true north.” When did it show up in English? And when did Christians begin using it metaphorically in referring to Jesus Christ as their “true North”?

A: As far as we can tell, the phrase “true north” was first used metaphorically in reference to Jesus in the 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book for Christians who question their faith by a pastor who questioned his.

In Christianity and the Science of Manhood: A Book for Questioners (1873), Minot Judson Savage says Jesus “is the first great leader of history who, by the power of his personal love, has drawn thousands of men out of and away from their most fascinating passions, and their dearest sins.”

“He has discovered,” Savage adds, “the secret of the human heart, and so drawn it into magnetic sympathy with his own, that in all its variations and vibrations, it is ever settling nearer and nearer to his true north.”

In the preface, he says the book was “born of doubt and conflict.” It was published a year after he left the Congregational Church to become a Unitarian because he “found it impossible to rest in tradition” and “felt compelled to seek a reasonable basis on which to stand.” He was a well-known Unitarian preacher in New England in the late 19th century.

Despite that early example, the figurative use of “true north” in reference to Jesus was relatively rare until the late 20th century. And the phrase is still not common enough to be included in any of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult. It’s just defined literally as the geographic north as opposed to the magnetic north.

Nor is this figurative sense of “true north” found in the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive English etymological reference. It has only one definition for the term: “north determined by the earth’s axis of rotation (as opposed to magnetic north).”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 16th-century mathematical treatise: “Of the Variacion of the Compas, from true Northe” (in The Elements of Geometrie of the Most Ancient Philosopher Euclide, 1570, by Henry Billingsley, a translation from the Greek of Euclid’s work).

We’ll end with a metaphorical example from Mere Christianity, a 1952 book by C. S. Lewis, based on radio broadcasts he made during World War II. Here’s how he describes two people undecided about God:

“Their free will is trembling inside them like the needle of a compass. But this is a needle that can choose. It can point to its true North; but it need not. Will the needle swing round, and settle, and point to God?”

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When a rose isn’t a rose

Q: Twice in the last few days I’ve seen the hibiscus shrub (or its blossoms) referred to in the plural as “roses of Sharon.” I would have thought it more correct to say “rose of Sharons.” Is there a rule for such plurals?

A: The usual rule for pluralizing a compound term that’s split into parts, with or without hyphens, is to put the plural ending on the most important part, as in  “attorneys-at-law,” “brigadier generals,” and “mothers-in-law.”

The compound common names of plants are usually treated the same way, especially when the key element is a noun at the end: “African violets,” “fringed bleeding hearts,” “morning glories,” “northern blue flags,” “pussy willows,” “trumpet vines,” and “Virginia creepers.”

However, things get fuzzy when the important term is elsewhere in the compound, especially if it’s being used loosely. A “lily of the valley,” for example, isn’t really a lily, nor is a “rose of Sharon” a rose. The terms “lily” and “rose” are being used figuratively in the sense of “flower.”

Similarly, the “Johnny” of “Johnny jump up” refers to a violet, while the “Jack” of “Jack in the pulpit” is a flower-hooded spike. And “forget-me-not” doesn’t even have a key word. It originated as an English translation of the Old French expression “ne m’oubliez mye.”

We haven’t found any special rules for pluralizing such horticultural compounds. And the online standard dictionaries aren’t much help—only a few include plurals for these compounds—and the entries are inconsistent.

Merriam-Webster, for example, includes both “Jack-in the-pulpits” and “Jacks-in-the-pulpit” as standard. American Heritage has “Jack-in-the-pulpits” and “Johnny-jump-ups.” M-W, AH, Collins, and list “lilies of the valley” as plural. None of the dictionaries have a plural for “rose of Sharon.”

A search of garden websites indicates that some gardeners make the key word plural (“roses of Sharon”), others pluralize the last word (“rose of Sharons”), and still others add a plural noun at the end (“rose of Sharon bushes”).

A search of the iWeb corpus, a database that contains 14 billion words from 22 million web pages, came up with these results: “rose of Sharons,” 30; “roses of Sharon,” 19; “rose of Sharon bushes,” 43; “rose of Sharon plants,” 19; “rose of Sharon trees,” 16; and “rose of Sharon shrubs,” 15.

With no lexical guide and usage up in the air, pick whichever one sounds best to your ears. We’ve planted a few over the years, and “rose of Sharons” sounds more natural to us than “roses of Sharon” or “rose of Sharon bushes.”

As we’ve said, the rose of Sharon isn’t a rose. In fact, the common name may refer to several different plants, including Hypericum calycinum, a flowering shrub native to southeast Asia and southwest Europe, and Hibiscus syriacus, a flowering shrub native to east Asia.

Although the common name has biblical roots, none of the plants now called “rose of Sharon” are likely to have grown in ancient Israel.

In the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) 2:1, the maiden who is one of the two main speakers refers to herself in Hebrew as חבצלת השרון, or havatzelet hasharon. Havatzelet is a flower that has been variously identified as a crocus, lily, daffodil, or tulip. Hasharon is the plain of Sharon along the Mediterranean coast of Israel.

Early English versions of the Old Testament translate havatzelet as “flower.” The Wycliffe Bible of 1384, for example, renders havatzelet hasharon as “flour of the feeld” while the Coverdale Bible of 1535 has it as “floure of the feelde.” It was translated similarly in earlier Greek and Latin versions of the bible: ἄνθος τοῦ πεδίου (anthos tou pediou, flower of the field) in the Septuagint, and flos campi (flower of the field) in the Vulgate.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 was the first English bible to translate havatzelet as “rose”: “I am the rose of the fielde.” The Oxford English Dictionary says “it is not clear why the Geneva Bible uses this particular translation, rather than the generic flower of earlier English versions.”

The first OED example for “rose of Sharon” is from An Exposition Vppon the Booke of the Canticles (1585), by the Puritan clergyman Thomas Wilcox: “I Am the rose of Sharon.” (The Canticles is another name for the Song of Songs.) The King James Version of 1611 uses the same wording as Wilcox.

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Crossing the bar

Q: I’m singing a hymn in church on Sunday, one my great-aunt used to play on the piano, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are.” A line of the chorus is “Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar.” I’m curious about the meaning of “across the bar,” since I’m assuming it has nothing to do with serving alcohol.

A: The “bar” in the expression is a sandbar, an obstruction that’s dangerous to cross in a boat. The chorus of that hymn is an injunction to do a good deed, to help someone who’s at sea (figuratively speaking) and needs guidance to get safely home.

The word “bar” in this sense is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a bank of sand, silt, etc., across the mouth of a river or harbour, which obstructs navigation.” The noun has been used in this way since the late 16th century.

The OED’s earliest example shows that ships were careful to give these obstacles a wide berth. The citation is from a 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland:

“The port or hauen [haven] of Dublin is a barred hauen, and no great ships … doo lie in a certeine rode without the barre.” (The term “barred haven” had been used since the mid-1500s to mean a harbor protected by a sandbar or silt bank.)

Subsequent OED citations for this use of “bar” are from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, including one from a 1720 issue of the London Gazette: “Three Ships were lost upon the Bar.”

But the most famous example is found in Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar” (1889). The poet likens dying to being swept from harbor to sea, and uses “bar” as a metaphor for the crossing over from life to death. Here are the final two stanzas:

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

In a literal rather than a poetic sense, “crossing the bar” was so dangerous that in the 19th century “bar boats” (those less likely to founder on sandbars) were used to offload cargo, attempt rescues, and so on.

The OED’s earliest example for such boats is from 1857, but we’ve found several earlier uses. This one is from a newspaper article about an Australian swimmer who was carried out to sea:

“The bar boat was put off to his assistance, but on its arrival at the breakers no appearance of the lad was to be discovered.” (Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Feb. 21, 1839. The boy was found alive two days later, eight miles down shore.)

And this example refers to a shipwreck that was narrowly averted: “This accident has shown the great importance of having a good bar-boat and boat’s crew inside this harbour.” (Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 1, 1848.)

We’ve written before on our blog about the etymology and various uses of the noun and verb “bar,” if you’d like to know more.

As for the hymn your great-aunt used to enjoy, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” the words (by Ina Duley Ogden) and music (Charles H. Gabriel) were copyrighted in 1913. It was recorded by Homer Rodeheaver for the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1915 and published both as sheet music and in hymn collections.

Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to the original 78 recording played on a 1920 Victrola.

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‘Jesus H. Christ,’ redux

Q: You err in your post about the “H.” in “Jesus H. Christ” by saying the monogram IHS comes from the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus. IHS has nothing to do with the spelling of “Jesus” either in Greek or Latin. It is the abbreviation of In Hoc Signo (vinces)— In This Sign (thou shalt conquer). Further, the Latin name is Jesus, not Iesus.

A: It’s a common but erroneous belief that the monogram IHS is derived from In Hoc Signo (vinces) or several other Latin expressions. It originally showed up in medieval Latin and Old English as a manuscript abbreviation of the Greek name for Jesus: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in uppercase letters and Ἰησοῦς in lowercase.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, because of “subsequent forgetfulness of its origin, it has often been looked upon as a Latin abbreviation or contraction, and explained by some as standing for Iesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus Saviour of men, by others as In Hoc Signo (vinces), in this sign (thou shalt conquer), or In Hac Salus, in this (cross) is salvation.”

The earliest OED citation for the abbreviation is from the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950), an interlinear Latin-Old English manuscript. In the Latin text of Matthew 3:13, iħs is used as an abbreviation of “Jesus”: Tunc uenit iħs a galilaea in iordanen (“Then came Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan”).

As for the spelling of “Jesus,” it was iesus in classical Latin. There was no “j” in the classical Latin alphabet.

For any readers who missed our earlier post about the source of the “H” in the expletive or exclamation “Jesus H. Christ,” we say the most likely theory is that it comes from the monogram made of the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus.

The first three letters (iota, eta, and sigma) form a monogram, or graphic symbol, written as either IHS or IHC in Latin letters. The IHS version is more common than IHC, which The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as a rare “learned abbreviation.”

The symbol, which is also called a Christogram, can be seen in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other churches. It’s also the emblem of the Society of Jesus, the religious order of the Jesuits.

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Why early religions are ‘pagan’

Q: I love reading and watching documentaries about archeology, but not when they belittle the religions of previous civilizations as “pagan.” This gives us airs that we are more civilized than earlier cultures.

A: It’s true that “pagan” is a negative term in that it has always defined people as what they are not, rather than what they are. So it carries a connotation of “not like us.”

The word (both noun and adjective) has been part of English since the 1400s, and historically it’s been used to dismiss or even condemn people.

But today “pagan” has four principal meanings, not all of them derogatory. Here’s what it means in modern English, according to standard dictionaries.

In speaking of past civilizations, “pagan” refers to the polytheistic people and religions of ancient times, before the Judeo-Christian era. This is how archeologists and historians use the term. And in our opinion, this isn’t a demeaning usage—or at least it isn’t labeled as such in standard dictionaries.

In speaking of the present, “pagan” is used for believers and beliefs that fall outside the mainstream religions, as in contemporary Druidism, nature worship, and such (more on this later). That use isn’t considered demeaning either.

However, many dictionaries say that “pagan” is “disparaging,” “derogatory,” or “offensive” when used in reference to contemporaries who are neither Christian, Jewish, nor Muslim—that is, “heathen” in the missionary’s sense of the word. This use of “pagan,” however, is labeled “dated” or “historical” in some dictionaries.

And “pagan” is derogatory when it refers to someone who behaves in an irreligious, unorthodox, or uncultivated way. As some dictionaries note, this usage can be meant humorously.

Ultimately, of course, any word can be taken amiss, since offense is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. And certainly “pagan” has been used disparagingly in past centuries—especially in Christian religious tracts.

Interestingly, the ancestral roots of “pagan” have nothing to do with religion. The ultimate source of “pagan” is the classical Latin pāgus, meaning a rural district (it’s also the source of “peasant”).

From pāgus were derived the classical Latin noun and adjective pāgānus, which had two meanings to the Romans, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally referred to country dwellers (that is, rustics as opposed to city dwellers), but in later classical Latin it more commonly referred to civilians (as opposed to soldiers).

Religion entered the picture in early Christian times, when pāgānus acquired a new meaning. In post-classical Latin, probably in the fourth century, the OED says it came to mean “heathen, as opposed to Christian or Jewish.”

So how did a word for a rustic or a civilian come to mean a heathen in the later Latin of the early Christian era? The development isn’t clear, but there are competing theories, according to the OED. We’ll condense them here:

(1) The earlier “country dweller” meaning may be responsible, because the towns and cities of the Roman Empire accepted Christianity before the rural villages and hamlets. Or it may be that the “country dweller” meaning was interpreted as “not of the city,” and thus came to mean an outsider.

(2) The later “civilian” meaning may be the key, since “Christians called themselves mīlitēs ‘enrolled soldiers’ of Christ, members of his militant church,” Oxford says. So non-Christians were those “not enrolled in the army.”

The OED doesn’t take sides here, and neither does the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. But John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins, comes down on the side of #2. The post-classical sense of pāgānus as a heathen, he says, arose from its “civilian” meaning, “based on the early Christian notion that all members of the church were ‘soldiers’ of Christ.”

Regardless of how its “heathen” sense developed, pāgānus was adopted into English in the early 1400s as “pagan.” This is the OED’s earliest known use of the noun:

“I sall … euer pursue the payganys þat my pople distroyede” (“I shall ever pursue the pagans that destroyed my people”). From a manuscript, dated circa 1440, of Morte Arthure, a medieval poem that was probably composed some time before 1400.

And this is Oxford’s earliest use of the adjective:

“More deppyr in the turmentis of helle shall bene … the crystyn Prynces than the Pagan Pryncis, yf they do not ryght to al men” (“More deeper in the torments of hell shall be … the Christian princes than the pagan princes, if they do not do right by all men”). From a manuscript, dated sometime before 1500, of James Yonge’s 1422 translation of the Secreta Secretorum (“The Secret of Secrets”).

In its entries for “pagan,” the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t differentiate between two of the uses given in standard dictionaries—the neutral, pre-Christian sense used in reference to antiquity, versus the outdated, pejorative use of the term for religions other than one’s own.

This is the OED definition of the noun (the one for the adjective is similar): “A person not subscribing to any major or recognized religion, esp. the dominant religion of a particular society; spec. a heathen, a non-Christian, esp. considered as savage, uncivilized, etc.”

The dictionary says this use of “pagan” is now chiefly historical, meaning that it refers to people and cultures of the past, not the present. Here, for example, is a modern citation:

“Religion helped structure the networks of power that shaped or informed the relationships between pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greek East” (from Douglas R. Edwards’s book Religion and Power, 1996).

However, the OED does have entries for the other two definitions found in standard dictionaries—referring (sometimes humorously) to the uncultivated, and to modern religions that are outside the mainstream.

This is how Oxford defines the “uncultivated” sense of the noun “pagan” (the adjective closely corresponds): “A person of unorthodox, uncultivated or backward beliefs, tastes, etc.; a person who has not been converted to the current dominant views of a society, group, etc.; an uncivilized or unsocialized person, esp. a child.”

Some of the dictionary’s examples, which date from the mid-16th century, are almost affectionate, like these:

“Said t’was a pagan plant, a prophane weede / And a most sinful smoke” (a reference to tobacco, from George Chapman’s 1606 play Monsieur D’Olive).

“That bloodless old Pagan, her father” (from Macleod of Dare, an 1879 novel by William Black).

“So much like wild beasts are baby boys, little fighting, biting, climbing pagans” (from The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, John Muir’s 1913 memoir).

Finally, the dictionary’s definition for the modern religious use is “a follower of a pantheistic or nature-worshipping religion; esp. a neopagan,” and the adjective’s definition is similar. Here’s the latest OED example for the noun:

“Paganism … is a belief in which nature is revered and its views on ecology are very attractive to teenagers. Pagans and witches recycle, are against GM foods and are likely to be vegetarian” (from the Express on Sunday, London, Feb. 4, 2001).

A final word about modern paganism (or neopaganism), which is more widespread than you might think and which some standard dictionaries define more specifically than the OED.

For example, Oxford Dictionaries Online defines today’s “pagan” as “a member of a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or practices from outside the main world religions, especially nature worship.”

The phrase “outside the main world religions” would mean principally a faith that is not among the Abrahamic (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bahá’í), the Dharmic (Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain), or the East Asian families of religions (Taoist, Confucian, Shinto, and others).

These newer pagan religions are very diverse (ranging from Wicca and Neo-Druidism to Goddess worship and varieties of religious naturalism), and they often defy definitions. But scholars of religion generally categorize them under the umbrella of Contemporary Pagan or Neopagan.

And adherents generally do not feel belittled by such labels. For instance, the current president of Latvia, the Green Party member Raimonds Vējonis, identifies himself as a Baltic Neopagan.

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The ‘H’ in ‘Jesus H. Christ’

Q: What does the “H” stand for in “Jesus H. Christ”? It’s obviously not a middle initial, so why is it there?

A: We’ve seen a lot of theories about the source of the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ,” one of many expletives or exclamations that use a name for God. The most likely suggestion is that it comes from a monogram made of the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus.

In Greek, “Jesus” is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in uppercase letters and Ἰησοῦς in lower. The first three letters (iota, eta, and sigma) form a monogram, or graphic symbol, written as either IHS or IHC in Latin letters.

Why does the monogram end with an “S” in one version and a “C” in another? The sigma has an “S” sound, but it looks something like a “C” in its lunate (or crescent-shaped) form at the end of a lowercase word.

For example, the sigma in Ἰησοῦς is σ in the middle and ς at the end. In classical Latin, Jesus is iesus.

The IHS version is more common than IHC, which The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as a rare “learned abbreviation.”

The symbol, which is also called a Christogram, can be seen in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other churches. It’s also the emblem of the Society of Jesus, the religious order of the Jesuits.

As far as we can tell, “Jesus H. Christ” first appeared in writing in the late 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the February 1885 issue of Wilford’s Microcosm, a New York journal about science and religion.

The publication cites an apparently humorous use of the expression in an unnamed Texas newspaper: “At Laredo the other day Jesus H. Christ was registered at one of the hotels.”

The next example we’ve found is from The Creation, a satirical verse play in the June 13, 1885, issue of the Secular Review, an agnostic journal in London. Here’s an exchange between the Adam and Eve characters in a scene set in the Garden of Eden:

Wife. O Lord! How them apples is pecked!
And fruit that is pecked by the birds
Is always so nice, I am told.

Man. If Jesus H. Christ hears your words,
He’ll tell, and his Father will scold.

The expression was undoubtedly used in speech earlier. Mark Twain recalled hearing it when he was a printer’s apprentice in Missouri in the mid-1800s.

“In that day, the common swearers of the region had a way of their own of emphasizing the Saviour’s name when they were using it profanely,” he says in a section of his autobiography dictated on March 29, 1906.

Twain recounts an incident in which a fellow apprentice shortened “Jesus Christ” to “J.C.” in a religious pamphlet, and when chided for using an abbreviation, “He enlarged the offending J.C. into Jesus H. Christ.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “Jesus H. Christ” is used as “an oath or as a strong exclamation of surprise, disbelief, dismay, or the like.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1924 issue of the journal Dialect Notes: Jesus Christ, Jesus H. Christ, holy jumping Jesus Christ.”

The OED doesn’t comment on the origin of the expression, but the Dictionary of American Regional English and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang say it’s probably derived from the monogram IHS or IHC.

DARE’s first example is from that 1906 entry in Mark Twain’s Autobiography, which was published in 1924, 14 years after the author’s death, with an introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine.

The earliest Random House example is from a folk song dated 1892, “Men at Work,” collected by Alan Lomax in Folk Songs of North America (1960). To give the expression its proper context, we’ll expand the citation:

About five in the morning the cook would sing out,
“Come, bullies, come, bullies, come, bullies, turn out.”
Oh, some would not mind him and back they would lay.
Then it’s “Jesus H. Christ, will you lay there all day?”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve discussed many other expressions that refer or allude to God, including posts in 2015, 2012, 2011, and 2008.

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Let there be light

Q: After reading your post about the imperative use of “let,” I have a question. What is the function of “let” in the biblical command “Let there be light”? God can’t be addressing the light, since it doesn’t exist yet. So who or what is being addressed? And what purpose does “let” serve here?

A: The English expression “Let there be light” isn’t a literal translation of the Hebrew wording in Genesis: יהי אור. A word for word translation would be “exist light” or “light will be” or some variation.

So a literal translation of the full Hebrew text of Genesis 1:3, ויאמר אלהים יהי אור ויהי־אור, could be “And God said, ‘Light will be,’ and light was.” (We’ve added capitalization and punctuation.)

However, let’s not get too literal. The usual English translation (“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”) accurately and elegantly reflects the sense of the Hebrew.

Although the Hebrew phrase יהי אור may literally mean “light will be,” it’s in the jussive mood, which in Semitic languages expresses a weak or an indirect command.

Biblical translators have generally felt that “Let there be light” is the best wording to represent the jussive mood of יהי אור in Genesis 1:3. And we can’t think of a better one.

The biblical scholar Nahum M. Sarna, in the JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, discusses the use of יהי (“be” or “exist”) in Verse 3: “The directive yehi, found again in Verses 6 and 14, is reserved for the creation of celestial phenomena.”

In our opinion, you’re right that God isn’t addressing the light. He’s not addressing anyone or anything here. He’s simply creating light—that is, ordering that light exist.

In fact, it’s not clear that God is even speaking. The Hebrew verb אמר may mean “intend” as well as “say.” In this case, it may simply be a way to express divine will in human language.

(We won’t get into the old question of where the light came from, since the sun hadn’t been created yet. Biblical scholars have spent a lot of time on this already.)

What purpose, you ask, does “let” serve in the expression “Let there be light”?

When the imperative “let” is used in the sense of “allow” or “permit” or “cause,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it can function as an auxiliary to the infinitive that follows—“be,” “bring forth,” and so on.

The OED gives several examples of the usage, including this one from The Mariner’s Magazine, a 1669 book by Samuel Sturmy about nautical navigation: “Let there be an hole about an Inch deep, which shall serve to Prime it with Powder-dust.”

The English scholar and clergyman William Tyndale is credited with introducing the expression “Let there be light” in his 1525 translation of the Bible.

His Bible was the first to appear in print in English, though John Wycliffe and others translated full or partial versions in English before the advent of printing.

Tyndale’s poetic biblical writing has given us such familiar phrases as “flowing with milk and honey,” “the apple of his eye,” “eat, drink, and be merry,” “the salt of the earth,” “the powers that be,” and “my brother’s keeper.”

And his translation heavily influenced the King James Version. In The Social Universe of the English Bible (2010), Naomi Tadmor writes that “about 83 per cent of the New Testament is deemed to be based on Tyndale and 76 per cent of the Old.”

But Tyndale ran afoul of Henry VIII by opposing the king’s plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. As a result, Tyndale met a grisly end.

On Oct. 6, 1536, he was convicted of heresy and put to death at Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels by being strangled and burned at the stake.

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Hallowe’en be thy name

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. (Mostly, 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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In-laws and other impediments

Q: I wonder why English has only one term, “brother-in-law,” for three different kinds of relatives: your spouse’s brother, your sibling’s husband, and your spouse’s sibling’s husband.

A: You might also ask why something similar can be said of “sister-in-law,” which refers to three different relatives too.

This is probably because “brother-in-law” and “sister-in-law” originally referred not only to the various relatives involved but also to a prohibited relationship shared by them.

When  “brother-in-law” entered English around 1300 and “sister-law” about 1440, the phrase “in-law” meant “in canon law,” as opposed to “in blood” or “by nature,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED says the phrase was appended to names of relationship to indicate “the degrees of affinity within which marriage is prohibited; a brother-in-law or sister-in-law being, as regards intermarriage, treated ‘in law’ as a brother or sister.”

The word “affinity” here, Oxford says, refers to “relationship by marriage (as distinguished from relationship by blood).”

We won’t discuss the ins and outs of affinity in canon law, the ecclesiastical rules of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches. Let’s just say that different churches have different rules for which relationships are impediments to marriage.

In an earlier post, we noted that the term “in-law” was once used in English to describe relationships that are now referred to with the term “step.” So, the expression “sister-in-law” once also meant stepsister.

Another old term, “inlaw,” used to mean the opposite of “outlaw” or, as the OED puts it, “one who is within the domain and protection of the law.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, the use of the term “in-law” as a colloquial noun for any relative showed up first in the late 1800s. The earliest example in the OED is from the Jan. 24, 1894, issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

“The position of the ‘in-laws’ (a happy phrase which is attributed with we know not what reason to her Majesty, than whom no one can be better acquainted with the article) is often not very apt to promote happiness.”

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For land’s sake!

Q: My grandmother used to say “Good land!” to express surprise or astonishment. Can you enlighten me about this expression?

A: The word “land” in the exclamation “Good land!” is a euphemism for “Lord.”

Some other examples of the usage, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as an Americanism, are “Land’s sake!” and “My land!” and “The land knows!”

The earliest OED example of “land” used this way is from an 1846 issue of the Knickerbocker, a New York literary magazine: “Jedediah, for the land’s sake, does my mouth blaze?”

However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang , which describes the usage as a “mild oath,” has an earlier one, from Letters of J. Downing, Major (1833), a satirical work actually written by the humorist Charles A. Davis: “ ‘For the land’s sake,’ says I, ‘jist look at it.’ ”

Green’s doesn’t have a citation for “Good land!” The OED’s first example is from Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: “Good land! a man can’t keep his functions regular on spring chickens thirteen hundred years old.”

The word “land” dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and has roots in landam, a prehistoric Germanic root that apparently referred to an enclosed area, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

In Old English, Ayto says, “land” branched out to mean the solid surface of the earth, as opposed to the oceans, lakes, rivers, and so on.

Here’s an example from Beowulf, which may have been written as far back as 725: “Com tha to lande lidmanna helm swithmod swymman.” In modern English, “The leader of the sailors swam toward land.” (We changed the runic letters thorn and eth to “th.”)

The use of “land” as a euphemistic oath is part of a long tradition of mild swearing. In previous blog entries we’ve written about the many phrases people use to avoid outright profanity, including “doggone it,” “dag nab it,” “gosh a’mighty,” “for Pete’s sake,” and “by cracky!”

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Hear Pat live today on WNYC

She’ll be on the Leonard Lopate Show around 1:20 PM Eastern time to discuss the English language and take questions from callers. Today’s topic: inspired by a puff of white smoke from the Vatican, Pat will discuss communicating through smoke signals. If you miss the program, you can listen to it on Pat’s WNYC page.

English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Religion Usage

Rhetorical deviltry

Q: Do you know who said this: “God gave us the word and the Devil gave us religion”?

A: This fill-in-the-blank formula—“God gave us X and the Devil gave us Y”—dates back in one form or another at least as far as the 16th century.

The old saying “God sends meat and the Devil sends cooks” has appeared, with slight variations, since about 1542, according to Robert William Dent, a scholar of colloquial and proverbial language in literature.

And it’s been much quoted ever since, especially in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Sometimes the verb is “give” instead of “send,” and the object is “food” instead of “meat.”

(Dent, a UCLA English professor who died in 2005, dated the expression in a footnote to Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Tool, a 1994 study of James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

Over the years, the expression has proved highly adaptable, inspiring other proverbs like “God sent the wheat and the Devil sent the bakers,” and “God sends corn and the Devil mars the sack.”

We found this passage, for example, in A Cordial for Low Spirits (1763), a collection of tracts by Thomas Gordon:

“It is a common saying, that God sends meat, but the Devil sends cooks; so I think one may say of the Dean that God gave him an understanding, but the Devil gave him a will.”

In 1796, an English pastor, the Rev. William Huntington, wrote this in a letter to his brother: “As soon as God sent me ten pounds, the devil sent one or other to rob me of twenty.”

The formula is a handy rhetorical device for any writer wishing to contrast something good with something not so good.

For instance, here’s a passage from the April 1869 issue of The Methodist Quarterly Review, published in New York:

“Mr. Froude tells us that God gave us the Gospel, but that the devil gave us theology.” (The italics are the author’s.)

The formula survived intact into the 20th century and beyond.

A classmate of Samuel Beckett’s wrote that the headmaster at their Dublin school used to say, “God sends me the boys but the Devil sends me their parents.”

And you can find dozens of variations on the Internet with “religion” in the final position:

“God gave us truth [the universe … spirituality … reason … the world … love] and the devil gave us religion.”

It’s sometimes embellished a bit: “God gave us truth; the devil organized it and called it religion.”

Deepak Chopra is often quoted at second hand as saying something similar. For a direct quote, here’s an excerpt from an interview with him published April 18, 1998, in the St. Petersburg Times:

 “I like to think of myself as seeking spirituality, which is the basis of religion. God gave humans the truth, and the devil came and he said, ‘Let’s give it a name and call it religion. ’ ”

The original was a highly flexible old proverb and we haven’t seen the last of it.

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Passive distribution

Q: What is your “ruling” on “passive distribution”? An allowable oxymoron?

A: We don’t think the two elements in the phrase “passive distribution” are necessarily contradictory. And in our opinion, the term pretty well describes the various processes it refers to.

We couldn’t find the phrase in any of the references we usually consult. We looked for it in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as in eight standard American or British dictionaries.

However, we did find thousands of examples of the phrase on the Internet—in both technical and nontechnical usages.

In the technical sense, the term often refers to an electrical junction device, like a cable TV splitter, that lets one line feed a signal into two or more lines.

We found several other technical senses, including the natural diffusion of fluids in body tissue, human and animal migrations, the movement of heat and cold, and the dispersion of seeds in nature.

The earliest use of the term that we found in Google Books is from “The Darwinian Theory and the Law of the Migration,” an 1873 English translation of an 1868 paper by the German explorer Moritz Wagner:

“Even the passive distribution of seeds has not a little diminished in comparison with earlier times. In garden, meadow, and field, man wages eternal warfare against all intruders, and where extirpation is impossible, he at all events limits their number, and checks their distribution.”

We assume, however, that you’re referring to a nontechnical usage that apparently showed up in the 1990s: letting outsiders into schools to place religious material on tables for students to take.

For example, members of a conservative group, World Changers, come into schools in two Florida counties, Orange and Collier, to distribute Bibles.

Under a Nov. 2, 2010, consent decree filed in US District Court in Fort Myers, the group has the right to distribute Bibles at the schools one day a year.

The decree stipulates that the Bibles have to be placed on an unattended table, the visitors can’t have contact with students, and a sign must say the event isn’t sponsored or endorsed by the school board.

The document, signed by Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell, refers to the practice as “the passive distribution of literature.”

A brief online search found this earlier example of the usage in a January 1999 report in which the American Association of School Administrators discusses the distribution of religious material in schools:

“Only passive distribution is permitted, however, and no outside adult should be allowed to come onto campus and hand out the materials.”

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