Word Matters Podcast

Episode 24: Mailbag #3

Episode 24: Questions from You

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We're going back to our mailbag this week for another round of our listeners' most vexing, irksome, and esoteric linguistic concerns.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: we answer your questions. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point. We always invite our listeners to write to us with language-related matters that annoy or confuse or merely puzzle them. Today, we're going back to the mailbag to address some of your most recent concerns. Here's Ammon Shea.

Ammon Shea: Listener Bobby Cope writes in with a question. "I'm wondering about the phrase when something goes south, meaning it has failed or falling apart, et cetera." He wants to know, did this phrase have its origins in the Civil War? Many phrases did have origins in the Civil War. Perhaps one of the more notable ones was deadline, which was a line past which you would be shot if you walked, which came from prison camps in the Civil War. But to the best of our knowledge, something having gone south—usually goes south or went south or headed south—did not originate in the Civil War. For the sense that Bobby Cope is referring to, our earliest citations tend to be in reference to finance. For instance, this is a citation from 1926, "Should Los Angeles advance quotations further, however, it would be necessary to advance local prices as there would be a demand for high-score Puget Sound stock to go south." And that's from the Spokesman Review in Spokane, Washington in 1926. It goes back as far as we can tell to about 1920 and typically, in early use, it's in this financial meaning. There is an earlier sense of which we do not define because it's more in the realm of dated slang. Jonathan Green defines it in his Green's Dictionary of Slang meaning "to abscond with, to run off." That's a little earlier in use, but that only goes back to 1910, 1905. We have citations, "'There you are,' said the hick, as he went South with my cigarettes." from Variety in 1912, and again, Variety 1918, "The low circuit Monday morning found an act had gone south on it and notified the Vaudeville Managers Protective Association." So that's slightly related, but still semantically distinct-meaning, but far removed from what we would consider to be attributable to the Civil War.

Peter Sokolowski: It reminds me of the British expression pear-shaped.

Ammon Shea: You're right, things have gone pear-shaped.

Peter Sokolowski: I have always kind of wondered where that came from. I'm not sure what that really means. What are we evoking?

Ammon Shea: Why didn't they go with piriform, which means "pear-shaped"?

Neil Serven: One was to assume that the south here is, someone is visualizing a chart and the line is heading downward. Right?

Ammon Shea: Right. Exactly. Right. That's what it means.

Neil Serven: That would be where south is on a map, so someone is projecting the map onto the chart with a line graph of some kind. Then, when profits go south, that means that you're heading downward, that sort of word.

Ammon Shea: Of course. What's interesting is, we never say profits have gone north, do we?

Neil Serven: We never do, no.

Peter Sokolowski: We do use north metaphorically that way. Right? "Earnings north of."

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: That's a good point, yeah.

Neil Serven: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: But just the things don't "head north."

Peter Sokolowski: Isn't that interesting how idioms fit into a slot and never get out of it. That's sort of what an idiom is, which is to say it's immutable. You can't replace any of the elements. That's the way you say it.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Peter Sokolowski has our next listener question about a particular word's two spellings.

Peter Sokolowski: We have a note from Florence that says, "I love your podcast." Thank you very much. "I was wondering if you could explain how all the different spellings of the word tsar came to be." Florence spelled tsar, T-S-A-R, which is absolutely a spelling that I'm familiar with, but of course there's another one that's maybe even more familiar, which is C-Z-A-R for czar. Why do we spell this two different ways in English? Well, basically the short answer is, it's a transliteration of a non-Roman alphabet because the Cyrillic alphabet in Russian, so tsar means "the ruler of Russia," especially before the 1917 revolution, the equivalent of the word emperor. Because Russian is spelled in Cyrillic, we have to sort of approximate the sounds of Russian with English phonetics in the Latin alphabet and so that's why we ended up with two different versions. There's a little complication here. The spelling with a T comes from French and that's the way the French spell it. It corresponds to the fact that, in French, that initial sound of a hard Z as we would in English like zebra or something, is always kind of soft, so to put a T in front of it, makes it that tsar. It's odd that in English, we then transliterated the name with a C-Z because, although it reads fine in English, it kind of goes against the phonetic rules of Slavic languages because the C-Z elements in Latin letters usually sound like /CHA/, like the name Czechoslovakia. If you read something in Polish or Czech, you would say CHA when you see a CZ and not ZA, or TSA. Some people criticize the CZ spelling because it's sort of anti-phonetic if you're being literal about the source. However, that's much the more common spelling in English is with the CZ. It's also important to recognize that czar comes from kaiser, the Germanic kaiser, which comes from Caesar in Latin. Caesar, kaiser, czar, they're all the same word etymologically.

Neil Serven: This happens with other languages too. There are other languages that don't use the alphabet that we use for English and then we have to approximate those sounds when we borrow the words. It happens from Arabic. It happens from Hebrew and Yiddish. Think of the word bupkis. I think we enter three different spellings for the noun bupkis because the plosive there before the K, sometimes people voice it, sometimes people don't, so is it a P or is it a B? The vowel at the end, I believe can be spelled with an E or a U. That's one example of another language where this happens and there's certainly transliterations of Arabic, Arabic names in particular I find it whenever somebody or a leader, is written about in the American press. There's never a settled spelling right away. The K sound might be rendered as Q in some ways, or K in another, or a G. I believe Muammar Gadafi had multiple spellings rendered. That's sort of an example that we see in the modern press still.

Peter Sokolowski: It reminds me of the names of Chinese cities, like Peking and Beijing are the same city. It was a different model of transliteration. At a certain point, they just simply all changed. In the older English writings about Istanbul, it's written just as Stanbul without the initial I. These conventions of transliteration change over time and have largely settled. Czar, in English, of course, we use it. In governmental terms, you have a drug czar. You have different governmental positions using that. That's a use that goes back, I would have thought only to maybe 40 or 50 years.

Ammon Shea: It's the 1860s. In the mid 19th century, we were using this. There's a great citation from the Cleveland Weekly Plain Dealer in 1864 and somebody's calling upon what they call the Czar of the war office, which was Stanton, who was in Lincoln's administration. "A Colonel who had been dismissed by court marshal called upon that czar of the war office and requested him to examine some papers and give his opinion. 'I haven't time to do it, sir,' said Stanton." What's interesting to me about that is that, when we use that in the sense of a figure who has great power or authority, we always seem to use the C-Z spelling and we rarely if ever use the T-S spelling.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Emily Brewster: Yep.

Ammon Shea: We've definitely distinguished between them in that sense.

Peter Sokolowski: You might see the T-S in titles of works of literature or pieces of music. There's something a little bit literary about it, but they just sort of lean in different directions. As always, usage determines the standards.

Emily Brewster: That's right and it's convention. Like you said, Peter, these are conventions and conventions become habit, and they become what appears correct, and that's what becomes established, and that's what people expect and it's what they use.

Peter Sokolowski: This is the kind of word that people would think, "Boy, isn't there an official spelling of this?" But it shows you how all words work, which is, they sort of land where they land and it's the convention that determines how we then judge this level of standardness, if this is the acceptable form or if these are variant forms. We do note in the dictionary that the form spelled with a T-S is less common than the form spelled with a C-Z in English.

Ammon Shea: That's our way of saying, "Come on, English, get it together."

(music break)

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. I'll be back after the break with another of your questions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. For more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: We have a letter from Kathy Hill. She writes, "People who are in line versus people that are in line. I have always used the former, but so many on TV and in print use the latter. It sounds wrong to me. Am I incorrect or is either correct? It bothers me/I don't like it. LOL." (laughs) I think I generally default to "people who are in line," but "people that are in line," is very old, very established. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it. That is our oldest relative pronoun and it was used to refer to both people and things. It Has been used for hundreds and hundreds of years. The OED has its earliest example of the relative pronoun that being used for a thing from 1200 years ago, being used to refer to people more than 850 years ago. So it is unimpeachable for sure. But if it's unimpeachable, if it's this old, why is it disliked by many people because Kathy Hill is not alone in disliking this? We don't really know for sure, but that was in very good use and then it sort of fell out of use in the 17th century, in the late 17th century. When it came back into use in the early 18th century, and again, we don't know why it did either of these things, but when it came back into use, people were complaining about it. People were framing it as a kind of upstart, even though really it was 1000 years old.

Ammon Shea: I think that knows what it did and it should feel bad for what it did.

Emily Brewster: You do. You think so?

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Neil Serven: Well, I think people might find it a use that irritates because it sort of removes this slight element of humanity from the person, right? Who is the pronoun we use for people, you know, "who is that over there?" When we say "a person that," it almost feels like that element of humanity has been just slightly stripped for no particular reason.

Emily Brewster: But as a general pronoun, we use that that way all the time. "That is my friend over there." Right?

Neil Serven: That's true. That's true.

Emily Brewster: We don't say "who is my friend," unless it's an interrogative.

Neil Serven: Then we have things like nouns, like a team or something that might consist of people, but we don't really know, do we refer to them all as people when we say "a team who," or we tend to more say "a team that" because we want to think of the unit rather than as the fact, their individual humanity all grouped together in this weird way. And we're working with Christmas songs and looking at words to Christmas songs, and I think of a line from the Gene Autry song "Up on the House Top" and it says, "Give her a dolly that laughs and cries." Now, a dolly is obviously a thing, but it's a thing that's likened to a human. We are even talking about his ability to cry and laugh, which are human traits and yet we say, " A dolly that laughs and cries," not "a dolly who laughs and cries."

Emily Brewster: I realize it's a really creepy, Neil.

Neil Serven: It's really creepy to think of a dolly being a real human, so that is another branch of that who versus that question.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, there's another song too. It makes me think of the Gershwin song "The Man That Got Away" or "The Girl That Got Away." It's a standard song sung by Judy Garland, among others. When Frank Sinatra made a second version of it, he actually changed the lyric to "the girl who got away," so he sort of corrected it. Maybe there's a sense that that is sort of informal or less formal than who, but it's certainly not incorrect.

Neil Serven: I believe the David Bowie song is "The Man Who Sold the World."

Peter Sokolowski: But "The Man That Fell to Earth"?

Neil Serven: Right.

Emily Brewster: Well, who is definitely correct also, right, but that is also correct.

Peter Sokolowski: We use that in our definitions at Merriam-Webster when it's not certain that an action, for example, can be made only by a person and could be made by an animal, for example, or some inanimate object and so that is the sort of language of our definitions very often.

Neil Serven: Yeah. That was actually a style rule in the dictionaries. I believe one of the rules was, if it was any conceivable way it could be a non-human then it would be "one that," and even in any word that ended in E-R, the noun ending in E-R we would say "one that," even if it was only possible for it to be a person. That was just a rule we had at the dictionary.

Peter Sokolowski: So fighter is "one that fights" and it does allow for, for example, you could have a dog that's a fighter, or you could be looking out...

Neil Serven: A robot.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. Looking out your window and saying, "Now, that blue jay is a fighter" or something like that.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Neil Serven is up next with words that transform from being literal to figurative.

Neil Serven: Listener Joe Germani has a question about words that start out as being literal descriptions and due to some change, just become a figurative meaning. Joe's example is the term footage. In video recording and in filmography, footage refers to literal actual feet of film. You produce a film strip that is a certain amount of feet long and then that is what is called the footage when you review the footage later. Now that things are recorded digitally and the word footage is really only figurative now, the word footage still exists. You can talk about digital video footage. He's asking, "Is there a term for that change in language and do you all have favorite examples of this change in word's meaning?" In terms of whether this has a term or not, I don't really know of one referring to this kind of specific shifting usage where it's something that had been literal and then only exists as figurative words. Words see figurative use all the time from the literal sense all the time, but I don't know of one where the literal application has become obsolete. I do know of a few examples of this happening. One that occurs to me, I'm always struck when I hear the verb "to telegraph" referring to something that is an invention that we think of as the 19th century and yet we hear about, boxers will be accused of telegraphing punches sometimes. It's clear to the opponent what punch is going to be thrown. Pitchers sometimes telegraph pitches to the batter without even meaning to. They tip their pitches sometimes. Telegraph, we enter it as a verb, meaning "to make known by signs, especially unknowingly and in advance." Unless we are referring to the device historically, that's what we're talking about when we hear of the verb to telegraph.

Another example that comes to mind that isn't so much about technology, but about economic advancement, is the adjective dime store, which of course referred to stores of the F.W. Woolworth ilk. When things literally cost a dime. I remember shopping at Woolworths as a child. I think they went out of business in the 90s and things weren't a dime then obviously, but we still use dime store to refer to something that's cheap, of low quality. Not just objects either: we can say dime store advice, dime store psychologists I've heard of.

Ammon Shea: Dime store operation.

Neil Serven: Dime store excuses, dime store operation. Of course now we don't have dime stores anymore, we have dollar stores. So inflation has changed the role of dime stores in the language, but we still use it as this adjective, even though you aren't going to shop at a dime store anymore.

Emily Brewster: I love the figurative use. It's such a frequent way of extending meaning of words. It's almost a guarantee that any word that has significant currency is going to be applied figuratively and it's responsible for many words that we don't even think of as being remarkable or interesting or anything. I think of the word sweet, which was originally an adjective describing something that was a flavor. Then the noun is really a figurative extension of that. You eat sweets. It's a figurative application. I have a four-year-old daughter. The other day she was coloring and when she went outside the lines, she would say she was spilling.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh.

Neil Serven: Spilling, huh.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. I was like, Oh, okay. Right. There's just a very logical figurative extension of the word spill to talk about extending something beyond its prescribed limits.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. I think you're absolutely right, Emily, that we're surrounded by words, which we don't even stop and think about. Any word which has been around for long enough will change sufficient to have taken on some kind of figurative meaning. My favorites are also the ones which are kind of hidden in plain sight. I think a great example is the word secretary, which in its initial application was, you would pronounce it "secret-ary." It was someone who kept secrets on behalf of the superior. That's going back to the 14th century and, obviously, we've kind of broadened that meaning sufficiently that we don't think of that as a primary sense anymore. There's one I just came across recently, which is also, I think kind of interesting, but a little more grim, which is the word death toll, which we're all of a sudden all uncomfortably familiar with in the midst of the coronavirus. We think of the death toll as the number of people that have been killed or found to be deceased from an event. But the original meaning, it was used in reference to the tolling of church bells, usually to signify the dead.

Peter Sokolowski: Quite literal.

Ammon Shea: Right. We started using death toll as a kind of numeric indicator of, "the death toll stands at 500 whatever," in the late 19th century but there are plenty of citations going back to the early 19th century like this one from the Cape Town Gazette in 1827 from South Africa, which very clearly says, "The death toll has been tinging since morning in 300 steeples."

Peter Sokolowski: Just bringing that image to them.

Ammon Shea: Right. They're just ringing the bell to demark the death, which is a very literal meaning that we rarely if ever use anymore.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. We'd understand it, I suppose. I mean, my favorite I've used this before, but it's striking to me that sort of hiding in plain sight quality of a word like vitriol, which we use in political contexts meaning "harsh and angry words, bitterly, harsh language or criticism," but originally vitriol was hydrochloric acid. It was a scientific term for a liquid that burns. The liquid that burns becomes words that burn as a metaphor. Now, of course, no one really refers to the liquid, we almost always refer to the rhetorical use of this and so that's a metaphor.

Neil Serven: It's weird how we find metaphors too. It's like, what do we think of the term that has been adopted even though it's long gone like a carbon copy. It once referred to actual reprographics. I remember doing a thing with mimeographs for my teacher. I would have to write something and then there would be a carbon copy at the bottom of it and then you would make reproductions of it. Of course, now, email software borrows that term for when you send a copy of an email to someone else and yet we can also use it figuratively to mean "he's a carbon copy of his father," someone who shares all the characteristics of someone else. It's funny how we just decide that that is going to remain even though carbon copies aren't a thing we need to use anymore. I think also the terms that have derived and then further derived. I think of the term soap opera, which referred to radio programs that were sponsored by soap companies that got associated with these melodramatic plots. Then, even though they started being sponsored by other companies and not just soap, they were still called soap operas. That was retained in the semantic meaning of the word and yet now we say, "This person's life is a soap opera." All these lines are being drawn to this one person who has got a life with all sorts of romantic problems or just dramatic issues or whatever. It draws a line to soap companies all through the decades and the centuries. It's just strange how these things survive, this reference survive.

Emily Brewster: Metaphor is a powerful force.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Neil Serven: It is.

Peter Sokolowski: Metaphor elevates etymology to the level of story. It becomes not just a linguistic fact, but a narrative. That's why it's so compelling. That's why I think maybe a lot of people seek it out. We want a story. We want posh to mean "port out and starboard home." We want cop to be a "constable on patrol." Those are false, by the way. We're attracted to them because they're so compelling.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: We wrap up this trip to the mailbag with singular words, that sound plural. Here's Peter.

Peter Sokolowski: Mark Robinson writes in with a question. "I'd love to hear more about scissors, pliers, pants, and any other words that sound plural, but refer to a single thing. Are they a special type of word? How do they come about and is there a singular form that's just uncommon?" That's a really good question. This is one of those things because English, in so many ways, it's so normalized. It's odd that we have these plurals that aren't plural, in effect. The history of pants is kind of fun, so we'll just start there. It does go back to a character in the commedia dell'arte, the Italian 16th century theater form. Pants comes from a character in the commedia dell'arte called Pantalone. The stock characters also had stock costumes. They all kind of wore the same thing. We can think of another of these characters, Harlequin, and there's kind of an identifiable look to a harlequin. We all can recognize that by the costume. One of the things about the costume of the pantalones is what came to be called in English, pantaloons. Pantaloons, just an Englishization of pantalone, the trousers that this character wore. Then, over time, it was just reduced from pantaloons to pants. It's interesting that Ambrose Bierce found that abbreviation to be very much a reduction in formality. He noted in his book Write It Right, "abbreviated from pantaloons, which are no longer worn, this term is vulgar exceedingly." He was very judgmental about the use of the word pants. Pants, of course, also in British English today refers to underwear, what we might call panties in American English. That's a long way of saying that pants is from this character. And like trousers, it's another one of these terms. It's a plural word that refers to a single object.

Emily Brewster: Yes and there's a name for this type of term. It is a Latin name: plurale tantum. The plural of that could be because it does have a plural form, is pluralia tantum. They're English words that have only a plural form, but that represent a singular object. And like scissors, right, like pants, they have two parts and when we want to talk about one, it's got this plural form. It's got that plural marker on the end, the S. When we want to talk about one, we talk about them as a pair.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. A pair of pants.

Emily Brewster: A pair of pants, a pair of glasses, a pair of scissors, a pair of tweezers.

Peter Sokolowski: Isn't that interesting? They all follow this pattern.

Emily Brewster: Yep.

Peter Sokolowski: In French, it always strikes me as funny that pants and especially the word jeans are singular. "Hand me my jean. Can you get my jean out of the dryer?" That's the way you say it in French. It makes perfect sense. It's a single object.

Emily Brewster: Right. Well, and pant also occurs as a singular. I first became aware of it in fashion context. It was fancier by taking a little bit of the humor out of pants by making it pant.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely, I have heard that.

Emily Brewster: "A lovely lady's pant in gabardine."

Peter Sokolowski: Yes. I've heard it in just that way. Exactly.

Neil Serven: It's understandable why we are so comfortable referring to these as plurals. These are items with two parts that obviously work in tandem together and they are useless if they are broken apart into those two individual units. Right? With certain examples more than others, I think people might be used to thinking of them as units. You never hear of "a pants." Once in a while, I think I've heard of "a scissors." Not frequently, but I've heard "a scissor."

Emily Brewster: My mom says "a scissor."

Neil Serven: A scissor?

Emily Brewster: Yep.

Neil Serven: Rather than a pair of scissors necessarily?

Emily Brewster: I'm sure she says both, but she definitely doesn't say "a scissors," she says "a scissor."

Neil Serven: Maybe it's the ones that we can hold in a hand that make more sense as a singular object. One example that seems to fall into this category, but has a slightly different path is forceps, which look like they should fall in the same category as scissors and pliers. They're this tool that has two parts that are used to clamp like pliers, but forceps, when it was borrowed from Latin, it had the S, so we interpreted that as a plural. If you look in the Unabridged Dictionary, there are examples of plurals that are not just forceps. It says forceps, also forcepses or forcepes.

Ammon Shea: Forcepes.

Neil Serven: Forcipes. I'm going to find an occasion to use forceps in the plural, just so I can say forcepes.

Peter Sokolowski: That means it's analyzed like triceps and biceps. We think of them as plural, but they're actually singular, not in English, right? From the Latin. There's something else about these words, which is, when you made a verb out of these words, they actually follow a singular, a non-existent singular, so to scissor, to tweeze, to shear. We love our regular verbs in English. That's for sure and these have sort of been normalized, sort of retrospectively, as regular verbs.

Emily Brewster: What do you do with pliers? To plier, to ply?

Peter Sokolowski: To ply, I guess.

Neil Serven: I might have heard ply, but rarely.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. I guess it doesn't have a verb that's associated with it, so clearly this.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Thank you to all who have written to us. If you have a question or comment, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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