Loading...

Follow Grammarphobia on Feedspot

Continue with Google
Continue with Facebook
or

Valid
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 14h ago

Q: “Undisputed” or “indisputed”? Is there a clear winner? My sense is “undisputed” means neither party disputed the facts, which is the sense I’m seeking, while “indisputed” means not capable of dispute. Can you help?

A: If your choice is between “indisputed” and “undisputed,” there is no choice. The adjective “indisputed” is now considered archaic or obsolete. However, “indisputable” is a possibility. In choosing between “undisputed” and “indisputable,” the word you want is “undisputed.” Here’s the story.

We’ve checked ten standard dictionaries and none regard “indisputed” as standard English. In fact, only two even mention it. Merriam-Webster Online and the subcription-based Merriam-Webster Unabridged both describe “indisputed” as an “archaic” synonym for “undisputed.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says “indisputed” is an “obsolete” adjective meaning “not disputed; undisputed, unquestioned.”

“Indisputable,” the oldest of the three adjectives, showed up in the mid-16th century, the OED says, and describes something “that cannot be disputed” or is “unquestionable.” It’s derived from the medieval Latin indisputābilis, combining the negative prefix in- and the classical disputābilis (disputable).

The dictionary’s earliest example is from Ralph Robinson’s 1551 translation of Utopia (1516), a Latin political satire by Thomas More: “[That] whiche with good and iust Judges is of greater force than all lawes be, the kynges indisputable prerogatiue.”

“Undisputed,” which showed up a couple of decades later, originally meant “not disputed or argued with,” according to the OED, but now generally means “not disputed or called in question.” Standard dictionaries agree.

The first OED citation for “undisputed” is from a 1570 edition of Actes & Monumentes, an ecclesiastical history by John Foxe: “So in the end the bishop making to our Ambassadours good countenaunce … dismissed them vndisputed wythall.” The reference is to a clerical appointment made without opposition.

Etymologically, “undisputed” ultimately comes from disputāre, which meant to compute, investigate, or discuss in classical Latin, but took on the sense of to dispute or contend in colloquial Latin.

“Indisputed,” which appeared in the 17th century, meant not disputed. The first OED citation is from Religio Medici (1643), a wide-ranging memoir by the English polymath Thomas Browne:

“Natura nihil aget frustra, is the only indisputed Axiome in Philosophy.” The Latin axiom means “Nature does nothing in vain.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 3d ago

Q: My grandfather used a lot of idioms that I’ve never heard outside Pequannock, Lincoln Park, or Montville, N.J. (all settled by the Dutch—good farmland). One was “snout,” meaning to complain loudly and make the listener feel as if he/she were at fault. Would love to know the origin.

A: The words “snoot” and “snout” have been used by Americans in various ways since the mid-1800s to express disdain for someone. Both terms ultimately come from the contemptuous use of “snout” for a big or oddly shaped human nose, a usage that dates back to England in the mid-13th century.

We suspect that this 19th-century American sense is the source of your grandfather’s use of “snout” to mean complain loudly and critically. But it may also have been influenced by expressions in German or the variety of German spoken in Pennsylvania, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

In the 19th century, DARE says, Easterners began using the expressions “make a snout” or “make snoots” in the sense of “to grimace, to make faces (at someone).” The dictionary suggests that this “US use may in some cases reflect the equivalent Ger phr eine Schnauze (or Schnute) machen, PaGer en schnut mache.”

The regional dictionary’s earliest example is from a New York newspaper: “This reminds us of the language of the little fellow to the chap that had him down … ‘If I can’t lick you, I can make snoots at your sister!’ ” (Brooklyn Eagle and Kings County Democrat, June 20, 1844.)

The only other 19th-century DARE citation is from a newspaper in Frederick, Md.: “She made a snoot at me and told me to scat.” (Daily News, Aug. 27, 1884.)

An early 20th-century example from southeastern Pennsylvania supports the dictionary’s suggestion that the usage may have been influenced by German, especially the dialect spoken in Pennsylvania, which is also known as Pennsylvania Dutch:

“Make a snout (snoot). Grimace. ‘Teacher, he’s making snouts at me.’ … fr. Pa. Ger. schnoot mŏchă; Ger. schnauze machen.” (From German American Annals, Philadelphia, January-February 1908.)

(German-speaking settlers and their descendants in Pennsylvania were often referred to as “Dutch” because the word “German” was Deutsch in German and Deitsch in the local dialect.)

DARE doesn’t have any examples for “snoot” or “snout” used by itself as a verb meaning to complain or grimace. However, all five standard American dictionaries now list “snoot” as a verb that means to treat disdainfully or condescendingly.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has several 20th-century American examples of “snoot” used in the sense of “to snub; to treat scornfully or with disdain.”

The earliest OED example is from A Couple of Quick Ones, a 1928 novel by the New Yorker writer Eric S. Hatch: “I followed him … up the street to where the Wright limousine was snooting the world in general at the kerb.”

The latest Oxford citation is from a review of The Slipper and the Rose, a film updating the Cinderella story: “Cinderella (Gemma Craven) gets snooted by her Stepsisters and gazes sorrowfully into the flames of the scullery fire.” (Time, Jan. 17, 1977.)

Oxford doesn’t connect the pejorative use of “snoot” and “snout” in verb phrases with the use of “snoot” alone in the scorning sense, but we wouldn’t be surprised if a connection is found one day.

Interestingly, the OED does have several examples of “snout” used in much the way your grandfather used it, but they’re all from Australia. The dictionary says that in Australian slang, “snout” means “to bear ill-will towards; to treat with disfavour, to rebuff.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from The Moods of Ginger Mick, a 1916 novel about World War I by C. J. Dennis: “An’ snouted them that snouted ’im, an’ never give a dam.”

If your grandfather served in World War I or II, he may have picked up his use of “snout” in the fault-finding sense from Australian soldiers, though we think a more likely source is the grimacing American use of “snoot” and “snout” in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both the Australian and American usages ultimately come from the scornful use of “snout” in medieval England for a big or odd human nose, a sense that showed up in King Horn, a Middle English poem of chivalry and romance dating from the mid-1200s:

“He lokede him abute, / Wiþ his colmie snute” (“He looked all about / With his sooty snout”).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 6d ago

Q: Three “cannon” or three “cannons”? Is this a uniquely UK English problem?

A: The answer is yes. After checking ten standard British and American dictionaries, we can safely say that the plural of “cannon” is a bone of contention only in the UK.

In the US, this noun has two plurals and you’re free to use either one—“cannons” or the collective noun “cannon.” All five standard American dictionaries agree.

But opinion in the UK is mixed. Three of the British dictionaries list only “cannons” as the plural, and the two that do include “cannon” differ about the usage—one say it’s “mainly UK,” the other says it’s American.

Our advice? If you live in the US, either plural will do. If you live in the UK and you want to be in the majority, use “cannons.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical records, has plenty of evidence for both plural forms—“cannons” (dating from the 15th century) and “cannon” (from the 16th). But Oxford doesn’t say which is more common in the US or the UK.

As for its etymology, “cannon” is a relative of the word “cane” (as in sugar cane), and its name comes from the gun barrel’s resemblance to a hollow reed.

The noun came into English in the 1400s from Anglo-Norman and Old French (canon), in which it meant a pipe, tube, or artillery piece, the OED says.

Earlier ancestors were the Old French cane (hollow reed) and the Italian cannone (organ pipe, reed, tubular object), both from the Latin canna (a hollow reed or cane).

The Romans acquired canna from the Greek κάννα (kanna, reed), and the OED says it “perhaps” can be traced even farther back to Hebrew and Arabic, which have similar words.

From the beginning, however, “cannon” in English meant the big gun. The OED defines it this way: “A large, heavy piece of artillery formerly used in warfare, typically one requiring to be mounted for firing, usually on a wheeled carriage; now chiefly used for signaling, ceremonies, or re-enactment.”

The oldest recorded examples of the noun are in the plural. Oxford’s earliest citation is from a work on the art of war written in the late Middle Ages, in the days when cannons shot projectiles of lead, iron, or stone:

“The canonys … bloweth out … stonys grete” (“The cannons … shoot out … great stones”). From Knyghthode and Bataile (circa 1460), an anonymous Middle English work that rewrites, paraphrases, and puts into verse a fourth-century Latin book on war, De re Militari, by Publius Vegetius Renatus.

The modern spelling first appeared in the 16th century in the state papers of King Henry VIII. These are the OED citations, which treat the word as an ordinary noun (singular “cannon,”  plural “cannons”):

“5 gret gonnes of brasse called cannons, besides sondery [sundry] other fawcons [small cannons]” (1525) … “To  sende unto Tynmowthe … a cannon, a saker [light cannon], etc.” (1545).

(A note of explanation. Old ballistic weapons were often named after birds of prey or venomous snakes, and the passages just quoted mention some of these: the “falcon,” spelled “fawcon” above; the “saker,” for the lanner falcon or Falco sacer; and the “basilisk” and “culverin,” both serpents. This naming practice also accounts for “musket,” an archaic word for a sparrowhawk.)

The collective use—the plural without the “s”—was first recorded, the OED says, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598), though with the French spelling: “Thou hast talkt … Of basilisks, of canon, culuerin.”

Examples of both plurals, “cannons” and “cannon,” are common from the 1600s onward. Here are the most recent OED citations for each:

“I got to walk around one battlefield after another, posing for pictures with cannons and Colonial reenactors” (from The Darkest Minds, a 2012 novel by Alexandra Bracken).

“There’s definitely a regiment readying to move out. They’ve got supply wagons and cannon lined up” (from Madness in Solidar, a 2015 novel by L. E. Modesitt Jr.).

Perhaps the most memorable use of “cannon” in the plural is from Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade (1854), in which you can almost hear the galloping hoofs: “Cannon to right of them, / Cannon to left of them, / Cannon in front them / Volley’d and thunder’d.”

Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), quotes the poem to illustrate the use of “cannon” as a collective noun. He notes that historically, the word has been used both ways—“as an ordinary noun, with plural cannons; but also collectively.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 1w ago

Q: What’s the story behind the expression “watch it back”? It’s used so often on TV, especially reality shows where people say something like “When I watch it back, I realize how dramatic I was being.”

A: The expression “watch it back,” meaning to watch a replay of something, showed up in writing a couple of decades ago, though the verb phrase hasn’t yet made it into any of the standard, slang, or etymological dictionaries we’ve checked.

However, it’s definitely out there, as you’ve noticed, especially in the movie, TV, and sports worlds. A search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of online newspaper and magazine articles published since 2010, found 268 examples.

Here’s a recent example in which Bella Ramsey describes how Lyanna Mormont, the character she played in Game of Thrones, is crushed to death by a giant zombie as she fatally stabs him:

“When you watch it back, you can hear him crushing her ribs. But I think her adrenaline got her through it. She was in a lot of pain, but at that moment, her aim was to kill the giant. The way I thought about it, she was taking her last breath to do this. It was her final moment before he squeezed her to death” (New York Times, April 30, 2019).

The expression “watch it back” (a conflation of the more common “watch it” and “play it back”) may have originated in the film business. The earliest example we’ve seen is from an interview with Thandie Newton about playing Tom Cruise’s love interest in Mission: Impossible 2, a 2000 film directed by John Woo:

“Tom and I, for example, we’d organize a scene that felt right, we’d block it, and we’d think that was great. And then John Woo walks over and says ‘why don’t you try walking around each other like this’ and it felt very unnatural. But then we’d watch it back and that’s why he’s so phenomenal—it’s in the way he orchestrates the scene” (Box Office Guru, June 5, 2000).

A few months later, the English actor Julian Sands used the expression in an interview about acting in Timecode (2000), an experimental film directed by Mike Figgis:

“We rehearsed it through a couple of times but really we learned it by doing it, and after each run-through we would chill for an hour or two and then watch it back (on four monitors) and refine it some more” (the Guardian, Aug. 19, 2000).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 1w ago

Q: When, where, why, and how did such a word as “writerly” enter the writers’ writing scene? Are there some good writerly examples?

A: The adjective “writerly,” which usually means author-like or consciously literary, showed up in print in the 1950s.

A more scholarly sense appeared in the 1970s, as literary theorists began using “writerly” to describe a text with various possible interpretations.

The earliest example for the adjective in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Times Literary Supplement (Aug. 16, 1957): “Serious Canadian writers at present are firmly resolved to concentrate upon the writerly virtues.”

The OED defines the original meaning of the adjective as “appropriate to, characteristic or worthy of a professional writer or literary man; consciously literary.”

But it’s often hard to tell from the dictionary’s examples whether “writerly” is being used to mean author-like or deliberately literary.

It can be read either way, for instance, in this  citation: “A clever and writerly book” (Spectator, Jan. 24, 1958).

As for the etymology, Oxford says “writerly” was modeled after the much older adjective “painterly,” which meant characteristic of a painter or artistic when it showed up in the late 16th century:

“It was a very white and red vertue, which you could pick out of a painterly glosse of a visage” (from The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a pastoral romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published in 1590, four years after the author’s death).

Although the OED also has two 19th-century citations for “painterly,” it says the usage was “rare before 20th cent.,” when an additional sense appeared: “Of a painting or style of painting: characterized by qualities of colour, stroke, and texture rather than of contour or line.”

The new sense showed up in Principles in Art History, M. D. Hottinger’s 1932 translation of Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe, a 1915 work by the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin: “in the painterly style of the Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century.”

The phrase “in the painterly style” here is a translation of “in dem malerischen Stil.” In a note on malerisch, Hottinger explains his translation:

“This word has, in the German, two distinct meanings, one objective, a quality residing in the object, the other subjective, a mode of apprehension and creation. To avoid confusion, they have been distinguished in English as ‘picturesque’ and ‘painterly’ respectively.”

The OED’s earliest 20th-century citation for the original, “artistic” sense of “painterly” is from the Times (London, May 14, 1941): “He painted architectural subjects in a highly personal way, showing remarkable painterly gifts.”

Getting back to “writerly,” the dictionary says the scholarly sense is derived from the use of the term scriptible by the French literary theorist Roland Barthes.

In his 1973 book Le Plaisir du Texte (The Pleasure of the Text), Barthes uses the terms lisible (readable) and scriptible (writable). Lisible texts are easily readable, while scriptible texts challenge readers.

He says the lisible texts give readers plaisir (pleasure) while the scriptible ones give them jouissance (a French term for enjoyment that can mean delight, bliss, or orgasm).

The first OED citation for “writerly” used in the academic sense is from Richard Miller’s 1974 translation of S/Z, a 1970 study by Barthes of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine:

“The writerly text is ourselves writing, before the infinite play of the world (the world as function) is traversed, intersected, stopped, plasticized by some singular system (Ideology, Genus, Criticism) which reduces the plurality of entrances, the opening of networks, the infinity of languages.” We’ve expanded the citation to give readers a better sense of Barthesian style.

In literary theory, Oxford says, “writerly” describes a text “admitting of a range of possible interpretations; demanding the active engagement of the reader.”

The dictionary adds that literary theorists usually contrast “writerly” with “readerly,” which it defines as “admitting only of a fixed interpretation; immediately comprehensible without demanding active engagement on the part of the reader.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 1w ago

Q: I’ve noticed what I take to be an instance of hypercorrection in this sentence: “Were it not for my grandfather, I would never be born.” I would say, “Had it not been for my grandfather, I would never have been born.” I feel in my grammar bones that the subjunctive is wrong here. I await your exegesis.

A: The opening clause of that sentence, “Were it not for my grandfather,” is grammatically equivalent to “If it were not for my grandfather” (we’ll explain why later). So the sentence is conditional, the kind that often begins with an “if” clause or the equivalent and continues with a “would” clause.

The only thing wrong with the sentence is the second clause, “I would never be born.” It should read, “I would never [or “not”] have been born.”

Because that clause refers to an event in the past—the speaker’s birth—the verb is in the conditional perfect tense (“would have been”), not the simple conditional (“would be”).

The simple conditional is used in a “would” clause that refers to the present or future: “Were it not for my grandfather’s money, I would be poor.” (We wrote about how to juggle tenses with “would” in 2011 and in 2015.)

As we said above, the first clause of that sentence is fine. “Were it not” is a rather formal way of beginning a conditional sentence, but it’s not wrong or “hypercorrect.” (As we wrote in 2009, hypercorrectness is making a mistake in an attempt to be ultra-correct.)

A less formal version would have begun with “If,” as in “If it weren’t for my grandfather.” But there are other options as well, like the one you suggest, “Had it not been for my grandfather,” as well as “If it hadn’t been for my grandfather.”

All four beginnings—(1) “Were it not,” (2) “If it were not,” (3) “Had it not been,” and (4) “If it hadn’t been”—are grammatically equivalent.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would describe all four as “remote conditionals.” These are conditional statements that pose a hypothetical situation (in this case, the nonexistence of a grandfather) that’s unlikely, impossible, or unreal.

Since the grandfather did in fact exist, making the condition unreal, the verb in that clause is in the subjunctive mood, a mood used to express hypothetical situations that are contrary to fact. (The classical example: “If I were king.”)

This accounts for the use of the subjunctive “were” instead of “was” in versions #1 and #2. (In 2014, we discussed this use of “were.”) But the subjunctive mood doesn’t alter verbs in perfect tenses, like the past perfect “had been” in versions #3 and #4.

Now, on to the issue we mentioned above—why the “if” versions (“If it were not,” “If it hadn’t been”) are equivalent to those without it (“Were it not,” “had it not been”). What happens grammatically when we swap one for the other?

To put it simply, we drop the “if” and switch the order of the following elements—the subject and its verb or auxiliary. Here’s how this works with our examples:

“If it were not” → “Were it not” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and verb “were”)

“If it hadn’t been” → “Had it not been” (drop “if”; flip subject “it” and auxiliary “had”)

As the Cambridge Grammar explains this process, the “if” here is replaced with a “subject-auxiliary conversion.” The result is what the authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, call an “inverted conditional.”

Here are a few of the examples they give of inverted conditionals (we’ll show only the relevant clauses):

“If that were to happen” → “Were that to happen”

“If he had seen the incident” → “Had he seen the incident”

“If I had had any inkling of this” → “Had I had any inkling of this”

One more characteristic of inverted conditionals: When they’re expressed in the negative, the negative element comes after the subject (“had he not seen”), instead of before (“had not he seen”).

This means that contractions aren’t used in inverted conditional statements. We say, “Had it not been for my grandfather” (not “Hadn’t it been”), and “Were it not for my grandfather” (not “Weren’t it”). The negative element follows the subject, “it.”

The Cambridge Grammar illustrates with the example “Had it not been for the weather,” noting that the contracted form (“Hadn’t it been for the weather”) isn’t normal English.

A final note before we leave the subject of remote conditional statements. The “if” clause (or equivalent) doesn’t have to include a verb. It could begin with “But for” or “If not for.”

So our original sentence, beginning “Were it not for my grandfather,” could have verbless versions as well: “But for my grandfather” and “If not for my grandfather.”

That last construction always reminds us of Bob Dylan’s If Not for You. And that gives us an excuse to share the original version of the song, which Dylan himself recently posted to the Internet.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about language. For a change of pace, read Chapter 1 of Swan Song, a comic novel.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 2w ago

Q: I’m reading a book that uses the phrase “screw the pooch.” I can tell what it means, but I can’t even imagine where it originated.

A: The expression “screw the pooch,” which is another way of saying “screw up,” appeared in writing in the 1970s and may possibly be a couple of decades older, though the evidence for the earlier origin is quite iffy.

The earliest written example we’ve seen is from The All-American Boys, a 1977 memoir by the NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham, written with the assistance of the American journalist and biographer Mickey Herskowitz:

“The accident board convened, took weeks to gather its findings, took months to file a report, and finally confirmed what everyone had assumed: pilot error rather than equipment failure. The betting in the office on the Apollo 17 crew had long since switched—aviators characteristically do not wait for the accident report—‘That sure cinches it for Dick,’ the refrain went. ‘Ol’ Gene just screwed the pooch.’ ”

(Gene Cernan had been involved in a helicopter accident, but it did not affect his scheduled assignment to command Apollo 17. If Cernan had lost the command, Richard F. Gordon Jr. would have replaced him. Dick Gordon had been scheduled to command Apollo 18, but the mission was canceled.)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “screw the pooch” as a chiefly US colloquial expression that means “to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something,” and compares the usage to the more common phrase “screw up.”

The dictionary says the expression was popularized by Tom Wolfe’s use of it in The Right Stuff, his 1979 book about the space program: “Grissom had just fucked it, screwed the pooch, that was all.”

(The reference is to an incident on July 21, 1961, at the end of the second Mercury mission. After splashdown, the hatch on Gus Grissom’s capsule blew, and he had to jump into the water. Grissom denied causing the hatch to blow.)

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, suggests that “screw the pooch” may “perhaps” be derived from the “coarse slang” American expression “fuck the dog,” which it defines as “(a) to shirk one’s duties or responsibilities; to mess about or waste time; (b) to make a (disastrous) mistake; to fail; to spoil or put an end to something.”

Oxford compares “fuck the dog” to the usual X-rated phrasal verb for failing, “fuck up.” The dictionary’s first citation for the three-word expression is from A World to Win, a 1935 novel by the American writer Jack Conroy:

“ ‘One of the first things you gotta learn when you’re f——n’ the dog,’ said Leo, ‘is t’ look like you’re workin’ hard enough t’ make yer butt blossom like a rose.’ ”

The Dictionary of American Regional English, in its entry for “fuck the dog,” points readers to the earlier use of the verb “dog” in the sense of “to shirk or not do one’s best, especially on the job; to waste time, loaf; to malinger.”

The first DARE citation for “dog” used this way is from the New York Evening Journal (March 20, 1910): “He [Stanley Ketchel] says that Papke couldn’t beat him in Pittsburg, and that Papke was dogging it at the end.”

(The passage apparently refers to the boxer Billy Papke’s loss to Frank Klaus the year before. Ketchel and Papke fought four times for the Middleweight championship, but not in Pittsburgh. Ketchel won three times, Papke once.)

Getting back to your question, the linguist Ben Zimmer looked into a suggestion that “screw the pooch” originated during a discussion in the spring of 1950 between two students at Yale, Jack May and John Rawlings.

Zimmer tracked down a 2010 memoir by May, An Alphabet of Letters, that describes an exchange in which May chides Rawlings for being late with a school project:

“JACK: You’re late, John, you’re fouling up. You are fucking the dog.

“JOHN: Really, you are so vulgar and coarse, I just don’t want to hear it.

“JACK: You’re still late. Is this better? You are screwing the pooch.

“JOHN: (shrill laughter).”

May goes on to explain that Rawlings enlisted in the Air Force and helped design early prototypes of space suits for chimpanzees on NASA missions. When May saw the film of The Right Stuff in 1983 and heard “screw the pooch,” he was convinced that Rawlings had introduced the expression to the space program. However, May couldn’t confirm this, since Rawlings had died in 1980.

Well, it’s a good story, but we’ll stick with the earliest written evidence: Walter Cunningham’s 1977 memoir of his days in the space program.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 2w ago

Q: Why do we say “happy belated birthday” when it should be “belated happy birthday”? The “happy birthday” is belated, not the “birthday.” Please help me understand the proper syntax.

A: Like you, we wouldn’t describe the syntax, or word order, in “happy belated birthday” as logical. But we doubt that anyone would have trouble with the semantics, or meaning, of the expression.

As you point out, the congratulatory phrase “happy birthday” is the thing that’s belated, not the “birthday” itself. Therefore, the logical arrangement of the words would be “belated happy birthday.” So why do many people find it more natural to say “happy belated birthday,” logic be damned?

We believe this is because of a clash between the logical order of the words and the natural order of adjectives. We’ve written several times about the order of adjectives, including a post in 2010 about why people say “a perfect little black dress” instead of “a black perfect little dress,” and one in 2017 about why a toy is “my nice new blue plastic truck” rather than “my plastic blue new nice truck.”

As we say in those earlier posts, it’s natural for an adjective that expresses subjective opinion (like “happy”) to come before an adjective that expresses age (like “belated”). So one would refer to “a delightful old recipe,” not “an old delightful recipe,” and “a risky premature birth,” not “a premature risky birth.”

As for “happy belated birthday” and “belated happy birthday,” you can find both expressions in books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and social media. The first version is generally more popular in less edited sources, and the second in more edited ones.

A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in books, shows that the logical version (“belated happy birthday”) is significantly more popular in these more closely edited works. However, a general Google search as well as a search of the News on the Web corpus, a database of articles from online newspapers and magazines, indicates that “happy belated birthday” is more popular.

Greeting card companies generally offer a wide variety of ways to say “happy birthday” belatedly. Although “happy belated birthday” seems to be the most common, “belated happy birthday” is also offered, as well as “belated birthday wishes,” “belated birthday greetings,” and “belated”-free offerings like “happy birthday … fashionably late” and “I feel horrible about missing your birthday … console me with leftover cake.”

As far as we can tell, the phrase “happy birthday” didn’t show up until the mid-19th century. At first it was literal, referring to the occasion itself. Later, it came to be a formulaic congratulatory expression.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from “Pauline,” a short story by Elizabeth Scaife in the 1843 edition of the Keepsake, an annual literary magazine in London:

“Remembrance painted another birthday of younger years—a happy birthday—the birthday of her first love—a birthday of abounding and exulting expectation, and she could not but feel how different were the hopes she then cherished, and the realities which had overshadowed them.”

The first example we’ve found for the formulaic expression is from Mary’s Birthday, a play by the American writer George Henry Miles: “I wish you a very happy birthday, Miss Mary, and many happy returns.” (The comedy was published in 1858 and performed in the 1859 Broadway season.)

How did people wish each other a happy birthday before “happy birthday” appeared on the scene? The answer is in the previous example. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, people used “many happy returns,” “many happy returns of the day,” “many returns,” and so on as “conventional wishes and greetings on a special day, now spec. on a person’s birthday.”

The noun “return” here refers to the “act or fact of recurring or coming round again” or “each of a series of repetitions of an action,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first citation refers to New Year’s Day:

“And to wish we may see many returns of this Day, many happy New-Years” (from The Church of England Not Superstitious, 1714, by William Teswell, an Anglican rector).

The OED’s earliest use of “returns” in connection with a birthday is from The Battle of Life (1846), a novella by Dickens. We’ll expand the quotation for context:

“ ‘The notion of wishing happy returns in such a farce as this,’ said the Doctor to himself, ‘is good! Ha! ha! ha!’ ” Dr. Jeddler, who finds life a farce, has just kissed his daughter Marion on her birthday and said “many happy returns of the—the idea!—of the day.”

We’ve found several earlier examples, including these in the title and first stanza of “Many Happy Returns of the Day,” a verse by Sylvanus Swanquill, pseudonym of the English writer John Hewitt:

“So this is your birthday, my friend! / You’re just sixty-seven, they say; / You look eighty-eight, but I wish you / Many happy returns of the day.” (From the Court Journal, London, Oct. 17, 1835.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 2w ago

Q: I’ve had quite a few doctor’s visits and laboratory tests lately and the medical personnel I’ve encountered use “pee” for urinate, both as a directive (in a cup) or while discussing results. I don’t object to this usage, but I wonder if it isn’t a bit informal in this setting. What do you think?

A: We’ve had this experience, too. At doctors’ offices, not only are we invited to “pee” into a cup, but sometimes we’re even asked how regularly we “poop.”

It may be that in medical settings, this deliberate informality is intended to make patients comfortable and put them at ease—a welcome contrast to the bewildering technical terminology the patients are faced with.

Or perhaps it’s an extension of the calculated familiarity that’s sometimes called the “hospital we,” as in “How are we feeling this morning,” a usage we wrote about in 2011.

We aren’t bothered by these usages in a medical setting, largely because our minds are focused on more important things—like whether we’d better start putting our affairs in order!

As for the words themselves, we’ve written before about the etymology of “poop,” which didn’t mean “defecate” until the late 19th century.

And though we have discussed “piss” and words derived from it, we’ve never written about “pee.” So here goes.

As a verb meaning to urinate, “pee” is simply a shorter form of “piss.” It originally developed in the 18th century, when it stood for “the initial letter of piss,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

When it was first used, “pee” was a transitive verb—that is, it required an object, the thing that was urinated in or on.

The dictionary’s earliest example is about a cat: “He never stealt, though he was poor, / Nor ever pee’d his master’s floor” (from Ebenezer Picken’s Poems and Epistles, Mostly in the Scottish Dialect, 1788).

Early in the 19th century, the verb was also used intransitively (without an object), and again the OED’s earliest citation is Scottish: “To pee, to make water” (from John Jamieson’s Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1825).

Standard dictionaries in the US and the UK now describe the use of “pee” to mean urinate as informal—that is, acceptable in speech and casual writing.

Here’s an example from Lexico, formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online: “In the bathroom, the girl in the next stall answers her cell phone while she’s peeing.’

In modern British English, the phrase “peed off” is used in the same sense as “pissed off,” according to Lexico, which includes this among its examples:

“She looked really rather peed off but it made for a nugget of great telly.”

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 
Grammarphobia by Pat And Stewart - 3w ago

Q: My brother claims that a reckless driver “careens” off the road, but I think the proper word is “career”? Who’s right—or does anybody care?

A: The answer depends on whether the accident happens in Devonshire or Dubuque. A British speaker is more likely to use “career,” while an American would choose “careen.” Both are acceptable.

This wasn’t always the case, however. Until the early 20th century, a traditional distinction was made between the two verbs. “Career” meant to rush recklessly and out of control, while “careen” meant to tilt, tip, or heel over (as a ship might do).

But as we wrote in 2006, “careen” is now broadly accepted—in common usage as well as in standard dictionaries—for both senses. We felt then (and still do) that the old distinction between “career” and “careen” had become obsolete in American usage.

In fact, we’ve found examples of the hurtling sense of “careen” in American publications dating from the 1860s, though the usage didn’t become widespread until the 1920s.

As we pointed out in our post, some usage guides were still insisting on the traditional distinction even then. But they’ve since changed their positions.

For example, the 1999 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage included an entry for “careen, career,” recommending that “precise writers” recognize the difference. But that entry disappeared with the manual’s fifth edition, published in 2015.

Nowadays the Times uses both verbs (but mostly “careen”) in the high-speed sense. Here are recent examples of each: “A Greyhound driver who authorities say fell asleep before the bus careened off a road in the Utah desert …” (May 15, 2019). “The vehicles careered through a guardrail into southbound traffic” (Jan. 3, 2019).

We also noted in 2006 that Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage upheld the old distinction and recommended “careering out of control,” not “careening.” But the fourth edition, published in 2016 as Garner’s Modern English Usage, says that American English “has made careen do the job of career, as by saying that a car careened down the street.”

We checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries, and all of them currently accept both “career” and “careen” in the sense of moving fast and without control. Six of them (one American, five British) label “careen” as mainly a North American usage.

While some dictionaries simply accept “career” and “careen” as synonyms, a few say that the movement implied in “careen” includes a lurching, swaying, or otherwise erratic course. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary has this usage note:

“Both words may be used to mean ‘to go at top speed especially in a headlong manner.’ A car, for instance, may either careen or career. Some usage guides hold, however, that the car is only careening if there is side-to-side motion, as careen has other meanings related to movement, among which is ‘to sway from side to side.’ ”

We would argue, however, that back-and-forth movement isn’t necessary and that a vehicle can also “careen” by hurtling in a straight line. The linguist and lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield apparently agrees.

In Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), Butterfield writes that because the original nautical meaning was to lean over or tilt, the verb “carries a residual notion in non-nautical contexts of leaning or tilting.”

But he continues: “In a separate modern development in American English, since the 1920s, careen has rapidly become standard in the sense ‘to rush headlong, to hurtle, especially with an unsteady motion,’ i.e. the speed is more central to the meaning than any latent notion of leaning or tilting.”

Butterfield adds that this modern meaning of “careen” is found “much less often in British English, the broad sense being often covered by the verb career.”

Etymologically, “career” and “careen” are unrelated, though both have roots in classical Latin. “Career” can be traced to carrus (wagon) and “careen” to carīna (keel of a boat).

Both words first entered English as nouns in the 16th century, when they were borrowed from French. The first to appear in English writing was “career,”  which the OED says was first recorded in 1534 when it meant a “course” (as in the path of a star through the heavens) or a “running” (as in terms of horsemanship like “full career” for full gallop).

The French source was carrière (racecourse), a noun acquired from the late Latin carrāria, which the OED says meant “carriage-road” or simply “road,” a derivation of carrus (wagon).

Later in the 16th century, the English noun “career” was also recorded in the sense of a race track. It wasn’t until the 19th century that “career” developed the sense of a person’s path in life, the OED says, and it didn’t specifically mean “a course of professional life or employment” until the 20th.

This is Oxford’s first example of the modern meaning: “The foundation of any sound Foreign Service must consist of ‘career men’ who have become expert” (Literary Digest, June 25, 1927). There “career” is an attributive noun—that is, a noun used as a modifier.

As for the verb “career,” it was first recorded in 1594, the OED says, when it meant “to take a short gallop” or “to charge.” This sense led in the 1600s to a related sense that the OED calls a “transferred and figurative” meaning: “to gallop, run or move at full speed.”

That’s the latest sense of the verb for which the OED has citations, and they extend only to 1856. This one is a representative example: “The little Julian was careering about the room for the amusement of his infant friend” (from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Peveril of the Peak, 1823).

Moving on to “careen,” it was first recorded in 1591 as a noun meaning “the position of a ship laid or heeled over on one side,” as in the expression “on (upon) the careen,” Oxford says.

Shortly afterward, in 1600, “careen” appeared as a verb meaning to turn a ship on one side for cleaning, repairs, etc. And in the 18th century it came to mean to tilt or lean over, first in the seagoing sense and later more generally (as when vehicles or buildings were said to “careen”—that is, tip or fall sideways).

The modern meaning of “careen” is defined in the OED as “to rush headlong, to hurtle, esp. with an unsteady motion,” and it’s labeled “chiefly US.”

As we mentioned above, we’ve found “careen” used this way in American publications dating back to the 1860s.

The earliest example we’ve spotted is from an unsigned short story in a California newspaper. In the relevant passage, a character reveals himself by flinging aside his disguise:

“Off flew the bottle-green overcoat—away went the red wig—across the room careened the green spectacles.” (“The Lover’s Masquerade,” Red Bluff Independent, Feb. 25, 1869.)

We’ll give a few more examples from subsequent decades, just to show that the 1869 usage wasn’t an oddity:

“The horse careened down the avenue and broke the wagon to pieces by collision with a wood team.” (Indianapolis News, Oct. 31, 1876.)

“The sleepers [sleeping cars] on the eastern express from Chicago, due at Minneapolis at 7:30 this morning, were thrown from the track at Mendota and careened down a sixty foot embankment to the river.” (Bismarck Tribune, Dakota Territory, Jan. 2, 1880.)

“After a dozen spirits [of the departed] had come from the cabinet, careened through the atmosphere and vanished into space, a particularly depressing scene took place.” (From an article about a seance, Salt Lake Herald, April 24, 1892.)

The OED’s earliest example is from an early 20th-century science fiction novel describing the motion of a spaceship: “The cruiser ‘Vanator’ careened through the tempest.” (From The Chessmen of Mars, 1923, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.)

A couple of decades later the American linguist Dwight L. Bolinger wrote: “Careen of recent years has come to mean ‘to rush headlong,’ or ‘hurtle,’ doubtless because of its resemblance to career—but this is rather an example of displacement than of pairing, for one rarely reads or hears the word career nowadays.” (From “Word Affinities,” a paper published in the journal American Speech, February 1940.)

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.

Email Address

Subscribe

Read Full Article

Read for later

Articles marked as Favorite are saved for later viewing.
close
  • Show original
  • .
  • Share
  • .
  • Favorite
  • .
  • Email
  • .
  • Add Tags 

Separate tags by commas
To access this feature, please upgrade your account.
Start your free month
Free Preview