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

Cue up or queue up a video?

Q: When you’re readying a video for viewing, do you cue it up or queue it up?

A: Although both “cue up” and “queue up” appear in the mainstream media in the sense of to prepare an audio or video recording to play, the language authorities who’ve commented on the issue prefer the phrasal verb “cue up.”

As Bryan A. Garner writes in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “To cue up a videotape, an audio tape, a compact disc, or a DVD is to have it ready for playing at a particular point.” Garner includes these two examples from the news media:

  • “His brother cued up the tape, the rousing theme song from ‘Rocky’ ” (Hartford Courant, Sept. 17, 1996).
  • “You can bet your remote control clicker that every network has already cued up video of the glowering Dole, eyes flitting, hanging that warmonger tag on an astonished Mondale” (Boston Globe, Oct. 4, 1996).

As we’ll show later, this use of “cue up” is at least as old as the 1970s. Of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult, four of them include this sense of “cue up,” while none mention a similar use of “queue up.”

American Heritage says one meaning of the verb “cue” is “to position (an audio or video recording) in readiness for playing.” It gives this example: “cue up a record on the turntable.”

Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, says “cue” can mean to “set a piece of audio or video equipment in readiness to play (a particular part of the recorded material).” The dictionary has this example: “there was a pause while she cued up the next tape.”

Longman describes “cue something up” as a phrasal verb meaning “to make a record, CD, DVD etc be exactly in the position you want it to be in, so that you can play something immediately when you are ready.” Example: “The DVD player’s cued up and ready to go!” And Webster’s New World defines “cue” as “to ready (a recording) to play back from a certain point: often with up.”

But, as we said above, both spellings are seen in the media, as in these examples:

  • “It’s why he could cue up the video and manage an uncomfortable smile” (from an article in the July 14, 2020, issue of Newsday on the Yankee pitcher Masahiro Tanaka’s recovery after getting hit in the head by a line drive).
  • “First, queue up the video you want to play and start a Zoom meeting” (from “How to Host a Virtual Watch Party,” Wired, July 4, 2020).

In a recent search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which compares terms in digitized books, “cue up the video” appeared, but not “queue up the video.” And in searches of the News on the Web corpus, a database of terms from online newspapers and magazines, “cue up the video” edged out “queue up the video,” though the results for both were scanty.

In contemporary English, the verb “cue” has several meanings: (1) to use a cue in pool, billiards, or snooker; (2) to prompt someone or something; (3) to insert (usually “cue in”) something in a performance; (4) to prepare (usually “cue up”) a recording to play.

The word “queue” also has several senses today. The verb can mean to arrange or form a queue (a waiting line), and to line up or wait in such a line, a usage that the Oxford English Dictionary describes as chiefly British.

In the computer sense, the OED says, the noun “queue” means “a list of data items, commands, etc. stored so as to be retrievable in a definite order, usually the order of insertion,” and the verb means “to place (data, tasks, etc.) in a queue.”

One could argue, of course, that to prepare a recording to play at a specific time is similar to putting it in a waiting line or a queue of data, which may account for why both “cue up” and “queue up” appear in this sense in some edited publications. For now, though, “cue up” seems to be the preferred usage.

(We wrote a post in 2014 on the use of “queue” in the UK and “line” in the US to mean a line of people. As it turns out, the British once used “line” for what they now call a “queue.”)

As for the etymology, the use of the verb “queue” to mean line up is derived from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French term for a tail (spelled variously keu, kue, que, queue, and so on). In Old French, an animal’s tail was a cue.

When the noun showed up in English in the 16th century, it meant a tail-like band of parchment used to seal a letter. The earliest example in the OED refers to a “dowbylle queue” (a forked or double tail). It’s from “Gregory’s Chronicle” (circa 1475), published in The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century (1876), edited by James Gairdner.

The next OED citation refers to a forked tail in heraldry: “Gold ramping Lion queue doth forked hold” (from The True Vse of Armorie Shewed by Historie, and Plainly Proued by Example, 1592, by William Wyrley).

In the early 18th century, the noun “queue” came to mean “a long plait of hair worn hanging down at the back, from the head or from a wig; a pigtail,” according to the dictionary. The earliest known use is from a newspaper advertisement for “All Sorts of Perukes” (wigs) including “Qu-Perukes and Bagg-Wiggs” (Dublin Gazette, Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 1724).

The next Oxford citation has the usual spelling: “The largeness of the doctor’s wig arises from the same pride with the smallness of the beau’s queue” (An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 1774, by Oliver Goldsmith).

By the early 19th century, the noun was being used to mean a lineup: “That talent … of spontaneously standing in queue, distinguishes … the French People” (The French Revolution: A History, 1837, by Thomas Carlyle).

When the verb “queue” appeared in the 18th century, it meant to tie up the hair in a pigtail, a usage that the OED describes as obsolete or rare now.

In the early 20th century, the verb took on its modern sense of to form a line or wait in a line. The dictionary’s first example is from the Oct. 7, 1920, issue of the Times (London): “Taxi-Cabs queued up for their supplies of ‘Shell.’ ”

A half-century later, the verb was being used in its computer sense: “checking for transmission errors, and storing and queuing the messages received” (from Interactive Computing in BASIC, 1973, by P. C. Sanderson).

The OED doesn’t have any examples of “queue” used in the sense of preparing an audio or video recording to play. The earliest use we’ve found of the verb spelled this way is from 86’d, a 2009 novel by the American writer Dan Fante: “The rap disc I chose was by a singer named Sam’yall K. I’d never heard of the guy but I queued the disc up and pressed play on low to test my selection.”

As for “cue,” the sense you’re asking about is derived from the word’s use as a noun to mean a theatrical prompt. Originally, according to Oxford, it referred to “the concluding word or words of a speech in a play, serving as a signal or direction to another actor to enter, or begin his speech.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from the mid-16th century (note how the word is spelled): “Amen must be answered to the thanksgevyng not as to a mans q in a playe.” (From a 1553 reference, published in Ecclesiastical Memorials, 1721, by the English historian and biographer John Strype.)

The OED says the source of this sense of the noun “cue” is uncertain, but there’s no evidence that it comes from “queue.” A more likely explanation is that it’s derived from the use of “Q,” “q,” and “qu” in the 16th and 17th centuries “to mark in actors’ copies of plays, the points at which they were to begin.” The term is said to be short for the Latin qualis (what) or quando (when).

However, the verb “cue” had nothing to do with prompts when it first appeared in English in the 18th century. It originally meant to twist hair into a pigtail, a usage that did indeed come from “queue.”

The OED cites this passage from an Aug. 20, 1774, entry in the journals of Capt. James Cook about the hair of indigenous people on a Pacific island: “They separate it [their hair] into small locks and wold [wind] or cue them round with the rind of a slender plant.”

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the verb “cue” took on the sense of to prompt. The first OED example is from the February 1928 issue of Melody Maker, a British music magazine: “The 1st alto had melody cued-in.”

The dictionary’s next citation is a definition from a glossary of early radio terms: “Cue someone, to give a signal indicating ‘proceed with the pre-arranged routine.’ ” (From “Radio Dictionary,” by Leonard Lewis, published first in the April 1937 issue of Printer’s Ink Monthly and later as a booklet.)

As of now, the OED doesn’t have an entry for “cue” or “cue up” used to mean prepare an audio or video recording to play. However, the usage appears in a 1975 citation for the noun “VJ,” someone who introduces and plays music videos: “VJs, or video jockeys, at MTV’s studio cue up as many as 13 videos an hour” (from American Way magazine, June 1983).

We’ve found several earlier examples, including this one from a short story in the November 1974 issue of Boys’ Life: “Pushing aside some debris, he cued up the record, carefully lowered the needle, made a little bow, and stepped back” (“The $20 Guitar,” by A. R. Swinnerton).

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Are you teed off?

Q: I assume that when you’re “teed off” at someone, the usage comes from golf, but I can’t for the life of me see a connection. What’s the story?

A: Yes, the metaphorical use of “teed off” to mean angry or annoyed comes from golf. We’ve seen two theories as to how it got from there to here.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes it among figurative uses of “tee off” (literally, to hit a ball from the tee in golf), and labels the usage North American slang. The OED says the golfing metaphor probably originated as a “euphemistic alteration” of “peed off” used in the sense of “pissed off.”

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary says “teed off” in the sense of angry or annoyed probably comes from the informal verb phrase “tee off on,” which it defines as “to speak about (someone or something) in an angry way.”

In either case, our guess is that people thought whacking a golf ball from a tee was a pretty good figure of speech for being angry.

The figurative use of the verbal phrase “tee off on” showed up in the 1930s as sporting jargon meaning to attack. The first example we’ve found is from a California newspaper: “The Giants teed off on the Mississippi cat, Guy Bush, and his successor, Charlie Root, for six runs in the third inning” (San Bernardino Sun, July 19, 1934).

By the early 1940s, “tee off on” was being used in the sense of a political attack. We found this example in a Texas newspaper: “Attorney General Gerald Mann teed off on both O’Daniel and Johnson” (Borger Daily Herald, June 22, 1941). Mann was a candidate in a special election in which Gov. W. Lee O’Daniel narrowly defeated Rep. Lyndon Baines Johnson for a Senate seat.

The use of the adjectival phrase “teed off” to mean angry appeared a few months later in the diary of an American pilot who served with the Flying Tigers in Burma and China during World War II:

“Apparently the old man was still teed off about Ricketts’s landing yesterday, for no flying was scheduled today.” From a Nov. 19, 1941, entry in A Flying Tiger’s Diary (1984), by Charles R. Bond Jr. with Terry H. Anderson, a Texas A&M historian. (The pilot mentioned had damaged a plane when landing with the wheels only half down.)

The use of “tee” for the wood or plastic peg from which a ball is hit at the start of each hole in golf began life in Scottish English in the early 17th century. It was originally spelled “teaz” and referred to a small heap of earth or sand.

The earliest OED citation is from a Latin grammar book using sporting examples: “Statumen, the Teaz” (statumen is Latin for a support). From Vocabula cum Aliis Latinae Linguae Subsidiis, written sometime before 1646 by David Wedderburn, a schoolmaster at Aberdeen Grammar School.

The dictionary’s first example with the usual spelling, which we’ve expanded, is from an early 18th-century Scottish poem: “Driving their baws frae whins or tee / There’s no nae gowfer to be seen” (“Driving their balls from rough or tee, / There’s nary a golfer to be seen”). From “An Ode to Ph—” (1721), by Allan Ramsay.

The OED describes “tee” as “apparently a clipped form of teaz, used in 17th cent., the origin of which is not ascertained.” The dictionary compares the development of “tea” from “teaz” to that of “pea” from “pease,” a subject we discussed in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions:

The singular “piose” (from the Latin pisum) entered English in Anglo-Saxon days, eventually becoming “pease,” as in this 1580 quotation: “As like as one pease is to an other.” But people began mistaking “pease” for a plural, so a singular had to be invented. That’s how “pea” burst from its pod in the 1600s. The old “pease” lives on, however, in a nursery rhyme many of us remember from childhood:

Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old.

Split-pea soup is a relative of pease porridge (or pease pudding), a thicker dish made from dried peas, boiled and mashed. It’s often served in northeastern England and Newfoundland.

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On the status of status quo

Q: As a judge, I would like to know about the origins of “status quo” and statu quo, the former in English and the latter in French legal language.

A: “Status quo” and statu quo, English and French terms meaning “the present state of affairs,” are both believed to come from an expression in post-classical Latin, in statu quo.

In Latin, status and statu are different forms of the same noun. As a subject (in the nominative case), it’s status; as an object of a preposition (in the ablative case), it’s statu.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, status quo (Latin for the state in which) showed up in the fifth century in the writings of Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine), and was “probably extrapolated from in statu quo” (in the state in which).

Although “status quo” is the usual spelling of the phrase in English whether it’s a subject or an object, “statu quo” is sometimes seen in English writing in the expressions “in statu quo” and “in statu quo ante,” prepositional constructions that are generally used adverbially. Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) defines both as “in the same state of affairs that existed earlier.”

The OED says a subject version of that last construction, “status quo ante” (the former state of affairs), was “perhaps formed within English, by clipping or shortening” the expression status quo ante bellum (modern Latin for the state of affairs before the war) or perhaps by extrapolation from the post-classical Latin in statu quo.

All of the dictionary’s early English examples for “status quo” and its relations italicize the expressions. In the OED’s first citation for “in statu quo,” from the early 17th century, it’s part of the expression “in statu quo prius” (in the same as the prior state of affairs):

“The seculars are but in statu quo prius, and cannot be in a worse then they are in at this present.” From Decacordon of Ten Quodlibeticall Questions (1602), a religious treatise by William Watson, an English Roman Catholic priest who was executed for treason in 1603. (A “decachord” is a 10-stringed musical instrument; “quodlibetical” means purely academic.)

The OED’s earliest English example for the phrase “status quo” is in a collection of British trial records from the late 14th to the early 18th century. The passage cited is from the 1678-85 impeachment proceedings against Thomas, Earl of Danby, for high treason:

“The Impeachments, Appeals, &c. and the Incidents … should stand in Statu Quo; so that (as is already observed) the Status Quo (as to him) he again said, was to put him into a State of Liberty.” From A Compleat Collection of State-Tryals and Proceedings Upon Impeachment for High Treason and other Crimes and Misdemeanours (1719). Danby was imprisoned in the Tower of London for five years.

The first Oxford citation for “status quo ante” is from an anonymous play printed at the beginning of the 19th century: “I know nothing I can do, but give security, on my estates in Andalusia, for, I fear, it is too late to expect the status quo ante.” From The Systematic or Imaginary Philosopher: A Comedy, in Five Acts (1800).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “status quo ante bellum” is from an 18th-century political tract by the philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke about divisions among Whigs in Britain over the French Revolution:

“My Lord Grenville [William, Baron Grenville] truly described the relative state of the Contracting Parties, when he made the uti possidetis the basis of the Negotiation on the part of the French, whilst the British were obliged to submit to the status quo ante bellum.”

In Burke’s 1791 tract, An Appeal From the New to the Old Whigs, the Latin uti possidetis is short for uti possidetis, ita possideatis (as you possess, so may you possess), a principle in international law that territory held at the end of a war remains with the possessor, unless otherwise stipulated by treaty.

The OED cites several other modern Latin expressions that may have influenced the development of “status quo,” including in eum statum quo ante bellum fuerant (in the conditions that had existed before the war, 1625 or earlier) and quo ante bellum fuerant (which had been before the war, 1772 or earlier),

Finally, here are a couple of relatively rare humorous terms cited in the dictionary: “statu quo-ism” (“partiality for, or inclination to maintain, the existing state of affairs,” 1834) and “statu quo-ite” (“a person who favours the existing state of affairs; spec. one who believes that human society remains in more or less the same state throughout history, neither progressing nor deteriorating”).

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Can sex or gender be ‘assigned’?

Q: The terms “gender assignment” and “sex assignment” give me pause. The use of the verb “assign” and noun “assignment” in this sense strikes me as off-pitch. Assigning is what the Sorting Hat does in sending a Hogwarts student to one of the school’s four Houses. Is there an interesting story here?

A: The use of the terms “sex assignment” and “gender assignment” for designating the sex of a newborn child is relatively rare, though an etymological case could be made for this sense of “assignment.”

We’ve found only 42 examples of “sex assignment” and 100 of “gender assignment” in recent searches of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of newspaper and magazine articles from 2010 to the present.

None of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult have entries for “gender assignment” and only one includes “sex assignment.” Dictionary.com, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines it as “the determination or assignment of a baby’s sex, based on the appearance of external reproductive organs, and, sometimes, chromosomal testing.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t include either term, though it has examples dating back to the 14th century of the verb “assign” used to mean determine, designate, specify, classify, categorize, and so on. Here are a few examples:

“And til seynt Iames be souȝte þere, I shal assigne / That no man go to Galis” (“And till Saint James be sought there, I shall assign [specify] that no man go to Galicia” (Piers Plowman, 1377, by William Langland). We’ve expanded the OED citation.

“Folke whom I neyther assigne bi name, nor as yet knowe not who they be” (The Debellacyon of Salem and Bizance, 1533, by Thomas More).

“Who all assign its Altitude to be but about 27 inches” (Experimental Philosophy, 1664, by Henry Power).

And here are a few examples from contemporary standard dictionaries:

“assigned the new species to an existing genus” (American Heritage).

“However, further investigations are needed before assigning these Mexican specimens to a new status” (Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online).

“Though assigned male at birth, she appears most comfortable and in her element wearing a skirt and high-heeled sandals when riding a big-wheel or playing with a tea set” (Merriam-Webster). The dictionary includes this among examples in which “assign” means to “fix or specify.”

The use of “sex assignment” or “gender assignment” for determining the sex of a newborn is relatively new. And the subject can be controversial, especially when the evidence is ambiguous, as in the earliest example we’ve found. This passage was published in the 1950s in a medical paper on intersexuality, having both male and female sexual organs or characteristics:

“Equally clearly the medical practitioner and the paediatrician need to be helped to form a correct opinion in the first place on the sex assignment and rearing of the intersexed infant.” From “Psychosexual Identification (Psychogender) in the Intersexed,” by Daniel Cappon, Calvin Ezrin, and Patrick Lynes, in the Canadian Psychiatric Journal, April 1959.

The first example we’ve seen for “gender assignment” uses the phrase in the linguistic sense—that is, in reference to languages that use gender to classify nouns, pronouns, and related words:

“Of course there may be dialect differences in the gender assignment of nouns” (from Plains Cree: A Grammatical Study, by the linguist H. Christoph Wolfart, published in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, November 1973).

And here’s the earliest example we’ve seen of “gender assignment” used in the sense you’re asking about: “Gender assignment is based on the existing anatomy and a full understanding of the pathologic and endocrinologic reasons for the ambiguity” (Practical Gynecology, 1994, by Allan J. Jacobs and ‎Michael J. Gast).

By the way, all but one of the standard dictionaries we consult have entries for “sex reassignment” or “gender reassignment,” commonly known as “sex change.” Some add the word “therapy” or “surgery” to the term.

The OED defines “gender reassignment” as “the process or an instance of a person adopting the physical characteristics of the opposite sex by means of medical procedures such as surgery or hormone treatment.”

The earliest Oxford example is from the late 1960s: “After gender reassignment surgery, some previously rejecting fathers become very affectionate” (“The Formation of Gender Identity,” by Natalie Shainess, Journal of Sex Research, May 1969).

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Hear Pat on Iowa Public Radio

She’ll be on Talk of Iowa today from 10 to 11 AM Central time (11 to 12 Eastern) to discuss words of the pandemic.

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Dead-on balls accurate

Q: My friend uses the phrase “dead-on balls accurate,” which I looked up because of its ridiculousness. I know it was in My Cousin Vinny. Do you guys have any idea when “balls” was added? Was it in the movie or sometime before that?

A: As far as we can tell, “dead-on balls accurate” showed up for the first time in My Cousin Vinny. In the 1992 comedy, Mona Lisa Vito (played by Marisa Tomei) uses the expression in an argument with Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) over whether she’s properly closed a dripping faucet. We’ll have more on the film later.

In fact the “balls”-free version, “dead-on accurate,” apparently appeared in print only 15 years before the movie, though “dead” had been used to mean utterly or absolutely since the 16th century and “dead-on” to mean quite certain or sure since the 19th.

Your friend isn’t the only person to use the longer version, which shows up every once in a while in various contexts. Here, for instance, is the headline of a Jan. 1, 2019, customer review on Amazon.com: “Dead on balls accurate! Excellent thermometer!”

The word “balls” in the expression is an intensifier, a word that adds emphasis, like “absolutely,” “extremely,” or “incredibly.” You can see this more clearly if we replace “balls” with a more common vulgar slang intensifier: “dead-on fucking accurate.”

As it turns out, the intensive use of “balls” is relatively rare. We couldn’t find it in any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.  However, the collaborative Wiktionary defines “balls” used adverbially as “(slang) Very, Intensifier,” and has this example: “It is balls cold out there.”

None of our etymological or slang dictionaries have entries for the use of “balls” as an intensifier, but several include entries for the phrase “balls naked,” where “balls” is used intensively to mean completely.

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, for example, cites Somebody Up There Likes Me, a 1955 memoir by the middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano, written with Rowland Barber: “I’m on the scales, balls naked.”

And Random House notes a similar and much earlier usage in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), where “bollock,” a term for testicle that dates back to Anglo-Saxon days, is used as an intensifier: “See them there stark bollock-naked.”

The earliest example for “balls naked” in Green’s Dictionary of Slang is from Go-Boy! Memories of a Life Behind Bars, a 1978 prison memoir by Roger Caron: “The two rascals disappeared … emerging a moment later balls naked.”

Green’s has an earlier, expanded version of the expression from The Run for Home, a 1958 novel by Leland Frederick Cooley, who once wrote and produced The Perry Como Show: “I see this miserable shit, balls-ass naked, hanging by his hands from an overhead beam.”

When the noun “ball” first appeared in writing in the 12th century, spelled bal in early Middle English, it meant a hill or a spherical object in a game. This ball-playing example in the OED is from the Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Al þe wa of þis world is ieuenet to helle alre leaste pine, al nis bute bal plohe” (“all the woe of this world compared to the very least pain of hell is nothing but ball play”).

By the 13th century, “ball” was being used to mean a testicle. The first OED citation, which we’ll expand here, is from a plainspoken passage in The Proverbs of Hendyng, a collection of religious and moral advice written in verse around 1250:

“Þe maide þat ȝevit hirsilf alle / oþir to fre man, oþir to þralle / ar ringe be ſet an honde, / and pleiit with þe croke and wiþ þe balle, / and mekit gret þat erst was smalle, / Þe wedding got to sconde. / ʒeve þi cunte to cunnig, and crave affetir wedding, quod hending” (“the maid that giveth herself all / either to free man or thrall [serf] / ere ring be set on hand, / and playeth with the crook [penis] and with the ball, / and maketh great what once was small, / the wedding is a shame. / ‘give thy cunt with cunning / and crave after wedding,’ quoth Hending”).

In other words, a woman should wait for Mr. Right to say “I do.”

Getting back to the movie, Vinny isn’t Mr. Right and Lisa hasn’t waited, but she’s cunning about getting what she craves. Here’s a transcript of the scene in which Vinny and Lisa squabble over whether she’s properly turned off a dripping faucet:

Vinny: Is that a drip I hear?
Lisa: Yeah.
Vinny: Weren’t you the last one to use the bathroom?
Lisa: So?
Vinny: Well, did you use the faucet?
Lisa: Yeah.
Vinny: Why didn’t you turn it off?
Lisa: I did turn it off.
Vinny: Well, if you turned it off, why am I listening to it?
Lisa: Did it ever occur to you that it could be turned off and drip at the same time?
Vinny: No, because if you turned it off, it wouldn’t drip.
Lisa: Maybe it’s broken.
Vinny: Is that what you’re saying? It’s broken?
Lisa: Yeah, that’s it; it’s broken.
Vinny: You sure?
Lisa: I’m positive.
Vinny: Maybe you didn’t twist it hard enough.
Lisa: I twisted it just right.
Vinny: How can you be so sure?
Lisa: If you will look in the manual, you will see that this particular model faucet requires a range of 10 to 16 foot pounds of torque. I routinely twist the maximum allowable torquage.
Vinny: How can you be sure you used 16 foot pounds of torque?
Lisa: Because I used a Craftsman model 1019 Laboratory edition, signature series torque wrench. The kind used by Cal Tech high-energy physicists and NASA engineers.
Vinny: In that case, how can you be sure that’s accurate?
Lisa: Because a split second before the torque wrench was applied to the faucet handle, it had been calibrated by top members of the state and federal Departments of Weights and Measures, to be dead-on balls accurate. Here’s the certificate of validation. (She tears a page from a magazine)
Vinny: Dead-on balls accurate?
Lisa: It’s an industry term.

[Note: The appearance of “cunt” in the Proverbs of Hendyng is the first written example of the word used for the female genitals. But as we say in a 2014 post, the term was used earlier within surnames and street names in red-light districts.]

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A vast minority?

Q: John Campbell, a YouTube celebrity offering Covid advice, has said a “vast minority” of young people are not observing social distancing. Although “vast majority” is a common collocation, I had never heard “vast minority” before. Did Campbell invent it, or does it have a history?

A: No, Campbell didn’t coin the phrase “vast minority.” It appeared in writing more than two centuries earlier.

The oldest example we’ve found is from an anonymous 19th-century religious tract ridiculing a writer who had referred to Roman Catholics as “a large portion of the inhabitants” of Ireland:

“you ought to have called the Papists, at once, the vast minority of the inhabitants: you could not gain less credit.” (A Vindication of the Most Rev. John Thomas Troy, D.D., Roman Catholic Archbishop in the Church of Dublin, 1804, by “a Roman Catholic of Dublin.”)

And here’s an example from a letter in the October 1839 issue of the Baltimore Literary and Religious Magazine that uses the expression in reference to Protestants:

“The press in Baltimore, with but few exceptions is a political press, and yet under the guise of preserving the peace of the city, they advocate the cause of the minority; yes a vast minority, a minority of more than three hundredths, for the protestants in wealth and number exceed the sum of the Catholics as a hundred to three.”

In a more recent appearance, the expression describes fans of the singer Mel Tormé: “Carlos Gastel, his longtime manager, told Tormé in 1947, ‘you will never be the mass star you want to be, but there is a vast minority of people out there who will always support your work.’ ”

(From an article by Terry Teachout in Commentary, December 2014. The phrase was also in the title and text of a March 9, 1981, profile of Tormé in the New Yorker.)

The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have a citation for “vast minority.” The dictionary’s first example of “vast majority” is from the early 18th century:

“The People of the Earth, that is, a vast Majority of Mankind, are represented by Moses, as voluntarily journeying from one part of the Earth to another.” (The Original and Institution of Civil Government, Discuss’d, 1710, by Benjamin Hoadly.)

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A slave named Smith

[In observance of Labor Day, we’re republishing a post from May 20, 2016,  that discusses family names derived from occupations.]

Q: Why is “Smith” more common than “Cooper,” “Potter,” “Weaver,” and other names derived from occupations?

A: “Smith” is the most common family name in the US (according to the 2010 census) as well as in the UK. Why is it more common than some other surnames derived from occupations, such as “Cooper,” “Potter,”  “Weaver,” and so on?

Well, the word “smith” has been used in the occupational sense since Anglo-Saxon days, far longer than “cooper” (circa 1415), “potter” (c. 1200), and “weaver” (1362) have been used in that sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED has several Old English citations for the word “smith,” including this one from the epic poem Beowulf, which scholars say may have been written as early as the 700s:

“Swa hine fyrndagum worhte wæpna smið” (“As it was made for him by a weapon smith in days of old”).

In addition to being old, “smith” has referred to a wider variety of jobs than those other terms.

When it showed up in Old English, the OED says, a “smith” was someone who worked “in iron or other metals; esp. a blacksmith or farrier; a forger, hammerman.” It was also used in compounds like “coopersmith,” “goldsmith,” “gunsmith,” “locksmith,” and “silversmith.”

“Smith” may have been used as a personal “byname” before any of those other occupational words even showed up in English. (Bynames or nicknames, used to identify individuals and to distinguish one John or Alfred from another, were the precursors of the inherited family names that developed after the Norman Conquest.)

A document from the late 900s granting freedom to a slave named “Ecceard smith” may be the earliest example of such a byname.

A slave? Yes, there was slavery in medieval Britain.

In Cartularium Saxonicum (Vol. 3, 1887), a collection of charters relating to Anglo-Saxon history, the British historian Walter de Gray Birch includes a section on manumissions, documents granting formal release from slavery.

Here’s an excerpt from a manumission that the author dates from the late 10th century:

“Geatfleda geaf freols for Godes lufa & for heora sæpla,  þæt is Ecceard smið, & Ælstan  & his wíf & eall heora of sprinc boren & unboren. & Arcil, & Cole, & Ecferð,  Aldhunes dohter, & ealle þa men þe heo nam heora heafod for hyra mete on þam yflum dagum.”

(“For the love of God and for the need of her soul, Geatfleda has granted freedom to Ecceard smith, and AElfstan and his wife and all their offspring, born and unborn, and Arcil and Cole and Ecgferth and Ealdhun’s daughter, and all those people whose heads she took for their food in the evil days [and all those people she bought in the evil days].”)

In transcribing the Old English above, we’ve replaced the Anglo-Saxon symbol for “and” (it looks like a 7) with an ampersand, and modified some of the punctuation to make the Old English more readable.

Some scholars have translated the Old English “Ecceard smið” as “Ecceard smith,” treating “smith” as a byname, while others have translated it as “Ecceard the smith,” treating “smith” as an appositive that refers to Ecceard by his occupation.

We lean toward considering “smith” a nickname or byname here. As we noted, such names weren’t generally passed on from generation to generation until well into the Middle Ages.

Percy Hide Reaney and Richard Middlewood Wilson, authors of A Dictionary of English Surnames (3rd ed., 1991), note that surnames were constantly changing in the Middle Ages.

“Today, surnames mean an inherited family name; originally it meant simply an additional name,” the authors write.

In The Birth of the West (2014), Paul Collins provides additional details about the freeing of the slaves mentioned above, noting that a great famine in 975 forced some Anglo-Saxons to sell themselves into slavery to keep from dying of hunger.

“Geatfleda, a wealthy woman in Durham, heard that a group of people with children had sold themselves into slavery to survive,” Collins writes. “She then bought them and granted them freedom when the famine had ended.”

In The Old English Manor: A Study in English Economic History (1892), the historian Charles McLean Andrews says that “in cases of great poverty and distress it was not uncommon for freemen to sell themselves into slavery.”

“Frequently it might happen that violence or fraud would force a freeman into slavery, an enforcement, which, while not legally recognized, would become practically a fact, and of legal importance in relation to the posterity of the unfortunate freeman, for of course all children of slaves remained slaves,” Andrews writes.

We could speculate more about the popularity of the name “Smith,” but it would be mere conjecture.

As Richard A. McKinley writes in A History of British Surnames (1990), a lot of medieval genealogy is guesswork:

“It is generally impossible to say why, for instance, a man living about 1300 who was a blacksmith, who had a father called William, and who walked with a limp, came to be called Smith, rather than Williamson or Crookshank.”

You may also be interested in a post we wrote about colors used as surnames, as in “Mr. Gray” and “Ms. White.”

We’ll end with these anonymous lines that we came across in our readings for this post:

“From whence came Smith, all be he Knight or squire
But from the Smith, that forgeth at the fire?”

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Tawk of the Town

[Pat’s review of a book about New York English, reprinted from the September 2020 issue of the Literary Review, London. We’ve left in the British punctuation and spelling.]

* * * * * * * * * * * *

PATRICIA T O’CONNER

You Talkin’ to Me? The Unruly History of New York English

By E J White. Oxford University Press 296 pp

You know how to have a polite conversation, right? You listen, wait for a pause, say your bit, then shut up so someone else can speak. In other words, you take your turn.

You’re obviously not from New York.

To an outsider, someone from, say, Toronto or Seattle or London, a conversation among New Yorkers may resemble a verbal wrestling match. Everyone seems to talk at once, butting in with questions and comments, being loud, rude and aggressive. Actually, according to the American linguist E J White, they’re just being nice.

When they talk simultaneously, raise the volume and insert commentary (‘I knew he was trouble’, ‘I hate that!’), New Yorkers aren’t trying to hijack the conversation, White says. They’re using ‘cooperative overlap’, ‘contextualization cues’ (like vocal pitch) and ‘cooperative interruption’ to keep the talk perking merrily along. To them, argument is engagement, loudness is enthusiasm and interruption means they’re listening, she writes. Behaviour that would stop a conversation dead in Milwaukee nudges it forward in New York.

Why do New Yorkers talk this way? Perhaps, White says, because it’s the cultural norm among many of the communities that have come to make up the city: eastern European Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speakers. As for the famous New York accent, that’s something else again.

White, who teaches the history of language at Stony Brook University, New York, argues that ‘Americans sound the way they do because New Yorkers sound the way they do’. In You Talkin’ to Me? she makes a convincing case that the sounds of standard American English developed, at least in part, as a backlash against immigration and the accent of New York.

Although the book is aimed at general readers, it’s based on up-to-the-minute research in the relatively new field of historical sociolinguistics. (Here a New Yorker would helpfully interrupt, ‘Yeah, which is what?’) Briefly, it is about how and why language changes. Its central premise is that things like social class, gender, age, group identity and notions of prestige, all working in particular historical settings, are what drive change.

Take one of the sounds typically associated with New York speech the oi that’s heard when ‘bird’ is pronounced boid, ‘earl’ oil, ‘certainly’ soitanly, and so on. Here’s a surprise. That oi, White says, was ‘a marker of upper-class speech’ in old New York, a prestige pronunciation used by Teddy Roosevelt and the Four Hundred who rubbed elbows in Mrs Astor’s ballroom. Here’s another surprise. The pronunciation is now defunct and exists only as a stereotype. It retired from high society after the First World War and by mid-century it was no longer part of New York speech in general. Yet for decades afterwards it persisted in sitcoms, cartoons and the like. Although extinct ‘in the wild’ (as linguists like to say), it lives on in a mythological ‘New York City of the mind’.

Another feature of New York speech, one that survives today, though it’s weakening, is the dropping of r after a vowel in words like ‘four’ (foah), ‘park’ (pahk) and ‘never’ (nevuh). This was also considered a prestige pronunciation in the early 1900s, White says, not just in New York City but in much of New England and the South as well, where it was valued for its resemblance to cultivated British speech. Until sometime in the 1950s, in fact, it was considered part of what elocutionists used to call ‘General American’. It was taught, the author writes, not only to schoolchildren on the East Coast, but also to aspiring actors, public speakers and social climbers nationwide. But here, too, change lay ahead.

While r-dropping is still heard in New York, Boston and pockets along the Eastern Seaboard, it has all but vanished in the South and was never adopted in the rest of the United States. Here the author deftly unravels an intriguing mystery: why the most important city in the nation, its centre of cultural and economic power, does not provide, as is the case with other countries, the standard model for its speech.

To begin with, White reminds us, the original Americans always pronounced r, as the British did in colonial times. Only in the late 18th century did the British stop pronouncing r after a vowel. Not surprisingly, the colonists who remained in the big East Coast seaports and had regular contact with London adopted the new British pronunciation. But those who settled inland retained the old r and never lost it. (As White says, this means that Shakespeare’s accent was probably more like standard American today than Received Pronunciation.)

Posh eastern universities also helped to turn the nation’s accent westward. Towards the end of the First World War, White says, Ivy League schools fretted that swelling numbers of Jewish students, admitted on merit alone, would discourage enrolment from the Protestant upper class. Admissions practices changed. In the 1920s, elite schools began to recruit students from outside New York’s orbit and to ask searching questions about race, religion, colour and heritage. The result, White says, was that upper-crust institutions ‘shifted their preference for prestige pronunciation toward the “purer” regions of the West and the Midwest, where Protestants of “Nordic” descent were more likely to live’. Thus notions about what constituted ‘educated’ American speech gradually shifted.

Another influence, the author writes, was the Midwestern-sounding radio and television ‘network English’ that was inspired by the Second World War reporting of Edward R Murrow and the ‘Murrow Boys’ he recruited to CBS from the nation’s interior. Murrow’s eloquent, authoritative reports, heard by millions, influenced generations of broadcasters, including Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and Dan Rather, who didn’t try to sound like they had grown up on the Eastern Seaboard. The voice of the Midwest became the voice of America.

This book takes in a lot of territory, all solidly researched and footnoted. But dry? Fuhgeddaboutit. White is particularly entertaining when she discusses underworld slang from the city’s ‘sensitive lines of business’ and she’s also good on song lyrics, from Tin Pan Alley days to hip-hop. She dwells lovingly on the ‘sharp, smart, swift, and sure’ lyrics of the golden age of American popular music – roughly, the first half of the 20th century. It was a time when New York lyricists, nearly all of them Jewish, preserved in the American Songbook not only the vernacular of the Lower East Side but also the colloquialisms of Harlem and the snappy patois of advertising.

You Talkin’ to Me? is engrossing and often funny. In dissecting the exaggerated New York accents of Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, White observes that ‘Bugs even wielded his carrot like Groucho’s cigar’. And she says that the word ‘fuck’ is so ubiquitous in Gotham that it has lost its edge, so a New Yorker in need of a blistering insult must look elsewhere. ‘There may be some truth to the old joke that in Los Angeles, people say “Have a nice day” and mean “Fuck off,” while in New York, people say “Fuck off” and mean “Have a nice day.”’

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Let’s confer

Q: I saw a bio on a haiku website that says the subject “was conferred with a certificate for being one of the top 100 haiku poets in Europe.” Why does that use of “confer” sound wrong to me?

A: It sounds off-kilter because “confer” in the sense of to give or to present is a transitive verb (that is, it needs a direct object), and the proper object here is the thing given. You confer a certificate on someone or a certificate is conferred on someone.

The  verb “confer” has two very different meanings: (1) to give or present, which is the sense we’re talking about, and (2) to speak together, as in having a conference. The first is transitive and requires a direct object; the second is intransitive and never has an object.

This sentence illustrates both uses: “The trustees, after conferring on Monday, voted to confer three honorary degrees next May.”

Both senses of “confer” came into English in the 16th century and are derived from the same Latin verb, conferre, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Latin verb, combining con– (together) and ferre (to bear or bring), also has two meanings: (1) to give or bestow, and (2) to bring together, join, gather, consult together, and so on.

When “confer” first came into English in the early 1500s, it had some meanings that have since disappeared—to collect, to comprise, to compare, and others. Today, the verb has only those two meanings mentioned above—to give, and to speak together.

The “confer” that you’re asking about is defined in the OED as “to give, grant, bestow, as a grace, or as the act of a qualified superior.” And there’s always an object—the gift or honor that’s being given.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1570 act of Parliament in England: “No Title to conferr or present by Lapse, shall accrue upon any Depryvation ipso facto” (Act 13 of the Acts of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I).

These are among the dictionary’s later examples, and we’ll underline the objects of the verb: “Sacraments containe and conferre grace” (before 1600); “honour thus conferr’d” (1633); “favour you are then conferring” (1716-17); “conferring degrees in all faculties” (1725); “title … which the king is pleased to confer” (1765-69); “benefits conferred” (1858); “degrees were then conferred” (1891).

And in these examples, an honor is conferred “on” or “upon” a recipient, and again we’ll underline the object: “Power conferred on them” (1651); “the favour he had conferred upon him” (1841); “the great benefits we confer on them” (1861).

Oxford notes the similar use of “bestow” in the sense of “to confer as a gift, present, give,” a usage that also dates from the 16th century. In this sense “bestow,” like “confer,” is transitive, and the object of the verb is the thing bestowed.

This is among the dictionary’s later examples: “He bestowed on him a pension of a hundred crowns a year.” From A Short History of the English People (1874), by John Richard Green.

The other “confer”—the one that does not take an object—is defined in the OED as “to converse, talk together.” In modern use, the dictionary says, the verb always implies “on an important subject, or on some stated question: to hold conference, take counsel, consult.”

The OED’s citations date from the mid-16th century and include this cozy domestic example from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (early 1590s): “They sit conferring by the Parler fire.” So in early use, to “confer” could mean simply to chat or gossip.

This 18th-century example illustrates the modern use of the verb: “A certain number … should meet, in order to confer upon the points in dispute.” From The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V (1769), by William Robertson.

That example raises a point we’d like to make. When you’re wondering whether a verb is transitive or intransitive—that is, whether it does or does not require an object—don’t be misled by prepositional phrases. In that example, “confer” is followed by a prepositional phrase, “upon the points in dispute.” But “points in dispute” is not the object of “confer.”

In fact, “confer” in that sentence has no object, and the prepositional phrase there could just as well be omitted—grammatically, it’s unnecessary.

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What’s a mook?

Q: There’s a poolroom scene in the film Mean Streets that revolves around someone being called a “mook.” I can’t find the word in my dictionary. Where does it come from? Did Martin Scorsese invent it?

A: In that scene from Mean Streets, one character calls another a “mook” and nobody in the pool hall knows what it means. Jimmy, the target of the insult, is baffled: “A mook. I’m a mook,” he says. Pause. “What’s a mook?” Movie fans have wondered too.

But contrary to legend, Scorsese didn’t make it up. “Mook,” a term that’s more or less synonymous with “jerk” or “dope,” is at least 90 years old and may come from a 19th-century word for a donkey. Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

“The term was undoubtedly popularized both in the United States and elsewhere by its use in the film Mean Streets (1973), directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese. The fact that, in the context of the script, the word is unfamiliar to most of the protagonists has led viewers to believe (wrongly) that the word was coined there.”

The OED has examples of “mook” dating from 1930 and defines it this way: “An incompetent or stupid person; a contemptible person (esp. with reference to low social status).” Oxford labels it a “colloquial and derogatory” term found in American and Caribbean English.

The word is also found, with similar definitions, in leading slang dictionaries. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says a “mook” is “an ineffectual, foolish, or contemptible person.” And Green’s Dictionary of Slang describes it as “a general term of abuse, a foolish person.”

All three dictionaries cite a humor piece by S. J. Perelman for the earliest known example: “Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity.” From the Feb. 1, 1930, issue of Judge, a satirical weekly published in New York.

The OED’s later examples include one from the Yale Alumni Magazine: “This type of student, rigorously following a daily assignment schedule and graphing his grades on the wall, is a never common but somewhat frequent phenomenon. The ‘grind,’ ‘mook,’ or ‘weenie’ superficially seems to satisfy the demands of Yale, but in many ways he is not alive to the spirit of the place” (Jan. 21, 1958).

Oxford also cites Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (1996), which spells the word as “mook” or “mouk” and defines it as “a gullible person (esp. a man); one who is easily fooled.” Allsopp says the word is found in Guyana, Tobago, and Trinidad.

As for its etymology, the OED says that “mook” is “of uncertain origin” but “perhaps” comes from “moke,” a 19th-century colloquialism that first meant a donkey and soon came to mean a dolt or a fool. (Random House also calls “mook” a probable alteration of “moke.”)

The donkey sense of “moke” first appeared in British slang. Oxford’s earliest example (spelled “moak”) is from a report on crime and policing that was presented to the House of Lords in 1839. The report, entitled Poverty, Mendicity and Crime, includes a glossary with this definition: “Moak, a donkey.” (The report was written by William Augustus Miles, who served on a royal commission that investigated the need for a rural constabulary in England.)

All of the OED’s subsequent donkey examples use the more common spelling “moke,” beginning with this one:

“They might live like gods, have infinite smokes, / Drink infinite rum, drive infinite mokes.” Slang words are italicized in the poem, written in June 1848 by the sculptor John Lucas Tupper. It was published anonymously in the literary journal Art and Poetry, London, March 1850.

Soon “moke” began appearing “in extended use,” as the OED says, to mean “a person who is stupid, awkward, or incompetent; a dolt, a fool.”

This new sense of “moke” was first recorded in writing, the dictionary says, by the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “He has an irreconcilable grudge against a poor moke of a fellow called Archer Gurney.” From a letter Rossetti wrote on Nov. 25, 1855. (The “he” referred to is Tennyson.)

It’s interesting that those last two “moke” citations—one for a donkey and one for a fool—have a connection. Tupper and Rossetti were friends and members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, a group of young artists, poets, and writers who admired Italian art of the 1400s (the “Quattrocento”) and denounced Raphael and his followers.

It was the Pre-Raphaelites who founded the short-lived journal mentioned above, Art and Poetry, whose contributions were unsigned and often satirical. It’s easy to imagine the banter that must have gone on at editorial meetings. Perhaps the Pre-Raphaelites were responsible for the doltish development of “moke” and indirectly for its apparent successor, “mook.”

From the drawing rooms of 1850s London to the mean streets of New York’s Little Italy. Why not?

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Black sheep

Q: You say the phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century. That might be true, but it’s only the result of an even earlier meaning. “Black sheep” is actually a very old weaving term. Black sheep were considered unlucky because you couldn’t dye the wool any other colors.

A: We haven’t found any evidence of “black sheep” used as a weaving term, either before or after the phrase came to mean a disreputable member of a group.

In fact, today the undyed wool of so-called “black sheep” (they actually come in various shades of black, brown, and gray) is prized for its beauty and its natural qualities.

However, in earlier times the difficulty of dyeing their wool may have contributed to the “disreputable” usage, along with a biblical reference to black sheep and a negative sense of “black” that dates from Anglo-Saxon days.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “black sheep” meaning a bad character is from a 17th-century religious treatise about the conversion process in Congregational churches of New England:

“Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.” From The Sincere Convert (1640), by Thomas Shepard, an English-born minister of the First Church in Cambridge, MA, and of Harvard College.

We’ve seen several earlier examples of “black sheep” used negatively, though not quite so strongly. An anonymous satirical ballad believed written in the 16th century, for example, uses the term to attack mendicant friars.

Here’s the refrain: “The blacke shepe is a perylous beast; / Cuius contrarium falsum est.” (The Latin means “Which nobody can deny.”)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the negative use of “black sheep” may originally have alluded to passages in English or German translations of Genesis in the 16th century.

It describes the usage as “perhaps originally with allusion to Genesis 30:32, where Jacob selects ‘all blacke shepe amonge the lambes’ ” (from Miles Coverdale’s 1535 English translation of the Bible), or perhaps after the German “alles, was schwartz ist vnter den lemmern” (from Martin Luther’s earliest draft of the passage in 1523), or “alle schwartze schafe [vnter den lemmern]” in Luther’s final 1545 German Bible. We added the bracketed German.

The passage from Genesis refers to Jacob’s offer to care for Laban’s flock of sheep if he can keep all the black and spotted lambs as payment. Laban accepts, apparently believing black sheep to be less valuable than white. The passage is translated differently in other versions of the Bible. The King James Version, for example, has it as “all the brown cattle among the sheep.” (“Cattle” was once a collective term for cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and other domestic animals.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (2d ed., 2013), by Christine Ammer, suggests that the use of “black sheep” for a disreputable person “is based on the idea that black sheep were less valuable than white ones because it was more difficult to dye their wool different colors.”

Writers have commented since classical times on the difficulty of dyeing the wool of black sheep (a more accurate description might be dark sheep).

The earliest remark we’ve seen on the subject is from Historiae Naturalis, an encyclopedic work by the first-century Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder: “lana ovis nigrae, cui nullus alius color incursaverit” (“black sheep whose wool will be dyed no other color”).

Pliny’s work was well known among English scholars. A 17th-century dictionary of English and Latin terms, for example, translates the passage above as “the wool of a black sheep mixed with no other colour” (A Copious Dictionary in Three Parts, 1678, by Francis Gouldman).

Among the various theories about how “black sheep” became a negative term, the pejorative use of the word “black” in English may have played a significant role.

As we’ve said, “black” has had negative connotations since Anglo-Saxon days, a usage that the OED describes as “widespread in other European languages, frequently in an antonymic relationship with senses of words meanings ‘white.’ ”

The dictionary says this usage “became particularly strong in the medieval Christian tradition” and would “proliferate in the early modern period … probably connected in part with negative cultural attitudes towards black people prevalent in the context of the Atlantic slave trade.”

As we say in a 2009 post (“The light and dark of language”), the word “black” may have come from Old Teutonic roots that originally meant scorched or charred or burned. A prehistoric Indo-European root has been reconstructed as bhleg (“burn”).

In Old English, the adjective “black” could mean “very evil or wicked; iniquitous; foul, hateful,” according to the dictionary. The earliest Oxford citation is from a scientific and theological treatise written by a Benedictine cleric in the late 10th century:

“Hig ne þicgeað þæs lambes flæsc þe soð Crist ys, ac þæs dracan þe wæs geseald þam blacan folce to mete, þæt ys þam synfullum” (“they [the faithless] don’t partake of the flesh of the lamb, the truth of Christ, but the Devil was given to provide for those black people that are sinners”). From the Enchiridion (Manual) of Byrhtferð, a monk and priest at  Ramsey Abbey in Huntingdonshire.

Finally, here’s a Middle English example, which we’ve expanded, that uses “black flocks” (“blake flokkes”) much as “black sheep” was later used:

“Whanne þe Romayns were a goo, þanne breke out blake flokkes of Scottes and of Pictes, as wormes brekep out of here holes aʒeinst þe hete of þe  sonne” (“When the Romans were gone, then the black flocks of Scotts and Picts broke out, as snakes break out of their holes anticipating the heat of the sun”). From Polychronicon, John Trevisa’s translation, written sometime before 1387, of a 14th-century Latin chronicle by the Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden.

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On the ‘ob-’ in ‘oblong’

Q: I studied Latin in school decades ago, but I don’t remember the prefix “ob-.” It came up in connection with the word “oblong.” In searching online, “ob-” has a lot of meanings, as is usual with Latin prefixes. Can you clarify how it’s used in referring to an oblong shape?

A: The word “oblong” comes from oblongus, classical Latin for elongated. It combines the prefix ob-, which has a couple of possible meanings here, and the adjective longus, or long. An ancient Roman would have used oblongus to describe something that’s greater in length than in width.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the ob- in oblongus is being used “perhaps in the sense of to or toward but also functioning as an intensive.” However, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “The exact force of the prefix in oblongus is unclear: there is no analogous word in Latin.”

As the OED explains, oblongus is an oddball in Latin, where ob- usually combines with verbs and their derivatives. It says the prefix “was rarely combined with an adjective (the chief example being oblongus).”

The prefix is also easy to miss, since its form can change to match the first letter of a combining word. It’s oc- before verbs and derivatives with c as the first letter, of- before f, and op- before p.

The prefix has many meanings in Latin, all of them seen in English. Here are a few: to or toward (as in oboedire, to listen to or obey); against (opponere, to oppose or be against); upon or down (obligare, to bind down); and as an intensifier (obdurare, to harden or persist).

When “oblong” appeared in English in the early 15th century, the OED says, it meant “elongated (usually as a deviation from an exact square or circular form); esp. rectangular with the adjacent sides unequal.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an anonymous Middle English translation of Grande Chirurgie, a 14th-century medical treatise by the French surgeon Guy de Chauliac:

“Somtyme forsoþ it ocupieþ not bot o partie, and þan þingez semeþ of diuerse fourmez, lunarez, i. mone lich, fenestrate & oblonge” (“Sometimes forsooth it [a cataract] occupies not but a part, and then we see things in diverse forms—crescent-shaped, moonlike, fenestrated [with a window-like opening], & oblong”).

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What’s news?

Q: The word “news” looks plural but acts singular. Why is it singular? Was it ever plural?

A: Despite the “s” at the end, “news” is singular in modern English. That’s why we say “The news is good,” not “The news are good.”

Standard dictionaries all treat “news” as a mass (or uncountable) noun that’s used with a singular verb.

Merriam-Webster, for instance, labels the word “plural in form but singular in construction.” Cambridge calls it “an uncountable noun” that “takes a singular verb.” And according to Macmillan, “it is never used in the plural.”

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.) says “news” and other mass nouns “look plural but are invariably singular.” Examples include “the news is good” and “good news is always welcome.”

But “news” wasn’t always regarded as invariably singular. We’re fans of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, and we’ve noticed that he uses “news” sometimes as a plural and sometimes as a singular:

“The news was soon all about London” (The Eustace Diamonds, 1871); “when the news were first told to Lady Ushant” (The American Senator, 1875).

In fact, when “news” first appeared in the early 1400s, it was exclusively plural. And though the singular use became established only a century later, the plural use persisted in respectable English until well into the 19th century. Here’s the story.

Since early Old English, “new” has been used as both an adjective (meaning recent) and as a noun for a new person or thing (a usage that survives in expressions like “the shock of the new” and “off with the old, on with the new”).

This ancient word was inherited from other Germanic languages, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

But the “news” we’re talking about, as the dictionary explains, was “formed within English” and modeled after the French word nouvelles (new things).

Here’s how “news” is defined in the OED: “The report or account of recent (esp. important or interesting) events or occurrences, brought or coming to one as new information; new occurrences as a subject of report or talk; tidings.”

As we mentioned, the word was originally treated as a plural. The OED’s earliest plural example, a reference to “gracious and joyous newes,” is from an elaborately courtly letter written in 1417 to King Henry V by his Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The phrase cited has a distant plural antecedent.

However, these later OED citations more clearly demonstrate the plural use: “the newes of the seid Lord Malpertuis, which ben [be] these” (1489); “troubled with those newes” (1523); “These newes were sodainly [suddenly] spred” (1581); “these glad newes” (1621); “amazing News of Charles at once were spread” (1685); “all News that come hither” (1717); “news of your health are still worse” (1776); “There are bad news from Palermo” (1820); “There are never any news” (1846).

This plural use of “news,” the OED says, is “now archaic” and is found only in Indian English.

The dictionary includes this modern Indian example: “My news are good.” From Indian and British English, a 1979 handbook by Paroo Nihalani et al. (The same handbook is also cited for the use of “news” as a count noun meaning “a piece or item of news,” a usage the OED says is now found chiefly in Caribbean and Indian English. The quotation: “This is a good news.”)

It’s interesting that during much of the time that “news” appeared in the plural (as in “news are”), it was also appearing in the singular (“news is”), a usage that dates from the early 1500s and gradually became dominant.

The OED’s first citation for the singular use is from a letter written in 1532: “news occurraunt in theis partes sence my lait lettres hir is noon [none].” Published in Letters of the Cliffords (1992), edited by R. W. Hoyle.

The dictionary’s later examples of the singular construction include these: “ye newes therof was brought” (possibly 1566); “When Newes is printed” (1631); “there is no News” (1664); “The stocks are as the news is” (1711); “the news was fresh” (1785); “Was there any news?” (1828); “The next news was …” (1897). Singular examples continue up to the present.

Why has the singular usage emerged as standard while the plural has become archaic? This may be because, as the OED says, the singular use today has a wider meaning. Besides just “tidings” or accounts “brought or coming to one as new information,” it also means “now esp. such information as published or broadcast.”

This is particularly apparent in one of the dictionary’s later examples, from a book of political humor: “Most news about government sounds as if it were federally mandated” (Parliament of Whores, by P. J. O’Rourke, 1992).

Media-related uses of “news” proliferated in the 20th century. During World War I, according to OED citations, a usage emerged in which “a person, thing, or place regarded as worthy of discussion or of reporting by the media” was said to be “news.”

The first citation is from “The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat,” a short story by Rudward Kipling published in 1917: “The great Baron Reuter himself … flashed that letter in full to the front, back, and both wings of this scene of our labours. For Huckley [the village] was News.”

And beginning in the early 1920s, people began using “the news” (the OED says “the” is usually included) to mean a newsreel or a news-related radio or television broadcast. Many familiar phrases emerged too, including these from the 1930s: “news coverage,” “news media,” and “news conference.”

Of course we can’t forget the “good news … bad news” formula, which is sometimes the setup for a joke. Oxford says it’s used in “expressing an unfortunate or undesirable downside to an otherwise welcome development or state of affairs.”

The OED’s examples begin in the 1950s, but last year the language researcher Stephen Goranson reported a much earlier example to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list. It appeared in a humorous anecdote, headlined “A Colloquy,” in the Nov. 3, 1871, issue of the New-Orleans-Republic:

Shortly after it became known that Hon. Thomas W. Conway … was attacked with yellow fever, one prominent citizen said to another whom he met:

“I have some good news to tell you.”

“What is it?” …

“It is that Conway … is very sick with yellow fever.”

The second party then said in rejoinder: “I have some bad news to tell you.”

“What is that?”

“It is that Dr. Holcombe is attending Conway, and he is going to get him well.”

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Lex education

Q: I recently received a list of the finalists in a wordplay contest for lexophiles. The winner: “Those who get too big for their pants will be totally exposed in the end.” So, what can you say about the term “lexophile”? I love a clever turn of aphasia.

A: That wordplay list, which has been making the rounds online, purports to be from an annual New York Times lexophile contest. As far as we know, the Times has never had such a contest. In fact, we couldn’t find the word “lexophile” in a search of the newspaper’s archive.

We also couldn’t find “lexophile” in the Oxford English Dictionary or any of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult. However, we did find it in two collaborative references, the often helpful Wiktionary and the idiosyncratic Urban Dictionary.

Wiktionary defines “lexophile” as “a lover of words, especially in word games, puzzles, anagrams, palindromes, etc.” The elements are Greek: “lex-” from λέξις (lexis, word), and “-phile” from ϕίλος (philos, loving).

One contributor to Urban Dictionary defines “lexophile” as “a lover of cryptic words,” while another defines “lexiphile” as “a word used to describe those that have a love for words.”

A more common noun for a word lover, “logophile,” is found in eight standard dictionaries as well as the OED, which is an etymological dictionary. The element “log-” is from the Greek λόγος (logos, word); both logos and lexis are derived from λέγειν (legein, to speak).

The earliest OED citation for “logophile” is from the Feb. 1, 1959, issue of the Sunday Times (London): “We are pretty sure that since all Sunday Times readers are natural and inveterate logophiles … he [the lexicographer R. W. Burchfield] will get some invaluable assistance.”

We’ve found an earlier example for “logophile” in a California newspaper, but the term was used to mean someone who loves to talk, not someone who loves words: “One who loves to talk, but does not carry it to the point of mania, is a logophile, pronounced: LOG-uh-file” (San Bernardino Sun, Jan. 17, 1951).

Interestingly, the noun logophile appeared in French in the mid-19th century with a similar voluble sense. Dictionnaire National ou Dictionnaire Universel de la Langue Française (1850), by Louis-Nicolas Bescherelle, defines a logophile as “Qui aime à parler, à faire de longs discours.”

Merriam-Webster says the first known use of “logophile” in English was in 1923, but it doesn’t include a citation. We haven’t been able to find any examples earlier than the mid-20th century.

As for your “clever turn of aphasia,” the less said the better.

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How a poke became a pocket

Q: I’ve read that a pocket was originally a small bag tied around the waist. Is this true?

A: Yes, etymologically “pocket” is a small bag. It originated as the diminutive of “poke,” an old term for a bag. And, yes, “pockets” were once tied around the outside of garments, not sewn in or on them.

The word “poke” showed up in English in the late 13th century, perhaps borrowed from or influenced by similar words in Anglo-Norman, Old French, or Old Dutch, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED notes a possible sighting from the early 13th century, but its first definite example is from an anonymous Middle English romance written at the end of the century: “Hise pokes fulle of mele an korn.” From The Lay of Havelok the Dane (1280-90), edited by Walter William Skeat in 1868 for the Early English Text Society.

The use of “poke” in this sense survives today in the expression “to buy pig in a poke” (to buy something sight unseen, as if in a bag), first recorded in a 16th-century book of proverbs: “Ye loue not to bye the pyg in the poke.” From A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue (1546), by John Heywood.

The diminutive form, “pocket,” appeared in Middle English writing in the 14th century, borrowed from the Anglo-Norman term for a little bag (spelled poket, pokete, or pochete). In English it originally had a similar sense (little bag), and was sometimes used as a measure of quantity in agriculture. In the 13th century, according to the OED, a “pocket” of wool was a quarter of a “sack,”

The first OED citation for “pocket” (which we’ll expand here) is from a list, dated 1350, of supplies used for maintaining the old London Bridge: “Also, in the Chapel there, in a pokete, 2500 of wyndounail [window nail], at 2s.6d the thousand, 6s.6d.” From Memorials of London and London Life (1868), edited by Henry Thomas Riley.

In the 15th century, the dictionary says, the noun “pocket” came to mean “any small bag or pouch worn on a person.” The earliest citation is from “The Mirror of the Periods of Man’s Life” (circa 1450), a hymn about the rivalry between virtue and vice for the soul of man:

“ ‘Apparaile þe propirli,’ quod Pride, ‘Loke þi pockettis passe þe lengist gise’ ” (“ ‘Apparel thee properly,’ quoth Pride. ‘Look that thy pockets surpass the latest style’ ”). Published in Hymns to the Virgin & Christ (1867), edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.

At first, tie-on pockets were worn outside the clothing of both men and women. But in the 16th century, the pockets began to be concealed, stitched into men’s clothes and worn under the skirts or petticoats of women’s clothes. Women could reach their pockets through slits hidden in the seams or pleats of their skirts.

We’ve found several references in the wardrobe accounts of Queen Elizabeth I for pockets sewn into the clothes of male servants.

In 1575, for example, “a litle blak a More” (an African) was made “a peire of gaskens” (similar to leggings but baggy at the top) with “pockettes of fustian.” And in 1578, the 3-year-old son of a servant was made “a gowne of carnacion satten” with “pockettes of fustian.” (We wrote about “fustian” in 2018.)

The fashion historian Rebecca Unsworth notes that “the fullness of sixteenth-century dress for both men and women gave ample opportunities for the inclusion and concealment of pocket bags without unsightly bulges.” But a century earlier, “the narrower medieval silhouette” would have “restricted the placement of pockets in clothing.”

By the same reasoning, Unsworth writes, the use of tie-on pockets under women’s dresses “fell out of fashion with the adoption of the slender profile and gauzy fabrics of neo-classical dress at the end of the eighteenth century.”

Her article, “Hands Deep in History: Pockets in Men and Women’s Dress in Western Europe, c. 1480–1630,” published in the journal Costume (September 2017), has many illustrations of the different pockets used with men’s and women’s clothing during the period.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has an online essay, “A History of Pockets,” that includes many illustrations of the various pockets used by men and women from the 17th to the late 19th century. Three images show a Lady Claphan doll from the 1690s in various stages of dress: fully clothed, in her shift, and in her under-petticoat with pockets tied around the waist.

In the 1790s, women began to wear tie-on pockets outside their dresses again, as in the 15th century, or they carried reticules, decorative bags hung over the arm. But in the 19th century, sewn-in pockets began replacing the tie-ons, which were easy prey for pickpockets.

We’ll end with a 19th-century nursery rhyme about a missing pocket:

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.

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Henchmen and minions

Q: Have the terms “henchmen” and “minions” always been pejorative, as they seem to be now?

A: No, when “henchmen” and “minions” first came into English, they weren’t pejorative.

In the 14th century, a “henchman” was a highly ranked attendant who waited on royalty or noblemen on ceremonial occasions. And in the 15th, a “minion” was the esteemed favorite of a monarch or other powerful patron.

Eventually, of course, both took on negative connotations in Modern English, “henchman” more so than “minion.”

Today a “henchman” is one who unquestioningly, even violently, acts on behalf of a perhaps corrupt master. And because a king’s “minion” was usually male, “minion” in early times was sometimes used contemptuously to imply a pampered sexual pet; it later came to mean a servile or fawning subordinate.

So both words have come a long way. Here’s a closer look at their histories.

Etymologically, “henchman” is “horseman” (the “hench” part comes from hengest, Old English for a male horse). Spelled “henxstman” in Middle English, it was first recorded in the English royal wardrobe accounts for 1377-80, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

A wardrobe item describes livery for one “Hans Wynsele, henxstman.” (Hans Wynsele was probably an attendant to King Edward III, whose reign was 1327-77, or his grandson King Richard II, 1377-99.)

However, since “henchman” is a native English word (Old English hengest + man), it probably was current before the late 1370s. As the OED says, the word was documented earlier in medieval Latin and Anglo-Norman forms that had been borrowed from English: Latin hengsmannus (1345-49), hengestmannus (1360), and Anglo-Norman henxtemen (plural, circa 1370).

The original “henchman,” the dictionary says, was “a high-ranking male servant with the role of attendant or page of honour to a monarch, nobleman, dignitary, etc., esp. one employed to accompany that person when riding in processions, progresses, marches, etc.”

Why would a ceremonial attendant have a title that implies a servant who tends horses?

“Although there appears to be no explicit evidence that the office of henchman involved duties relating to horses,” the OED explains, “the royal henchmen are listed as being under the command of the Master of the King’s Horse in the earliest documentary source for the word.”

The dictionary adds that “groom” and “marshal,” terms for two other “positions of honour in the royal household,” both originally denoted “servants employed to tend horses.”

The OED notes that early henchmen were apparently considered high-ranking servants, while those of the later 1400s and 1500s “were typically the sons of noblemen seeking an education in courtly manners.”

The office of royal “henchman” was abolished by Elizabeth I in the 1560s, but the title survived outside royal households. As the OED says, a “henchman” in later use meant “a liveried page or footman who walks alongside the horse of a Lord Mayor, sheriff, etc., in ceremonial processions.”

Pejorative senses of “henchman” began emerging in the 19th century, when it came to mean, in the OED’s words, “a devoted or zealous (male) political supporter, a partisan,” or “a person (usually a man) engaged by a politician to further his or her interests by corrupt or unscrupulous means.”

The earliest use of this sense, the OED says, was recorded in the Times (London) on April 3, 1835: “The moment the Government came into power they allied themselves with the most bitter enemies of those feelings; they placed their henchmen at the head of the state, and they crammed their Privy Council with them.”

An even more negative sense appeared in the US in the early 20th century, the dictionary says: “A male subordinate to a criminal or villain, esp. one who obeys his leader unquestioningly and is prepared to engage in violence or crime on his behalf; an accomplice, heavy, or sidekick.”

Oxford’s earliest example is from an American journal: “Strangely enough, Paul Kelly has no police record—he always delegates his duties to a henchman” (Public Opinion, Dec. 5, 1905).

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper: “Demented supervillain The Joker … conducts his reign of terror flanked by trusty henchmen” (Lichfield Mercury, Aug. 4, 2016).

As for “minion,” it showed up later than “henchman” but took much less time to develop negative connotations.

It was first recorded in a 15th-century comic song satirizing the costumes of servants, who often were dressed better than their masters: “Off servyng men I wyll begyne … For they goo mynyon trym.”

The expression “go minion trim” in that song meant to dress like a minion, defined at that time, the OED says, as “a (usually male) favourite of a sovereign, prince, or other powerful person; a person who is dependent on a patron’s favour.”

The word was adopted from the Middle French mignon (darling). At the time “minion” entered English, mignon was used in France as a noun for “a king’s favourite,” as “a term of endearment,” and as an adjective meaning “pretty, delicate, graceful,” according to the dictionary’s etymological notes.

But as the OED says, the English “minion” could also be used for a simple “hanger-on.” So it’s not surprising that very soon “minion” became a pejorative word.

For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was sometimes used “with contemptuous suggestion of homosexual relations,” according to Oxford. Here are some examples:

“So are the hartes of our popishe protestauntes … hardened … in that they looke yea go backe agayne to theyr sodomiticall minion.” From The Hurte of Hering [Hearing] Masse, by the Protestant martyr John Bradford, written in the early 1550s.

“The king is loue-sick [lovesick] for his minion.” From Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II, written sometime before 1593. (Some historians have suggested that Edward II had a homosexual relationship with his “favorite,” Piers Gaveston, whom he made 1st Earl of Cornwall.)

As the OED says, in later use the connotation of “favored” disappeared and “minion” arrived at its modern meaning: “a follower or underling, esp. one who is servile or unimportant.”

Oxford has this late 19th-century example: “It is no wonder if he helps himself from the city treasury and allows his minions to do so.” From a description of a “city boss” in The American Commonwealth (1888), by James Bryce, a Scottish viscount who taught civil law at Oxford.

And this citation was recorded a century later in the British magazine Q (October 1987): “Our first glimpse is an overhead shot of him being shaved and manicured, joking genially with pressmen while his minions fawn around him.”

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On ‘capitulate’ and ‘recapitulate’

Q: As much as I dislike the overuse of the phrase, I had a “Wait, what?” moment this morning when I realized that “capitulate” means to yield, so “recapitulate” should mean to yield again, but it doesn’t. How did this happen?

A: When the two words showed up in mid-16th century writing, the usual meaning of “capitulate” was to draw up an agreement or a statement, and the usual sense of “recapitulate” was to summarize the main points of such an understanding.

The two verbs ultimately come from the classical Latin caput (head) and capitulum (little head). In medieval Latin, a capitulum could mean the heading on a major section or chapter of a document, as well as the chapter itself, while capitulare meant to arrange sections of text under separate headings. The Latin usage is the source of our word “chapter.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this early sense of “capitulate” as to “draw up articles of agreement; to propose terms; to treat, parley, negotiate; to stipulate; to come to terms, to agree. Now archaic.”

The first OED example is from a 16th-century translation of Thucyides’ history of the Peloponnesian War: “They determyned … to capitulate and conferre wyth them touchynge the estate of the cytie.” From Thomas Nicolls’s 1550 translation of the Greek historian’s account of the war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC.

The dictionary defines the early use of “recapitulate” this way: “To go through or repeat again, usually in a more concise manner; to go over the main points or substance of (an argument, statement, etc.); to summarize, restate briefly.” (A slightly earlier sense, primarily in reference to Jesus, was “to gather or bring together; to sum up or unite in one.”)

The first Oxford example of “recapitulate” in its summarize sense is from The Spider and the Flie, a 1556 allegorical poem by John Heywood about a clash between Protestant spiders and Roman Catholic flies:

“The flie (after a fewe woordes concerninge appeale) doeth brefely recapitulate theffect passed in the principall case.” Heywood, a devoted Catholic who supported the religious beliefs of Queen Mary, dedicated the 556-page illustrated poem to her.

In the early 17th century, “capitulate” came to mean to surrender, a not surprising evolution from its original sense of drawing up an agreement or negotiating terms. The first OED citation is from the official account, ordered by Queen Elizabeth I, of the trial and execution of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex:

“Hee would not capitulate, but intreat, and made three petitions.” From A Declaration of the Practises & Treasons Attempted and Committed by Robert Late Earle of Essex and His Complices, Against Her Maiestie and Her Kingdoms (1601), by Francis Bacon. Lord Essex was a one-time favorite of Elizabeth and supporter of Bacon.

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How nasty is ‘mean-spirited’?

Q: I’ve always thought “mean-spirited” meant petty or selfish. Increasingly, I’ve seen it used to mean nasty. Is this an American usage?

A: The phrase “mean-spirited” is defined variously as malicious, small-minded, selfish, inconsiderate, and so on in standard American and British dictionaries.

We don’t see a significant difference in the way the dictionaries treat the phrase, though the adjective “mean” by itself tends to be nastier in the US references.

The 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult (five American and five British) define “mean” variously as selfish, petty, small-minded, unkind, unpleasant, spiteful, cruel, malicious, violent, offensive, nasty, troublesome, etc. US dictionaries are more likely to use the harsher definitions, though some UK dictionaries include them too.

An essay on Merriam-Webster’s website (“How ‘Mean’ Became Nasty”) notes that the nasty sense of “mean” has “become so widespread in American English” that it is “without question the most frequently used today.”

We suspect that the nastiness of “mean” in the US is influencing the way Americans use “mean-spirited.” However, the “nasty” sense of the phrase hasn’t yet made its way into definitions of “mean-spirited” in US dictionaries.

Interestingly, the selfish, nasty, and violent senses of “mean” all showed up around the same time in the 19th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. And all three appeared first in American English.

Etymologically, there are three distinct words spelled “mean” in English: (1) a verb with the sense of intend or signify; (2) an adjective or noun for a mathematical average as well as average people or things; (3) the adjective you’re asking about, the one with all those senses mentioned earlier.

We’ll limit ourselves here to “mean” #3. We’ll get to current usage in a while, but let’s look first at how the adjective arrived at its modern senses.

When the adjective “mean” first appeared in early Old English writing (spelled gemæne), it meant minor, lesser, or inferior, and was used to describe a minor rank in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the statutes of a religious guild, or prayer group, in medieval Exeter:

“And se mæssepreost a singe twa mæssan … & ælc gemænes hades broður twegen salteras sealma” (“and let the mass priest sing two masses … and every brother of mean condition two psalters of psalms”). From Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici, a collection of charters dated from as far back as the 6th-century reign of King Æthelbert of Kent, edited by Benjamin Thorpe (1865).

An aphetic form of the adjective (that is, minus the first syllable) showed up later in Old English as mæne, and referred to things held in common or jointly. The first OED citation is from an Anglo-Saxon land charter:

“Swa forð andlangas þæs broces forð þæt hit cymð to hryxies mæne weig” (“so forth along that it comes to the island of rushes held in mean way”). From Charters of Burton Abbey, published by Peter Hayes Sawyer (1979).

In Middle English, the senses of inferior and common broadened, perhaps influenced by the disparaging use of average in “mean” #2 above, according to the OED. As a result, “mean” came to describe people of inferior social status, ability, or education, as well as things considered inferior, second-rate, or contemptible. Here are some Oxford examples:

“Þe grete … in þe gaiest wise, & menere men as þei miȝt” (“the great … in their most ornate fashion, and the mean [common] men as they might be”). From William of Palerne (circa 1350), an English translation of a French romance.

“Þe comyn lettre of Mathew is ful skars, for mene men myȝte vnderstonde” (“the Gospel of Matthew is one that mean [unlearned] men might scarcely understand”). From John Trevisa’s translation, dated sometime before 1387, of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, a Latin work of history and theology.

“ ‘Suffre hem lyue,’ he seyde, ‘and lete hem ete with hogges, / Or elles benes and bren ybaken togideres, / Or elles melke and mene ale’ ” (“ ‘Suffer them to live,’ he said, ‘and let them eat with hogs, / Or else beans and bran baked together, / Or else milk and mean [second-rate] beer’ ”). From Piers Plowman (circa 1378), by William Langland.

(In the last citation, which we’ve expanded, Piers is referring to shirkers who would rather sing and drink ale than plow. Beans and bran were fed to pigs, and poor people sometimes added beans to grain when not enough grain was available for baking bread.)

In the 17th century, according to the OED, the adjective turned even more negative and came to describe someone “lacking moral dignity, ignoble; small-minded.” The dictionary’s first citation, which we’ll expand here, warns that those in high positions are in danger of acting immorally and of despising the immorality of less important people:

“as a throne exposes those that sit on it to peculiar temptations to vice, so …. the sublimity of such a condition would make any soul, that is not very mean, despise many mean things, that too often prevail upon inferiour persons.” From Occasional Reflections Upon Several Subjects (1665), by the Anglo-Irish natural philosopher Robert Boyle.

As we’ve said above, the selfish, nasty, and vicious senses of “mean” all first appeared around the same time in 19th-century American English, according to OED citations.

The dictionary’s first example for the stingy or miserly sense is from the July 1840 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger. A letter from Salonica, Turkey (now Thessaloniki, Greece), says no one can live in the city without a Jewish agent: “And you may depend it is a trial to Christian patience: for ‘as mean as the Jews of Salonica’ is an Eastern proverb.”

The earliest OED example for the nasty sense appeared a year later: “One [girl] thought me real mean for uttering such super-diabolical sentiments.” From Short Patent Sermons (1841), by Dow, Jr., pseudonym of Elbridge G. Paige. The book is a collection of Paige’s columns for the Sunday Mercury in New York.

The first Oxford citation for the vicious sense refers to an uncontrollable horse: “He’s a monstrous mean horse, gentlemen.” From Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents, &c., in the First Half Century of the Republic (1835), by Augustus Baldwin Longstreet.

And here’s the dictionary’s earliest example in which “mean” is used for vicious people: “He [a cowboy] gets all-fired mean sometimes when he’s full.” From Saddle and Mocassin (1887), by Francis Francis Jr.

Getting back to the phrase “mean-spirited,” the OED’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded here, uses it to mean half-hearted—in this case, not fully committed to living a Christian life:

“Away then with that mean spirited Religion which thus lessens and confines our Happiness; let us unfold our Hands, and pluck them out of our Bosoms, and encourage our selves in a vigorous Pursuit of an excellent Piety.” From Practical Discourses Upon the Parables of Our Saviour (1694), by Francis Bragge, a vicar in Hertfordshire in southern England.

The next OED citation, which we’ve also expanded, uses “mean-spirited” in the sense of impudent or ill-mannered: “I mentioned to him one day that I was of the opinion he very seldom spoke the truth. What do you think he did? he kissed my hand! Impertinent, meanspirited wretch!” From a letter written on Jan. 3, 1825, by Jane Baillie Welsh to Thomas Carlyle. (They were married in 1826.)

The dictionary doesn’t have any examples for “mean-spirited” used in the sense you’re asking about (ungenerous, petty or selfish), but we’ve found many in searches of digitized books, including this one from the early 18th century:

“That these of Publick Employments should be of publick Spirits, it is a shame to be mean Spirited, and taken up with self interest.” From a sermon delivered Nov. 24, 1700, by John Hamilton, an Edinburgh clergyman.

The use of “mean-spirited” for nasty appears to have shown up in the late 20th century. The earliest example we’ve found refers to the news media:

“The watchdog role of the free press can often appear as mean-spirited. How do the government and public protect themselves from its excesses?” From “The Role of the Media in a Democracy,” an article by George A. Krimsky, a former AP editor, published in Issues of Democracy, a journal of the United States Information Agency, February 1997.

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Burgle or burglarize?

Q: What is the difference between “to burgle” and “to burglarize”? How do you account (if you can) for this unnecessary back—or rather forward—formation? Ignorance of the original? Or is a subtle difference implied between the unidentical twins?

A: Both “burgle” and “burglarize” are respectable, widely used verbs, and they’re recognized as such in all 10 of the standard American and British dictionaries we consult.

However, most people tend to look askance at one verb or the other. Though both are standard English in the US as well as the UK, preferences differ. Americans prefer “burglarize,” according to some dictionaries, while the British consider “burgle” the verb of choice and see “burglarize” as a North American term.

As Jeremy Butterfield writes in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), American English “seems to have mostly preferred burglarize.” But the slightly later “burgle,” he says, “is now the regular word in Britain (and in other English-speaking areas except in N. America).”

Both verbs are 19th-century derivations from “burglar.” The first to appear, “burglarize” (1840), was created with the verb-forming suffix “-ize.” The other, “burgle” (1861), was a back-formation (or shortening) of the original noun.

As means of creating verbs from other parts of speech, both the “-ize” suffix and the back-form are many centuries old. Nevertheless, critics of “burgle” complain that it’s clipped from “burglarize”—which isn’t even true—while opponents of “burglarize” complain about the suffix.

Both have completely clean rap sheets and don’t deserve the abuse, as their histories show. Though they were comparatively late to appear, they have roots in the 1500s when their forebears “burglary” and “burglar” first showed up in writing.

Those felonious nouns—one for the act itself and one for the person committing it—can be traced to medieval Anglo-Latin, where a burgator in British law was someone who committed burgaria. In the 1200s, those were the terms for “burglar” and “burglary” in legal language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

Before that, the words’ etymology is murky. “No corresponding words are known in continental Old French or medieval Latin,” the OED says.

But the dictionary suggests that “burglary” and “burglar”—along with the corresponding terms in Anglo-Latin and Anglo-French legal language—may have developed from “the first element of burgh-breche, the native English term for burglary.” (The Middle English burgh-breche came from the Old English burh-bryce, for breaking into an enclosure.)

The first English version to appear was “burglary” (1523), followed by “burglar” (1541).

The earliest use of “burglary,” according to our searches of historical databases, is in a legal dictionary written during the reign of Henry VIII, The Exposicions of Termys of Law of England and the Nature of the Writts (London, 1523), by John Rastell. Here is Rastell’s definition of the word:

“Burglary is when one breketh and enterith into a nother mannis howse in the nyght to the entet to stele goodis i which case though he bere away nothyng yet it is felony and for that he shalbe hangid / but the brekyng of an house in the day for suche entent is no felony.”

Rastell uses the word in the plural, spelled “burglaryes,” in a compilation of public acts entitled The Statutes Prohemium (2nd ed., 1527). He mentions “burglaryes of howsys and theyr receyuers,” and refers to robbing the dead as “burglaryes of men perishid or slayn.” It’s possible that the word appears in the first edition of this book, published in 1519, but we haven’t been able to find a copy to search.

As for “burglar,” it first appeared in another legal book (spelled “burglour”), according to the OED. This is the dictionary’s earliest example: “Burglours are properly such as felonously in ye tyme of peace breke any house, church, etc.” From The New Booke of Justyces of Peace (1541), by the judge and legal scholar Anthony Fitzherbert.

[Historical note: It’s interesting that Fitzherbert, writing in French a few decades earlier, had used the word burglers in La Graunde Abridgement, his 1514 compilation of British legal cases. (The OED has the citation: “Burglers sont ceux que entrent mesons ou eglises al entent de inbloier beins.”)

This was a time when a dialect known as “law French” was the official written language of the British legal system. It seems likely that Fitzherbert put into law French a word, “burglers,” that was already in use in English. As we’ve said, it’s been suggested that the Anglo-Latin and Anglo-French terms used in English law developed from burgh-breche, which the OED describes as “the native English term for burglary.” So it’s possible that “burglar” existed before “burglary,” at least in spoken English.]

The word was spelled “burgler” in several English works published later in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The modern spelling “burglar” first appeared in writing, as far as we can tell, in a 1579 edition of the Rastell legal dictionary we mentioned above.

Here’s the passage, found on the database Old English Books Online: “but if a seruant will conspire with other men to robbe his master, and to that intent hee openeth his masters dores, or windowes in the night for them, and they come into the house by that way, this is burglary in the straungers, and the seruant is a thefe but noe burglar.”

Finally we come to those 19th-century verbs, “burglarize” and “burgle.” The OED’s earliest examples are from the early 1870s, but older ones turn up in searches of historical databases.

The earliest use of “burglarize” that we’ve found is from a humorous article in an 1840 issue of the Sporting Review, a British monthly. In the scene, competing horsemen in a point-to-point race are held up at the locked gate of a churchyard:

“In this dilemma there were but two resources open to the infuriated stewards,—one to carry the key vi et armis; the other, to burglarize the cellar.” From “Steeple-Chasing in Ireland: A Sketch,” by an Irish author writing under the name Shamrock. (The Latin vi et armis means by trespass.)

The next sighting is from an American newspaper: “Ten of those do-nothing-honestly fellows that snooze and drink whisky during the day, and rob hen-roosts and burglarize during the night, were arrested by the police yesterday near the R street levee, and will be arraigned this morning as vagrants.” From the Sacramento Daily Union, June 29, 1854.

As for “burgle,” the earliest example we’ve found is American: “He is the same man who was telling about his cabin having been burgled, some years ago, of 75 ounces of gold.” From the Daily National Democrat (Marysville, Calif.), Jan. 15, 1861.

In the summer of 1867, the British weekly Public Opinion, as well as several Australian newspapers, ran a brief paragraph crediting an American paper for inventing “burgle.” Here’s the item in its entirety, probably supplied by an American or British news service:

“The New York World has coined a new verb—‘to burgle.’ It is derived from the noun ‘burglar’ or ‘burglary.’ We cannot regard it as a happy invention; but no doubt, as the English race on both sides of the Atlantic are fond of neologisms, it will be adopted by many.”

We’re not convinced that the New York World was the first to use the term, since it began publishing on July 17, 1860, and a California newspaper used “burgle” only a few months later. (We’ve been unable to search the World’s archives for its first use of the verb.) But it does seem likely that “burgle” originated in crime reporting.

You may have noticed that “burglarize” appeared first in Britain, and “burgle” first in America. Only later did “burglarize” come to be the American preference and “burgle” the British.

As we’ve said, they’re respectable verbs. What’s more, they’re useful. Consider some of the outrageous verbal phrases people used in earlier times: “burglarily breake” (1530s); “burghlarlie rob” (1581); “burglariously enter” (1603); “burglarly steal” (1664); “burglariously break” (1638); and even “burglariously steal, take, and carry away” (1788).

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Whomspun history

Q: I often see the use of “whomever” as an object in a subordinate clause like “whomever he chooses.” I can see the logic of this, but it feels awkward to me. Is it because I grew up surrounded by grammatical laxity that “whomever” seems like a neologism born of pedantry? Was it already established as correct English before my time?

A: If “whomever” seems awkward to you, its stuffier sidekick “whomsoever” must strike you as even more awkward. The roots of both pronouns, as well as of “whom” itself, go back to Anglo-Saxon times, though it looks as if all three may be on the way out.

In Old English, the language was much more inflected than it is now—that is, words changed their forms more often to show their functions. You can see this in some of the forms, or declensions, of hwa, the ancestor of “who,” “whom,” and “what.”

When used for a masculine or feminine noun, as we use “who” and “whom” today, the Old English forms were hwa (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwone or hwæne (direct object). When used for a neuter noun, as we use “what” today, the forms were hwæt (subject), hwam or hwæm (indirect object), and hwæt (direct object).

As for “whoever” and “whomever,” the two terms ultimately come from swa hwa swa, the Old English version of “whoso,” and swa hwam swaswa, the early Middle English rendering of “whomso.”

An Old English speaker would use swa hwa swa (literally “so who so”) much as we would use “whoever” and “whosoever.” And his Middle English-speaking descendants would use swa hwam swaswa (“so whom soso”) as we would use “whomever” and “whomsoever.”

Here’s an early “whoso” example that we’ve found in King Alfred’s Old English translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiae, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “swa hwa swa wille dioplice spirigan mid inneweardan mode æfter ryhte” (“whoso would deeply search with inner mind after truth”).

And here’s a “whomso” citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from a 12th-century document in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “Þæt hi mosten cesen of clerchades man swa hwam swaswa hi wolden to ercebiscop” (“that they could choose from the secular clerks whomso they wished as archbishop”).

“Whosoever” (hwase eauer) and “whoever” (hwa efre) also first appeared writing in the  12th century, while “whomever” (wom euer) showed up in the 14th century and “whomsoever” (whom-so-euyr) followed in the 15th.

The first OED citation for “whoever,” which we’ve expanded, is from an Old English sermon in the Lambeth Homilies (circa 1175):

“Hwa efre þenne ilokie wel þene sunne dei. oðer þa oðer halie daʒes þe mon beot in chirche to lokien swa þe sunne dei. beo heo dalneominde of heofene riches blisse” (“Whoever looks well on Sunday and on the other holy days that man must also be in church, then he shall participate in the heavenly kingdom’s bliss”).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “whomever” is from Arthour and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wom euer þat he hitt, Þe heued to þe chinne he slitt” (“Whomever he hit, he beheaded, to the chin he slit”). Arthurian legends can get gory at times.

So as you can see, “whomever” was indeed established in English before your time—quite a few centuries before.

As for the use of these terms today, you can find “whoso” and “whomso” in contemporary dictionaries, but they’re usually labeled “archaic,” while “whosoever” and “whomsoever” are generally described as formal versions of “whoever” and “whomever.”

“Who,” of course, is still one of the most common pronouns in English, but “whom” and company are falling out of favor, and many usage writers now accept the use of “who” and “whoever” for “whom,” “whomever,” and “whomsoever” in speech and informal writing.

As Jeremy Butterfield puts it in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), “In practice, whom is in terminal decline and is increasingly replaced by who (or that), especially in conversational English, in which in most cases it would be inappropriately formal.”

Butterfield’s recommendation: “Despite exceptions, the best general rule is as follows: who will work perfectly well in conversation (except the most elevated kind) and in informal writing.” The main exception he notes is that “who” should not be used for “whom” right after a preposition.

Traditionally, as you know, “who” (like the Old English hwa) is a subject, and “whom” (like hwam) is an object. As Pat explains in Woe Is I, her grammar and usage book, “who does something (it’s a subject, like he), and whom has something done to it (it’s an object, like him).”

Pat recommends the traditional usage in formal writing, but she has a section in the new fourth edition of Woe Is I on how to be whom-less in conversation and informal writing:

A Cure for the Whom-Sick

Now for the good news. In almost all cases, you can use who instead of whom in conversation or in informal writing—personal letters, casual memos, emails, and texts.

Sure, it’s not a hundred percent correct, and I don’t recommend using it on formal occasions, but who is certainly less stuffy, especially at the beginning of a sentence or a clause: Who’s the letter from? Did I tell you who I saw at the movies? Who are you waiting to see? No matter who you invite, someone will be left out.

A note of caution: Who can sound grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front. From whom? becomes Who from? So when a colleague tells you he’s going on a Caribbean cruise and you ask, “Who with?” he’s more likely to question your discretion than your grammar.

[Note: The reader who sent us this question responded, “Your example involving a Caribbean cruise seems fraught with danger in these pan(dem)icky times. If a colleague were to tell me that, my first instinct would be to ask, ‘Who would dare?’ ”]

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A stare’s nest by Yeats’s window

Q: I’m curious about the use of “stare” in the W. B. Yeats poem “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.” I couldn’t find a meaning on Google that made sense, and my eyes gave out while staring at the tiny print of my compact OED.

A: The word “stare” in Yeats’s poem is an old term for a starling.

In the poem, Yeats calls on the honey bees building a hive in the crumbling masonry of Thoor Ballylee, the ancient tower he owned in County Galway, to build instead in an empty starling’s nest by his window.

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

The noun “stare” here is pronounced the same as the verb “stare.” In the poem, it’s rhymed with “there.”

In Old English, the bird was usually called a staer or a stærlinc, the predecessors of “stare” and “starling,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first to appear, “stare,” had two senses: (1) used by itself, it meant simply a starling; (2) accompanied by a descriptive term, it meant a specific species of starling or a bird resembling a starling.

The earliest Oxford citation for the first sense is from an eighth-century Latin-Old English glossary: “Sturnus, staer” (sturnus is Latin for “starling”). From The Corpus Glossary, MS 144, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The first OED example for the second sense is from an eleventh-century manuscript at the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp and the British Museum in London:

Turdella, se mare stær” (turdella is apparently a misspelling of turdela, a thrush in medieval Latin, while mare appears to be a misspelling of mere, Old English for pond, lake, or sea).

The dictionary’s earliest example for “starling” is from another Latin-Old English glossary: “Sturnus, stærlinc.” From Harley 107, an eleventh-century illuminated manuscript in the British Library.

Although the use of “stare” by itself for “starling” is considered archaic now, the usage does show up at times in poetry and literary prose, as you’ve noticed. The Yeats poem, part of the lyrical sequence “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” was written during the 1922-23 Irish Civil War that followed the Irish War of Independence.

As to the use of “stare” with a descriptive term for a specific starling, it also shows up once in a while, though now for only one bird. Saroglossa spiloptera, the spot-winged starling of southern Asia, is sometimes referred to as the “spotted-winged stare” or “spot-winged stare.”

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Independence ‘of’ or ‘from’?

Q: In an essay on teaching, Bertrand Russell says it’s hard for teachers to maintain their “independence of” the people who pay them. Shouldn’t that be “independence from” those people?

A: In that essay, “The Functions of a Teacher,” Russell uses the phrase “independence of” in a way that was common in the past but is less so today.

He argues that teachers need freedom to follow their intellectual impulses “but in the realm of the mind it is becoming more and more difficult to preserve independence of the great organised forces that control the livelihoods of men and women.”

(The essay appeared originally in the June 1940 issue of Harper’s magazine, and was reprinted in Unpopular Essays, 1950.)

In the past, the noun “independence” was used in such constructions with the prepositions “on,” “upon,” “of,” and “from.” Of those prepositions, “from” had apparently been the least common.

At least that’s what we assume from this comment in the Oxford English Dictionary’s “independence” entry, which hasn’t been fully updated since 1900: “Const. on, upon, of, rarely from.” Here are a few OED examples:

“The dignified clergy … pretended to a total independence on the State” (David Hume, The History of England, From the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to the Accession of Henry VII, 1761-62).

“A pretence of independence upon secular power” (Oliver Goldsmith, The History of England, From the Earliest Times to the Death of George II, 1771).

“Our habitual independence of conventional rules” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance, 1852).

We wouldn’t say Bertrand Russell’s use of “independence of” is wrong or even unusual, but it’s less common these days and modern readers might find it jarring or perhaps confusing.

Today, “independence from” would be the usual construction, as in this Merriam-Webster example: “She asserted her independence from her parents by getting her own apartment.”

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‘Buck naked’ or ‘butt naked’?

Q: Thanks for your recent post about “butt” and “buttock.” How about “butt naked” and “buck naked”? Everyone I’ve asked claims “buck naked” is correct, but that makes no sense to me.

A: The older term is “buck naked,” first recorded just before World War I. The variant “butt naked” appeared half a century later.

Both versions are widely used, and neither should be considered incorrect. In fact, “butt naked” may be the more popular term today, as we’ll show later. No doubt many people feel, like you, that it makes more sense than “buck naked.”

Most standard dictionaries label the two adjectives “informal,” though a few regard the “butt” version as “slang.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, labels them “colloquial,” meaning they’re more likely to be found in common speech than in formal English.

The dictionary gives them nearly identical definitions: “buck naked” is “completely without clothing; stark naked,” and “butt naked” is “completely naked, stark naked.” It says the two terms originated and are chiefly used in North America.

Over the years, etymologists and lexicographers have puzzled over the meaning of “buck” here. The OED suggests two possibilities:

It may be derived from the “buck” that means a male animal, like a deer or goat, a usage that dates back to Old English. Or it “may allude to the resemblance of the smooth and pale skin of the buttocks to buckskin.”

In a similar way, the dictionary points out, the word “buff” has been used since the 17th century as a colloquial term for a person’s bare skin (“in the buff” still means naked). The term “buff” originally referred to leather of a light brownish yellow called “buff-skin” or “buff leather.”

But the use of “buck” could have more sinister origins. It may perhaps allude to “the common practice of stripping slaves naked for inspection by potential buyers,” Oxford says.

In the 19th century, the dictionary notes, the noun “buck” was also a racial slur used for a male Native American, African-American, or Australian Aborigine.

However it developed, “buck naked” was first recorded in early 20th-century American newspapers. Keep in mind, though, that colloquial expressions are used in conversation long before they make it into print. This is the OED’s oldest published example:

“A negro Adam, buck naked and believing himself to be in the Garden of Eden, was tried. … After hearing the evidence, the case was turned over to an insanity commission.” (The Daily Times Enterprise, Thomasville, GA, Dec. 6, 1913.)

And we found this example in an anecdote, rendered in black dialect, explaining the meaning of the word “tact”:

“ ’Tother day I’m visitin’ in a house an’ I goes to the bath room an’ opens de door—taint locked—and dere in de tub sits a woman, buck naked. Right away quick I slams dat door and yells: ‘ ’Scuse me, SUH!’ Dat’s tact!” (The Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, AZ, Dec. 19, 1919.)

The newer “butt naked” appeared several decades later. The OED’s earliest example is presented as only a possible sighting:

“Leaping out to confront her bare-butt naked might lead to misunderstandings” (from Aaron Marc Stein’s 1959 novel Never Need an Enemy).

The dictionary’s first definite example is from the late 1960s: “You read a National Geographic and there is some far off native girl standing butt-naked for the cameraman” (Melvin Van Peebles’s 1968 novel A Bear for the FBI).

The Dictionary of American Regional English says that from 1966 to 1970 its field researchers recorded uses of “butt naked” in Arkansas and New York and “butt nekkid” in Michigan. However DARE doesn’t include the dated quotations.

The older term, “buck naked,” was more popular until recently. However, “butt naked” seems to be the more popular term today.

A recent search of the NOW Corpus, a database of 4.3 billion words in web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present, shows these results: “butt naked,” 314 examples; “buck naked,” 187.

A less up-to-date comparison of the two terms with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks usage in digitized books, has “buck naked” still ahead as of 2010, but shows “butt naked” closing the gap.

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Working hard or hardly working?

Q: I’m curious about the use of “hard” and “hardly” in that old play on words, “Are you working hard or hardly working?” Do the two usages have the same derivation or are they from different sources?

A: In Old and Middle English, “hardly” was an adverb meaning energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely. And “hard,” which was an adverb as well as an adjective, had similar adverbial meanings.

But today in Modern English, as you know, “hardly” usually means scarcely, probably not, certainly not, or with great difficulty, while “hard” (a bare or flat adverb with no “-ly” ending) still has those Old and Middle English adverbial senses.

The meaning of “hardly” began changing in the 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though some of its old senses still show up once in a while.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t explain why the meaning of “hardly” changed so dramatically. Our guess is that the “-ly” adverb evolved from emphasizing the energy needed to cope with a difficult situation to emphasizing the difficulty of the situation itself.

In Old English, the adverbs “hardly” and “hard” were heardlice and hearde (-lice and -e were adverbial endings). Both can be traced to hardu-, a root reconstructed from prehistoric Germanic, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The ultimate source was apparently the Proto-Indo-European root kar- or ker- (hard).

The earliest OED citation for “hardly” is from an Old English translation of a Latin passage in which the fifth-century historian Paulus Orosius tells Romans that they were as hard as whetstone when Carthage was crushed, but had become as soft as malmstone (a flinty sandstone) under Christianity. In this excerpt, heardlice (that is, “hardly”) is used the way we now use the adverb “hard”:

“Hit biþ … geornlic þæt mon heardlice gnide þone hnescestan mealmstan æfter þæm þæt he þence þone soelestan hwetstan on to geræceanne” (“It is necessary that a man rub hardly if he intends to turn the softest malmstone into the best whetstone”). From an anonymous translation, circa 893, of Historiarum Adversum Paganos (History Against the Pagans), by Orosius.

The earliest OED example for the adverb “hard” is from Crist III, an anonymous Old English poem about the Last Judgment: “Nis ænig wundor hu him woruldmonna seo unclæne gecynd … hearde ondrede” (“It is not any wonder how hard he dreaded the unclean nature of man on earth”).

In the 16th century, English writers began using “hardly” to mean “to an insignificant degree; scarcely, barely; not quite; almost not at all,” according to the dictionary, which describes this as “now the usual sense.”

The first OED example is from Glasse of Truthe, an anonymous 1532 work supporting Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Scholars believe the king either wrote it or directed its writing. Here’s the relevant passage:

“Hit is hardelye possible for any man to endite [put into words] or conuey any worke of suche sorte, that no man shall fynde a faute therin specially captious folke & maligners.”

Thus the two adverbs went their separate ways. The OED says the Old English and Middle English senses of “hardly” (energetically, forcefully, strenuously, or fiercely) are now archaic, obsolete, or rare.

We’ll end with a rare sighting from Original Sin, a 1994 novel by P. D. James: “He was ashamed of the Ilford House and ashamed of himself for despising what had been so hardly won.”

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How inclusive is ‘including’?

Q: I read this on Smithsonian.com: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.” Shouldn’t “include” refer to only some of the items on a list, not all of them?

A: When the verb “include” is used to mean “contain,” it usually refers to part of a whole, not all of it. And when the preposition “including” is used in that sense, it too usually refers to only part of something.

However, both the verb and the preposition are sometimes used for all the parts—a usage that’s been around for hundreds of years and may be closer to the Latin source of the words.

Most standard dictionaries say “include” (or “including”) refers to only part of a whole, but some say either word can refer to all the parts. Usage guides are similarly divided. As for us, we use “include” and “including” for part of something, not all of it.

Getting back to your question, that passage you quote (a subtitle in a Feb. 13, 2015, Smithsonian article commemorating Presidents’ Day) is unusual, but it’s not necessarily wrong.

Interestingly, the subtitle changed when the article was rewritten for a Feb. 19, 2020, post on Tween Tribune, a Smithsonian website for kids: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize. They include Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have also won.”

The rewrite conforms with the usual practice, but it’s clunkier. If we were writing the subtitle, we’d do it this way: “Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.”

As for the etymology, English borrowed the verb “include” in the early 15th century from Anglo-Norman, but its ultimate source is the classical Latin verb includere (to enclose, confine, surround, and so on).

When the verb first appeared in late Middle English, it had the Latin sense (to surround). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, describes a battle in which the Greeks surround Hector during the Trojan War:

“Cruelly þei gan hym to include … He myȝt nat eskape with þe lyf” (“Cruelly they began to surround him … he might not escape with his life”). From Troy Book (1412-20), an epic poem about the rise and fall of Troy by the English poet and monk John Lydgate.

In the mid-15th century, the verb took on the sense you’re asking about, referring to part of a whole and sometimes all of it. Here’s the OED definition: “To contain as part of a group, category, etc.; to have as any of a number of sections, members, constituent elements, etc. Sometimes also: to consist of (all of the parts making up the whole); to comprise.”

Oxford’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, refers to part of a whole: “If you list, take the moralité! / Profitable to every comunalté, / Whiche includithe in many sundry wise, / No man shuld, of high or low degré, / For no prerogatif his neyghburghe to dispise.” From “The Horse, the Goose, and the Sheep,” a short poem by Lydgate, believed written around 1440.

The dictionary has some ambiguous examples from the 16th and 17th centuries in which “include” may possibly imply all the parts of a whole. The first definite citation for that sense, which we’ve expanded, is from an 18th-century book about substances used as medical remedies:

“The Class of the Metals, according to these Characteristicks, includes only six Bodies, which are, 1. Gold. 2. Silver. 3. Copper. 4. Tin. 5. Iron. And 6. Lead.” From A History of the Materia Medica, 1751, by John Hill, an English physician and writer.

The preposition “including” showed up in the 17th century. Although the OED says it refers to “part of the whole group or category being considered,” the dictionary’s examples use the term for both part and all of a whole.

The earliest citation refers to part of a group: “Four servants died, including the cook.” From a letter written Dec. 4, 1638, and published in The English Factories in India (1914), by William Foster.

However, the next Oxford example refers to all members of a group: “Sixteen hundred Children, including Males and Females, put out to Methods of Industry” (the Spectator, Feb. 6, 1712).

Seven of the ten online standard dictionaries we regularly consult say “include” (or “including”) refers to part of a whole.

American Heritage, for example, defines “include” as “to contain or take in as a part, element, or member.” And Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines it as “to place, list, or rate as a part or component of a whole or of a larger group, class, or aggregate: included a sum for tips in his estimate of expenses.”

However, Dictionary.com, based on the old Random House Unabridged, defines “include” more broadly, and has an example that lists all the parts of something: “to contain, as a whole does parts or any part or element: The package includes the computer, program, disks, and a manual.”

And Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, also defines “include” broadly, giving examples of its use for all as well as part of a whole:

“Comprise or contain as part of a whole: the price includes dinner, bed, and breakfast; other changes included the abolition of the death penalty.” In a usage note, Lexico explains why “include” can mean either all or part of something:

Include has a broader meaning than comprise. In the sentence the accommodation comprises 2 bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen, and living room, the word comprise implies that there is no accommodation other than that listed. Include can be used in this way too, but it is also used in a non-restrictive way, implying that there may be other things not specifically mentioned that are part of the same category, as in the price includes a special welcome pack.”

Even some standard dictionaries with the narrower definition of “include” have examples that suggest a broader usage. Macmillan, for example, defines “include” as “to contain someone or something as a part,” but has this example suggesting everything: “The price includes dinner, bed, and breakfast.”

And several dictionaries use “comprise”—which (as Lexico notes) implies all items listed—in defining “include.” Webster’s New World, for instance, defines “include” as  “to have as part of a whole; contain; comprise.”

Some usage guides insist that “include” should refer to only part of a whole, and recommend using such terms as “comprise” or “consist of” when referring to all the parts of something.

For example, the entry for “include” in Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) says, “The word has traditionally introduced a nonexhaustive list but is now coming to be widely misused for consists of.”

However, some other usage guides disagree. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, for instance, cites two examples in which “include” is used with a complete list of items, and says, “There is nothing wrong with either of those examples.”

Merriam-Webster’s says critics of the usage “have somehow reasoned themselves into the notion that with include all of the components must not be mentioned, which has never been the case.”

M-W quotes Henry W. Fowler, perhaps the most influential usage commentator of the 20th century, as saying in the 1926 first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “With include, there is no presumption (though it is often the fact) that all or even most of the components are mentioned.”

Jeremy Butterfield, editor of the fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, cites the same passage. In practice, he says, “include” is generally used for part of a whole, but Fowler “did not maintain this absolute distinction: his wording allowed for the possibility that include covers all parts of the whole.”

Yes, a case can be made for using “include” for all parts of a whole, but we choose not to use it that way. Since “include” usually refers to part of something, it might be confusing to use it otherwise.

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Running low on champagne

Q: Stress can weaken the immune system, while humor can strengthen it. So when friends call to ask how we’re coping with the coronavirus, I reply, “We’re running low on champagne, but otherwise we’re OK.” Now, why do I say “running low on” something that’s running out?

A: The verb phrase “to run low on” combines a usage from the late 16th century (“to run low,” meaning “to become scarce”) with one from the early 20th (“low on,” meaning “short of”).

The story begins in the 12th century when English adopted the adjective “low” (the opposite of “high”) from various Scandinavian languages. The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary, with “low” spelled lah in early Middle English, is from a homily about Jesus at Cana in Galilee:

“Þær wass an bennkinnge lah” (“there was a low row of benches”). From the Ormulum, a collection of homilies written by an Augustinian monk who identifies himself as Orm in one place and Ormin in another.

In the 16th century, according to OED citations, writers began using the adjective to describe “a supply of something: almost exhausted; running out. Frequently in to run low.”

At first, the adjective referred to liquids, as in this example of wine running out: “For wyne wherof they spende Gooth lowe, and draweth fast vnto an ende.” From “The Fyftene Ioyes [Joys] of Maryage” (1509), an English translation of a work by the French writer Antoine de La Sale.

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the verb phrase “to run low” also describes a diminishing supply of wine: “When that the wine, hath ronne full lowe, / Thou shalt be glad, to drinke the lyes [lees].” From A Pleasaunte Laborinth Called Churchyardes Chance (1580), a collection of verse by Thomas Churchyard.

And here’s a 17th-century monetary example: “It will bee a reasonable vsefull pawne at all times, when the current of his money falles out to run low.” From The Guls Horn-Booke (1609), a portrait of young men of fashion in London by the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Dekker.

At the beginning of the 20th century,  the phrase “low on” appeared, meaning “short of, deficient in,” according to Oxford citations. Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “I’m low on coin … but I know where I can get plenty more to-morrow.” Confessions of a Criminal: True Stories of Dick Lane Told by Himself (1904).

The earliest example we’ve seen for the longer expression “to run low on” appeared a couple of years later: “If one knows that he is running low on water there is little danger to be apprehended.” Standard Mechanical Examinations on Locomotive Firing and Running (1906), edited by W. G. Wallace.

The OED’s only citation for the full expression appears within its entry for the phrase “to run low”: “Human beings began as nomads, upping sticks whenever they ran low on food or water.” The New Statesman (April 7, 2003).

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Shedding a little night light

Q:  To quote James Taylor, would you please “shed a little light” on this? Is the fixture a “night light,” “night-light,” or “nightlight”?

A: It depends on which standard dictionary you consult.

The word is hyphenated, “night-light,” in four US dictionaries: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, and Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged).

However, it’s two separate words, “night light,” in Webster’s New World and in a British dictionary, Collins. And it’s a single unhyphenated word, “nightlight,” in these four British dictionaries: Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online), Macmillan, Cambridge, and Longman.

Our vote goes to the British foursome, and “nightlight.” As we’ve written several times on the blog, most recently in 2019, many compounds start out as two words, then acquire a hyphen, and finally become a single word.

We predict that as time goes on, the form “nightlight” will become more widely adopted in standard dictionaries.

When the term entered English, hyphenated at first, it didn’t mean something plugged into an electrical outlet, or even using candlelight. It meant “the faint natural light perceptible at night,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.

The OED, which gives the term as “night light,” cites this 17th-century example as the earliest known use in writing: “Nachtlicht, night-light, Night-shine” (from a 1648 Dutch-English dictionary by Henry Hexham).

Elizabeth Barrett (before she married Robert Browning) used this sense of “nightlight” poetically in her verse play A Drama of Exile (1844), rhyming the line “In the sunlight and the moonlight” with “In the nightlight, and the noonlight.”

But by that time, “nightlight” had also become a household item. The OED defines this sense as “a light source designed to provide faint illumination in a room at night; spec. a small, thick, slow-burning candle or an electric light of low power, used in the bedroom of a child or sick person.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a long poem by Robert Bloomfield, Good Tidings, first published in London in 1804. Here he describes a mother at her son’s sickbed: “Hour after hour, when all was still beside, / When the pale night-light in its socket died, / Alone she sat.”

Such a useful word was bound to survive into the age of electricity. This OED citation is from the late 20th century: “The light’s meager appetite for electricity … makes it the most environmentally sensible night-light around.” (From a British magazine, Harrowsmith Country Life, Dec. 14, 1994.)

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On ‘damage’ and ‘damages’

Q: In the last year or so, I’ve been irked to hear mass nouns being replaced by countable counterparts. Examples: “check the car for damages” … “economic supports for workers” … “non-profits are feeling pressures.” Is this a trend? Am I right to feel irked?

A: Let’s begin with “damage.” Yes, it’s a mass noun, but we wouldn’t describe “damages” as a count or countable noun.

As you know, a count noun (like “chair”) is one that can be counted—that is, modified with a numeral, an indefinite article, or a quantitative adjective like “few” or “many.” A mass noun (like “furniture”) can’t be counted. You can say “a chair,” “two chairs,” or “many chairs,” but not “a furniture,” “two furnitures,” or “many furnitures.”

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language considers “damage” a mass noun (it uses the term “noncount”), but lists “damages” among “plural-only nouns” for which “the singular form exists, but not with the standard sense relation to the plural.” It’s in a group of plural nouns that “have to do with compensation and reward for what has to be done,” such as “dues,” “earnings,” “proceeds,” “reparations,” and “wages.”

In contemporary English, as you point out, the singular noun “damage” means loss or harm to someone or something, while the plural “damages” refers to monetary compensation for loss or injury. Those are the meanings in the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

However, a cursory search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles, indicates that “damages” is indeed often used now with what standard dictionaries consider the meaning of “damage.”

Here’s a recent example: “Damages from a two-alarm fire Friday morning at a commercial building near Funkstown could exceed $2 million, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s office” (Herald-Mail Media, Hagerstown, MD, April 17, 2020).

Centuries ago, however, both “damage” and “damages” were used to mean a loss as well as compensation for such a loss. Here’s an example in the Oxford English Dictionary for the plural used in the sense of loss or injury: “Repairing the damages which the kingdom had sustained by war” (The History of England, 1771, by Oliver Goldsmith).

And here’s an OED citation for the singular used in the legal sense: “He shall therefore pay 500li to the King and 200li Dammage to Mr Deane and make recognition of his fault and wrong” (from a 1631 case cited in Reports of Cases in the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, 1886, edited by Samuel R. Gardener. A star chamber is a secret or executive hearing).

As for the other two nouns you’re asking about, dictionaries generally regard “support” as a mass noun when used to mean financial assistance, but they say “pressure” can be either a mass or a count noun when used to mean stressful demands.

Here are two examples from the “pressure” entry in Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online: “backbenchers put pressure on the government to provide safeguards” (mass noun) … “‘the many pressures on girls to worry about their looks” (count noun).

Do you have a right to feel irked about a questionable usage? Well, you have that right, but when we come across a usage we don’t like, we usually laugh it off or simply ignore it. And every once in a while we learn that a bugbear of ours is not only legitimate but has been used for hundreds of years by writers we respect.

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San fairy ann: Why a duckboard?

Q: During World War II, my soldier brother used to say “san fairy duckboard” instead of “san fairy ann” when he meant “it doesn’t matter.” I asked him once why he replaced “ann” with “duckboard,” and he said duckboards were everywhere in the army. Do you have any information about this usage?

A: The expression “san fairy ann,” meaning “it doesn’t matter” or “it’s nothing” or “never mind,” originated as a World War I infantryman’s version of the French phrase ça ne fait rien.

And “duckboard,” another WWI term, was what soldiers called the slatted flooring placed in muddy trenches and camps.

We haven’t found a single published example that combines the terms into “san fairy duckboard,” but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used in speech by the American doughboys, British Tommies, Australian diggers, and other English speakers who fought in the war.

And assuming they used the phrase, we can guess what it meant—something like “it doesn’t mean duckboard” or “it’s not worth duckboard” or “it doesn’t matter any more than duckboard.” In such an expression, “duckboard” could have been a euphemistic substitute for an obscenity.

We do know that another word familiar from trench warfare, “sandbag,” was merged with “san fairy ann.” The phrase “sandbag Mary Ann” was used as a variation on “san fairy ann.” Well, the French used by English-speaking soldiers may have been wanting, but their English was certainly inventive.

The OED’s entry for “san fairy ann” calls it a “jocular form representing French ça ne fait rien ‘it does not matter,’ said to have originated in army use in the war of 1914–18.” The dictionary defines it as “an expression of indifference to, or resigned acceptance of, a state of affairs.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation for the phrase, spelled somewhat differently, is from Walter Hubert Downing’s Digger Dialects (1919), a collection of Australian soldier slang:  “San ferry ann … it doesn’t matter.”

As for “duckboard,” the OED says that during WWI it was used, generally in the plural, to mean “a slatted timber path laid down on wet or muddy ground in the trenches or in camps.”

The dictionary’s earliest use is from a British wartime magazine: “Walking wounded are helped along the duck-boards that flank the light railways.” (The War Illustrated, March 17, 1917.)

In short, soldiers familiar with both “san fairy ann” and “duckboard” may very well have combined the expressions, even though we can’t point to a published example.

The original “san fairy ann” has had many variants, according to findings in the OED as well as our own researches.  The first element can be “san” or “son”; the second “fairy,” “faery,” or “ferry”; and the third “Ann,” “Anne,” “Anna,” “Han,” or “Aunt.”

It’s also been mushed together as “sanfairyann” and “sanferriens.” And besides the aforementioned “Sandbag Mary Ann,” we’ve seen “Sally fair Ann,” “Aunt Mary Ann,” and “Send for Mary Ann.” Finally, as the OED says, it’s been shortened to the simple “Fairy Ann.”

While “san fairy ann” originated during WWI and was mostly used a century ago, it survived into the WWII era and beyond, according to the dictionary’s citations.

The OED includes a 1956 example from a story by the novelist Frederick B. Vickers, who served in the Australian armed forces during WWII. We’ll quote a slightly different part of the passage to clarify the speaker’s meaning: “ ‘Don’t mention it, Joe,’ I said. … ‘San ferry ann, Joe.’ ” (From “Make Like You,” published in the story collection Coast to Coast, 1956.)

And this example, also cited in the OED, is from a British novel: “ ‘I wish you’d thought of my ulcer before you—’ he began, and then broke off. ‘Oh, san fairy anne!’ ” (It’s a Free Country, 1965, by Leonard Brain.)

Finally, Oxford quotes a 1970s newspaper advertisement: “San fairy Ann. … It doesn’t matter to us.” (The Times, London, June 22, 1973.)

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Drunk as a skunk

Q: I wonder about the derivation of “drunk as a skunk” and other skunkish expressions.

A: Through no fault of its own (or none that it can help), the unfortunate skunk has inspired many expressions, none of them complimentary.

But we believe that “drunk as a skunk,” an American expression that originated in the 1920s, is merely rhyming slang and has no real connection with skunkdom.

We say this because for more than 600 years, the inebriated have been described as “drunk as a” something-or-other, animate or inanimate. And generally the noun of comparison has little to do with alcohol consumption.

The formula “drunk as a …” began appearing in the late 14th century “in various proverbial phrases and locutions,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The original version was “drunk as a mouse,” the OED says. This is from “The Knight’s Tale” (1385), the first of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and we’re expanding the Oxford citation to add context:

“We fare as he þt dronke is as a Mous / A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous / But he noot which the righte wey is thider” (“We act like one that is drunk as a mouse. / A drunk man knows well that he has a house, / But he does not know which is the right way there”).

We found another use by Chaucer in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “If that I walke or pleye unto his hous. / Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous” (“If I go for amusement to his house, / You come home as drunken as a mouse”).

The association of mice with drunkenness may have begun with an ancient fable about a tipsy mouse who’s rescued by a cat after becoming trapped in a vessel of wine or beer. Versions of the fable, first recorded in Latin by Odo of Cheriton in his Parabolæ in the early 1200s, was much repeated in various collections during the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it may be that “mouse” was chosen simply to rhyme with “house.” In several songs and poems after Chaucer’s time, lines ending “drunk as a mouse” rhymed with “house” or “alehouse.”

But as we mentioned, the expression “drunk as a …” has accommodated a Noah’s Ark of animals. Since Chaucer’s time,  according to slang dictionaries, “mouse” has been joined by “swine,” “hog,” “sow,” “pig,” “duck,” “owl,” “dog,” “cat” “kit,” “rat,” “monkey,” “jaybird,” “loon,” “bat,” “coon,” “fish,” “fly,” “fowl,” “tick,” “donkey,” “coot,” “goat,” and of course “skunk.”

Humans have also joined the inebriated crew, and “drunk as a …” has included “lord,” “earl,” “emperor,” “pope,” “fiddler,” “beggar,” “bastard,” “piper,” “poet,” “sailor,” “cook,” “parson,” “porter,” and “tinker.”

And let’s not forget inanimate objects: “drum,” “sack,” “besom” (a broom), “log,” “wheelbarrow,” “top,” and “little red wagon.” We can certainly imagine a couple of those wobbling erratically.

In this long litany of inebriation, many of them hundreds of years old, “skunk” is a latecomer. The OED’s earliest use of “drunk as a skunk” is less than a century old: “O Dan, you’re drunk! You’re drunk as a skunk!” (From The Heart of Old Kentucky, collected in New Plays for Mummers, 1926, by Glenn Hughes.)

Our bet is that earlier uses of “drunk as a skunk” will turn up, because the “drunk”/“skunk” rhyme scheme had already suggested itself generations earlier. We found a couple of 19th-century examples:

“My wife she is a hateful scold, / And when I am half drunk, / She will begin to fret and scold, / And call me a dirty skunk.” (From “Soliloquy of a Drunkard,” published in the Philadelphia Scrap Book, April 26, 1834.)

“Ter see a man come home so drunk / It makes her loathe him like a skunk.” (From a temperance poem in Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine, January 1876.)

So much for skunks and alcohol. You asked about other “skunkish expressions,” and most of them have to do with things (or people) that are to be avoided or scorned.

Since the early 19th century, the OED says, “skunk” has been a colloquial noun for “a dishonest, mean, or contemptible person,” a usage the dictionary describes as “chiefly North American.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is about politics: “There were five skunks, who apostatized from Republicanism, within a few months back, and voted the Federal ticket on Monday last” (the Maryland Republican, Annapolis, Oct. 12, 1813).

And the adjectives “skunk-like” (1815) and “skunkish” (1831), the OED says, have meant “dishonest, mean, or contemptible” … “reminiscent of a skunk, esp. in odour or appearance” … “resembling or suggestive of a skunk.”

The word has also been a verb since the 19th century. To “skunk” someone means to defeat or get the better of (1832), as in “I skunked her at backgammon.” It can even mean to swindle or defraud someone (1867), as in “He skunked me out of $10.” Both senses are also used passively, and to be “skunked” is to be unsuccessful or to be cheated.

“Skunk” is also etymologically interesting. The animal is a native of the Americas, and its name is thoroughly American too.

As the OED says, it was borrowed into English from a “Southern New England Algonquian language.” And it’s apparently connected to the notion of a urinating fox.

Though the original Algonquian source is uncertain, the word has cousins in related languages: Western Abenaki (segôgw), Unami Delaware (šká:kw), and Meskwaki (shekâkwa), the last of which consists of the Algonquian elements shek– (to urinate) and wâkw– (fox).

In English, the word was first recorded as “squuncke” in 17th-century New England, the OED says. The earliest known use is in a list of animals likely to rob a henhouse: “The beasts of offence be Squunckes, Ferrets, Foxes” (from New Englands Prospect, 1634, by William Wood).

[Note: An Australian reader of the blog writes on June 19, 2020, with a courtroom quip attributed to the early 20th-century British statesman and lawyer Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead: “Smith (to the Court): At the time, my client was as drunk as a judge.  Judge (interjecting): Mr. Smith, I think you’ll find the phrase is ‘as drunk as a lord.’ Smith: As your lordship pleases.”]

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Wrapped around the axle

Q: I learned the expression “don’t get wrapped around the axle” from my husband, and I frequently use it as a less vulgar way of saying “don’t get your panties in a twist.” He now tells me that the axle expression comes from an exceedingly vulgar joke that I won’t repeat here. I am mortified if this is true. I’m an old lady who gives garden talks, not one prone to jokes in poor taste. Please set me straight.

A: The phrase “wrapped around the axle” conjures up the image of a frustrated wagon driver whose reins have gotten tangled in the undercarriage. In fact, that pretty accurately evokes its literal meaning in days gone by.

Originally, the phrase was used to describe things like reins, straps, drive belts, baling wire, articles of clothing—even mangled bodies—that had literally become wrapped around the axles of wheels on horse-drawn vehicles, railway cars, or industrial machinery.

Today the expression has a much less dramatic meaning. Though it’s not found in any of our slang dictionaries, we did a find couple of definitions online. These were provided by contributors to Urban Dictionary: “to be confused by something, to the point of paralysis,” or “to be extremely or overly upset.”

We’ve also seen it used on few leadership and self-help websites, where “don’t get wrapped around the axle” seems to mean don’t get sidetracked by small issues or caught up in bureaucracy.

The earliest example we’ve seen of the phrase in its original sense is from a 19th-century account of a mishap at a California woolen mill. The accident happened when a belt driving a piece of machinery, broke and “became wrapped around the axle or shaft of the wheel” (Sacramento Daily Union, Dec. 16, 1867).

And we like this account of a plucky Nebraska woman who eventually stopped a team of runaway horses: “When the lines, by some fortunate circumstance, became wrapped around the axle tree of the buggy in such a position as to bring them within her reach by leaning out over the dash board, she promptly did so, and while she could not loosen them, so guided the team as to keep them in the road, and probably saving her own life” (the Columbus Journal, May 17, 1882).

We will spare you the dozens of 19th- and early 20th-century examples that had less happy endings, most of them involving people killed by trains.

As far as we can tell, figurative uses of “wrapped around the axle” didn’t appear until the 1970s, when the phrase meant rule-bound or tangled in bureaucracy. Servicemen apparently were early adopters. Both of the following examples are from weeklies published at Fort Hood in Temple, Tex.

One is a complaint about an officious hospital nurse, “a civilian who’s so wrapped around the axle of routine that she’s forgotten about serving soldiers” (the Armored Sentinel, May 26, 1972).

Another is from a humorous column about the overuse of clichés: “We’re behind the power curve already and if we don’t get our feet on the ground it might fall through the crack or get wrapped around the axle” (the Fort Hood Sentinel, Jan. 6, 1977).

Both the literal and the figurative uses of “wrapped around the axle” are still around today.

Literal uses show up in news items about materials caught in the axles of everything from bicycles and tractors to 18-wheelers.

This is from a car-racing site: “Johnson hit the wall early and went three laps down making initial repairs after the tire carcass wrapped around the axle” (Frontstretch, Aug. 11, 2019).

Not surprisingly, figurative uses in recent news items are mostly about Covid-19 and its many anxieties. This example is from an Omaha weekly: “While it’s easy to get wrapped around the axle of all that seems to be going wrong, a lot of Omaha is righting itself in profound and beautiful ways” (the Reader, April 7, 2020).

Getting back to your question, your husband may have been referring to the slang use of “axle” to mean the penis and the slang phrase “getting his axle greased” to mean having sex with a woman.

However, those slang usages have no connection to “wrapped around the axle.” We haven’t found any examples of “wrapped around the axle” used in reference to sex.

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Coots, feathered and otherwise

Q: Why is an old guy referred to as a “coot”? And what about “geezer”?

A: The use of “coot” for an old man, especially an oddball, seems to have evolved from the early use of “coot” as an informal name for various seabirds, at first apparently the common murre or guillemot (Uria aalge), and later the Eurasian coot (Fulica atra).

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the name “coot” was “originally given vaguely or generically to various swimming and diving birds. In many cases it seems to have been applied to the Guillemot.”

Afterward, the OED says, the term “coot” was given to the Eurasian coot “and generically extended to all the species of Fulica.” (A murre in the US is a guillemot in the UK, the latter borrowed from French in the 17th century.)

The dictionary notes that in Dutch, the common murre is Zeekoet or sea coot, and the Eurasian coot is Meerkoet or lake coot. It also mentions a similar “Low German word, the earlier history of which is unknown.”

So how did “coot” evolve in English from the name for a bird to a noun for an old person, especially an eccentric or crotchety old man?

The usage may have been influenced by the odd behavior of the common murre during its breeding season and the similarity in pronunciation of the Eurasian coot’s Latin genus, Fulica, to the English word “fool.”

The common murre has often been referred to as the “foolish guillemot,” a name the English naturalist Thomas Nuttall attributed to “their fatuity in the breeding season, in allowing themselves sometimes to be seized by the hand, or killed on the spot without flying from their favorite cliffs” (A Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada, Vol. 2, 1834).

In fact, “coot” originally referred to a foolish person when it showed up as a noun for a human being, a usage that the OED suggests may have been inspired by the foolish guillemot.

And Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests the foolish usage may have originated as a “play on Lat. Fulica.” In classical Latin, fulica referred to a water bird believed to be a coot.

The earliest Oxford example for the noun “coot” used in the avian sense is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “An ostriche, and a nyȝt [night] crowe, and a coote, and an hawke” (Leviticus 11:16).

In the 15th century, writers began using the noun in descriptions of people. The first Oxford citation is from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, a Middle English poem written from 1412 to 1420:

“And yet he was as balde as is a coote.” This was apparently a reference to the Eurasian coot, which has often been referred to as the bald coot because of the white frontal shield on the forehead of the primarily black bird.

The OED has examples for “bare as a coot” and “black as a coot” from the 17th century:

“They poled him as bare as a Coot, by shaving off his Hair” (The Honour of the Merchant Taylors, 1687, by the English poet and biographer William Winstanley).

“The Proverb, as black as the Coot” (The Academy of Armory, 1688, a treatise on arms, armor, heraldry, etc., by the English herald painter and genealogist Randle Holme III).

When “coot” appeared in the 18th century as a noun for a person, it referred to a “silly person” or “simpleton,” according to Oxford.

The dictionary’s earliest citation, which we’ve expanded, is from A Compleat Dictionary English and Dutch (1766), by William Sewel: “COOT, Een Zeekoet … A very coot, (or fool) Een gek in folio.”

Although “foolish guillemot” may very well have influenced this usage, that avian phrase didn’t appear in writing until somewhat later in the 18th century, according to our searches of digitized books.

The first example we’ve found is from an October 1779 entry in the account of Capt. James Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific.

The term “Foolish guillemot” appears in a list of web-footed waterfowl found during a stop at the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. (Cook had died on Feb. 14, 1779, in a clash with Hawaiians, and the account of the voyage was completed by Capt. James King.)

The earliest example we’ve seen for the avian use of “guillemot” by itself is on a list of sea birds in The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick (1678): “the guillemot or sea-hen.” Willughby was an English ornithologist and ichthyologist.

The noun “coot” came to mean an old man in the 19th century. The earliest citation in Green’s Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, is from High Life in New York (1844), by Jonathan Slick, Esq., pseudonym of Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens: “There is no cheating that old coot, he’s wide awake as a night hawk.”

And we found this early example referring to an old man who isn’t quite so wide awake: “Yet the silly old coot couldn’t think of anything himself; and never was a husband so decidedly hen-pecked, and at the same time in such blissful ignorance of it, as this same gentleman” (from Female Life Among the Mormons, 1855, an anonymous work often attributed to Maria Ward, pseudonym of Elizabeth Cornelia Woodcock Ferris).

Finally, here’s an example of a female “coot,” from a March 30, 2020, story on Fox News in Seattle about a 90-year-old woman who survived Covid-19:

“Her daughter Neidigh said, ‘She’s one stubborn old coot (laughs).’ Her mother chimed in, ‘I’d admit I’m stubborn and I’m a fighter and I have a lot to live for and a lot of things I want to do.’ ”

As for “geezer” used to mean an old man, we discussed the usage in a 2018 post about the different senses of “geezer” and “geyser” in the US and the UK.

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Is ‘least favorite’ most disliked?

Q: The phrase “least favorite” has the literal meaning of something that’s liked, but not at the top of the list. Despite that, it’s often used idiomatically for something that’s actually disliked. Any thoughts?

A: Yes, “least favorite” refers literally to the bottom of a sequential list of favorite people or things, and that’s the way it seems to have been used when it showed up in English in the 19th century.

But as you’ve noticed, today the phrase is often used idiomatically as the opposite of “favorite”—that is, in reference to the top of a list of items disliked the most.

We couldn’t find a discussion of the expression in any standard dictionary, usage guide, or etymological dictionary. However, the entry for “unfavourite” in Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online, defines it as “least favourite” or “most disliked.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, discusses “least best,” a similar usage with contradictory literal and idiomatic meanings.

In its entry for “least,” the OED defines “least best” as “last in order of preference out of a group or set of options which are all considered to be good or desirable.”

However, the dictionary adds that “least best” is also “used ironically” to mean “worst,” a usage that showed up at the end of the 20th century, according to Oxford citations.

The expression “least favorite” showed up in the mid mid-19th century, according to our searches of newspaper and book databases. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a review of a book about the US by a Scottish politician:

“Among the many varieties of industry to which the versatility of American genius has been applied, the rearing of stock has hitherto been the least favourite” (Edinburgh Review, October 1847, on John MacGregor’s The Progress of America, published earlier that year in London). Up to that time, the reviewer says, raising cattle, sheep, and other farm animals in the US had been “chiefly confined” to New England and New York.

The idiomatic use of “least favorite” to refer ironically to someone or something most disliked apparently appeared in the second half of the 20th century, though it’s often hard to tell from the written examples we’ve found whether the phrase is being used literally or ironically.

Here’s a likely early example from a newspaper article about the likes and dislikes of kindergarteners: “Spinach used to be the all-time least favorite food. It has now been replaced by cooked celery, mushrooms and steamed beans” (from the Coronado [CA] Eagle and Journal, March 12, 1970).

And here’s another example from a California newspaper: “Her least favorite film was also a horror movie, or it was intended to be, though she thinks of it simply as a horror” (Santa Cruz Sentinel, Oct. 17, 1979). The movie, Night of the Lepus, is about giant mutated rabbits that threaten civilization.

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When negatives collide

Q: I often encounter a sentence such as “I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t steal the necklace,” when it actually means the opposite—the speaker or writer wouldn’t be surprised if she DID steal it. Is there a term for this (a type of double negative, maybe)? And how did it come to be so widespread?

A: We’ve seen several expressions for this kind of construction. Terms used by linguists today include “expletive negation,” in which “expletive” means redundant; “negative concord,” for multiple negatives intended to express a single negative meaning; and, more simply, “overnegation.”

Yes, it’s also been called a “double negative,” the term H. L. Mencken used for it more than 80 years ago. Like linguists today, Mencken didn’t find this particular specimen odd or unusual. As he wrote in The American Language (4th ed., 1936), “ ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t rain’ is almost Standard American.”

The linguist Mark Liberman discussed this usage—“wouldn’t be surprised” followed by another negative—on the Language Log in 2009. He called it a “species of apparent overnegation” along the lines of “fail to miss” and “cannot underestimate.” (More on those two later.)

Of course, what appears to be an overnegation may not be so. For instance, if everyone but you is predicting rain, you might very well respond with “I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t rain” (i.e., you wouldn’t be surprised if it failed to rain). No overnegation there, just two negatives used literally, nothing redundant.

But the usage we’re discussing is a genuine redundancy with no literal intent. And it’s a type of redundancy that’s very common, especially in spoken English. Yet it seldom causes confusion. People generally interpret those dueling negative clauses just as the writer or speaker intends.

You’re a good example of this. While you noticed the redundancy there (“I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t steal the necklace”), you correctly interpreted the writer’s meaning (if she did steal it). And no doubt most people would interpret it that way, whether they encountered the sentence in writing or in speech. Why is this?

In the case of written English, our guess is that readers interpreting the writer’s intent take their cues not only from the surrounding context but also from their own past experience. They’re used to seeing this construction and don’t automatically interpret it literally.

In the case of spoken English, where the usage is more common, listeners have the added advantage of vocal cues. Take these two sentences, which are identical except for the different underlined stresses. A listener would interpret them as having opposite meanings:

(1) “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t win” = I wouldn’t be surprised if he won.

(2) “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t win” = I wouldn’t be surprised if he lost.

In #1, the redundant or overnegated example, the speaker emphasizes the verb and whizzes past the superfluous second negative (“didn’t”). But in #2, the literal example, the speaker emphasizes the second negative, so there’s no doubt that it’s intentional and not redundant.

Language types have been commenting on the overnegated “wouldn’t be surprised” usage since the 19th century.

On the Language Log, Liberman cites this entry from “Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi,” a dissertation written by Hubert Anthony Shands in 1891 and published in 1893: “Wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t. This expression is frequently used by all classes in the place of wouldn’t be surprised if it did.”

The usage wasn’t peculiar to Mississippi, though. In old newspaper databases, we’ve found 19th-century examples from other parts of the country.

These two 1859 sightings, the earliest we’ve seen, appeared in a humorous story, written in dialect, from the May 7, 1859, issue of the Columbia Spy, a Pennsylvania newspaper:

“ ‘There’s been so much hard swearin’ on that book’ (pointing to Logan’s Bible) ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if the truth was not pretty considerably ranshacked outen it.’ ”

“ ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if you wa’nt vain arter this.’ ”

This example is from newspaper serving the twin cities of Bristol in Virginia and Tennessee: “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them didn’t run away after all without paying their bills.” (The Bristol News,  Feb. 8, 1876.)

And here’s one from the Midwest: “The business interests of Salina feel the weight of their power, and we wouldn’t be surprised if even Nature did not pause for a moment and measure their colossal proportions.” (The Saline County Journal in Salina, Kansas, Jan. 25, 1877.)

As mentioned above, there are other varieties of overnegation besides the “wouldn’t be surprised” variety. Here are some of the more common ones, along with their intended interpretations.

“You can’t fail to miss it” = You can’t miss it

“We can’t underestimate” = We can’t overestimate

“Nothing is too trivial to ignore” = Nothing is too trivial to consider

“I don’t deny that she doesn’t have some good qualities” = I don’t deny that she does have some good qualities

“We don’t doubt that it’s not dangerous” = We don’t doubt that it is dangerous

As we’ve said, even readers or listeners who notice the excess negativity will understand the intended meaning.

The Dutch linguist Wim van der Wurff uses the term “expletive negation” for usages of this kind. As he explains, the first clause “involves a verb or noun with the meaning ‘fear,’ ‘forbid,’ ‘prohibit,’ ‘hinder,’ ‘prevent,’ ‘avoid,’ ‘deny,’ ‘refuse,’ ‘doubt’ or another predicate with some kind of negative meaning.” What follows is a subordinate clause with “a negative marker” that’s “semantically redundant, or expletive.”

He gives an example from a letter written by Charles Darwin: “It never occurred to me to doubt that your work would not advance our common object in the highest degree.” (From Negation in the History of English, edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon Van Ostade and others.)

Historical linguists have shown that this sort of overnegation exists in a great many languages and in fact was a common usage in Old English and early Middle English.

“Negative concord has been a native grammatical construction since the time of Alfred, at least,” Daniel W. Noland writes, referring to the 9th-century Saxon king (“A Diachronic Survey of English Negative Concord,” American Speech, summer 1991).

But after the Middle Ages, the use of overnegation in English began to fall off, at least in the writings that have been handed down. Little by little, from around the late 15th to the 18th century, multiple negations became less frequent until they finally came to be considered unacceptable. Why?

Don’t point to the grammarians. It seems that this transition happened naturally, not because people started to object on logical or grammatical grounds.

In her monograph A History of English Negation (2004), the Italian linguist Gabriella Mazzon says the claim “that multiple negation was excluded from the standard as a consequence of the grammarians’ attacks is not correct, since the phenomenon had been on its way out of this variety [i.e., standard English] for some time already.”

As for today, Noland says in his American Speech paper, this type of overnegation “still has a marginal status even in standard English.”

We wouldn’t be surprised!

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