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In stir on the Jersey Shore

Q: Why have I never found anybody from outside New Jersey who knows what “in stir” means? We of NJ have a soft spot for those in the slammer or merely busted, like Snooki and Ronnie on “Jersey Shore.”

A: As we’re sure you realize, New Jersey doesn’t have a monopoly on “in stir” or “in the stir.”

In fact, it doesn’t even come from New Jersey. The phrase was first recorded in England, and has been used with or without the article “the” since the late 1800s. Here’s the story.

The word “stir” has been used as a noun for a prison since the mid-19th century, according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. That much we can be sure about.

The word was sometimes spelled “stur” and originated in the Romany words sturiben (a prison) and staripen (to imprison), Cassell’s says.

A 19th-century source, A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, first published in London in 1889, says “stir” comes from staripen, adding that “stardo in gypsy means ‘imprisoned.’ ”

This dictionary, edited by Albert Barrère and Charles G. Leland, calls “stir” an abbreviation of a longer slang word for a prison, spelled  “sturbin” in the US and “sturiben” in Britain.

The Oxford English Dictionary, however, seems to disagree, saying the origin of the slang term “stir” is unknown. The OED doesn’t say why it rejects the Romany origin.

But the modern verb “stir,” from the Old English verb styrian, has also had negative meanings over the years: to make a disturbance, to cause trouble, to revolt, to provoke, and so on.

Such activities could of course land a person in jail (or “in chokey,” as P. G. Wodehouse liked to say).

But those old meanings are now rare or obscure for the most part, except in the sense of “stir things up,” which isn’t always a bad thing to do.

In the journal Modern Language Notes in 1934, J. Louis Kuethe argued in favor of the Romany etymology.

Staripen, steripen, and stiraben have all been given as spellings of the Romani word for ’prison,’ ” he writes. “When these variations are taken into account, the Gypsy origin of stir is quite acceptable phonetically.”

Since the slang term originated in the mid-19th century, Kuethe says, “it seems much more plausible that the word should have originated from a contemporary  source such as the Romani, rather than from the Old English styr which disappeared centuries ago.”

Wherever it came from, everyone agrees that the word first showed up in print in 1851.

That’s the year of the OED’s first citation, which comes from a collection of articles and interviews by Henry Mayhew entitled London Labour and the London Poor.

The quotation: “I was in Brummagem, and was seven days in the new ‘stir’ (prison).” The term “Brummagem” was a local nickname for the English city of Birmingham.

Soon, however, the phrase “in stir” (without the article) was the usual slang term for “in prison.”

This OED citation is from A Child of the Jago, Arthur Morrison’s 1896 novel about the slums of London: “A man has time to think things out, in stir.”

And as we all know, someone sitting in prison is likely to go “stir crazy,” a term the OED traces back to 1908.

[Updated May 5, 2017.]

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Bye, baby bunting

Q: I’m curious about the term “baby bunting” in this nursery rhyme: “Bye, baby bunting,  / Father’s gone a-hunting,  / Mother’s gone a-milking, / Sister’s gone a-silking, / Brother’s gone to buy a skin  / To wrap the baby bunting in.” Any idea of the origin?

A: “Bunting” has been a term of endearment since at least as far back as the 1660s. The origins of the word are unknown but it’s had a long association with plumpness, with bottoms, and with “butt” (both the noun and the verb).

In Scottish, according to the OED, the term buntin means short and thick, or plump. A similar term in Welsh, bontin, means the rump.

And in Scottish as well as in dialectal English, both “bunt” and “bun” have been used to refer to the tail of a rabbit or hare.

The verb “bunt” was used in the 1800s to mean the same as “butt” – to strike, knock, or push. (Yes, this is where the baseball term “bunt” comes from, circa 1889.)

And in a 19th-century Sussex dialect, to “bunt” was to rock a cradle with one’s foot (by pushing or “butting” it).

The adjective “bunting” has been used to mean plump, swelling, or filled out since the 1500s.

John Jamieson, in An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808-25), defined buntin as “short and thick; as a buntin brat, a plump child.”

In the phrase “baby bunting,” the Oxford English Dictionary says, “the meaning (if there be any at all) may possibly be” as in Jamieson’s definition.

At bottom, if you’ll pardon the expression, the phrase in the nursery rhyme seems to be an affectionate reference to an infant’s plumpness or to its rosy rump.

The earliest version of the nursery rhyme dates from the 1780s, and the longer version you quote has been traced to 1805.

Surprisingly, the OED has no reference to the garment known as a “bunting” – an infant’s cuddly, cocoon-like, hooded outerwear. This sense of the word dates from 1922, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The name of the garment, according to our old Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary  (the unabridged second edition), is a reference to the “baby bunting” in the nursery rhyme.

In case you’re wondering, the noun “bunting” has been used for another kind of cloth – the open-weave kind used to make flags – as well as for a family of birds (possibly because of their plumpness.)

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Black (or African) American?

Q: I was reading an article in the New York Times that used “black American” and “African American” interchangeably. Is there a proper time for using one term or the other?

A: In general the terms “black American” and “African American” are synonymous.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, defines “African American” as a “Black American of African ancestry.”

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) have similar definitions.

Definitions aside, debates about the nomenclature of race are nothing new. How accurate, or appropriate, is the term “African American”? How meaningfully connected to Africa are most black Americans anyway?

The linguist John McWhorter, for instance, has argued in The New Republic that the “African” part should be dropped. He is, he says, a black American.

But you don’t have to look hard to find other opinions. Keith Boykin of The Daily Voice, a black news organization, has this to say:

“I don’t care if you call yourself Negro, colored, African American or black (in lower case or upper case). … The true diversity of our people cannot be fully represented by any one term.”

We recently came across an interesting and fairly exhaustive analysis of this subject by Tom W. Smith, whose article “Changing Racial Labels: From ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ to ‘African American’ ” ran in The Public Opinion Quarterly in 1992.

Smith (who, by the way, capitalizes all racial terms throughout his article) sets out to discuss “changes in the acceptance of various labels, not the creation of new terms.”

He notes that “colored,” “Negro,” “black,” and “African” were all “established English terms for Blacks when America was first settled. ‘African American’ was in use at least as early as the late 1700s.”

The dominant label in the mid- to late-19th century, he writes, was “colored,” which was accepted by both whites and blacks. But “colored” was too inclusive, because it covered “not only Blacks but Asians and other non-White races.”

Consequently “Negro” began to replace “colored” as the favored term in the late 19th century, in a movement that Smith says was “led by such influential Black leaders as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois.”

By the 1930s, he says, “Negro” had supplanted “colored,” which had begun to seem antiquated.

“But as the civil rights movement began making tangible progress in the late 1950s and early 1960s,” Smith writes, “the term ‘Negro’ itself eventually fell under attack.”

Thus “black,” like “Negro” before it, according to Smith, was seen as “forward-looking” and “progressive,” besides appearing to promote “racial pride, militancy, power, and rejection of the status quo.”

So “black” became ascendant in the 1970s, though it briefly competed with “Afro-American,” which was popular among academics.

But for the most part, from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, “the position of ‘Black’ was virtually unchallenged,” Smith writes.

This all changed in December 1988, when the National Urban Coalition proposed that “African American” replace “black” as the preferred term.

The goal “was to give Blacks a cultural identification with their heritage and ancestral homeland,” Smith writes.

“Furthermore,” he says, “it was seen as putting Blacks on a parallel with White ethnic groups.” By using a term based on culture and homeland, blacks were redefined “as an ethnic group rather than a race.”

This distinction – race versus ethnic group – is important, because “racial differences are viewed as genetically based and thus as beyond the ability of society to change,” Smith writes.

“Racial prejudice and discrimination have greatly exceeded ethnic intolerance,” he adds. “On balance, America has a better record of accepting and fairly treating ethnic groups than it does racial groups.”

Smith also touches on the criticisms of the “African American” label, which many people feel “calls for identification with a culture to which almost no actual ties exist.”

In addition, the term “has the classic ‘hyphenated American’ problem.” Whether or not there’s an actual hyphen, he notes, ethnic compounds like “German-American” sometimes have been “regarded as symbolizing divided loyalties.”

Smith, who was writing in 1992, says that “among those with a preference, ‘African American’ has grown in acceptance although ‘Black’ still is preferred by more Blacks.”

A usage note in American Heritage (the fourth edition was published in 2000) points out that “African American,” despite its popularity, “has shown little sign of displacing or discrediting black, which remains both popular and positive.”

[Update, Jan. 15, 2018: American Heritage dropped the usage note from its fifth edition. “African American” is now overwhelmingly more popular than “black American,” according to our searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines.]

Does  any of this really matter? Smith quotes DuBois as saying: “The feeling of inferiority is in you, not in a name. The name merely evokes what is already there. Exorcise the hateful complex and no name can ever make you hang your head.”

“Yet names do matter,” Smith says. “Blacks have successively changed their preferred term of address from ‘Colored’ to ‘Negro’ to ‘Black’ and now, perhaps, to ‘African American’ in order to assert their group standing and aid in their struggle for racial equality.”

“While symbolic, these changes have not been inconsequential,” he adds. “For symbols are part and parcel of reality itself.”

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Opposition research

Q: You wrote in 2008 and 2007 about words that have totally opposing – or at least wildly differing – meanings. For example, “sanction “and “cleave.” By what etymological process do these words develop? Perhaps the language deities have a sense of humor.

A: These two-faced words are usually called “contronyms,” though they are sometimes referred to as “auto-antonyms,” “self-antonyms,” or “Janus words” (after the god with two faces).

In addition to “sanction” (to approve or penalize) and “cleave” (to cling or part), some others are “screen” (to view or hide from view), “bolt” (to flee or fix in place), and “weather” (to stand up to stress or be eroded by stress).

Each of these words (and there are many more) developed its opposing meanings for different reasons.

In the case of “cleave,” it comes from two distinct verbs with different roots in Old English. The one (cleofian or clifian) meant “cling” or “stick,” and the other (cleofan) meant “split” or “divide.”

The two eventually merged in spelling and pronunciation, and the differing meanings were preserved.

In the case of “sanction,” the verb originally meant to ratify or confirm by enactment. A little later this came to mean to permit; still later it grew to mean to enforce by imposing penalties.

The verb followed the much earlier noun, which first meant a law or decree and later meant a penalty.

Etymologically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it may be an adaptation of the Latin sanctionem (“action of ordaining as inviolable under a penalty, also a decree or ordinance”).

In the 17th century, the noun “sanction” was “extended to include the provision of rewards for obedience, along with punishments for disobedience, to a law,” the OED says.

So in looser senses it grew to mean encouragement or support on the one hand, and coercive measures on the other.

Such are the ways of language!

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Is she a master or a mistress?

Q: Isn’t “mistress of ceremonies” misleading or just plain wrong? If a woman is hosting an event, isn’t she still a “master of ceremonies”?

A: No, “mistress of ceremonies” is not misleading or wrong. But it’s not strictly necessary, since there’s no rule that says a “master of ceremonies” has to be a guy.

The three dictionaries I consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary—all define “master of ceremonies” as a person who hosts an event. That’s “a person,” not necessarily a man.

The OED says the word “master” was “originally applied almost exclusively to men,” but “its meaning has been extended to include women (either potentially or in fact) in many of the senses illustrated.”

American Heritage, in a usage note with its entry for “master,” cites many compounds that use the word in a gender-neutral way: “masterpiece,” “mastermind,” “master plan,” and so on.

Although the term “mistress of ceremonies” isn’t uncommon (I got about 350,000 hits for it on Google), only one of the three dictionaries mentioned above has an entry for it.

Merriam-Webster’s defines “mistress of ceremonies” as a woman who presides at a public ceremony or entertainment, and it  dates the phrase to 1952.

However, the expression is much older—it was alive and well in the early 1800s. For instance, Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel Rob Roy (1817): “ ‘In that case, sir,’ she rejoined, ‘as my kinsman’s politeness seems to be still slumbering, you will permit me (though I suppose it is highly improper) to stand mistress of ceremonies.’ ”

A search of digital databases turns up slightly later examples from the 1820s. On May 20, 1823, the Rev. Charles S. Stewart, an American missionary to the Sandwich Islands, used the phrase in a diary entry  describing a “great feast” conducted annually to commemorate the death of King Tameamea:

Kamehamaru appeared to remarkable advantage, as mistress of ceremonies; and, personally, saw that no one of the large company was, in any degree, neglected.” (Extracts from Stewart’s private diaries were printed in the May 1825 issue of the Christian Advocate,  a journal of the Presbyterian church.)

And both “mistress of ceremonies” and “mistresses of ceremonies” appear several times in  Henry Dana Ward’s book Free Masonry (1828). Here’s one example, from a  passage describing a ceremony in a Masonic temple: “The mistress of ceremonies allowed to enter only the number necessary to fill the empty places.”

So the expression has a venerable history. Its older brother, “master of ceremonies” (originally “master of the ceremonies”), first showed up in print in the early 17th century, according to the OED.

Initially it referred to “an officer of the British royal household who superintended state ceremonies and was responsible for the enforcement of court etiquette,” Oxford says.

An early citation for the expression used in its modern sense comes from Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (written around 1798-99): “The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 1, 2015.]

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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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Turkey Day

Q: I love turkey, especially drumsticks, so here’s my question for Turkey Day: Why is a loser called a turkey?

A: Let’s begin with the bird. It’s called a turkey because the American species was confused with the guinea fowl, which was thought to have been imported from Turkish territory.

A 1655 book about food and diet, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, says guinea fowl “were first brought from Numidia into Turky, and thence to Europe, whereupon they were called Turkies.” (Numidia was an ancient Berber kingdom in North Africa.)

In the 19th century, the term “turkey” was often used figuratively in colloquial expressions that were generally positive.

To “talk turkey,” for instance, initially meant to speak agreeably or use high-flown language. Now, of course, it means to speak frankly or get down to business. And to “walk turkey” meant to strut or swagger.

In the early 20th century, the expression “cold turkey” came to mean plain truth as well as a method of treating drug addicts by sudden withdrawal.

And let’s not forget “Turkey Day,” which showed up in 1870 in the Hartford Courant: “To-morrow is turkey day, gobbler’s day, or the day when the gobbler is gobbled.”

So when did the word “turkey” get its bad rep?

In the 1920s, “turkey” came to be used as slang for an inferior theatrical or movie production. In other words, a flop.

The first published reference in the OED for this usage is from a 1927 issue of Vanity Fair: “ ‘A turkey’ is a third rate production.”

Here’s a citation from a 1939 letter written by Groucho Marx: “The boys at the studio have lined up another turkey for us…. I saw the present one the other day and didn’t care much for it.”

In the mid-20th century, the word came to mean an inept or worthless person. The earliest OED citation for this usage is from 1951:

“So, if you got a collector [of internal revenue] through the civil service system who was a real turkey, you’d be stuck with that turkey practically until he died.”

As for your question, why a turkey? We don’t know for sure, but here’s one theory.

As any hunter can tell you, the wild turkey is one of the wiliest creatures around, so wily that it’s unlikely to end up at your neighborhood grocery store.

During the 20th century, however, more and more of the turkeys that reached Thanksgiving tables were of the farmed variety – fat, klutzy, and flightless – not those lean, mean, cunning birds of the wild.

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Everyone here is frightfully gay

Q: Why does the New York Times use “gays” to refer to male homosexuals and “lesbians” for females? “Gay” has always covered men and women. When did it become a term for male homosexuals?

A: The Times does indeed often refer to gay men as “gays” and gay women as “lesbians,” as in its reporting on a gay rights rally in Washington last month. The phrase “gays and lesbians” crops up over and over again in the paper.

Why not use the single term “gays” for both men and women?

The simple answer is that many gay women want a term of their own—at least in public discourse. This is what we’ve been able to gather after reading extensively in lesbian discussion groups and other forums on the Web.

The preference for the term “lesbian” appears to reflect a desire among many gay women to have a public label all their own and to emphasize the fact that gay men and gay women are not a homogeneous group.

So much for the public terminology. Privately, however, it’s a different story.

We’ve concluded that the terms “gay woman” and “lesbian” are often used interchangeably, and that a woman’s choice of a personal label for herself is highly individual.

We also get the impression that some women who identify with the masculine or “butch” end of the spectrum prefer to call themselves “gay,” while some at the “femme” end think of themselves as “lesbian.”

But some of the women commenting online see no difference at all between the labels, and still others reject both labels in favor of “queer.”

In short, there are not only public and private aspects to the use of “lesbian,” but there are intensely personal and idiosyncratic aspects as well.

Let’s examine the terms. (First let us note that many gay women as well as gay men discourage the use of “homosexual” because they see it as a medical or psychological term.)

The word “Lesbian” (originally capitalized) has been in the language since 1601, when it had no sexual meaning. It was an adjective pertaining to the Greek island of Lesbos.

A “Lesbian rule,” for example, was a pliable mason’s rule made of a kind of lead, found on the island, that was flexible enough to be shaped to fit a curved edge. (We wrote a blog entry on the subject earlier this year.) And “Lesbian wine” was made from grapes grown on Lesbos.

Lesbos, as you probably know, was also the home of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, who addressed some of her love lyrics to girls.

This connection, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, gave the word “lesbianism” the meaning of “female homosexuality,” a sense that originally appeared in print in 1870. The adjective “lesbian” first showed up in the sexual sense in 1890 and as a noun in 1925.

“Gay” has had many meanings since it was introduced into English around 1300. Its etymology is murky, but it was borrowed from Old French (gai) and may come from Frankish or Old High German (gahi).

In English, according to the OED, it first meant noble, beautiful, or excellent. In the later 1300s it came to mean “bright or lively-looking, esp. in colour; brilliant, showy.”

In the 1400s it was first used in the modern sense of merry or cheerful, though it was also used to mean wanton, lewd, dissolute, or even (in the case of women) living by prostitution. All of these negative meanings are now either rare or obscure.

The adjective “gay” has been used as slang term for homosexual since at least as far back as 1937. As the OED explains, some citations from the 1920s and ’30s could be read that way by innuendo, but such interpretations might just be the result of hindsight.

Here’s one such example, from the writings of Gertrude Stein in 1922: “Helen Furr and Georgina Keene lived together then. … They were together then and traveled to another place and stayed there and were gay there … not very gay there, just gay there. They were both gay there.”

And here’s another, from a 1939 song lyric by Noel Coward: “Everyone’s here and frightfully gay, / Nobody cares what people say, / Though the Riviera / Seems really much queerer / Than Rome at its height.”

As the OED says, those examples can’t be regarded as definitive, though they are certainly suggestive in hindsight. But we do know that “gay” was used to mean homosexual when Coward wrote that lyric, because the OED’s first definitive example is from an anonymous typescript believed to be from 1937:

“Al had told me that Kenneth was not gay but jam [i.e. heterosexual], and so I acted very manly.” (The quotation is from research documents contained in the Ernest W. Burgess Papers at the University of Chicago Library. Burgess was a professor of sociology at the university.)

Another definitive OED citation comes from Gershon Legman’s “The Language of Homosexuality: An American Glossary,” which was published in 1941 as an appendix to a two-volume medical study of homosexuality.

Legman’s glossary includes this entry: “Gay, an adjective used almost exclusively by homosexuals to denote homosexuality, sexual attractiveness, promiscuity … or lack of restraint, in a person, place, or party. Often given the French spelling, gai or gaie by (or in burlesque of) cultured homosexuals of both sexes.”

You asked when “gay” became a term for male homosexuals. The answer is that it doesn’t necessarily mean males—or not always.

In their book Language and Sexuality (2003), Deborah Cameron and Don Kulick write: “Many lesbians prefer the gender-specific term ‘lesbian’ to ‘gay,’ which, they argue, obscures the presence of women by subsuming them under a label whose primary reference is to men.”

And indeed the OED says the term is more frequently used to refer to men.

One final note about “gay.” There’s no evidence, according to the OED, that there was an earlier use of gai or gaie in French to mean homosexual. Rather, the French use of the word in this sense is a late-20th-century borrowing from English.

As for “queer,” its origins are uncertain but it may be related to the German quer (oblique or at odds). It’s been in English in the ordinary sense (peculiar or strange) since the 1500s.

The OED’s first citation for the use of “queer” in the sexual sense is from a letter written in 1894 by Oscar Wilde’s archenemy, the Marquess of Queensberry, who used the word as a noun: “I write to tell you that it is a judgement on the whole lot of you. Montgomerys, The Snob Queers like Roseberry & certainly Christian hypocrite Gladstone.”

The adjective “queer,” according to the OED,  was first recorded in a 1914 article in the Los Angeles Times: “He said that the Ninety-six Club was the best; that it was composed of the ‘queer’ people. … He said that the members sometimes spent hundreds of dollars on silk gowns, hosiery, etc. … At these ‘drags’ the ‘queer’ people have a good time.”

As the OED points out, “queer” was a derogatory term until it was reclaimed as a positive or neutral word by gays in the 1980s. It’s since become a respectable term in academia.

“In some academic contexts,” the OED says, “it is the preferred adjective in the study of issues relating to homosexuality (cf. queer theory …); it is also sometimes used of sexual lifestyles that do not conform to conventional heterosexual behaviour, such as bisexuality or transgenderism.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 8, 2019.]

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When nice wasn’t nice

Q: As a black person, I’m aware that the word “nigger” has been a source of much controversy in our community. Oprah disdains the usage and Jay-Z embraces it as a term of endearment. Are there other words used to disparage a group of people and later embraced by the same group? I’d appreciate any additional insight that you may have on the topic.

A: Yes, there are other cases in which a word that’s been used to put certain people down is embraced by them – or at least some of them – and turned into a positive term.

This is only one instance of a more general phenomenon that linguists call semantic bleaching, where a word or phrase is weakened by common use and turned into something else.

To use a familiar (and less sensitive) example, the term “goodbye” began as a contraction of “God be with you.” Over the centuries, its original sense was weakened by general usage and underwent a shift: it lost its religious meaning.

Another familiar word, “nice,” is ultimately from the Latin nescius (“ignorant”), and until the 13th century it meant foolish or stupid. Over the centuries its meaning changed: from coy and shy to dainty and fastidious and finally to the much weakened positive adjective we have today.

Something similar may occur with racially and sexually taboo words, as my husband and I wrote in our book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

“Nigger” (or “nigga”) has been reclaimed as a positive or neutral term by some African-Americans, while “bitch” and “cunt” have been reclaimed by some feminists as terms of empowerment.

These attempts to neutralize words of abuse or turn them to positive ends are also examples of semantic bleaching.

Arthur K. Spears, a linguist and anthropologist at the City University of New York, has written an interesting paper on the subject that was published in the book African-American English (1998).

In the paper, Professor Spears relates an anecdote in which a black male gangsta rap artist shares a limousine with a female African-American economist. During the trip to attend a program together, the rap star refers to his companion as a “bitch economist,” a term that she doesn’t find empowering.

“The rapper was positively impressed and had no intention of insulting the economist,” Dr. Spears writes. “He was not aware of her rules of speech use and evaluation. She was not aware of his and rebuked him with uncommon severity all the way to their destination.”

That’s one problem with attempts to reclaim taboo words. Not all members of the group may agree that a word has been reclaimed.

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Relatively speaking

(An updated and expanded post about “cousin,” “niece,” and “nephew” appeared on Nov. 9, 2018.)

Q: When I became an uncle for the third time, I had a nephew in addition to two nieces. It was then that I realized I had no way of saying “I have three …” There is also no word for both aunts and uncles. Any reason for this? Does it reflect a special relationship or a neglected one? Do other languages also have this gap?

A: H-m-m. We wish we had an answer.

We can’t say why, but English seems to be missing the words that would denote certain forms of kinship: one word that would mean both niece and nephew, and another that would mean both aunt and uncle.

If any other language has a singular word that refers to both a niece and a nephew, we’re unfamiliar with it. However, other languages do use the masculine plural for a group of both nieces and nephews.

In Spanish, for example, the singulars are sobrino (nephew) and sobrina (niece), but sobrinos can be used for a group of nieces and nephews.

Today, English speakers use “nephews” and “nieces” to mean the sons and daughters of our siblings. But in olden times, these words were also used to designate grandsons and granddaughters, male and female descendants, and, euphemistically, illegitimate sons and daughters (especially those of popes and other churchmen who were supposed to be chaste).

Both “nephew” and “niece” originated in Middle English in the early 1300s, derived from the Latin words nepos (grandson, descendant, or prodigal) and neptis (granddaughter or female descendant).

These words and their counterparts in many other languages are traceable ultimately to an ancient Indo-European root that’s been reconstructed as nepto, meaning grandson or nephew (the feminine form was nepti). This root is also the ancestor of our word “nepotism.”

Three now obscure English nouns, “neve,” “nepos,” and “nepote,” were also once used to mean nephew or grandson. Maybe we could revive one of them to mean both nephew and niece. Well, it’s only a suggestion.

As for “aunt,” meaning the sister of a parent or the wife of an uncle, the word entered English in the 1200s by way of the Old French ante, which came from the Latin amita (father’s sister).

“Uncle,” meaning the brother of a parent or the husband of an aunt, came into English at around the same time from the Old French uncle and oncle, and ultimately from the Latin avunculus (mother’s brother).

By the way, people often ask why we have an adjective meaning uncle-like (“avuncular”) but none for aunt-like. We posted an item about this auntless issue on the blog a while back. And we posted an entry last month about the history and pronunciation of “aunt.”

(Updated, Sept. 29, 2017.)

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Is there a cat in the corner?

Q: What is the origin of the expression “catty-corner” and does it have anything to do with cats?

A: The phrase, originally seen as “catty-cornered” or “cater-cornered” in 19th-century America, has no relationship at all to cats.

Although the “catty” version appeared first in print, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the “cater” version is closer to the phrase’s etymological roots.

The OED traces both of them back to a 16th-century verb, “cater,” meaning “to place or set rhomboidally; to cut, move, go, etc., diagonally.” So to move in a “cater-cornered” way is to go diagonally from corner to corner.

The English verb came from the French quatre (four). Since the early 1500s, the word “cater” has also meant the number four in games of dice or cards, though this usage is not common today.

The dictionary’s first citation for the verb “cater” is from Barnaby Googe’s 1577 translation of Conrad Heresbach’s Foure Bookes of Husbandry: “The trees are set checkerwise, and so catred, as looke which way ye wyl, they lye leuel [level].”

And this OED citation,  written four centuries later, describes the motion of a wagon at a level railroad crossing: “ ‘Cater’ across the rails ever so cleverly, you cannot escape jolt and jar” (from an 1873 travel memoir, Silverland, by the British writer George Alfred Lawrence).

As for “catty-cornered,” the phrase has been spelled a number of ways over the years: “catacornered,” “katterkorner’d,” “cat-a-cornered,” etc. Since the early 20th century, it has often been seen without the “-ed” ending.

John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) has two examples in one sentence: “Lee Chongs’s grocery was on its catty-corner right and Dora’s Bear Flag Restaurant was on its catty-corner left.”

The feline-sounding version of the expression probably began with a mispronunciation of the relatively rare word “cater.” Through a process that language types call folk etymology, a cat ended up in the corner.

Both “cater-corner” and “catty-corner” are still used today and can be found in contemporary dictionaries. But a latecomer, “kitty-corner,” which first showed up at the end of the 19th century, is the most popular one these days, according to Google.

And in some versions, the “corner” element disappears, as in the mid-19th-century “catawampous” or “catawampus.” The OED calls  this “a humorous formation” that meant not only ferocious (perhaps derived from “catamount,” the mountain lion) but also askew or awry.

Slang dictionaries also have the spelling “catter-wompus” (1851) for the askew or diagonal sense of the word, followed by “cattywampus” in the first decade of the 1900s.

And naturally there’s a “kitty” version too. The Dictionary of American Regional English has examples of “kittywampus” dating from the 1940s.

[Note: This post was updated on March 22, 2020.]

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Sympathy strike

Q: An FAQ on Dictionary.com says “sympathy” is compassion for another person while “empathy” is imagining oneself in another person’s position. That’s backward from how I understand the two words. Who’s right?

A: Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re with Dictionary.com here. The new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage nicely differentiates the two terms, so we’ll pass along the definitions:

Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s position and to experience all the sensations connected with it. Sympathy is compassion for or commiseration with another.”

“Sympathy,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered English from Late Latin (sympathia), but comes ultimately from the classical Greek συμπάθεια (sympatheia), or “fellow feeling.” The roots literally mean “together” + “feeling.”

The word was first recorded in English in the mid-16th century, and its earliest meanings had to do with affinity, conformity, harmony, and the like. It came to mean feelings of compassion or commiseration in 1600, the OED citations suggest.

The noun has cousins in French (sympathie), Italian (simpatia), Spanish (simpatia), and Portuguese (sympathia).

“Empathy” is the English version of a German word, einfühlung (“in” + “feeling”), which the Germans adapted in 1903 from the Hellenistic Greek word for “passion” or “physical affection,” ἐμπάθεια (empatheia), also literally “in” + “feeling.” (In modern Greek, the word has the opposite meaning—hatred, malice, and so on.)

The OED defines “empathy,” which entered English in 1909, as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.”

In the 1940s the word acquired a meaning in the field of psychology, the OED says: “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English gives these examples of the two words at work: (1) “I have a lot of sympathy for her; she had to bring up the children on her own.” (2) “She had great empathy with people.”

Again, sorry to disappoint you. We sympathize with you over the disappointment, and we empathize with what you’re feeling.

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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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On heroes, edible and otherwise

Q: Am I wrong to be irritated at the overuse of the term “hero”? I think of a hero as someone who does something heroic – say, running into a burning building to rescue a child. Instead, I’ve seen newspapers call Super Bowl champions “heroes.” If we cheapen the term, what do we use for true heroism?

A: We think you’re right. In fact, here’s what Pat says on the subject in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

hero. There was a time when this word was reserved for people who were … well … heroic. People who performed great acts of physical, moral, or spiritual courage, often risking their lives or livelihoods. But lately, hero has lost its luster. It’s applied indiscriminately to professional athletes, lottery winners, and kids who clean up at spelling bees. There’s no other word quite like hero, so let’s not bestow it too freely. It would be a pity to lose it. Sergeant York was a hero.

[Note: This passage was updated to reflect the entry in the 4th edition of Woe Is I, published in 2019.]

So here we’re on your side, though we suspect it’s the losing side.

We might add, however, that the word “hero” has long been used to describe heroic acts that aren’t quite as dramatic as running into a burning building to rescue a child. Blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, or standing up for what you believe in, can also be heroic.

In Homer’s day, the Greek word heros referred to a man “of superhuman strength, courage, ability favoured by the gods,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word had that sense when it entered English in the 14th century, but by the 16th century it came to mean an illustrious warrior, one who does brave or noble martial deeds.

In the mid-17th century, however, the term was already being used more loosely to describe not only a brave warrior but a man who exhibits firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul “in any course of action, or in connexion with any pursuit, work, or enterprise,” according to the OED.

A 1661 citation, for example, refers to Galileo and other astronomers as “illustrious Heroes.”

More recently, of course, the usage has become even looser. A 1955 citation refers to “an Italian hero sandwich,” which the OED describes as “U.S. slang, a very large sandwich.” Some might consider eating one a heroic act.

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For better or verse

Q: I work with a lot of boys and find it interesting to hear so many of them say things like “I will verse you in a game of Pokémon.” I find it annoying to hear “verse” used to mean compete, but I have come to realize that I am witnessing the evolution of the word “versus.”

A: It’s interesting that you bring up the use of “verse” as a verb. We’ve gotten many emails from parents over the years asking where this came from.

One North Jersey father, for instance, has written that his kids use constructions like “We are versing the Yankees today.” And no, they weren’t reading poetry to the Yankees!

The usage is an apparent adaptation of “versus,” as you suggest, and to “verse” here means to play or challenge or go up against.

As it turns out, this isn’t such a new phenomenon. In fact, the kids who first used “verse” for compete are now grown up. The linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer has traced the usage back to the 1980s.

Here’s a citation from the Feb. 20, 1984, issue of the New York Times: “To verse: High school slang meaning to compete against another school’s team, as in ‘We’re going to be versing the Brown Bombers next week.’ From the preposition ‘versus.’ ”

You can see how this might have happened. Imagine a sportscaster saying, “Tonight at 8, Boston versus Cincinnati.” To many ears, the preposition “versus” sounds like a verb, “verses,” as in “Boston verses (that is, plays) Cincinnati.”

Now imagine a child passing on the news: “Hey, Dad! Tonight Boston verses Cincinnati.” Thus a new verb is born.

There’s already a recognized verb “verse” that means to study or acquaint oneself with some subject, as in “I’m well versed in such-and-such,” or “He’s versing himself in geometry.”

The verb “versify” means to write verse. And The Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3d ed.), by Paul Dickson, notes a historical use of the noun “verse” as a synonym for “inning.”

The use of the verb “verse” to mean compete has made it into only one of the standard dictionaries we usually check, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see it in others.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) describes the usage as slang, and says it means “to play against (an opponent) in a competition.”

American Heritage adds that it’s probably a “back-formation from VERSUS taken as verses in such phrases as Boston versus New York.”

[Note: This entry was updated on July 14, 2016.]

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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 we suck

Q: I often notice the word “suck” used when I think it’s inappropriate. The comedian Denis Leary, for example, has a book called Why We Suck. And a kid may tell a teacher, “I think Catcher in the Rye sucks.” This makes me cringe. My understanding is that “suck” here refers to oral sex. Am I being priggish?

A: The verb “suck” is very old, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days, and it’s perfectly acceptable in most of its senses.

“Suck” has been in the language since around the year 825, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its original meaning: “To draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum.”

All the other meanings (to suck something or someone dry of money, for example) stem from this one. [Note: A later post on the uses of “suck” appeared on the blog in 2017.]

The OED also lists the oral-sex definition, labeling it “coarse slang,” and dates that usage from 1928. However, Green’s Dictionary of Slang has two citations from the 17th century, including this one:

“O that I were a flea upon thy lip, / There would I sucke for euer, and not skip … / Or if thou thinkst I there too high am plast, / Ile be content to sucke below thy waste” (from The Schoole of Complement, a 1631 play by the English dramatist James Shirley).

Separately the OED lists “contemptible or disgusting” as slang meanings of the word (as in “he sucks” or “it sucks”), and dates that usage from 1971.

Is this negative sense of the word derived from the oral-sex usage? The OED doesn’t indicate that one sense comes from the other. But we assume that the two senses are related.

Are you being priggish? Perhaps. Most dictionaries label the negative usage as slang or informal, though Merriam-Webster says it’s sometimes vulgar.

[Note: This post was updated on April 25, 2020.]

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A way with words

Q: My friends and I had an ugly fight about the phrase “under way,” as in, “The campaign is under way.” What is the origin of the term? Please answer swiftly as I expect reprisals from my new enemies.

A: The phrase originated in the 18th century as a nautical term to describe a vessel that has begun moving through the water, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s the first published reference in the OED, from A Voyage to the South-seas (1743), by John Bulkeley and John Cummins: “To prevent which, we do agree, that when Under-way they shall not separate.”

All of the 18th century citations in the OED use the phrase in a nautical sense, but by the early 19th century the term was being used more generally to mean in progress or in the course of.

The first citation for this sense is from Byron’s satirical poem The Vision of Judgment (1822): “And Michael rose ere he could get a word / Of all his founder’d verses under way.”

Fifteen years later, the historian Thomas Carlyle used the term loosely in The French Revolution: “A courier is, this night, getting under way for Necker” (Jacques Necker was a banker).

Getting back to the seafaring origins of the phrase, it turns out that the word “way” has been used as a nautical term for the progress of a ship or boat through the water since the mid-1600s.

The first published citation in the OED for this usage is from Sir William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes (1663): “Those who withstand The Tide of Flood … Fall back when they in vain would onward row: We strength and way preserve by lying still.”

And here’s a citation from Samuel Sturmy in a 1669 reference for mariners: “If you sail against a Current, if it be swifter than the Ship’s way, you fall a Stern.”

This sense of the word “way,” according to the OED, may have been derived from “under way,” an expression adapted from the Dutch word onderweg (also onderwegen), meaning on the way or under way.

The chronology doesn’t seem right, however, since published citations for “under way” are all more recent than those for “way” in the nautical sense. But “under way” might have been in use for years without making it into print.

By the way (so to speak!), “under way” is often written “under weigh.” As the OED explains, this originated as a misspelling through an “erroneous association” with the phrase “to weigh anchor.”

What began as a mistake is now accepted by lexicographers as a variant spelling.

The confusion is understandable, since “to weigh anchor” is to heave up the anchor before sailing. And now it’s time for us to weigh anchor and get under way with another question from our in-box.

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Graduate degrees

Q: Shouldn’t the graduates of a coed institution be “alumnae,” not “alumni”? My understanding is that “alumni” is the plural of “alumnus,” and “alumnae” pertains to both male and female graduates. Thanks for your help.

A: A group of alumnae is not a mixed group. Here’s the deal with all those alums:

“Alumnus”: singular, for a male graduate

“Alumna”: singular, for a female graduate

“Alumni”: plural, for either male graduates or males and females together

“Alumnae”: plural, for female graduates only

The term “alums,” which I used above, dodges the gender issue (as does the singular “alum”).

The short form “alum” is considered “informal” by The America Heritage Dictionary of English Usage (4th ed.), but Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) lists it without comment.

Interestingly, both the short and long forms entered English in the 17th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, the long one in 1645 and the short one in 1683 (spelled “alumn”).

But the short version seems to have fallen into disuse, according to the OED citations, and didn’t show up in print again until the early 20th century.

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Phoo, pfui, and phooey

Q: I recently saw “phewey” used on Twitter to imply “oh, darn!” I don’t think it’s a word. When my daughter says “phew,” she’s relieved that something has ended or never happened. Am I right that the Twitter posting person (who is NOT a twit) should have used “fooey” or “phooey”?

A: The word the twitterer should have used is “phooey.” The spelling “phewey” definitely doesn’t fill the bill. “Phew” would rhyme with “few” instead of “foo.”

Believe it or not, “phooey” has a respectable lineage as an English interjection, and its beginnings may go back to the 1600s.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression “phoo” was first recorded in 1672, and defines it as “expressing contemptuous rejection, cursory dismissal (of a proposition, idea, etc.), disagreement, or reproach.”

The first person to use it in writing, as far as we know, was George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, who along with several collaborators wrote a satirical play called The Rehearsal, staged in 1671 and published in 1672. The quote: “Phoo! that is to raise the character of Drawcansir.”

The word has continued to appear in fictional dialogue ever since. Here’s Oliver Goldsmith, in his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): “‘Phoo, Charles,’ interrupted she, ‘all that is very true.’ ” And here’s Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park (1814): “Phoo! Phoo! Do not be so shamefaced.”

The expression was also used to mean something like “darn!” as in this quotation from Maria Edgeworth’s novel Castle Rackrent (1800): “Phoo, I’ve cut myself with this razor.”

In the mid-19th century, some writers began using a similar word, “pfui,” adopted from a German word (pfui) that means the same thing: “an emphatic expression of contempt, disgust, or cursory dismissal,” according to the OED.

Here’s William Makepeace Thackeray, writing in the Cornhill Magazine in 1864: “Pfui! For a month before my lord’s arrival I had been knocking at all doors to see if I could find my poor wandering lady behind them.”

Both “phoo” and “pfui” continued to be used through 20th century. The most recent citations for both in the OED are from the 1990s.

The spelling “phooey” first showed up in 1919 in a caption appearing in the Sandusky (Ohio) Star-Journal: “Phooey! That’s old stuff – she told me pers’n’ly that all of them ‘sweet patootie’ letters was forged.” Was this just a new spelling of the old “pfui”? We can’t tell for sure.

The lyricist Lorenz Hart was apparently fond of the word. He used it in the song “A Melican Man” in 1926: “Give Chinee man this chop suey / He’ll refuse it and say ‘Phooey’!” The following year, in the song “Whoopsie,” he used it to mean “mad” or “crazy”: “When ev’ry thing’s gaflooey / And life is simply phooey…”

All of these words (the English “phoo,” “phooey,” and “pfui,” as well as the German pfui) are “imitative,” the OED says. They imitate the action of dismissively puffing or blowing through the lips.

We can’t vouch for their ultimate derivations or even say for sure that the English versions are essentially the same word. The OED has separate entries for each, merely directing the reader to “compare” them.

There may not be a paper trail here, but our hunch is that they’re the same animal with different spots.

By the way, spellings vary widely with many such imitative words. If you’re interested, we ran a blog entry last year about a few other words that mimic interjections.

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English language Etymology Linguistics Pronunciation Spelling Usage Word origin Writing

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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English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

An exception proves the rule?

Q: Can you help me understand how an exception can prove a rule? I’ve often heard it said that this expression made sense at one time when the word “prove” meant to test rather than to confirm absolutely. Is that correct?

A: The old saying “the exception that proves the rule” does seem nonsensical. If there’s an exception, then it should disprove the rule, right? Many word lovers have turned themselves inside out in an attempt to explain this seeming contradiction.

But the word “proves” isn’t the key to the problem. (Contrary to statements in several reference books, “proves” here does indeed mean proves, not tests.) The key is the word “exception,” which English adopted from French in the 14th century.

When the word (spelled excepcioun) showed up in Chaucer’s writings in 1385, it meant a person or thing or case that’s allowed to vary from a rule that would otherwise apply.

That sense of the word led to the Medieval Latin legal doctrine exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis (exception proves the rule in cases not excepted), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

By the 17th century, the Latin expression was being quoted in English as “the exception proves the rule” or variations on this. And the exception, the OED tells us, was something that “comes within the terms of a rule, but to which the rule is not applicable.”

If all students in a school are required to attend gym class, for example, that’s the rule. If a kid with a sprained ankle is excused from gym, then the exception made for him proves that there’s a rule for everybody else.

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Quiddity

Q: Could you tell me where “quid,” the British slang term for pound sterling, comes from? I’ve read online that a paper mill in the town of Quidhampton or the Latin expression quid pro quo may be the source of the term.

A: Lexicographers aren’t certain how we got the word “quid,” a British monetary term that originally referred to a gold sovereign or guinea, and later meant one pound sterling.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that perhaps it comes from the Latin word quid (in this case meaning “what”), “reinterpreted to refer to (monetary) means or wherewithal.” If so, then your comment about quid pro quo isn’t far wrong.

The OEDs first recorded reference to the word comes from a pornographic tract by the pseudonymous Peter Aretine, Strange Newes from Bartholomew-Fair (1661): “The fool lost his purse, but how he knew not; for the reckoning being suddainly brought in, his Quids were vanisht.”

As for pounds, guineas, and sovereigns, here’s how they accumulated.

The “pound” (punda in Old English) was originally so called because it was worth a pound weight of silver, and was valued at 20 shillings.

The “guinea” was an English gold coin, made between 1663 and 1813, originally worth 20 shillings. It was so called because it was made of gold from Guinea.

The first version of the gold “sovereign” was coined in the 1500s and 1600s; a later gold sovereign worth one pound or 20 shillings was minted beginning in 1817.

Why a sovereign? Because it was imprinted with the image of the reigning monarch.

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Why “one-off” is one of a kind

Q: The term “one-off” is often used to denote something that’s one of a kind, but it seems to me that it should be called a “one of.” That’s what it’s describing – something unique. What’s your opinion?

A: The phrase “one-off” (it’s used as both an adjective and a noun) originated in Britain in the 1930s and appears to be gaining popularity here. It refers to something that is one of a kind or is occurring or being produced only once.

Why “off” rather than “of”? Because it was common practice in Britain when the expression originated to use the word “off” with a preceding numeral to describe the number of units of an item being produced or manufactured (“600 off,” or “12 dozen off,” or the like). Picture something coming off a conveyor belt or an assembly line.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “one-off” as both an adjective (meaning “made or done as the only one of its kind; unique, not repeated”), and as a noun for such a product.

The OEDs first published reference is to the adjective, which appeared in an industrial trade journal in 1934: “A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time.”

Like you, were not used to the phrase yet, but we imagine we’ll get accustomed to it if it persists in American usage.

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Are we seeing “more” more?

Q: I’ve noticed that newscasters are increasingly using “more” and “most” instead of comparatives and superlatives, as in “more ugly” or “most ugly” instead of “uglier” or “ugliest.” I anticipate that before long we’ll be hearing “more big” or “most big” instead of “bigger” or “biggest.” Would you speculate about this?

A: I don’t see any evidence that the adverbs “more” and “most” are replacing the “er” and “est” word endings.

Comparatives like “uglier” (instead of “more ugly”) and superlatives like “ugliest” (instead of “most ugly”) are incredibly handy language tools.

They’re so handy that the “er” and “est” suffixes aren’t likely to be threatened by an increase in the use of “more” and “most.”

If newscasters are indeed resorting to “more” and “most” instead of using comparatives and superlatives, it may be because they’re not sure how to pronounce the “er” and “est” versions.

But relax – those versions are here to stay.

Here’s a little history.

We’ve been using the “er” and “est” suffixes to make comparisons since the earliest days of English, and it’s a practice handed down from ancient Indo-European.

The Old English endings were originally spelled differently than they are today: ra for the comparative, and ost (sometimes est) for the superlative.

Taking the word “old” as an example, the Old English forms were eald (“old”), yldra (“older”), yldest (“oldest”). And taking “hard” as another, the forms were heard (“hard”), heardra (“harder”), heardost (“hardest”).

Which brings us to another set of Old English words: micel (meaning “great” or “big”), mara (“more”), and maest (“most”).

While “more” and “most” (or their ancestors) were around since the earliest days of English, it wasn’t until the early 1200s that we began using them as adverbs to modify adjectives and other adverbs in order to form comparatives and superlatives – that is, to do the job of the suffixes “er” and “est.”

For a few centuries, usage was all over the place. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for even one-syllable words to be used with “more” and “most,” according to The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. The authors cite the frequent use of phrases like “more near,” “more fast,” “most poor,” and “most foul.”

And multi-syllable words were used with “er” and “est,” like “eminenter,” “impudentest,” and “beautifullest.” Pyles and Algeo say there were even “a good many instances of double comparison, like more fitter, more better, more fairer, most worst, most stillest, and (probably the best-known example ) most unkindest.”

How about today, though? Is there a hard-and-fast rule about when to use “more” and when to use “er”? Not exactly, but there are common conventions.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the use of “more” is “the normal mode of forming the comparative” with “most adjectives and adverbs of more than one syllable, and with all those of more than two syllables.” A few single-syllable words (like “real,” “right,” “wrong,” and “just”) also normally form comparatives this way instead of with “er” suffixes, according to the OED.

Sometimes, however, “more” is used with one-syllable and two-syllable words that normally would end in “er,” like “busy,” “slow,” “true” and so on. Why? Here’s how the OED explains it:

“This form is often now used either for special emphasis or clearness, or to preserve a balance of phrase with other comparatives with ‘more,’ or to modify the whole predicate rather than the single adjective or adverb, especially when followed by than.”

So, we might choose “much more humble” instead of “much humbler.” Or we might say “so-and-so’s voice was more quiet but no less threatening.” Or “that’s more true than false.” Or even “his feet are more big than ungainly.”

So far, we’ve talked about “more” as an adverb modifying an adjective or another adverb to form a comparative (as in “more determined,” “more bitterly,” “more correctly,” “a more just society,” and so on). But it has other uses too:

(1) As a pronoun (as in “I want more,” “more of an athlete,” “there’s more where that came from,” “what’s more,” and so on).

(2) As an adjective (as in “more’s the pity,” “the more fool you,” “more pizzazz,” “more calories,” etc.).

And here’s a little sidelight: Until the early 1600s, “more” was often contrasted with “mo,” another Old English hand-me-down. “More” was used with quantities of one thing, while “mo” (or “moe”) was used with plural nouns.

In The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the lexicographer R.W. Burchfield notes that “the more/mo distinction dropped out during the 17th century and survives only in some regional forms of English.” He points out the two versions in Shakespeare, from The Tempest (“is there more toil?”), and The Winter’s Tale (“let’s first see moe ballads”).

I could go on with the history of “most,” but I think you’ve had enough. No more!

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Cotton picking

Q: My nickname is Cotton and my gamertag on Xbox Live is Qutun. I chose that handle after reading that qutun is the Arabic word for cotton. But someone who studied Arabic told me recently that qutun does not mean cotton. I have also heard that the word “cotton” is a verb, yet I doubt that anyone uses it that way today. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

A: Ultimately, the English word “cotton” comes from the Arabic qutun (also spelled qutn in our alphabet). A press official at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington confirmed to me that qutun is indeed Arabic for cotton.

The original word passed from the Middle East to Spain, and from Spanish to other European languages. English got it in the late 13th century from the Old French coton. This is the rough history of the English word, as described in several etymology books as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Origins and Development of the English Language, by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, says several other words of Arabic origin (“amber,” “camphor,” “lute,” “mattress,” “cipher,” “orange,” “saffron,” “sugar,” “syrup,” “zenith” and others) entered English during the same period, “most of them having to do in one way or another with science or commerce.”

As for the verb “cotton,” meaning to take a liking, it’s still being used today. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), which describes it as an informal usage, gives this example: “a dog that didn’t cotton to strangers.”

This figurative meaning, which dates from the 1600s, is derived from an older sense of the verb “cotton” in textile finishing. In the 1400s, to “cotton” meant to form a nap (like the pile on a fabric).

Here’s an OED citation from 1488: “viii elne of cotonyt quhit clath” (“eight ells of cottoned white cloth”). An “ell” was roughly four feet; if a fabric “cottoned” properly, it was successfully finished.

I hope you find this answer properly cottoned.

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Take a listen, please!

Q: On CNN, all the anchors use the expression “take a listen” instead of just “listen” or “listen to this.” Does that sound as caustic to you as it does to me?

A: We don’t know about caustic, but it certainly sounds condescending and lame. It’s no doubt the speaker’s way of avoiding “Listen to this.” Let us quote from the entry for this “infantile phrase” in The Dimwit’s Dictionary (2d ed.), by Robert Hartwell Fiske:

“As inane as it is insulting, have (take) a listen obviously says nothing that listen alone does not. Journalists and media personalities who use this offensive phrase ought to be silenced; businesspeople, dismissed; public officials, pilloried.”

Well, we don’t think it’s as bad as all that, but the phrase is certainly overworked. We just googled “take a listen” and got several million hits (and a great many of them are complaints about the usage).

The expression hasn’t made it yet into modern dictionaries, but The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Cambridge Dictionaries Online include examples of somewhat similar usages.

Here’s the American Heritage example: “Would you like to give the CD a listen before buying it?”

And this is the example from Cambridge Dictionaries: “Have a listen to this!”

The word “listen,” by the way, has been used as a noun for about 250 years in expressions like “to be on the listen” or “to have a proper listen.”

In fact, the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “listen” as a noun dates from the 1300s. In an apparent reference to becoming deaf or hard of hearing, the writer wonders if someone “has losed the lysten.”

The OED’s  modern examples of the noun usage, in which the word means an act of listening, begin with this citation from the December 1788 issue of The American Museum, a literary journal published in Philadelphia:

“Every time the door opens, or a foot is on the stairs, you are on the listen.” (The article, “To the Bachelor,” is signed by “Aspasia,” possibly the pen name of Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson, a Philadelphia writer and intellectual.)

Later OED examples include these: “She was often on the watch, and always on the listen” (1884); “constantly on the listen” (1935); “take a listen” and “have a proper listen” (both 1968); “I had a long listen” (1970); and “Give it a listen” (1971).

[Note: This post was updated on June 18, 2020.]

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Pardon my French

[An updated post about “Pardon my French” ran on Jan. 31, 2014.]

Q: In an old “Seinfeld” episode, George admits his willingness to say anything to impress a woman, including that he’d coined the phrase “pardon my French.” Well, who did come up with this great expression?

A: Mary McCarthy is the first writer known to have used the exact phrase “pardon my French,” according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

In A Charmed Life, a 1955 novel, she puts the words in the mouth of one of her characters: “ ‘Damn fool,’ he said, vehemently, ‘pardon my French.’ ”

But the term “French” has been used euphemistically for bad language since the early 1900s and probably even earlier. In Passing English of the Victorian Era (1909), J. Redding Ware says the expression “loosing French” meant violent language, though he doesn’t give a date for its first use.

James Joyce, in Ulysses (1922), uses “bad French” to mean bad language. More to the point, in All Trees Were Green (1933), Michael Harrison writes: “A bloody sight better (pardon the French!) than most.”

The adjective “French,” of course, has been used in a negative way in English for hundreds of years.

A 1503 citation in the OED, for instance, refers to venereal disease as the “Frenche pox.” The French, naturally, referred to it as the English disease. Touché!

And “French” has been used since the mid-18th century to describe racy novels and pictures. As an example, here’s an excerpt from Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister (1842):

Or, my scrofulous French novel
On gray paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial’s gripe.

Belial, as you probably know, is the personification of evil in the Old Testament and a fallen angel in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

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To incent and incense

Q: I recently saw an interview with Carly Fiorina, who kept using the words “incent” and “incenting.” My dictionary has never heard of these forms of “incentive.” Is my dictionary out of date? Or is Ms. Fiorina inventing words?

A: We’ve found “incent” in four standard dictionaries, though two of them (Collins and Oxford Dictionaries online) describe it as an American usage, and Collins adds that it’s “not standard.”

However, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) list it without comment (that is, as standard English).

“Incent” is what’s known as a back-formation, in this case formed from “incentive.” As you might suspect, it means to provide an incentive or to incentivize.

Although “incent” hasn’t been accepted wholeheartedly by all standard dictionaries, it’s been around for more than a century and a half.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the word appears in an 1840 issue of the Rover, a New York literary weekly:

“Incented by the stupid ambition of an ignorant mother, she thought that the purse of the one was far superior to the heart of the other.”

The next OED citation, dated 1898, is from a British source, Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates: “The noble Lord went so far … as to charge … Mr. Tilak with incenting to murder.”

Back-formations are pretty common in English. Examples of verbs that began as back-formations from nouns are “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), “baby-sit” (from “babysitter”), and “curate” (from “curator”).

Among back-formations that are frowned upon by some commentators are “incent,” “administrate” (from “administration”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), “liaise” (from “liaison”), and “orientate” (a mid-19th century back-formation from “orientation,” which itself is derived from a verb, “orient”).

Not every word you find in dictionaries is pleasing to every ear. We, for example, find “administrate” unnecessary since the older “administer” is a perfectly good word.

Though “administrate” doesn’t have any more syllables than “administer,” it’s longer and newer, which may be its attraction for people who enjoy using bureaucratic language.

An example of a back-formation that’s out there but not (yet) in standard dictionaries is “adolesce” (from “adolescence”), as in “He hasn’t finished adolescing yet.”

[Note: This post was updated on July 6, 2016, at the suggestion of a reader.]

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A dilemma inside an enigma

Q: I have a question that has plagued me since childhood: Has the spelling of “dilemma” changed in the past 35 or so years? I could have sworn that it was “dilemna” when I learned to spell in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I remember this because I used to pronounce it phonetically – i.e., “di-lem-na” – as a joke.

A: Welcome to the Twilight Zone!

The word “dilemma,” which has been in English since the 1500s, has always been spelled with a double m. And yet legions of English-speakers from around the world not only spell it “dilemna,” but also (and here’s where Rod Serling steps out from behind a tree) INSIST that their teachers drummed this into them and ridiculed any “mistaken” efforts to spell it with two m’s.

No matter what you were taught, the correct spelling is “dilemma.” The word is derived from the Greek di (twice) and lemma (assumption). What it means, as you probably know, is a choice between two or more alternatives, all unfavorable. (Despite the “di” prefix, the word is now widely accepted as applying to more than two choices.) The alternatives are sometimes called the “horns” of the dilemma.

I’ve checked the Oxford English Dictionary for any variant spellings of the word, but the only “dilemna” I found was in a book on logic written by Thomas Wilson in 1551, and that was probably a typo, since printing was rather primitive in those days and spellings were sometimes arbitrary. I’ve also checked every other dictionary I have, including some bizarre 19th-century ones. No dice. Or, rather, no “dilemna.”

But in googling for “dilemna,” I got hundreds of hits, including the CNN headline “Seoul’s Missile Dilemna,” and in searching the New York Times archive, I found 11 appearances of “dilemna” since 1981.

Mostly, though, I find cries in the wilderness from people (both American and British) whose teachers apparently insisted on the spelling “dilemna” so vigorously that it became engraved on their brains! Who were these teachers and where did they get this harebrained idea? Did they (on both sides of the Atlantic) descend from a single Proto-Teacher born on another planet?

The odd “mn” spelling does have parallels in English: “condemn,” “solemn,” “alumna,” “limn,” “autumn,” “indemnity,” and others. Oddly, I came across many language sites noting that the French for “dilemma” is dilemme, yet the word is widely misspelled in France as dilemne. As one site pointed out, “En effet, la forme ‘dilemne’ n’existe pas.” This gets curiouser and curiouser.

Some things, and this apparently is one of them, are beyond me. I can’t account for the bizarre phenomenon of so very many people being taught – and taught INSISTENTLY – that “dilemna” is correct. If I ever become enlightened on this mysterious subject, I’ll report back!

With apologies to Winston Churchill, this is a dilemma, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

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A goldenrod rule?

Q: A group of rather literary friends recently corrected me for using the word “goldenrods.” They said the plural of the wildflower is the same as the singular. Does “goldenrod” become plural by adding an “s,” like “flower,” or does it stay the same, like “deer”?

A: The dictionaries I’ve consulted don’t indicate that the singular and plural of this word are the same (as they do for invariable nouns like “deer,” “moose,” “sheep,” “swine,” and so on).

So I would conclude that “goldenrod” forms its plural the normal way, with the addition of an “s,” as in “The bouquet included three irises, two lilies, and four goldenrods.”

As an amateur gardener, however, I do know that people with green thumbs often use the singular in referring to plants: “We planted five dozen iris and two dozen crocus last fall” or “I like the way you’ve grouped your three daphne” (instead of “irises,” crocuses,” and “daphnes”).

And plants are often spoken of in the singular, as in “Slender fragrant goldenrod flowers in the summer” (instead of “goldenrods flower”) or “That field of lance-leaved goldenrod is striking.”

Despite these common conventions, “goldenrod” isn’t treated as an invariable noun by dictionaries, which means that technically it has a separate plural.

By the way, the term “goldenrod,” which refers to a plant of the genus Solidago, first appeared in English in a 1568 book by the British botanist William Turner.

All this reminds me of the headline on a “Cuttings” column in the New York Times some years ago: “Just Call Them Glads and Move On From There.”

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A pantleg to stand on

Q: Is the phrase “crease in the pant’s leg” correct or should it be “crease in the pants’ leg”? Thanks a bunch.

A: No apostrophe is needed. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the word “pant” can be an adjective meaning “of or relating to pants,” and it uses the example “pant leg.” So I would suggest “crease in the pant leg.”

Or “pantleg,” if you prefer. While the term often appears as two words, as in M-W, and has also appeared in the past with a hyphen, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the noun as one solid word.

The OED says “pantleg” originated in the US and is still “chiefly” North American. The dictionary gives examples dating from 1859.

As for “pants,” etymologists trace it back to San Pantaleone, the patron saint of Venice.  Because of his identification with the city, Venetians came to be known as pantaloni and a stock character in commedia dell’arte was Pantalone, a rich old miser.

This character typically wore “spectacles, slippers, and tight trousers that were a combination of breeches and stockings,” says the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In the 17th century, the OED says, the French linked the character with a style of trousers that came to be known as “pantaloons” in English.

The word “pantaloons” was eventually shorted to “pants” in the US. Oxford’s earliest example for the new usage is from an 1835 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger:  “In walked my friend—pumps and tight pants on—white gloves and perfumed handkerchief.”

In the OED’s  citations for the short form used as an attributive noun (that is, as an adjective), it’s singular, as in “pantcoat,” “pantdress,” “pantskirt,” “pantsuit,” and “pant-look”), dating from the 1960s and later. (Hmm, I wonder if the appearance of all those “pant” words had something to do with the rise of feminism.)

Like most changes in our changeable language, the evolution of “pantaloons” to “pants” did not occur without opposition. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for one, described the upstart as “a word not made for gentlemen, but for ‘gents.’ ”

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English English language Etymology Spelling Usage Word origin

Is it “-able” or “-ible”?

[Note: A later and more complete post on this subject was published on Jan. 6, 2016.]

Q: Is there a rule for remembering the correct spellings of words ending in “-able” or “-ible”? You know, words like “portable,” “possible,” “manageable,” “delectable,” “suitable.” Hmm… Now I’m having trouble coming up with another “-ible.” Perhaps treating “able” as the norm and remembering the “-ible” exceptions will do it?

A: There’s no rule, exactly, for telling the “-ables” from the “-ibles.” Often a word derived from a Germanic source (Old Dutch, Old Icelandic, Old Norse, and so on) will end in “-able,” like “forgivable,” which comes from Old English.

If a word is derived directly from Latin, however, it might be spelled one way or the other. It generally will end in “-able” if the  original Latin verb ended in “-are.” And it will probably end in “-ible” if  the  original Latin verb ended in “-ere” or “-ire.” 

That accounts for English words like “legible,” from the Latin legere (“read”), “collectible,” from colligere (“gather”), and “potable,” from potare (“drink”).

There are exceptions, though. And not many of us know automatically whether a word is derived from Latin or Old English. Only one thing is certain: there are far more “-ables” than “-ibles.” The best rule to follow is this: When in doubt, look it up.

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English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Language Usage Word origin Writing

Are we losing “-ed” adjectives?

Q: Have you noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective? I see lots of signs that say “ice tea” and people talk about “mix tapes.”

A: No, we haven’t noticed the death of the “-ed” adjective, though some words that began life with the suffix are often seen without it.

For example, the use of “damned” as an adjective to express disapproval or add emphasis showed up in the late 16th century, while “damn” used in this sense didn’t appear until the late 18th century and is now much more popular.

The loss of the “-ed” ending here is is no surprise. The fact is that “-ed” can be awkward to pronounce before a consonant. This can sometimes lead to its loss in writing. For example, “ice cream” and “iced cream” both appeared in the 17th century, but only the “d”-less version has survived.

As for the chilled tea served over ice, both “iced tea” and “ice tea” showed up in the 19th century (the version with “d” in 1839 and one without it in 1842, according to citations in theOxford English Dictionary). You can find both versions in standard dictionaries now, though the suffixed one is far more popular.

A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, shows that “iced tea” is five times as popular as “ice tea.” And the longer version is even more popular in a search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books up until 2008. 

In short, the “-ed” adjective is alive and well in writing, though it’s often dropped in speech. We’re used to hearing things like “corn beef,” “mash potatoes,” “grill cheese,” “chop liver,” and “whip cream,” but people generally preserve the “-ed” endings in writing these noun phrases.

As for the compilation of music from multiple sources, it’s usually “mixtape” now, though it was “mix tape” when it showed up in writing in the 1980s and has sometimes been “mix-tape,” according to our searches of newspaper databases. It has seldom been written as “mixed tape.” The word “mix” in the compound “mixtape” is an attributive noun—one used adjectivally.

[Note: This post was updated on July 12, 2019.]

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