Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


Toilet talk – Number Two (2) – U and non-U

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999

In response to my toilet talk number one (geddit!?!) post, one of my most assiduousest followers (Here’s to you, M******t!) asked when it became de rigueur in British polite society not to refer to the kasi as a toilet.  In other words, when toilet became what is/was known as non-U. It’s a long story, so please bear with…

For the benefit of my transatlantic reader(s) and the young … toilet falls– or fell – into the category of words that the English/British upper classes would supposedly never use, a group of words classified as ‘non-U’ [i.e. non-upper-class].

Such distinctions must seem entirely baffling to those drinking nectar and ambrosia in the land of the free. Let’s explain. At one time, not that long ago, in England/Britain, which synonym you chose of a pair immediately identified the rung you occupied on the social ladder.

Referring to ‘a square piece of cloth or paper used at a meal to wipe the fingers or lips’ as a serviette meant you were a lower-ordersy sort of cove, and to be confined instantly to social outer darkness, while calling the same item a napkin meant either you really were posh or else had skilfully trained yourself to sound it.

Napkins looking like an unlikely ancient observatory.

Similarly, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all’ is not a sentiment a well-born British Evil Queen would have expressed, since looking glass, scansion notwithstanding, was the snob-approved synonym.1

Where did the U/non-U distinction come from?

While the distinctions themselves  must clearly predate any description of them, it was a linguist who coined the terms and then an aristo who brought them to somewhat clamorous public attention—the first in 1954, the second, the following year.

That linguist was Professor Alan S. C. Ross, then Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham (UK) University, and the aristo was Nancy Mitford, one of the almost legendary Mitford sisters.

An obscure Finnish academic journal, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen(‘The Bulletin of the Neo-Philological Society of Helsinki, Vol. 55. No. 1, 1954, pp. 20-56, available at JSTOR and also here) published an article by Ross entitled Linguistic Class Indicators in Present-Day English. Not a title, or indeed a source, you might think, to set the Thames on fire. But in 1954, in a British (specifically English) context, ‘class’, and in particular class-defined language, was a seriously hot-button topic.

Ross included in his article a list of word/phrase pairs, such as writing paper (U) and notepaper (non-U), How do you do? (U in reply to How do you do?, while Pleased to meet you would be utterly non-U), and so forth.

While toilet is not listed in its own right, toilet paper is listed as non-U compared to lavatory paper (U), implying therefore that lavatory was the ‘polaite’ word for the bog.

One of Ross’s sources was Nancy’s The Pursuit of Love. The professor consulted la Mitford about her language in that book, but she decided to have a jolly jape about the whole thing, which resulted in her rejoinder-as-essay titled The English Aristocracy for the left-leaning-intello-snob magazine Encounter.

Here’s a telling contrast. The Prof started his article thus:

‘Today, in 1956, the English class system is essentially tripartite—there exist an upper, a middle, and a lower class. It is solely by its language that the upper class is marked off from the others.’

If one manages to pass over the wording ‘a lower class’ without choking on a pheasant bone, and then not stumble on the Anglocentric ‘English’, the Prof’s thesis was that members of the upper class had only language to distinguish them from—and, let’s admit it, elevate them above—(the) hoi polloi3. For, as Ross pontificated, they were ‘not necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class’.

At this distance, it seems impossible to say how in earnest the Prof was; to me, some of his article reads like someone gloriously extracting the Michael at the expense of the Finns and everyone else. That impression is only reinforced by the knowledge that Nancy Mitford considered him U. However, a Wikipedia list of his publications shows a learned philologist, so one has to take what he wrote at face value.

Nancy in a rather fabulous wedding dress

Which is what la Mitford did, when she began her riposte with…

‘The English aristocracy may seem to be on the verge of decadence, but it is the only real aristocracy left in the world today’.

The touchpaper of linguistic insecurity had been lit, and it blazed [What is ‘it’? The touchpaper or linguistic insecurity? Please review this rather far-fetched phrase. Ed.] fiercely for at least a couple of years, leading to the publication in 1956 of the Prof’s (simplified and condensed) paper, la Mitford’s rejoinder, and contributions from that ur-snob Evelyn Waugh, among others, in a slender volume called Noblesse Oblige. To cash in on the furore that had been sparked off, the title was changed to ‘U and non-U’ with the subtitle ‘An essay in sociological linguistics’. The embers of the issue burned on for years.

Nowadays, as British English arguably4 morphs into a Calibanish second cousin of American (when visiting Buck House as a member of the public a few years back, a young whippersnapper asked us ‘to form a line’ – I ask you! I remonstrated, and reminded him that in this country we speak of queues, but that laddie was not for learning. And now it is obligatory if you are under 120, to talk of ‘shtructures’ and ‘orcheshstras’ and ‘shtreets’ – need I go on?) it takes an effort of the imagination to think how different things were in the constipated Britain – well, England, actually – of the mid-1950s.

The Second World War had supposedly effaced the rigid pre-war class distinctions and Labour had swept to power (excuse the cliché) in 1945. The NHS had been created, fair enough, but underneath nothing much had changed, and a Conservative government had been returned to power in 1951.

Toffs were still toffs, the working classes generally knew their place and were definitely not upwardly mobile; to wear a hat of some kind outside the house was a virtual obligation for men as well as women; Britain still clung to an Empire on which the sun was rapidly setting; and possibly a third of the British population believed that the Queen had been appointed by God. 

At home my mother drank a vile coffee-substitute confection called Camp, a hangover I suspect from her time as a Frontier Corps wife in the dying days of the Raj; olive oil came in tiny phials bought at great expense from the chemist to loosen childish ear wax; on winter outings my brother and I were cocooned like mini-me Jack Hawkinses in military-style dufflecoats whose toggles constantly frustrated childish hands, and, when the cold really bit, we were topped off with balaclava helmets; our father schooled us laboriously and aspirationally in how to say ‘How do you do!’ and shake hands with adults we were introduced to; and everyone leapt to attention when the national anthem was played in cinemas at the start of the programme.

In such a world, to get on in most walks of like, you had to enounce your thoughts in an RP (Received Pronunciation) accent (but not a refained and therefore put-on one). Social climbers who had a gift for mimicry could train themselves to talk like the clipped-most BBC announcer or the orotund-most Shakespearean actor. But such social tightrope-walking was perilous. Like the German spies in Holland who, anecdotally, were unmasked [Can you be ‘anecdotally unmasked’? Ed.] by not being able to pronounce Scheveningen5 like a true Netherlander, one lexical slip could send your social ambitions straight down the toilet. Which is where we came in.

You might sound like a toff, but was your vocabulary U?

The next sheet of this blog will be about the phrase toilet talk and loo.

Incidentally, the first uses of lavatory to mean either room or receptacle are quite close to those for toilet (1874/1886, i.e. earlier for the room, but later for the receptacle 1894 for toilet vs 1903 for lavatory), which raises the question of when it became U in the first place, and why.

I’ve been editing far too many academic articles and monographs of late…that’s my excuse for the endnotes, anyway.

i In the Grimms’ original, the mirror is a diminutive Spieglein, which is hard to match: mirrorlet? I don’t think so. »Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand,
Wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?«
so antwortete der Spiegel:
»Frau Königin, Ihr seid die Schönste im Land.«

ii It is easy to forget that German was well placed to become the universal lingua franca in the nineteenth century, above all because of its scientific and scholarly credentials. This seems to have been the case in Finland, as witnessed by the aforementioned journal, whose title is in German, as is, naturally enough, the information about it. However, Ross’s article is in English, and the one, also in English, preceding it in the journal, mentions how English was taking over in Finland in scholarly circles.

iii Pray don’t tell me that hoi means ‘the’ in Greek, and therefore ‘the’ in English is redundant. I know already  what it means. But English is not Greek, just as Hungarian is not Mandarin, nor Slovene, Punjabi, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

iv Arguably is such a wonderfully, conveniently weasel word. It would like to sound as if it means ‘there are objective arguments to support what I am about to claim’; what it really means, as here, is ‘because I say so’.

v Scheveningen is a suburb of the Hague, where, as a mid-teenager, I spent my first solo European holiday, when my father was working there. It’s a word that does not trip easily of an untutored British tongue, and my dad’s Dutch friends had hours of harmless fun trying to get me to say it properly.



Toilet talk – Number One (1) – World Toilet Day

The purpose of World Toilet Day is, of course, to highlight how many people in the world lack access to private or safe basic toilet facilities. That aim is very laudable.

And talking of ‘aim’ brings to mind that sign you might encounter, for example, in a twee B&B — I shouldn’t, I know, because it’s puerile and tasteless, but why change the habit of a lifetime? — directed at male micturators: We aim to please. You aim, too, please.

But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t, instead, want to plumb the depths of the word’s back passage, I mean backstory – which, as it turns out, is rather illuminating.

First, though, here’s a riddle to set your neurons a-twinkle: what’s the connection between toilets and posh wallpaper?

We’ve all been there.

If English is going down the toilet, as some believe, it’s usually the Yanks who are to blame. And, unsurprisingly perhaps, they are responsible for the latest twist in the very long story of a word that’s been running and running since the sixteenth century.

Once upon a (long long) time (ago), rather than referring to the

bathroom, loo, smallest room, privy, jakes, thunder-box, garderobe, house of easement, crapper, bog, khazi, etc., (odd how many of those slang terms are British — does it reflect a national scatological obsession?)

toilet meant ‘A piece of cloth used as a wrapper or covering for clothes.’

‘You’re kidding me!’
Yeah, no, really.
It did.

How that shift happened is a long story, best told by reverse time travel. So, follow me boldly round the u-bend of etymology. On our cloacal journey we’ll see how a word can constantly morph as speakers give it new meanings, so that it wouldn’t recognize itself even if it found itself in its soup.

That journey gives us a hopefully easy-to-read timeline.  And I trust you won’t think me too anal-retentive in going through all this. Or, indeed, that all that follows is pure bovine scatology.

Trust the Dutch to be so forthright! We Anglos are a more reserved race. Actually, it’s about Louis XIV doing his business during a meeting. Yuck. Small wonder perhaps, then, that the famous apophthegm ‘Après moi le déluge’ was coined by his successor.

The dates that follow are the first recorded uses of the word in the meaning defined, according to the OED. Quotations are added for literary or historical interest.

In incarnations 4, 5, and 6 the pronunciation would have been /twɑːˈlɛt/, imitating the French /twalɛt/. And many of the word’s earlier meanings seem to have been borrowed from the Protean meanings of the French word. Several of the examples in the OED are from translations, illustrating the word’s original frogginness.

Note, too, the folk etymology in the 1803 example of category 7, and the sort of naïve phonetic rendering in the 1682 example under section 8.

  1. 1894 – “receptacle for you know what.”
    I saw him sitting on the toilet with all his clothes on. N.Y. Court of Appeals: Rec. & Briefs 19 Dec. (1897) 134
  1. 1886 – “room or building.”

1886 He says the English railways are improving all the time… No toilets are provided, which make [sic] long distance traveling very injurious to the health. Kane (Pa.) Leader 7 Oct. 2/2

1959   Such a gentleman..always pretended not to see you if he met you coming out of the toilet. S. Gibbons Pink Front Door xviii. 222

  1. 1790 – “A dressing room (in later use esp. one equipped with washing facilities).”

1819   There is the closet, there the toilet. ByronDon Juan: Canto I cliii. 79

1978   Gradually the room where one attended to personal grooming or ‘made one’s toilette’ came to be called just the toilet. Verbatim, Sept. 5/2

  1. 1752 – “Chiefly in form toilette. Manner or style of dressing; dress, costume. Also (as a count noun): a dress or costume, a gown. Now arch. and rare.”

1821   His toilette had apparently cost him some labour, for his clothes..were of the newest fashion, and put on with great attention. ScottKenilworth I. iii. 50

1936    Nance..had suffered such a ruffling of her toilet that a couple of hairpins trailed across one of her ears. J. C. Powys, Maiden Castle ix. 450

  1. 1688 – “Chiefly in form toilette. The reception of visitors by a lady during the concluding stages of her toilet, esp. fashionable in the 18th cent.”

1688   For indeed people never go thither to make their Court, nor do they attend at the Sultana’s Toilets [Fr. Toillettes]. J. Phillips, translation of Du Vignau Turkish Secretary 51

1786    I am forced to deny all admission to my toilette, as it has never taken place without making me too late. Fanny BurneyDiary 19 Aug. (1842) III. 120

Lady at her toilette, c. 1660, Gerard ter Borch, 1617-1681, Detroit Institute of Arts

  1. 1684 – “Frequently in form toilette. The action or process of washing, dressing, or arranging the hair. Frequently in to make one’s toilet.”

1684 She was given to understand, being at her Toilette, of the death of her Husband. translation of ‘Le Sieur Combes’ Hist. Explic. Versailles 32

1726   Every Trifle that employs The out or inside of their Heads, Between their Toylets and their Beds. SwiftCadenus & Vanessa 7

1939    They make their toilette and take their repose. T. S. EliotOld Possum’s Bk. Pract. Cats 20

  1. 1667 The dressing table covered by this cloth; a toilet table. Obs.

1667 (stage direct.Re-enter Donna Blanca and Francisca as in Blanca’s chamber, and she newly seated at her Toilet, and beginning to unpin. G. Digby, Elvira iv. 58

1789    My book was on every table, and almost on every toilette. GibbonAutobiogr. (1854) 100

1803   M. Charlton Wife & Mistress (ed. 2) I. 118   I have made up a twilight in her room, and put my white taffety pin~cushion upon it.

1819   On the toilette beside, stood an old-fashioned mirror, in a fillagree frame. ScottBride of Lammermoor xii, in Tales of my Landlord 3rd Ser. II. 301

  1. 1665 – “A cloth cover for a dressing table, formerly often of rich material and workmanship; ..Obs.”

1665  Two Gentlewomen masked, and a little Dwarf with his vizard on likewise, came to undress him, afafter [sic] they had spread a most sumptuous Toillet on a side Table. J. B. tr. P. Scarron, Comical Romance ix. 48

1682    A gold-coloured Tabby Twilet and Pincushion with Silver Lace. London Gaz. No. 1739/4

1696   Toilet, a kind of Table-cloth, or Carpet of Silk, Sattins, Velvet or Tissue, spread upon a Table in a Bed-chamber. E. PhillipsNew World of Words (new ed.)

  1. 1664 – “A shawl to cover the head or shoulders; spec. a cloth put over the shoulders during shaving or hairdressing. Obs.”

1664   How Propa this little Rogue is, in every thing! Night gowne, slippers, Cap, and Toylet? As brave as if she were to marry some Prince to night. T. Killigrew, Thomaso v. vi, in Comedies & Trag. 375

1687   When they go abroad, they wear a Chal which is a kind of toilet of very fine Wool made at Cachmir.  A. Lovell, tr. J. de Thévenot Trav. into Levant iii. 37

Corneille de Lyon, Claude; King James V, King of Scotland (1512- 1542), Aged 25; National Trust, Polesden Lacey

  1. 1538 – “Chiefly Sc[ottish]. A piece of cloth used as a wrapper or covering for clothes. Obs.”

1538 vj quartaris of ȝallow bukram to be ane tulate to ane goune of gray dalmes of the kingis grace maid of before, and had to Striveling. [..quarters of yellow buckram to be a toilette to a gown of grey damask of the King’s grace made from before, and had to Stirling[i].]
In J. B. Paul Accts. Treasurer Scotl. (1907) VII. 86

1611    Toilette, a Toylet; the stuffe which Drapers lap about their clothes; also, a bag to put night-clothes, and buckeram, or other stuffe to wrap any other clothes, in. R. Cotgrave Dict. French & Eng. Tongues

So, there youse have it. From piece of cloth to shawl to dressing table cover to dressing table to action of doing one’s hair to receiving visitors to style of dress to dressing room to…loo.

Like everything useful in the modern world, ‘toilet’ — the word, at any rate — is thus a Scots invention.

[Alternative Facts advert kindly sponsored by the Scottish National Party.]

How direct the line from one meaning to the next is is not clear. What is clear is how one little word can substantially flush out older meanings as it moves through the cistern, I mean system.

I was almost forgetting my little riddle. Toilet comes from French toilette, which is a diminutive of the French for ‘cloth’, toile. If you want some elegant, chintzy, shabby chic wallpaper you might be interested in toile de jouy, which is ‘A type of printed calico with a characteristic floral, figure, or landscape design on a light background.’

[i] I take this to be the town of Stirling, site of one of the Stewarts’ most important castles/palaces. The date of 1538 would make sense as relating to Mary’s QoSc’s father, James V (1512-1542, ane other scottis monarke killed aff by thon inglis bastarts – [steady on! how did that mad Nationalist get in here? Ed.]), whose wife, Mary of Guise, was French. This meaning of the French toilette is one of the several meanings imported into English. The close links between France and Scotland at this time might explain the original importing of the term.

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Discernible or discernable? Is discernable even a word? (2)

In the previous blog on this topic, I presented some information about the history of these two forms of the ‘same word’, which have exactly the same meanings.

Once a presumed synonym comes into existence, though, it seems that some people will search heaven and earth to find a justification for its existence. Such is the case with discernable. If you google it, you might be directed to Wikidiff, which assures you that there is a meaning distinction between the two forms. You could have fooled me, but here, for what it’s worth, is what that august fount of knowledge claims:

‘The difference between discernible and discernable is that discernible is possible to discern while discernable is detectable or derivable by use of the senses or the intellect.’

Whoever thought that up had not quite worked out that nonsense on stilts is still nonsense, even if stamped with the faux seal of the internet/Wiki/wotevah. If something is ‘possible to discern’ it can ‘be discerned’, which means that it is ‘detectable by use of the senses or the intellect.’ I’m not sure where the ‘derivable’ comes in, but this cyberjobsworth was clearly not averse to circularity.

According to the OED, whose judgement I prefer to that of Wikidiff, and according to common sense, whose virtues may be even greater than those of that august cultural monument, there is simply NO DIFFERENCE (at least in meaning) between the two words. Each has five senses, which are exactly paralleled in the other, including the fifth and obsolete ‘capable of discerning’ (an ability the writer of Wikidiff clearly lacked):

1603   S. Daniel Panegyrike sig. B3   God..Hath giuen thee all those powers of worthinesse, Fit for so great a worke, and fram’d thy hart Discernible of all apparences.

1650   Man in Moon No. 37. 295   I hope this will be a sufficient caution for all discernable, or rationall men.

The difference is a simple orthographical one, ‘derivable’ or ‘possible to discern’ by looking at data.  Which is more frequent? Discernible or discernable. You know the answer yourself, vermute ich, but here is the science:

Figures and ratios for discernable/ible in several corpora:

Oxford English Corpus:

Feb 2014 – General – 4430/1472; total = 5,902; Ratio 75:25%
Monitor corpus Aug. 2017 – 9750/1861; total = 11,611; Ratio 83.97:16.03%
Academic journals, June 2015 –  6,303/1,858; total = 8,161; Ratio 77.23:22.77%

BYU corpora:

Corpus of Historical American (CoHA)– 1132/54; total = 1,186; Ratio 95.4:4.6%
NOW Corpus (News) – 5602/932; total = 6,534; Ratio 85.7:14.3%
Corpus of Contemporary American (CoCA)– 1096/190; total = 1,286; Ratio 85.2:14.8%

And here are the figures from the Global Corpus of Web-based English.

discernible 2,608 609 164 596 170 244 121 80 624
discernable 721 183 46 175 40 65 42 21 149
RATIO [%] 78.8/21.2 76.9/23.1 78.1/21.9 77.3/22.7 81.0/19.0 79/21 74.2/25.8 79.2/20.8 80.1/19.9

As you will have noticed, for most corpora, the proportion of discernible seems to hover betwen the 75% and 80% mark.

The exceptions are those datasets that exceed the 80% mark, of which there are four: OEC Monitor, CoHA, NOW and CoCA. To what extent the difference is signficant, not being a statistician, I am afraid I cannot say. The very high 95.4% of the CoHA data, though, is presumably due to writers historically being more careful about putting down what they thought of as the correct form.

Good ole’ Ngrams shows a slight drop in discernable at the beginning of the 19th century, and then an upward trend towards 2000, while discernible shows an earlier peak, and then decline.

Finally, omniscient Google asks ‘Did you mean discernible?’ if you key in the –able form.

So, yes, according to what the sources tell us, discernable is used and legitimate, but still a minority taste (a bit like the British LibDems, really). The only usage note I can find on it is in Pam Peters’ Cambridge guide, where she suggests that writers use the -able form either ‘in deference to the older tradition, or by using the regular English wordforming principle for English verbs’.

In that regard, the OED lists about 3,700 –able adjectives compared with a mere 600 for –ible.

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Discernible or discernable? Is discernable even a word? (1)

‘Discernable’, I hear you say. ‘There’s no such word!’

While editing the other day I came across this spelling, and it had me scratching my head. ‘A mistake, surely?’ said I to myself, a tad too smugly, as it turned out.

I thought I’d better check all the same.

I’m glad I did, for thereby hangs a tale of imported words, historical swapping, and current variation or uncertainty.

Is it correct, you might ask? Well, yes and no. (It depends what you consult.)

Is it frequent? (For those in a hurry [FTIAH], far less so than discernible.)

And what does ‘the dictionary’ say? ([FTIAH], It depends which one.)

Which came first? And where from? (Read on.)

If I write discernable, am I wrong? (Read on.)


‘The dictionary’ says:

  1. The Online Oxford Dictionary gives it as an alternative form under the headword discernible.
  2. Collins proclaims itrare’ and ‘another word for discernible’.
  3. Google asks ‘did you mean discernible?’
  4. Merriam-Webster online makes it a subentry under discern, ‘discernible or less commonly discernable’.
  5. M-W Unabridged gives it as an alternative under discernible with no comment on relative frequency.
  6. In its etymology rubric for discernible, the OED says ‘compare earlier discernable’, which has its own (Dec. 2013) entry.

So, if you go by ‘the dictionary’, it exists and is valid.

However, the OED entry for discernable has a cautionary note: ‘discernible is now the more common word; some later examples of discernable may show typographical errors for it.’ (My underlining.)

And the ‘After Deadline’ column’s spelling check in the NYT – admittedly back in 2010 – had this to say:

‘Here’s a new nominee for the title of most-frequently-misspelled word (by percentage of uses): “discernible.”

Like “legible” and “divisible,” it ends in “-ible” rather than “-able” (the spelling generally depends on how the original Latin verb was conjugated). In the past year we used “discernible” in articles 92 times and “discernable” 15 times, for an error rate of about 14 percent.

Granted, a few dictionaries charitably list “discernable” as an alternate spelling, but the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a 16th-to-18th-century variant. We should stick to “discernible.”’

By Philip B. Corbett January 19, 2010 11:05 Am


Where do discernible/discernable come from?

There’s a bit of a story to unravel here. The M-W unabridged puts it in a nutshell:


discernible alteration (influenced by Late Latin discernibilis, from Latin discernere + –ibilis -ible) of discernable; discernable from Middle French, from discerner + -able

In other words, it suggests that what most people would today take to be the standard form is an alteration of the form in –able.

Does the OED agree?

Not exactly, but it does provide some interesting historical information.

Stepping back a bit from either derivative, let’s take the verb discern. The OED gives it a dual parentage from French AND Latin. (Words from ‘French and/or Latin’ constitute the fourth-largest group of loanwords in English, after those from [you’ll have guessed already] Latin only, French only, and Greek, and ahead of German]. It is first recorded from before 1325 (i.e. the exact date is not known).


Given its existence in English, discern, like so very many other verbs, was then capable of having the suffix –able added – or, as the OED puts it: ‘formed within English by derivation’ – when the need to express the idea of ‘able to be discerned’ arose. Which it did, but not before 1548, it seems, and then in a rather sad cause.

1548   W. Patten The Expedicion into Scotlande of…Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset sig.

That woorthy gentleman and valiaunt Captain all piteefully disfigured and mangled amoong them lay: and but by his bearde nothing discernable.

That extract is from the account of the disastrous (for the Scots) battle between the English and Scots armies at Pinkie Cleugh (near Musselburgh, which is not far from Edinburgh), on 10 September, 1547. Possibly as many as 6,000 Scots were killed out of an army of 22,000 to 23,000.

In that extract, the meaning is not the main modern one of ‘perceptible’ but rather that of ‘recognizable’, in this case only by the subject’s beard. (How you recognize a man by his beard alone could be a skill we moderns have lost. Hipsters take note.)

Lord Protector Somerset by Holbein (Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, under whose auspices the attack on Scotland took place.) You’d have to be Herculeanly butch to get away with that look nowadays.

That meaning of ‘perceptible (to the mind)’ first surfaced thirteen years later, in a translation of Calvin (the theologian)’s work:

1561   T. Norton tr. J. Calvin Inst. Christian Relig. i. xvii. f. 62   The schoole of certayn and plainly discernable trueth [L. certae conspicuaeque veritatis schola].

It is worth noting, firstly, that the OED gives twenty-first century citations for four out of the five meanings it assigns to discernable (the fifth being, in any case, obsolete).

Second, the OED also notes ‘Compare Middle French, French discernable visible, (in later use also) that can be perceived by the mind or intellect (16th cent.)…’ which leaves it tantalizingly unclear what influence the OUP lexicographers think French had on the word. (Remember what M-W Unabridged says, quoted earlier.)


is a direct borrowing from the Late Latin discernibilis, from the Latin verb discernere mentioned earlier, ‘to separate, to distinguish, to settle, decide’ (from which comes discrete, meaning ‘separate’ and not ‘tactful’, which is spelled discreet). I wonder if its replacing the –able form is an example of the philological Latinizing trend that e.g. added the b to debt.

It currently has all the same meanings as discernable, and one extra, historically (= capable of discerning), with which it first appeared in 1603 in a work by the Elizabethan/Jacobean poet Samuel Daniel:

1603   S. Daniel Panegyrike sig. B3   God..Hath giuen thee all those powers of worthinesse, Fit for so great a worke, and fram’d thy hart Discernible of all apparences.



The first OED citation for one of its current meanings (‘That can be discerned or perceived by the mind or intellect.’) is:

1616   S. S. Honest Lawyer i. sig. B

I am composd most of the nimbler elements: But little water in me, farre lesse earth, some aire..but their mixture Is scarce discernible, th’are so dispers’d. For my predominant qualitie is all fire.

A contemporary OED example with the same meaning is: 2003   N.Y. Mag. 3 Nov. 90/3   Songs that stop and start for no discernible reason.

Finally, in the meaning of ‘visible’ we have the first appearance in 1678:

W. Thomas Serm. preached before Lords 36

Elijah’s little Cloud scarce discernible at first aspect, but being dilated, blackens the Heavens.

And more recent quotations from George Eliot and Ian McEwan:

1866   ‘G. Eliot’ Felix Holt I. ii. 67   There was the slightest possible quiver discernible across Jermyn’s face.

2001   I. McEwan Atonement 160   There was nothing, nothing but the tumbling dark mass of the woods just discernible against the greyish-blue of the western sky.

Tbc in another blog, with information on relative frequencies.


It’s a dog’s life (Part II). What does ‘It’s a ‘dog’s life’ mean? Good or bad?

I’m not quite sure what’s bitten me, but, I’ll be doggoned, I can’t stop nuzzling through all things linguistically canine. Previously, I‘ve looked at: the origin of ‘it’s a dog-eat-dog world’; at its eggcorn version; and at whether ‘X’s bark is worse than X’s bite’ and ‘it’s a dog’s lifehave parallels in other languages. Subsequently, I’ve come across a few curiosities I thought I’d ‘share’, particularly for US readers, who are the overwhelming majority of visitors to this blog. (Thanks!)

In addition, I’m sort of obliquely revisiting ‘it’s a dog’s life’, though I hope all this won’t turn into a shaggy-dog story.

As mentioned previously, the OED has a welter of pooch-related phrases, proverbs, compounds, and so forth. Not to mention the 31 fundamental meanings of the word, several of which are further subdivided.

Apart from various highly technical meanings, there is one which regular visitors, like me, to stately homes – National Trust or otherwise – might well come across: ‘A utensil, consisting of an iron bar sustained horizontally at one end by an upright pillar or support usually ornamented or artistically shaped, at the other by a short foot; a pair of these, also called ‘fire-dogs,’ being placed, one at each side of the hearth or fire-place, with the ornamental ends to the front, to support burning wood.’ These dogs, otherwise known as andirons, tend to be the sort of ostentatious metalwork, or domestic bling, that nowadays only the truly grand or the truly pretentious can indulge in (you need a fireplace, for starters, preferably a large one).

These are truly splendid Dutch seventeenth-century (fire)dogs.

Most Americans would be baffled by a Brit saying ‘give us a bell on the dog’. (‘Is this some kind of weeeeuuuuuurd pooch accessory you crazy guys use that we haven’t heard of?’)

‘To give someone a bell’ is informal British English for ‘to phone’ someone, and ‘the dog’ is short for ‘dog and bone’, which is rhyming slang for…phone.

(Actually, that utterance is one of those made-up examples that used to be the norm in dictionaries but wouldn’t cut the mustard nowadays; though theoretically plausible, it is unlikely [despite existing on Google] because the second part is redundant: ‘to give someone a bell’ implies on the phone, which therefore does not usually need to be stated.)

Similarly opaque for US readers might be dressed up like a dog’s dinner – meaning ‘wearing extremely smart or ostentatious clothes for an occasion for which they are entirely inappropriate’; and, slangwise, something being the dog’s bollocks when it is the best of its kind, the genuine article, the bee’s knees, the cat’s pyjamas, etc., e.g. ‘Back in 1996, when the supercomputer was installed at Australia’s National University, it was the dog’s bollocks.’

Now, reverting to it’s a dog’s life, Paul Nance, who is an assiduous reader of this blog, kindly posted a comment noting that for ‘it’s a dog’s life’ the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs compiled by William George Smith. Oxford at the Clarendon Press, Second edition (1948), reprinted 1963, page 152) quotes a proverb suggesting that a dog’s life may be mixed:

As Paul wrote: ‘…“a dog’s life, hunger and ease,” suggesting that a dog’s life is one of both misery and pleasure. It quotes Kelly’s Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs, “A dog’s life, mickle hunger, mickle ease. Applies to careless, lazy lubbers, who will not work, and therefore have many a hungry meal.”‘

I have to say that I find it hard to be convinced by the argument cum proverb, for three principal reasons: first, a proverb may exist – in the sense of having been recorded – but be infrequent, or only relevant historically (For instance, outside the covers of dictionaries, I have never encountered a dog that will fetch a bone will carry a bone and its variants, all of which mean ‘a gossip carries gossip both ways’.)

Second, which is a corollary of the first, although framed as a proverb by someone once, a given ‘proverb’ may not feature in people’s mental lexicons at all, and therefore certainly not represent a general truth in people’s minds. And in fact, the Scots proverb above contradicts the first one (‘mickle‘ means ‘a lot of’).

Third, so many proverbs, phrases, and derivatives connected with bow-wows are negative that the balance of probability linguistically suggests that a dog’s life just has to be negative. To take three examples, 1) you can only ever be dogged by something bad, such as bad luck, illness, etc.; 2) historically, if something is dog + ADJECTIVE X, it is generally bad, despised, or not desirable, e.g. OED C. 1 d) & e), dog-tired, Lear’s dog-harted daughters, A wretched kind of a dog-look’d fellow, dogmad, dog-hungry, and so forth; and 3) if something is dog + NOUN X, it is of poor or dubious quality, e.g. OED C.1 f) …

1565   M. Harding in J. Jewel Def. Apol. Churche Eng. (1567) 94   Luther would stampe, and rage, and whette his dogge eloquence vpon you.

1581   P. Wiburn Checke or Reproofe M. Howlets Shreeching f. 29   Heere is praeda Mysorum, expounded and set out with dogge Rhetorike, and much adoe.

1611   J. Florio Queen Anna’s New World of Words   Versaccij, dog-rimes, filthy verses.

(I will pass over what my most attentive readers will have spotted, namely that 2) and 3) here possibly contradict what I said earlier about a proverb only being relevant historically. No matter: ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’ ;-). )

Nevertheless, usage changes in line with changed attitudes. Since dogs in English-speaking countries are hugely popular as pets and are pampered, cosseted, spoiled, accessorized and anthropomorphized almost to death, there is every reason to suppose that ‘it’s a dog’s life’ will over time become exclusively a positive thing. In fact, a micro-minsurvey on Twitter revealed to my surprise that half of respondents over 40 already interpret it as a good thing, and under a third of those under 40 also do. Of course, it is also true that one might use it in one way oneself, but happily interpret it the other way round, according to context.


It’s a dog’s life. And the dogs go on with their doggy life.

Could ‘it’s a dog’s life’ be used refer to a pleasant lifestyle rather than a despised, downtrodden one?

It would seem passing strange to me. But somewhere recently I read that the meaning of this idiom seems to be changing (annoyingly, I can’t remember where). And the (to me rebarbative) picture above of dog as girly fashion accessory makes it sound very plausible.

If it is happening, it would be an example of (a)melioration, the linguistic process by which a word sort of moves upmarket, or at least shakes off ‘its lowly-born tag’. The classic example is nice, which has moved from meaning ‘silly’ or ‘ignorant’, to meaning, erm, ‘nice’.

If you come across ‘a dog’s life’ being used positively, do please let me know.

Now, dogs are not proverbially associated with the good things in life, which reflects their often less than pampered status, historically speaking.

For instance, one of the most famous dogs in literature, Odysseus’ Argos, dies a pitiable death, as Pope’s ‘translation’ from The Odyssey so elegantly conveys in heroic couplets.1

For instance, when things ‘go to the dogs’, they are certainly not improving (1st OED quotation, 1619). If someone ‘dies like a dog’, it is hardly a noble or glorious death.

Þu schalt regne as a lion, butte þu schalt die as a dogge. (before 1425).

The OED groups doggy idioms, proverbs and the like according to the canine characteristic they exemplify. One rubric for the category in which poor mutts are a symbol of maltreatment runs ‘With reference to the quality of a dog’s existence’ and then ‘In various other idiomatic expressions involving an unpleasant thing, circumstance, or event (usually in negative constructions)…’

The broth may be good, but the flesh is not fit for doggs sure.

[a1625   J. Fletcher Wife for Moneth v. i, in F. Beaumont & J. Fletcher Comedies & Trag. (1647) 66

The punishment diet was such as no humane man would give to a dog.

The Times, 6 March 1898

Other examples of translated Yiddish being adopted by non-Yiddish-speaking people are, ‘It should(n’t) happen to a dog!’ [etc.].

American Speech, 18 46, 1943

I’ve heard the way some people talk to sports stars and you wouldn’t talk like that to a dog.

Courier Mail (Austr.), 10 June 2006.

If people from Jacobean playwrights to modern journalists, as in the examples above, say something is ‘not fit for a dog’, or you ‘wouldn’t give X to a dog’, you can be sure that that particular something is deeply undesirable.

The list of negatively connoted phrases goes on like a litany of canine woe (dog’s breakfast/dinner, not a dog’s chance, throw someone to the dogs).

Stubbs’ ‘A Rough Dog’, 1790. It looks a bit like my stepmother’s bearded collie ‘Pushkin’, but dog lovers will know better than me.

It’s a dog’s life

So, what about ‘it’s a dog’s life’? Actually, it’s not in the OED in that precise form: instead, there is a subsection under the rubric previously mentioned:  ‘to lead a dog’s life and variants: to lead a life of misery, or of miserable subservience. So to lead (a person) a dog’s life: to subject (a person) to such an existence.’

Here are the earliest and most recent quotations (with a lot of misery in between left out).

Mr. Ford afterwards had a dogs life among them.

Fox MSS. in J. Strype Eccl. Mem. (1721) III. xxi. 174, a1528

He’d led her a dog’s life, she couldn’t bear to talk about it.

Bristol Evening Post, 29 April 2003

Several other European languages seem to agree about the universal wretchedness of Fido’s life: une vie de chien, una vita da cani, una vida de perros, uma vida de cão, ein Hundeleben, собачья жизнь, Σκυλίσια ζωή. 

This poor little chap certainly has a hangdog look. (Despite myself, you see, I can’t help anthropomorphising him.)

I wondered if corpus could help. Well, in the corpus I consulted, there are 113 examples. However, many of them are not the idiom at all (e.g. I’m a firm believer now that a routine is a very healthy part of a dog’s life). Even with the verb ‘it’s a dog’s life’ many are just puns in texts where dogs are the topic.

Of those that are definitely the idiom, and not punning on the dog connection (less than a dozen), most are negative, e.g. Gerard Doherty is leading a dog ‘s life at the moment. Playing football after a few pints of devil juice is not a good idea. A swollen ankle is proof enough that Gerard is not as young as he thinks.

However, there is a punning one that could be taken to suggest that a dog’s life is a good thing. It’s about a sniffer dog called Jake.

In the wake of Sept. II, Jake often pulled 14-hour days. The long shifts were not his idea of a dog’s life. One night he practically collapsed from exhaustion.

And then a couple more where it is not clear what the implication is:

Ainlee is not living with his wife and for some time there has been a coolness between him and the Baroness. There are two or three children, who are knocked about from one to the other. One day she says “they’re yours, take them”, and then, “They ‘re mine and I want them back”. Rathbone says the poor kiddies haven’t a dog’s life.

Given the strange use of ‘have’ here, could this be a confusion with the idiom ‘a dog’s chance’?


The holidays are usually the biggest time for animal adoption, but the Humane Society is not sure what to expect this year. Right now that old saying, it’s a dog’s life just doesn’t carry quite the same meaning.

Does this mean that if adoptions go ahead, it’s a dog’s life, therefore a good thing? Or, given the context, does it mean ‘a dog’s life is worth something’?

In connection with ‘a dog’s life’, I was reminded of Auden’s ‘doggy lives’ from Musée des Beaux Arts, one of the poems I recite to myself on the treadmill in the gym to stave off almost terminal boredom.2


One of Flaxman’s glorious neo-classical illustrations for The Odyssey.

1 Take Odysseus’ dog, Argos, that exemplar of canine devotion and loyalty. He gets to see his master on his return to Ithaca, and has his praises sung, but his only reward is death, as Pope’s very free translation makes clear. To be read aloud.
WHEN wise Ulysses, from his native coast
Long kept by wars, and long by tempests toss’d,
Arrived at last, poor, old, disguised, alone,
To all his friends, and ev’n his Queen unknown,
Changed as he was, with age, and toils, and cares,
Furrow’d his rev’rend face, and white his hairs,
In his own palace forc’d to ask his bread,
Scorn’d by those slaves his former bounty fed,
Forgot of all his own domestic crew,
The faithful Dog alone his rightful master knew!
Unfed, unhous’d, neglected, on the clay
Like an old servant now cashier’d, he lay;
Touch’d with resentment of ungrateful man,
And longing to behold his ancient lord again.
Him when he saw he rose, and crawl’d to meet,
(‘Twas all he could) and fawn’d and kiss’d his feet,
Seiz’d with dumb joy; then falling by his side,
Own’d his returning lord, look’d up, and died!

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
(Complete version here)


His bark is worse than his bite; Perro que ladra nunca muerde; Can che abbaia non morde

(I’m on a roll with this dog thang, so I thought I’d go on until bitten in the leg or otherwise stopped)

As non-gender-specific Human’s best friend, dogs have understandably inspired much proverbial wisdom and colourful phrases down the ages and in many languages.

Sometimes a doggy thought expressed in English in one way is expressed (technically ‘lexicalised’) differently in another European language. I was reminded of this truism when a Bulgarian character in a radio soap (‘The Archers’) asked what ‘her bark is worse than her bite’ means.

The Spanish equivalent that I’ve occasionally heard used is ‘perro que ladra no muerde’ [literally ‘dog that barks, doesn’t bite’, the omission of the article in Spanish arguably giving the phrase a sort of epigrammatic, emphatic, gnomic quality]. You use it as a comment on someone’s personality, meaning, as you will already have worked out, that ‘their bark is worse than their bite’.

(As it happens, the exact same syntax applies to the French and Italian equivalents: chien qui aboie ne mort pas and can che abbaia non morde.)

At this point, it’s worth defining what a ‘proverb’ is: according to the Oxford Online Dictionary, it is ‘A short, well-known pithy saying, stating a general truth or piece of advice.’ To my mind, ‘his bark is worse than his bite‘ is a catchphrase, not a proverb, since it can inflect (his/her/their/your) etc. But these are quibbles.

It turns out that there is an English proverb with the ‘same meaning’: A barking dog never bites. It is just far less common than the alternative already mentioned, which most English speakers will recognise and – as occasion demands – use.

Proverbs tend not to be that well represented in written corpora; even so, for example, worse than…bite’ crops up 163 times in the Oxford English Corpus (July 2017) compared to the other’s…well…just twice.

One of those is in a passage where dog tropes are part of the narrative style (see 1 below for a longer extract), while the other is attributed to an altogether different language: ‘There’s a saying in Syria: a barking dog never bites,” said Adnan Diab, a Syrian teacher living in Lebanon.’

In contrast, ‘X’s bark is worse than their bite’ (oh, the lengths one has to go to to be gender-neutral) is so well established that it readily lends itself to punning, as the following example and the one at 2 below show.

My favorite Gary Ingle story is about the piano teacher who taught her cocker spaniel how to play all fifteen two-part Inventions of J.S. Bach. The dog’s Bach was worse than his bite. American Music Teacher, 2015

Although a barking dog never bites will NOT trip readily of most people’s tongues, it goes back a long way, according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (CODP), which gives a thirteenth-century French example: ciascuns chiens qui abaie ne mort pas.

The Trésor de la langue française (a sort of French OED) suggests that that ancient fomulation is still valid in the form chien qui aboie ne mort pas (note the omission of any article before chien, similarly to the Spanish version).

The CODP also furnishes an entertaining 1980 quotation, from the 1 May Daily Torygraph:

A canvassing candidate came to a house where there was an Alsatian who [NB] barked ferociously. His agent said: “Just go in. Don’t you know the proverb ‘A barking dog never bites’?” “Yes,” said the candidate, “I know the proverb, you know the proverb, but does the dog know the proverb?”’

Finally, German has the exact equivalent of the English Hunde, die bellen, beißen nicht [dogs that bark don’t bite] whereas Italian can che abbaia non morde has the gnomic brevity of the Spanish and French, and is elegantly translated by Google as ‘Can that barks does not bite’.  Which comes from which? Or is there an underlying Latin source? [These are purely rhetorical questions.]

1 ‘Some might say election season turns into a dog-eat-dog political world, with candidates performing dog-and-pony shows. And while some would point out that a barking dog never bites, others would agree that the whole thing has gone to the dogs.’, 2012.

2 This extract refers to a hot dog eating competition as reported in the New York Post in 2007. Yuck and double yuck!

In a record-shattering wiener war yesterday, Joey Chestnut downed 66 Nathan’s hot dogs, besting six-time defending champ Takeru Kobayashi ‘s 63. Chestnut reclaimed the Mustard Yellow Belt for the United States by scarfing down a total of 20,394 calories at the annual Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest in Coney Island.Despite a jaw injury that nearly prevented him from competing, Kobayashi stayed neck and neck with Chestnut until the end of the 12 -minute battle when his barf [sc. vomit] proved worse than his bite.