Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


Americanisms in British English. Love them or loathe them, they’re here to stay. And we love them.

On Saturday 20 May 2017, the well-known British word buff (orig. U.S.)  Susie Dent presented an excellent and
engaging program(me) on BBC Radio 4 about Americanisms in British English.

Her angle (orig. U.S.) was that she personally (orig. Brit.) likes them, and she wanted to persuade people who don’t to change their minds and join her.

I suspect she won’t have succeeded; feelings run deep on this issue, and there are plenty of Brits (orig. U.S.) who dislike, not to say detest, Americanisms.

The program(me) was called Americanize!: Why the Americanisation of English Is a  Good Thing. (Note the playful alternation between the –ise and –ize spelling.)

As she put it, “I’ll be exploring why the use of American English seems to raise the hackles of so many speakers of British English.”

She raised the question of why, when English has “borrowed” so many words from so many other languages, some people object only to the import of U.S. words and phrases.

As she is a personality (orig. Brit) whose views on language might interest the general public, her endorsement of Americanisms grabbed a certain amount of media attention. (So much so, that Radio Scotland invited me to do a 15-minute slot on their morning program(me), an offer I turned down in favo(u)r of attending my regular yoga class. I missed my Warholian 15 minutes, but I managed my first ever headstand. Much more rewarding.)

Sadly, my attempt looked nothing like this. 😦

As a goodly proportion of visitors to this blog are American, let me tell you that a recurrent theme in Britain can be summed up as “Americanisms are destroying our language.” This is, of course, nonsense on stilts. (I do love that phrase. I wonder who first used it.)

  • You cannot “destroy” a language (except by making it extinct)
  • It is not “our” (i.e. British) language. Nobody “owns” a language to the exclusion of anyone else. Or, rather, or conversely, if you’re a linguistic socialist, everyone who speaks it “owns” it.

(And, if we’re using the ownership metaphor, I feel obliged to bring in Mark Twain’s “There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”)

Ms. (orig. U.S.) Dent, or her guests, went on to highlight (orig. BrE literally, orig. U.S. figuratively) some other basic truths:

  • Many words perceived as Americanisms are not in fact such; e.g. trash, gotten appear in Shakespeare;
  • British English (BrE) speakers use many words of U.S. origin without even realising it;
  • As proof of which, the OED records 26,000 words and meanings of U.S. origin, of which 7,000 are now part of BrE;
  • Verbing is an ancient historical phenomenon, not a U.S. invention;
  • BrE is now merely one variety or dialect out of many.

For anyone who works in the field, these are self-evident truths, not to say truisms. But, presumably, for the rather conservative (with a small c) listenership of Radio 4,  they must, in their unexpectedness, be like Damascene revelations.

Rubens’s Conversion of St Paul. Busy or what! You have to really concentrate to find St Paul; and the angel of revelation, or whatever it is, looks like a Labourite with a grudge. Presumably, the thronged scene was how it was when you could get the staff and Rubens was painting.

One of her guests was the president of the Queen’s English Society, Dr Bernard Lamb. He is an academic who has published over 100 papers in his field. Sadly, that field is clearly not linguistics.

Among his more outrageous pronouncements we had “The argument that all forms of English are equally valid I don’t think is true. English comes from England, and I think we’ve got prior rights to it…and our form I much prefer. I’ve no objections to Americans using Americanisms, but I don’t really like them in this country.”

Sure, English comes from “England”, except for the thousands of words that come from other languages, or from Scottish, Welsh or Irish varieties of English. (That use of “England” and “English” when a wider area is meant gets right up my nose [BrE].)

And the “I don’t really like them in this country” said in a certain way is rather perturbing.

The “Lady of Countdown” also interviewed John Humphrys, anchorman (probably orig. BrE) of the premier (orig. BrE) BBC news program(me) Today. He reserved his most splenetic scorn for “reach out” in the meaning “contact”. This is a usage I also detest, but, hey, who cares?!? He also clings to and thus helps to perpetuate the myth that the –ize spelling is peculiarly American.

He was reacting to the idea that e.g. color is easier to spell than colour. I quote at length: “I’m slightly baffled by the idea that we should welcome something because it’s easy. The whole point of language is to communicate. If we know that we for years have spelt organise with an s, and that is the correct way to spell it, correct because there IS a right and wrong way to spell things. That’s necessary for children to learn how to write words…fairly obvious point to make, isn’t it?…in a way that everybody else can understand. Now if half the population uses an s and half the population uses a z, children are entitled to say ‘Which one is right?'”

(The answer, sweet British child, is that both are, but if you use the z spelling, teacher will probably mark it  wrong.)

Where to begin? In what other area of life would we not welcome something that makes life easier? On reflection, though, I agree. Hey! Let’s abolish refrigerators, radio, the internet, aeroplanes and antibiotics for starters.

How many years exactly is “for years”, and who exactly is this “we”? It sounds like “inclusive we” i.e. Humphrys and all his listeners, but isn’t it really the  ‘we who are in the know’ “we”? (As I’ve written at length elsewhere, many verbs first appeared in English with the z spelling, which is for many of them etymologically preferable.)

And, yes, the whole point of language is indeed to communicate. But note the misleading and mistaken equation of spelling with language. And, yes, there is a right and a wrong way to spell most words, but for quite a few words there are alternatives, in my judg(e)ment.

As I pointed out in Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, where I devoted a few pages to the topic (pp. 153-6), formerly it was the French who were often accused of besmirching “our” language. Nowadays, however, that poisoned chalice has passed to the Americans. There is a historical tradition going back to at least the sixteenth century of antipathy to “furrin” words; and nowadays, American English is perceived as the “furriner”.  Nobody objects to bruschetta from Italian, but, as Lynne Murphy has pointed out, to speak of cookies if you’re British is akin to sleeping with the enemy. Yet, almost inevitably, the word is first found in a British (specifically Scottish) source.

As I wrote in Damp Squid: “A possibly apocryphal story illustrates perfectly the mixture of jingoism, snobbery, and one-upmanship that can underlie prejudices against American usage. An American student let his tutor know he was in Oxford and would like to contact him, to which came the Olympian rejoinder: ‘I am delighted that you have arrived in Oxford. The verb “to contact” has not.’”

That’s enough of my little rantette. To emphasize how much BrE owes to AmE, I’ve listed the 51 new words for the years 1900 to 1920 that I’ve been tweeting more or less daily.

After Susie Dent’s program(me), I wanted to see the country in which the first citation of the word was published, according to the OED.  You’ll see the totals when you get to the end of the list. There were some that surprised even me, such as lifestyle, OMG and bullshit being first cited in British sources, or U-boat and ponytail being American. Where a famous author is given as the first citation, I’ve put their name in brackets.

bold = U.S.; sloped bold = Britain

1900 television, hillbilly

1901 Ms., eatery

1902 number two (euphemism), airport

1903 racism, man on the Clapham omnibus

1904 hip, demo (Australian), telecommunication (unidentified)

1905 tantric, smog

1906 suffragette, teddy bear, psychoanalysis

1907 taxi, cornflakes

1908 art nouveau (Shaw), boy scout 

1909 neo-cortex, cinema

1910 Freudian, post-impressionism

1911 pie in the sky, pavlova (New Zealand), brassiere (Canadian)

1912 tweedy, vitamine (named thus by a Polish scientist)

1913 comic strip, piggy bank

1914 u-boat, crossword

1915 lifestyle, bullshit (Wyndham Lewis), America First

1916 ponytail, red giant, tank

1917 soviet, commonwealth, OMG

1918 dada, motherfucker, legend in one’s lifetime (Lytton Strachey)

1919 bagel, dunk, rocket

1920 T-shirt, deb(bie) (both Scott Fitzgerald), leotard (unidentified)

Total = 51

US = 27
Brit = 19
Unidentified = 2
Canada/Australia/New Zealand = 1 each


Can you say “reach a crescendo.” Yes, you can. It’s general language, not the preserve of musicians.

I wonder what kind of “crescendo”. Of passion? Desire? Lust? Deceit?

5-second read

Some musicians and pedants hate the use of crescendo to mean an event, as in “to reach a crescendo”, rather than a process. Don’t worry. Use it that way if you want to. Be aware, though, that it’s a bit of a journalistic cliché.

Now for the 7.5 minute read.

Can something reach a crescendo?

Not for language “purists. This usage gets right up their nose. Normal folk will probably just get on with life and use the phrase as and when required – which, if you are not a journalist, newscaster, reporter or wannabe writer, is unlikely to be very often.


On Twitter recently a tweep was incensed enough by the journalistic (mis)use of the idiom to tweet this collective rebuke to Beeb hacks:  “Yet again, BBC reporters, you don’t reach a crescendo. The crescendo is a process leading to a climax, or peak or whatever.”

That tweet concisely puts the argument deployed by purists. Repeat after me (they say): ‘“crescendo” does not mean “climax, culmination” and the like.’

A definition or two

Oh, but I’m sorry to have to break the news that it does. Where do we look if we want to know what a word “means”. Why, “the” dictionary, of course. Well, on this point dictionaries are in harmony, not to say unison (Geddit?!?!). Here’s the Collins dictionary’s first definition:

  1. music a gradual increase in loudness or the musical direction or symbol indicating this. Abbreviation: cresc. Symbol: (written over the music affected) ≺ (The image is my addition, btw)

(I added the illusration, btw; it is not in the dictionary.)

But that is followed by a further two:

  1. a gradual increase in loudness or intensity

the rising crescendo of a song

  1. a peak of noise or intensity

the cheers reached a crescendo

That last meaning shows the word association – reach – that is the major bête noire in this piece. “If a crescendo is a process”, say the naysayers, “how can it be reached?” It is true that you can reach a final state – maturity, for example, but not a process, such as “growing up”.

Crescendo goes with a few other verbs (e.g. become/hit/build to/rise to) but reach is by far the most frequent to imply an end state or an event. It is also worth noting that build to and rise to suggest process rather than state.

Just to be clear what we’re talking about, here are three examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American, from the academic, magazine, and fiction components:

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005, when Live8, the biggest rock concert in history, was held with the aim of influencing the G8 meeting in nearby Gleneagles.

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664, when the English took possession of New Amsterdam (population ten thousand) and the city and colony were renamed New York.

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Crescendos be like…

Adjectives that modify crescendo include, according to the Oxford English Corpus, operatic, Rossini, orchestral, slow-building, gradual, deafening, crashing, thundering, almighty, swelling, EUPHORIC, FRENZIEDROUSING, THRILLING.

Now, you might think that the adjectives/participles to do with hearing/sounds, or emotion (underlined and capitalized respectively), point to the word being used in its strictly musical sense. However, many do not.

For example, of the 14 examples of deafening crescendo, only two are strictly musical, and even one of those is from a football report:

…the orchestra reaching its deafening crescendo before the long silence known as off-season begins.

The other examples include e.g. Her entire being ached with unimaginable pain. She could barely move, the pain rising in a deafening crescendo as she struggled to sit up.

And, similarly, when it comes to crescendos of something, while many are musical or aural, there are also several non-musical ones (in descending order of statistical significance): a crescendo of boos, guitars, noise, applause, drums, strings, sound, voices, EXCITEMENT, EMOTION, CRITICISM, violence, PROTEST, music, color, activity, attack: e.g.:

Instead, there is a rising crescendo of voices wondering what C4 [British TV Channel Four] is for, and why, precisely, it deserves any kind of public subsidy.

Due to the short growing season, spring and summer flowers bloom together in a crescendo of color in July and August.

The title track of the new album is a highlight as ‘Shake/ Shiver Moan’ slowly builds itself up into an epic crescendo of flailing guitars and pounding drums and is an impressive indicator of where they now find themselves.

This very short, one-bar crescendo only reaches mezzo forte.

Who talks about crescendos?

The Oxford English Corpus shows you the domain of discourse of a word or phrase. Of the 2,857 examples of crescendo as a noun (singular, or plural crescendos), 1,040 are in the “arts” domain, 657 in “news”, “unclassified” accounts for 257, blogs  for 233, “life and leisure” 164, sport 92, “society” 80, fiction 60.

So, what does that tell us? Hey presto! 1,040 examples, or 36 per cent-ish, are in the arts domain, so it must be musical.

Well, not really. If you look more closely, a little over 600 are in the subdomains of “popular” and “classical music”. But that’s still fewer citations than for “news.” In addition, domains such as “life and leisure”, sport, and “society” are almost entirely journalistic writing, e.g.

…Barrett brilliantly builds a nerve-stretching crescendo of suspense and dread that culminates in the 1998 car bombingNZ Listener, referring to a film.

In short, though the first person cited by the OED as using crescendo in its “climax” meaning is Scott Fitzgerald (The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home. Great Gatsby, iii 68), its forte is in journalism.

A musicianly rant

A Google search for “reach a crescendo” will quickly lead you to blogs and pronouncements, including one from the New York Times – which has been doing the rounds since 2013 — titled “A crescendo of errors”. The author is a violist (no, not a typo for “violinist”, but someone who plays the viola), and so knows a thing or three about music. H e expostulates “But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo.

A crescendo is the process, in music, of getting louder.”

He also notes that “crescendos don’t have to end loudly: you can make a crescendo from extremely soft to moderately soft, or from moderately soft to moderately loud.”

The Macdonald Stradivarius viola. At auction, offers of over $45 million were invited, but not achieved. It once belonged to the Amadeus Quartet’s violist.

He also says “And you will never convince any of those musicians that a word that for centuries has had one and only one precise meaning will, through repeated flagrant misuse, come to mean something else.”

He’s a musician, so, surely, his opinion must count for something. Or must it? Just as you wouldn’t ask a tone-deaf linguist to play Hindemith’s Viola Concerto, so a musician’s judgement on linguistic matters might be fatally flawed.  I respectfully submit that it is, on several different counts.

In no particular order…

  1. Just how “precise” is “the one and only one precise meaning”? If a crescendo can go from any volume to any other volume, in other words, if its end points are fluid, isn’t it a somewhat hazy concept? The only constant is that musicians play louder. In addition, it can be very short, as in the example higher up.
  2. To say that crescendo can only mean what it means to musicians is an example of the “etymological fallacy”, which, in a nutshell, is the idea that a word’s origin conveys its true meaning.

Here, though, we have the etymological fallacy with knobs on or a dose of musical snobbery thrown in. Or, to put it yet another way, the fallacy of the appeal to authority.

  1. I’ll give you one word: polysemy. A word or phrase can allowably have more than one meaning. In fact, most of the words we use most often have several. Thinking musically, we can talk about the different movements of a concerto or symphony. Does that mean we can’t apply movement elsewhere? Of course it doesn’t. (Note that my reasoning here is potentially Jesuitical: the word movement already existed in English before it acquired its musical meaning. But, no matter.)
  2. Neither the gender-fluid non-binary person (formerly known as “man”) on the Clapham omnibus, nor John nor Mary Doe, nor everyday usage cares what the technical meaning of a word is in its original field of discourse. Think “acid test” (originally a test using nitric acid as a test for gold). Think of the ubiquitous “DNA” in business speak. Think of “quantum leap” for “major [allegedly] advance”. Think of your own examples, as I’m sure you will.
  3. The phrase is useful.

Actually, perhaps fatally so for journalists, as we have already seen. On the one hand, it can be seen as one of those journalistic clichéd tropes which/that attempt to be dynamic and attention-getting. On the other, in certain cases, it is hard to think of a phrase that could replace it.

Taking the examples cited earlier on…

Bob Geldof’s campaign to “Make Poverty History” reached a crescendo in July 2005…

“Culminated in”? “reached” Had its crowning moment in”? “came to a climax in”?

The strife between the Dutch and ascendant English interests reached a crescendo in New Netherland in 1664,…

“Came to a head”?

And then, slowly, APPLAUSE builds in the chamber, reaching a crescendo as Pete reaches the door and exits.

Here, I find it hard to see what could replace it: “achieving maximum volume”? “climaxing”?

It has also been suggested that the popularity of “reach a crescendo” might owe something to euphemism:  “to reach a climax” almost inevitably invokes the sexual meaning of climax (first brought into current usage by women’s rights campaigner Marie Stopes starting in 1918).

  1. Words change meaning over time. The sense development of crescendo is explained in detail by Arnold Zwicky here. In brief, the word both moved from meaning “an increase in musical loudness” to “an increase in loudness generally” and from meaning a process to meaning the end result of that process, namely an event or state.

As it happens, climax has followed an analogous progression from process to end state, while another term, gamut, has gone from being the single lowest note in a musical scale to meaning a series of notes, and then a range of anything you care to mention (including, of course, Katharine Hepburn’s acting in the sublimely catty remark ascribed to Dorothy Parker: “She runs the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.”) Both words also emigrated from technical domains.

An exquisite book cover — shades of Picasso, de Chirico, Dufy, and not sure who else.


Crescendo is indeed originally a musical term – like so many, from Italian (piano, adagio, allegro, etc.). It is the participle of the Italian verb crescere, to grow, itself a direct descendant of Latin crēscĕre to grow, which is the ultimate ancestor of the English word crescent.

Musically speaking, or when musicians speak about it, it is a process rather than an end state, as the following example clearly, if lengthily, illustrates (my emboldening):

“…during more than four minutes of music in which no performers are in view, the setting becomes the focus of the stage, as the moon rises over the forest. From a pianissimo beginning, more and more instruments enter in a gradual crescendo, the orchestral texture and colour becoming richer and more vibrant until the full orchestra plays,…”

From Beyond Falstaff in ‘Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor’: Otto Nicolai’s Revolutionary ‘Wives’, John R Severn, 2015.

That musicians mean one thing and Joe Public another does not invalidate the “climax” meaning. Whether it is a cliché is a matter of opinion. That it is widely used by journalists is an evidence-based fact, as discussed earlier. (The excellent Collins Cobuild dictionary for learners specifically applies the label “journalism” to its definition 2: “People sometimes describe an increase in the intensity of something, or its most intense point, as a crescendo.”)

Moreover, the sense of a progression, as in its strictly musical application, has not been ousted by the “climax” meaning. As Oxford Online defines it:

A progressive increase in intensity.

‘a crescendo of misery’

More example sentences:

‘Although many speakers struck bland notes individually, together these became a crescendo of shared concern.’

‘They believe that if you try hard enough there’s a steady crescendo of improvement and your fate is in your own hands.’

Yes, but what’s the plural?

Crescendos is rather more frequent than crescendoes. That second form, in fact, is used for the verb. Crescendi confines itself to music criticism.

Valery Gergiev. Yippee! I’m looking forward to experiencing him conducting Shosta 4 at the Embra Festival.

An eggcorn too far?

As long ago as 2006 the Eggcorn Database noted crashendo as an eggcorn for crescendo, e.g. It is obvious that a lot of folks are going to join the crashendo of shouting about this fiasco – – soon. It is actually a good thing for small business.

The creation of an eggcorn based on the “event” rather than the “process” meaning surely settles the debate, ;-), doesn’t it?


“that” or “which”? Using “which” in restrictive or defining relative clauses (2/∞)


A young scholar struggling with the “which/that” distinction.

There are one or two loose ends to tie up from the previous blog on this topic, before I move on.

1.1 which or that in defining clauses: with indefinite pronouns

First, it may be helpful in distinguishing restrictive or defining relative clauses from non-restrictive/non-defining ones to note the following: they often associate with specific words or kinds of words such as something/nothing/anything/everything whose very meaning suggests that any relative clause following them has to be defining, since those words themselves are indefinite (actually, “indefinite pronouns”).

a) Elevating the usually ordinary exercise of changing level to such a dramatic experience is something that Libeskind [sc. the famous architect] relishes.
Architecture Week, 2004.

b) The public showing of something which is so private and particular is immediately startling.
Art Throb, 2004.

c) Punctuation serves a valuable purpose – it helps to convey meaning more precisely and anything which erodes the precision of the English language is to be deplored.
Telegraph, 2014.

d) For Samsung, anything that could help it look better in the eyes of U.S. Federal Court Judges is probably a good move, although in this case it may not help much.
The Mac Observer, 2014

While which can be used after these words, as illustrated, it is very much a minority trend: in the case of something that/which, for example, a little less than 10 per cent of all cases.

1.2 with determiners and predeterminers

Another class of words often associating with defining relative clauses is “determiners” and “predeterminers” such as some, any, many, most, several, other, all, both, each, every, little, few, etc., e.g:

e) Icelandic law prevents the importing of new strains to prevent disease: any horse which leaves Iceland can never return. Open Country. BBC, Radio 4.

f) But there are some things that all can understandGuardian Unlimited, 2004

g) There is no herbicide that controls all plants. UNL Neb Guides, 2002.

Most of these examples show that/which as the subject of its clause. Where it is the object, as in a) and f), it could just as easily have been left out altogether, as often happens in speech, e.g.,

f) But there are some things that all can understand.

Clauses of the type, …all can understand…, from which the relative pronoun is dropped, are what is known in grammar as  “contact clauses” and are very common in spoken language.

2 non-defining or non-restrictive clauses

As mentioned in the earlier blog, the information they contain can be omitted. Putting it another way, they are almost like an aside. That is why such clauses are conventionally and correctly enclosed in commas if they come in the middle of a sentence, or are preceded by a comma if they are the last clause in a sentence. Fowler (1926)  noted that a non-defining clause “gives a reason…or adds a new fact.”

The example given in the earlier blog was “I saw Kylie Minogue, who was staying at the hotel opposite.” Even if such clauses are omitted, the sentence will still make sense (though it will, obviously, convey less information): “I saw Kylie Minogue” makes perfect sense.

In that earlier blog, there were adjoining sentences, each with a non-defining clause: “They then wanted me to review the proofs, which the publisher had had proofread. Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader, which explained their decision on style issues such as the treatment of names and titles.”

Without those non-defining clauses, each sentence still works: “They then wanted me to review the proofs. Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader.” As Fowler, noted, the clauses add “a new fact”.

3 the rule – who enforces it?

To claim that “It is a rule that ‘that’ must be used to introduce a defining relative clause’” draws attention to the ambiguity, or at least polysemy, of the word “rule”. The Oxford Online Dictionary defines two relevant senses:

  1. One of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct or procedure within a particular area of activity.
    ‘the rules of cricket’
    1.1 A principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable. [my underlining]
    ‘the rules of grammar’

The “rule” that that has to be used clearly falls largely under definition 1 above.

It is a “regulation” or “principle” “governing conduct” within a particular “area”.

In this case, the “area” is written, edited English. However, the proponents of the rule would wish to assimilate it to definition 1.1.

Clearly “which” in a defining relative clause is both possible and allowable. But the usage absolutists would wish it weren’t, and certainly consider it undesirable. Their fatwa, however, is not like a genuine rule of grammar, such as “A clause in the English declarative mood has the subject followed by the verb.”

4 Who says you have to use “that”?

4. 1 Many people. For British English, the style guides of choice are The Guardian/Observer, The Telegraph, The Times and The Economist.
4.1.1 The Guardian endorses the distinction; as does the Telegraph Style Book, but with lamentable punctuation, in what looks suspiciously similar to The Economist’s perfectly punctuated dictum. The Telegraph has “which and that: which informs that defines. This is the house that Jack built, but: This house, which Jack built is now falling down.”

The Telegraph thus misses out the essential comma closing off the non-restricting clause.

4.1.2 The Economist correctly has: “which and that Which informs, that defines. This is the house that Jack built. But This house, which Jack built, is now falling down. Americans tend to be fussy about making a distinction between which and that. Good writers of British English are less fastidious. (“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.”).”

(IMHO, for “fastidious” read “anal”.)

However, the Economist style guide occasionally (inevitably?) breaks its own rules, e.g. The Arabic alphabet has several consonants which have no exact equivalents in English (note that “determiner” several, as mentioned earlier).

4.2 For U.S. English,

4.2.1 Garner is dogmatical and absolutist on the matter:

“Legal writers who fail to distinguish restrictive from nonrestrictive clauses—and especially that from which—risk their credibility with careful readers. It’s therefore worthwhile to learn the difference so well that, when writing, you use the correct form automatically.”

Such cut-and-driedness is a reflection, presumably, of the need for absolute clarity and unambiguousness in legal writing.

4.2.2 Chicago is more nuanced: “Although which can be substituted for that in a restrictive clause (a common practice in British English), many writers preserve the distinction between restrictive that (with no commas) and nonrestrictive which (with commas). The APA (American Psychological Association) prefers writers to observe the distinction, and the AP style guide imposes it too.

Fowler and his crystal ball

In his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler included lengthy entries on that as relative pronoun and which((that)(who. In the entry for that, he distinguishes the two kinds of clause and assigns them what he considers their appropriate pronoun.

His learned, measured style is perhaps somewhat alien to modern sensibilities and is possibly easier to follow if read aloud:

“The two kinds of relative clause, to one of which that & to the other of which which is appropriate, are the defining & the non-defining; & if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now ; but it would be idle to pretend it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.”

While Fowler expressed a velleity, it seems that the combined weight of usage guides, not to mention Word’s grammar checker (and no doubt others) is turning it into reality.

Fowler starts out the relevant section by taking usage writers down a peg or several: “What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize ; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes.”


“that” or “which”? Using “which” in restrictive or defining relative clauses (1/∞)

Can you use which in defining (or restrictive) relative clauses?

For example…

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”
(From The Oxford Companion to English Literature [2000], referring to A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary)

In a nutshell, if you’re in the U.S., no (almost certainly); if you’re in the UK, yes, you can, as in the example shown, but many people think you can’t.

“Change nothing in your editing that you do not know to be essential or believe to be beautiful.”

I’ve got a bee in my bonnet. It’s buzzing around in a mad sort of OCD way, and I can’t swat the varmint, try as I might. The apian interloper in my titfer is this: I think changes should only be made to a piece of writing if they are either essential from a strictly grammatical (e.g. verb concord) or meaning point of view, or stylistically desirable. To adapt William Morris’s famous phrase, “Change nothing in your editing that you do not know to be essential or believe to be beautiful.”

I’ll pass over the stylistics here, but one facet of what I mean by “essential” is that truly ambiguous wordings or structures have to be changed. However, such cases are rare; the example with which at the start of this blog is not, to my mind, one of them.

I presume the mother, if American, will confiscate the present, and only give it back when the child replaces “which” with “that”.

Is this change necessary?

I do a lot of editing, and I also review other editors’ edits of articles for academic journals.

One of my oft-repeated comments directed at certain editors is “Is this change necessary?” On a similar tack, I recently copy-edited about half [don’t ask] of a book by a writer and journalist who has already had several books published and writes with flair and distinction. They [Isn’t it handy when “singular they” conceals gender!] then wanted me to review the proofs, which the publisher had had proofread.

Excellently proofread they were, too, complete with a useful, comprehensive list from the proofreader, which explained their decision on style issues such as the treatment of names and titles.

One of the notes, however, read “I have changed a few instances of ‘which’ to ‘that’ were perceived to be a relative clause.” This was a red rag to my bull.  I happened to notice one such change, as follows:

“That the phrase ‘native place’ is still used, however, shows that many Indians are migrants, albeit internal migrants. Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British,  a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

That word which [my emboldening] had changed to that in the proofs. The book was being published by a British publisher: the change was, therefore, by my lights, totally unnecessary. What is more, it changed the words which/that had come naturally to the author and so, one could argue, changes their “voice”.

(From now on, I will use which/that to highlight restrictive or defining clauses.)

Back to basics: restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses

Let’s look at the example just mentioned. “Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British, …”

Now, which Indian railways are we talking about here? Why, only the ones the British developed before their departure in 1947. The specification is important, because, since then, the Indian government has massively expanded the rail network. So, what the clause “which were developed” is doing is to restrict the extension (in its logical meaning) of “railways”, or to define the kind of railways in question. That is why such clauses are called restrictive clauses or defining clauses.

Now let’s return to the example which/that heads this blog.

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”

“Vocabulary” here is being restricted to or defined as that which came into use during the long period it took for the original OED to be published (1884–1928), or thereafter. In other words, what is excluded by the defining clause is words that were already in the language before 1884.

How to identify restrictive or defining clauses

One way to identify defining or restrictive clauses which/that is often mentioned is to ask whether removing them changes the meaning of the sentence, or makes it nonsensical. Applying that test to our two example sentences gives:

“Such migration, ironically, has been greatly facilitated by the railways which were developed by the British, a classic example of how they changed India for the good but still made the ‘natives’ feel inferior.”

This is clearly a nonsense, since the subject of “they changed” now becomes the railways.

The other example still makes sense with the clause removed, but the meaning has changed drastically to include all the vocabulary of English.

“In 1957 work began, under the editorship of R. W. Burchfield, on the new supplement, superseding that of 1933, and treating all the vocabulary which came into use while the main dictionary was being published or after its completion.”

So, what are non-restrictive or non-defining clauses?

As the Collins Cobuild Grammar helpfully explains them, they “give further information which is not needed to identify the person, thing, or group you are talking about.”

(Note, incidentally, the use of which in the above restrictive/defining relative clause. The Grammar was produced at Birmingham University, and whoever wrote that section will have been a British English speaker. The use of which was natural to them.)

The Grammar then continues: “If you say ‘I saw Kylie Minogue’, it is clear who you mean. But you might want to add more information … , for example, ‘I saw Kylie Minogue, who was staying at the hotel opposite’. In this sentence, ‘who was staying at the hotel opposite’ is a non-defining relative clause.” Note that the comma here is obligatory to separate such a clause from what precedes.

If you’ve ploughed/plowed through this, you might need cheering up, so I throw in this picture of KM gratis, free and for nothing.

The gold hotpants which/that caused quite a stir when Kylie first exhibited herself in them.



“American” words in English: where would we be without them? They own the bulk of the shares

“There is no such thing as the Queen’s English. The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company and we own the bulk of the shares!”

Mark Twain said that as far back as 1897 (Following the Equator, Chapter XXIV). While many Brits continue to entertain the attitude typified (or satirized) by Max Beerbohm:

“He held, too, in his enlightened way, that Americans have a perfect right to exist. But he did often find himself wishing Mr Rhodes had not enabled them to exercise that right in Oxford.”

Zuleika Dobson, 1911

all of us (i.e. English-speakers) use U.S.-coined words some – if not all – of the time.

Oscar Wilde’s quip “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language” really does not apply to so very many words – though the differences between British and U.S. English as indefatigably explored by Lynne Murphy, are still legion.

Twentieth-century “new” words

As mentioned in an earlier blog, I’m having great fun looking at words that “came into the language” year by year from 1900 onwards, and tweeting one or two a day. To find them, I use “advanced search” in the OED specifying “headword” and a given year. Each year there are usually round 500 such words, and in some years rather more (e.g. 1900: 686), but very occasionally rather fewer (e.g. 1913: 451). [Note that very careful use of fewer, ;-)]

That search excludes words which [yes, oh Word grammar checker, it’s fine to use “which” in a defining clause] acquired new meanings in any year. So, what I end up with is a list of completely new “visitors” (in bird terms) to our language. For each year, I generally look at the first 100, ordered by frequency, and then select 20 or so according to criteria explained in the earlier blog.

Now, while doing this (at the time of writing, I had got up to 1915), I found myself wondering more and more insistently just how many emerged in British English and how many in U.S.English. I was expecting U.S. English to produce the greater number, but my little sample surprised even me.

A 50-word personal sample

I chose 20 words from 1909 and 30 from 1913, thus giving me a nice round figure of 50 to do easy percentages with. The OED lists a few of them as “Orig. U.S.” and variants on that theme. But I had a suspicion that more of them were U.S. than that labelling suggested. I decided to look at the written source which the OED had tracked down as the first record of the word: was it an American journal/newspaper/book, or a British one?

The totals are as follows: U.S. = 33; Brit = 16; other = 1

i.e. 66% of words are first cited in U.S. sources.

Some caveats are in order, of course.

First, several of the OED entries have not been revised for the third edition; different dates and sources may therefore be found.

Second, the fact that a word first appears in a U.S. source does not prove conclusively that it is an American coinage, though it does point strongly in that direction.

And, third, my sample is neither random, nor large enough to prove anything. But it is, to my mind, very suggestive, given that most of these words must surely be considered part of everyday language, rather than technical.

I also labelled the words with a subject field. “Modern life” is a bit of a cop-out, to avoid too many labels; “General language”, as you will see, includes several informal or (once) slangy terms.

“Bull” does not mean what you might think

Hopefully, the abbreviations in the list of sources are self-explanatory. “Bull.”, by the way, means “Bulletin”. Newspapers figure as the first citation for ten words; three appear first in dictionaries.

Finally, some of the first citations are piquant: Winston Churchill for seaplane, Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street for lav, P.G. Wodehouse for fifty-fifty, and Arnold Bennett for turn-round. The relevant citations follow the table.

Words are in order of frequency as listed in the OED.  Finally, quite why piggy bank first appears in the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette for March 1913 is anyone’s guess.

Headword Year Country Source Field
gene 1909 US Amer. Naturalist science
movies 1909 US Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican entertainment
cinema 1909 Brit Tragedy of the Pyramids entertainment
trade-off 1909 US St. Louis Post-Dispatch  business, economics
coke 1909 US Coca-Cola Bottler (Philadelphia)  modern life
air conditioning 1909 US  Useful Information Cotton Manufacturers modern life
exponentially 1909 US Cent. Dict. Suppl. science
libido 1909 US Freud Sel. Papers on Hysteria psychology
fuselage 1909 Brit Flight transport
empathic 1909 US Lect. Exper. Psychol. Thought-processes psychology
multi-party 1909 Brit Englishwoman politics
mindset 1909 US Philos., Psychol. & Sci. Methods psychology
rite of passage 1909 Brit Folk-Lore anthropology
neo-cortex 1909 Brit Arch. Neurol. & Psychiatry psychology
counter-offensive 1909 Brit Daily Chronicle warfare
xenophobia 1909 Brit Athenæum politics
socialite 1909 US Oakland (Calif.) Tribune general language
scrounge 1909 US Webster’s New Internat. Dict. Eng. Lang. general language
gaffe Brit Pall Mall Gaz. general language
bakelite 1909 US Jrnl. Industr. & Engin. Chem. modern life
isotope 1913 Brit Nature science
close-up 1913


US Technique Photoplay entertainment
Salmonella 1913 Brit Pract. Bacteriol medicine
project management 1913


US Nevada State Jrnl business, economics
behaviourism 1913 US Psychol. Rev. psychology
superconductor 1913


Proc. Sect. Sci. K. Akad science
big picture 1913


US Titusville (Pa.) Herald  entertainment
comic strip 1913


US Altoona (Pa.) Mirror entertainment
streamlined 1913 Brit Aeroplane transport
not-for-profit 1913


US Ann. Amer. Acad. Polit. & Social Sci.  business, economics
talkie 1913 US Writer’s Bull.  entertainment
petrochemical 1913 US Chem. Abstr.  science
record player 1913


US Waterloo (Iowa) Times-Tribune entertainment
seaplane 1913


Brit Hansard Commons  transport
turn-round 1913 Brit The Regent general language
stooge 1913 US Sat. Evening Post  general language
person-to-person 1913


US Lincoln (Nebraska) Daily Star general language
anti-freeze 1913


US Dict. Automobile Terms  transport
pre-eclampsia 1913 Brit Lancet medicine
fifty-fifty 1913 US Little Nugget general  language
once-over 1913 US N.Y. Evening Jrnl general language
lav 1913 Brit Sinister St general language
pep talk 1913


US Colorado Springs Gaz.  general language
intelligence quotient 1913 US Psychol. Bull. psychology
parsec 1913


Brit Monthly Notices Royal Astron. Soc.  science
reflexology 1913 US Med. World  medicine
sexologist 1913 US Pract. Treat. Causes, Symptoms & Treatm. Sexual Impotence  medicine
admin 1913 US Trans. 15th Internat. Congr. Hygiene & Demography  general language
headcount 1913 US Motion-pict. Work  general language
piggy bank 1913 US Dietetic & Hygienic Gaz general language

seaplaneHansard Commons, 17 July – We have decided to call the naval hydroplane a seaplane, and the ordinary aeroplane or school machine, which we use in the Navy, simply a plane. (Churchill)

lav: Sinister St. I. vii. 99 – Tell the army to line up behind the lav. at four o’clock. (Mackenzie)

(lav is marked as “Chiefly Brit” and “colloq.” in the OED)

fifty-fiftyLittle Nugget vi. 121 – Say, Sam, don’t be a hawg. Let’s go fifty-fifty in dis deal. (Wodehouse)

turn-round: The Regent x. 291 – She’s going to do the quickest turn-round that any ship ever did… She’ll leave at noon to-morrow.




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Where does the word television come from? Twentieth-century words: the first quinquennium.

A 1900 word that had to wait over 25 years to be instantiated. (Yup, that’s a word too — from 1949.)

A few days ago, I started a daily tweet with two, or occasionally three, words per year for every year of the twentieth century, starting in 1900. I tweet them with their first citation from the OED, which is the source I extracted them from/from which I extracted them [strike through according to taste].

I can hardly claim that this is a unique or novel approach, but it is fun and illuminating in several different ways. You never know what you will find until you find it, if you see what I mean. A bit like online dating — or so they tell me — but without the risk.

What I will do here is list the pairs or triplets of words selected for 1900-1904; provide more information about one of them, namely the gogglebox; and mention others that I didn’t tweet about.

(The full list of my entirely subjective selection is at the end.)

Selecting according to how often the words are used

For any given year, the OED records hundreds of “new words”. For instance, for 1900 there are 686. (That is, extracting “headwords”, rather than “lemmas” or “meanings”.)

How to choose?

They come ordered alphabetically – Hello! The OED is a dictionary — which means that the first one for 1900 is abiologic = abiological – hardly a vocable to set this word buff’s pulses racing.

I had to find a quick and dirty way of identifying potentially interesting ones. The OED rescued me: it helpfully indicates how often a word is used nowadays by means of a series of eight frequency bands, full details of which you can see here.
Sorting words for 1900 by current frequency banishes the worthy but boring abiologic and enthrones…television.

“What!” I hear you say. “TV hadn’t been invented back then.” Correct, it hadn’t. But something/someone does not necessarily have to exist just because there is a word or phrase for them (think unicorns, phlogiston, Bertrand Russell’s teapot, the Philosopher’s Stone, basilisks, Aphrodite, mirages, and, probably, God, to name just a few).

Smog: first named and shamed in 1905. The Big Apple looking very mysterious and Whistlerian.

Reality imitates language

The divine Oscar paradoxed that “Life imitates art more than Art imitates life.”

It is similarly true that Reality sometimes imitates, or at least catches up with, Language, particularly the language of science and science fiction. H.G. Wells’s coined atomic bomb in 1914, decades before it became reality. Television also nicely illustrates this same phenomenon.

The first 1900 citation speculates excitedly and futuristically. It is from the June issue of The Century Magazine, an illustrated monthly US publication started in 1881 that lasted nearly half a century. The second is from The Electrician, which, no, is not yer average sparky, but an august and earnest London publication billed by Wikipedia as “the earliest and foremost electrical engineering and scientific journal”, and published for nigh on a hundred years.

Through television and telephone we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face.


(One day it will finally dawn on inveterate texting addicts that you can actually SPEAK face to face on a mobie)

At the afternoon sitting on Friday, M. C. Perskyi read a communication on ‘Television’, describing a number of apparatus based on the magnetic properties of selenium.
31 Sept. 822/2

The OED revised (3rd edn) definition for television goes as follows: “A system used for transmitting and viewing images and (typically) sound; the action of transmitting and viewing images using such a system (now rare). In later use: esp. such a system used for the organized broadcast of professionally produced shows and programmes.”

The Electrician citation presumably refers to “the action of …” mentioned in that definition.

Yes, but what about how the word was coined?

As the OED puts it, “Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: tele comb. form, vision n.”

That “combining form” tele– is probably otherwise best known from telephone, and is from Classical Greek τηλε-, meaning “far”. Television, therefore, could be interpreted as “far seeing”, (which is how German deals with it in Fernsehen). French had an influence: according to the OED, some of the earliest tele– words were created in French, and, it seems, that what Mr Perskyi had in mind in his “communication” noted above was the Gallic télévision.

“Meanwhile”, Modern Greek calques, possibly English, by repossessing the Classical τηλε- element and adding to it the word for “vision, sight”, όραση, to produce τηλeόραση [tī-le-O-ra-sī].

Why did I choose the words?

Having sorted by frequency, I then looked at the first 100 or so for each year. Thereafter, it was whim, dear lady, pure whim. Yeah, no, seriously, my criteria were:
• Does the word have some currency or resonance now? (single currency, racism)
• Did it historically? (suffragette)
• Has it some cultural heritage/baggage/clout/oomph, etc? [“Cultural” in its widest sense] (Dubliner, psychoanalysis)
• Is it so much part of everyday language that it might be difficult to conceive of its ever having been “invented”? (trivia, hormone)
• Was it a (major) discovery/invention? (radio, escalator, chemotherapy)
• Wow! Was it really coined that long ago? (re-evaluate, packaged, Ms., sportswear, eatery)
• Wow! You mean it didn’t exist before! No way! (Dubliner again)
• Did sex come into it? [I’m only human – allegedly – after all.] (voyeur, Tantric)
• Was/is it slangy?


This stands for “airport”. I’m old enough for TWA to mean something, a bit like BOAC. Both “initialisms”, technically, btw.

Come to think of it, those are post hoc justifications [NB: Latin phrases never hyphenated] , and “whim” is about right. My method is evolving as I go along, while the number of words I list per year before selecting my lucky pair (emboldened below) also varies. For what they’re worth, here are my shortlists.

A couple of words of caution. First word: these earliest citations sometimes refer to a meaning that is not the main current meaning. Second word: some of these entries have not been revised by the OED. It is therefore possible that, when they finally are, an earlier “first date” might be found.

single currency
come-hither look
Bramley apple

• noble gas
• chink (i.e. Chinese)

• suitcase
• paranoid
• audio-visual
• limousine
number two(s)
• skoda
• terrazzo

• basically
• radio
• clone
• landfill
man on the Clapham omnibus
• to neuter
• sportswear
• Pepsi-Cola
• fandom

Could this be the elusive “Man on the Clapham omnibus”. To me, he looks more like a toff from a first-class train, but never judge a book, etc. I can remember my father wearing a bowler hat to work (and some clothes, as well).

comic book
• back-track
• meaningfulness
• chiropractor
• preadolescent
• paedophile
• speedometer
• hip

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Pancake Day and Shrovetide: a pancake recipe linguistick

It was the day whereon both rich and poor
Are chiefly feasted with the self same dish,
Where every paunch, till it can hold no more,
Is fritter-filled, as well as heart can wish;
And every man and maid do take their turn,
And toss their pancakes up for fear they burn;
And all the kitchen doth with laughter sound,
To see the pancakes fall upon the ground.

From Pasquils Palinodia, 1619, by William Pasquil



Olney Pancake Race. With maids and a man pretending to be a maid.


Nowadays, if they think of Lent at all, most people in our post-Christian society will associate it with what is known in Britain and elsewhere as Pancake Day [aka Shrove Tuesday], the day before Ash Wednesday that ushers in Lent.

In the past, in different parts of Britain, the three days up to and including Shrove Tuesday were called Shrovetide, a time for letting off steam and letting one’s hair down before the enforced rigours of Lent. Stephen Roud’s fascinating The English Year tells me that it was the season of the year when, in a sort of Mary Whitehouse avant la lettre rampage, apprentices traditionally wrecked any bordellos (from Italian) in their neighbourhood:

It was the day, of all days in the year,
That unto Bacchus hath his dedication,
When mad brained prentices, that no men fear,
O’rethrow the dens of bawdy recreation. 

Pasquils Palinodia

And a jolly good thing, too, say I!
Someone more cynical than I might say a) ‘this is merely cutting off your nose to spite your face‘ or b) ‘they do protest too much, methinks.’

(Btw, note that that clause in the third line ‘that no men fear’ might trip you up. It does not mean that ‘no men fear the apprentices’, but rather that the apprentices fear no men: it tinkers with the normal SVO order of English for the sake of rhyme.)

All manner of weird and wonderful pastimes and ‘entertainments’ used to take place at Shrovetide. Fortunately, the ‘sport’ (Ha!) of cock-throwing (gentle US readers, read ‘cockerel’) was banned long ago.

However, the general nasty and brutish hurly-burly that was football before FA rules neutered its joyful testosteronic orgy was a favourite, and still lingers on, for example, in the ‘football’ played for example at Alnwick in Northumberland or Ashbourne in Derbyshire, which the millionaire ponces of modern Premier League football would no doubt despise.

What is the Shrove of Shrove Tuesday and Shrovetide?

The OED shows the first quotation for Shrovetide from c.1425 as Schroftyde. The -tide part just means ‘time’ or ‘season’, as in eventide, noontide, Eastertide, etc. The first part is undoubtedly related to the verb to shrive, past tense shrove, past participle shriven, which goes back to Old English scrífan,  meaning ‘to allot, assign, decree, adjudge, impose as a sentence, impose penance’. That word is an early borrowing into English of the Latin scrībere, ‘to write’, which is the ancestor also of modern German schreiben, ‘to write’.
To shrive can mean to hear someone’s confession or, more often, and in the passive, to make one’s confession and receive absolution, which is what traditionally happened before the Reformation in the three days leading up to Ash Wednesday: so Shrovetide is literally ‘the season for confessing’.

In Romeo and Juliet (ii. iii. 172 ), Romeo instructs the Nurse:

Bid her [Juliet] devise
Some means to come to shrift this afternoon;

And there she shall at Friar Laurence’ cell
Be shriv’d and married. Here is for thy pains.

Note the word shrift, which is the noun related to shrive, and in Romeo’s phrase to come to shrift means ‘to go to confession’. If you give someone short shrift, you are using this same word; originally, the shrift was short because it was the limited space of time given to a criminal to confess before being executed. In R & J, Shakespeare makes the verb regular, rather than using the past form shrove.

Meanwhile…, back at Pancake Day, there are pancake races, the most famous being the one at Olney, in Buckinghamshire, which, as you will see if you follow the link, has its own website.

I’ve been digressing bigly, so let’s get to the point, shall we? Words to do with pancakes.

Butter…eggs…milk…flour…water…sugar…lemon. Those are the basic ingredients of and garnish for a pancake (thanks Delia!) — the water is unusual, though.

To me, from the glum faces and the averted eyes, this looks like the morning after a domestic. But, hey, this is Dutch, so there must be an edifying moral allegory lurking somewhere. ‘Cooking pancakes’, c.1560 Pieter Aertsen (1507 or 1508-1575). Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Oil on panel 33.86 in x 66.93 in.

Simple, everyday words, but ones with complex histories that illustrate why English is such a succulent concoction of so many other languages.

If we look at where those words ultimately come from–simplifying considerably–what do we discover?
butter (Greek)
eggs (Old Norse)
milk, water (Germanic)
sugar, lemon (Arabic)

And if you also use syrup, that’s another word from Arabic.

Each has a curious story to tell.

(Flour has too, but it’s a different tale: it’s a specialized spelling of flower.)

Let’s look at a couple of these words in more detail.

Fine words butter no parsnips

…but butter is essential. if not to make the pancake batter (from French, btw), at least to cook your pancakes with (I don’t recommend lard [Old French] or goose fat).

How on earth did ‘butter’ come all the way from Ancient Greece?

Like this. The Ancient Greeks seem not to have used butter for cooking, but they knew of its existence. The fifth-century (BCE) historian Herodotus wrote the earliest account, describing how “the Scythians poured the milk of mares into wooden vessels, caused it to be violently stirred or shaken churning-butterby their blind slaves, and thus separated the part that arose to the surface, which they considered more valuable and more delicious than that which was collected below it”.

Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’, he of the Hippocratic oath, also mentioned butter several times, and prescribed it externally as a medicine. He too described the Scythians making it, and wrote that they called it βούτυρον (bouturon).

Folk etymology or loanword?

The 1888 OED entry states that this ‘Greek [word] is usually supposed to be βοῦς [bous] ox or cow + τυρός [turos] cheese, but is perhaps of Scythian or other barbarous origin.’ In other words, the derivation from Greek might be a folk etymology, and the Greek word might in fact be a loanword.

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What the Romans did with butter


Alma-Tadema’s soft porn masquerading as classicism. Exquisitely painted, though!

Greek βούτυρον was borrowed by the Romans as butyrum. They, like the Greeks, did not use it in cooking either, but as an ointment in baths (yuck!) or for medicinal purposes, such as mixing it with honey to rub on mouth ulcers or to ease the pain suffered by teething infants.

Finally, the word reaches Britain

Old English had borrowed it at least by the year 1000 CE, when it appears in Anglo-Saxon medicine in the form butere as a remedy for swellings or boils.

English is technically a ‘West Germanic‘ language, and its cousins German, Frisian and Dutch all also borrowed the word for ‘butter’ from Latin, which is why the modern German is butter, and the Dutch boter.

Beware of Vikings bearing eggs

Another of the ingredients of current English is Old Norse words brought over by the Vikings during their incursions into the British Isles and Ireland from the late eighth century onwards.

Many of them are basic to our vocabulary: words to do with the body, such as ankle, calf, freckle, scab and skin; or basic verbs such as get, give, take and want. These words often replaced earlier Old English words, and **egg is a Norse interloper (the -loper part of which is from Dutch).

The older word was **ey, (plural eyren) derived from Old English ǣg. It seems that the two different words were used concurrently, but by people from different parts of Britain.


One of the best-known illustrations (or “iconic moments“, if you want to be kitschy) of the history of English concerns these lexical twins.

In his prologue to his translation of The boke yf Eneydos… translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me Wyllm Caxton (i.e. a paraphrase of what we know as Virgil’s Aeneid), Caxton wrote:

Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges or eyren? Certaynly it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite & chaunge of langage.

(What should a man in these days now write, egges or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of the diversity of and change in language.)

Caxton was echoing the uncertainty about how to write words at a time when English spelling was becoming a very pressing issue because of the spread of printed books. Dialects within Britain varied far more than they do today, and for Caxton it was important to choose words and spellings that would be understood by as many people as possible.

His remark follows a piquant story

Some merchants—presumably from the north of England, since one is called Sheffield—being becalmed on the Thames and unable to set sail for Holland, want to have something to eat and try to buy eggs from a woman dahn sahf (down south).

The merchants use the Norse and northern English version egges; she uses the southern version eyren. She either was unable to understand, or, like many a south-easterner even today (‘The North begins at Luton’), decided to wind up the northerner by pretending not to, ;-). She added insult to injury by taking him for that worst of all things…a Frenchman!

And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother…and specyally he axyd after eggys. And the goode wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understood hym wel.

(Modern English version at the end of the blog.)

What about pancake?

Simples! It’s a straightforward, Middle English combination of pan (related to German Pfanne, and perhaps also ultimately from Latin) + cake (again, like egg, from Scandinavia).

**The Old Norse is echoed in the modern Scandinavian languages: Icelandic & Norwegian egg, Swedish ägg, Danish æg; the Middle English ey(e) in modern German and Dutch ei.

In present day English:
‘And that common English that is spoken on one shire differs from another…And he asked specifically for eggs, and the good woman said that she spoke no French, and the merchant got angry for he could not speak French either, but he wanted eggs and she could not understand him. And then at last another person said that he wanted “eyren”. Then the good woman said that she understood him well.’