Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


Objections to ‘to be done with something.’ Uniquely American? I’m done with the topic, anyway.

(four-minute read)

Here’s a language issue that’s new to me.

The other day on Twitter @The_GrammarGeek asked:

‘There’s an opinion out there that it’s wrong to use “done” to mean “finished,” as in, “I’m done with my homework.” But this use of “done” has been widely used since the 15th century. Any idea/when where the false rule originated?’

Another tweep, Karen Conlin (thanks, Karen!) then tweeted that this issue is not mentioned in my edition of Fowler (4th edn., 2015), and asked if I could shed any light on it. Here goes, then…

If you’re in a hurry…

  • That highly specific use (= ‘to have finished, completed + NOUN’) seems to be mainly U.S.
  • So, strictures against it have no reason to appear in Br.E. manuals.
  • That specific use is 18th century onwards, rather than 15th.
  • According to M-W’s Concise Dict. of English Usage, objections to it were first raised in 1917, with no obvious justification.

If you’ve got longer…

Here’s my two pennies’ worth.

First, to use ‘done’ in exactly that construction, namely, HAVE + done + with + NOUN and with that precise meaning (= ‘to have completed’), is not something I personally would say (is not part of my ‘idiolect’), and – I’m speculating here – is not something most Br.E. speakers would say either. (Looking for evidence in do, one of the most common verbs in the language, could be a Herculean, not to say Sisyphean, enterprise!)

However, I might say  ‘I’m done with blogging’, using the pattern to be done with + –ing form (verbal noun), but I think that is a slightly different meaning (‘I will never do it again’ = ‘I’m through with blogging’).

And I would also write, though probably not say, the standard phrase ‘let’s tell him and be done with it’.

If the above claim is true, then there is no reason why a fatwa against the use should exist in Br.E. usage manuals. I’ve checked in all three previous editions of Fowler, and the issue has not been treated. My additions and amendments were based on notes kept over several years about issues that had struck me, and this was not one of them.

Second, what exactly is this use, and where does it come from?

What can the OED can tell us?

Previous edition

The previous edition (1989) makes it a second sub-sense under the more general, somewhat undifferentiated rubric of

8. (In pa. pple. and perf. tenses.) To accomplish, complete, finish, bring to a conclusion. to be done, to be at an end.’

The sub-sense is headed

b. to be done is used of the agent instead of ‘to have done’, in expressing state rather than action. (Chiefly IrishSc.U.S., and dial.)

That geographical information in brackets is important.

The first example given dates to 1766, from T. Amory’s Life of John Buncle II. x. 365

I was done with love for ever.

(Amory, btw, grew up in Ireland.)

The second citation, however, is from Thomas Jefferson: 1771 T. Jefferson Let. T. Adams in Harper’s Mag. No. 482. 206

One farther favor and I am done.

Current edition

The current edition (3rd edn., March 2014) is more nuanced. It puts that Life of John Buncle quotation (I was done with love for ever) at the head of a category (10. a. (b)) captioned thus:

‘Of a person: to be at the end of one’s dealings with, to have no further truck with; = sense10b(b).’

In other words, it makes it equivalent to ‘to have done with something/someone’ as in Shakespeare’s Do what thou wilt for I haue done with thee, and as the earlier edition also did.

On that analysis, the Buncle quote could have been I had done with love forever.

The meaning that is truly the one at issue, I think, is now lexicographed as follows (underlining mine):

10. a. (c) Of a person or other agent of action: to be at the end of what one is doing, to be finished. Also with complement expressing the action being finished. Now chiefly U.S.’

That note ‘chiefly U.S.’ chimes with Karen’s hunch that the use is more U.S. than British and is substantiated by the citations the OED chose:

The Jefferson quote heads that category, and the other examples are, with one exception, U.S.:

1876   H. B. Smith in Life (1881) 404   After this is done I am done.

1879   Literary World 6 Dec. 400/1   The mills of the gods are not yet done grinding.

1883   Cent. Mag. 25 767/1 ‘ twenty-four thousand dollars! Are you all done?’ He scanned the crowd.

1971   M. B. Powell & G. Higman Finite Simple Groups i. 5   Since g is arbitrary, we are done [i.e. we have completed the proof].

1981   J. Blume Tiger Eyes (1982) xxi. 87 ‘Davey..are you almost done?’ Jane calls, knocking on the bathroom door.

2000   A. Hagy Keeneland 242   You are full of total dog shit. I’m done putting up with you.

Note the examples with the –ing form, which I noted earlier that I would use. I might also say, similarly to the 1981 example above, ‘Are you quite done!’ as a retort to someone, for example, who was being rude or offensive at length.

Quick statistical note

A trawl in the Feb. 2018 ‘Monitor Corpus’ of the Oxford English Corpus for the string BE + done + with + –ing form retrieves 1,029 examples. Almost half are of unknown source, but of those whose source is known 265 are U.S., 65 British, e.g.

DANIEL Craig is said to be done with playing Bond, but producers are willing to do the impossible to keep the superstar happy.

As he’s mentioned in the example above, I couldn’t resist the temptation to add a variant of the almost legendary image from Casino Royale to add pep to a potentially dry topic.

An earlier version of the corpus (2014) shows a not dissimilar ratio.

Yes, but what about the prohibition against?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the M-W dict.’s earliest note is from 1917.  The M-W entry also notes the Heritage Usage Panel in 1969 47 percent disapproved of it, suggesting that it was a rule that had been forced on many of them.

Is it still being trotted out/bandied about? If so, please let me know where.



Flaunting or flouting the law (2). If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Or flout it?

[5-6 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

(Six-minute read.)

What’s the story (morning glory)?

In the earlier blog about these changeling verbs, we looked at what flaunt and flout are supposed to mean, and at how often they get swapped.

Writing about that made me wonder why they get confused in the first place.

Why the confusion?

There must be a reason. Nothing in language is, I am quite convinced, arbitrary; nor must this be.

Clearly, sound plays its part: the words cross the starting and finishing line together. However, rhyme they do not (i.e. are not homophones), and one has four phonemes while the other has five: /flaʊt/ and /flɔːnt/.

Sound helps, but doesn’t explain everything. Something else must be going on. And that something else is what I think I can explain below (prompted by a wise observation in the Merriam-Webster Concise Usage Dictionary).

If flaunt were a packing case, it would have ‘I DISAPPROVE!’ stamped all over it.

In fact, the Cobuild dictionary, which is hot on this kind of thing, known technically as ‘pragmatics’, makes that quite clear.

  1. If you say that someone flaunts their possessions, abilities, or qualities, you mean that they display them in a very obvious way, especially in order to try to obtain other people’s admiration. [disapproval]

They drove around in Rolls-Royces, openly flaunting their wealth.

[If you need an avatar for ‘flaunt’, think footballers’ sports cars, or Kim Kardashian (assuming, gentle reader, that you are not one of her besotted followers).]

  1. If you say that someone is flaunting themselves, you disapprove of them because they are behaving in a very confident way, or in a way that is intended to attract sexual attention.

‘She’s asking for trouble, flaunting herself like that. Did you see the way Major Winston was looking at her?’

What links these two meaning of flaunt? Hypervisibility. Or, in Cobuild’s more measured, words ‘…display them in a very obvious way.’

If you’re enjoying this blog, and finding it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up  and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

A Kardashian among verbs

Anyone who flaunts themself [sic] might as well have donned a hi-vis jacket with ‘LOOK AT ME, ME, ME, MEEEEE! AREN’T I SEXY!’ emblazoned all across the back.

Now, the Cobuild definition I mentioned earlier says that if someone flaunts whatever it may be they choose to flaunt, they do so ‘in a very obvious way’.

‘In a very obvious way’ is technically an ‘adverbial adjunct’. OK, ok already: it is more than one word, and it doesn’t end in –ly, but it is doing exactly what a common or garden adverb does, which is to comment on the verb.

Which raises the question: which common or garden –ly adverbs lend their seal of disapproval to  flaunt? We have already had openly in the example above (…openly flaunting their wealth…).

But isn’t that practically tautological? After all, to flaunt means ‘to display to public view’. You can’t secretly flaunt anything, can you?

That would be to miss the point of openly, and another adverb often used, publicly. Rather than being tautological, or redundant, they both intensify the tut-tutting, finger-wagging tone inherent in flaunt. If  you describe someone as ‘openly flaunting’ something, you’re suggesting their action is morally on a par with, shall we say, kicking a baby or having public sex.

Even more common are adverbs with a positively Whitehouseian moralistic tinge: blatantly, brazenly, flagrantly.

Those adverbs form the bridge to flout.

Why this Greek flute player? Read on.


Dictionary definitions say nothing about visibility in relation to flout (e.g., Cobuild’s ‘If you flout something such as a law, an order, or an accepted way of behaving, you deliberately do not obey it or follow it’).

But language corpora (which are vast, computerized collections of natural language) show those same ‘visibility’ adverbs that criticise flaunt clustering round flout like bees round a honeypot: openly, flagrantly, brazenly, blatantly:

For too long these rickshaw drivers have been ignored while blatantly flouting the law.

Not only are court orders brazenly flouted, there is substantial evidence that the cleared land are [sic] not used for any development purposes, but rather, reallocated to political cronies.

Another blush-making adverb is shamelessly.

This video shows how two drivers shamelessly flouted driving rules on one of Chelmsford’s busiest roads.

The ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashian’ star shamelessly flaunted her fabulous bikini body in the vintage snap.

So, these twin features of hypervisibility and brass-necked shamelessness make the two words almost perfectly overlap in a sort of Venn of moral revulsion.

In the previous blog on this, I was wrong to say it is only flaunt that ousts flout. M-W Usage Dict. has a couple of examples of the reverse direction, as does the Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), and even Google, e.g. Put simply, no amount of drug education in schools will succeed if the law enforcement agencies allow drug dealing with impunity on our streets and drug dealers are allowed to accumulate and flout their wealth (GloWbe).

Who started the swapping?

According to The Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage (2002), the first green-ink letter about this of which they have ken was penned (and received) in 1932. Their earliest evidence of the swap is from 1918, from the Yale Review, while the OED’s is from 1923. Google Ngrams does not seem to throw up any earlier evidence.

But even such a brilliant lyricist and wit as Noel Coward could fall into the trap, according to the OED:

Although we sometimes flaunt our family conventions, Our good intentions Mustn’t be misconstrued.

N. Coward Stately Homes of Operette(libretto) I. vii. 55, 1938

And no less august a figure than the PM at the time could be caught out too:

The Prime Minister in a broadcast on Wednesday (January 17) … referred to ‘flaunting’ the regulations.

Times 25 Jan, 1973

(Whether ‘Sailor Ted’ and ‘august’ collocate, I’ll let the reader decide.)

What about the words themselves. Where do they come from?


Nobody knows for sure. For flaunt (first cited in the OED from 1566) a connection with certain Scandinavian dialect words has been posited; alternatively, it might be a blend of e.g. fly, flounce with vaunt.

In its original intransitive use, one meaning was, as the OED (1896 entry) majestically puts it (underlining mine; the second underlined clause seems like a perfect definition of most social media activity): ‘Of persons: To walk or move about so as to display one’s finery; to display oneself in unbecomingly splendid or gaudy attire; to obtrude oneself boastfully, impudently, or defiantly on the public view. Often quasi-trans. to flaunt it (away, out, forth).’

This use is exemplified in Pope’s (1734) Essay on Man: Epist. IV 186:

One flaunts in Rags, one flutters in Brocade.

And in Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) VI. xxxiii. 122:   To flaunt it away in a chariot and six.

Mrs Piozzi (Hester Thrale), in 1810, aged 69, J. Jackson. Chalk & pencil portrait (detail.) Dr Johnson’s House museum, London.


But this use, though recorded first (1566) must surely be an extension of the literal meaning, first recorded in 1576: ‘Of plumes, banners, etc.: To wave gaily or proudly. Of plants: To wave so as to display their beauty.’

You might not think of plants being attention-seeking, but Dr Johnson’s friend and muse, Mrs Thrale/Piozzi,1 did:

Orange and lemon trees flaunt over the walls.

H.L. Piozzi, Observ. Journey France I. 59, 1789


The transitive use, though latent earlier in ‘to flaunt it away’ did not materialise until 1822:

The Summer air That flaunts their dewy robes.

T. Hood, Two Peacocks of Bedfont ii, in London Mag. Oct. 1822

The haberdashers flaunt long strips of gaudy calicoes.

Thackeray, Paris Sketch Bk. I. 19, 1840

Flouting and fluting

In its transitive meaning (‘To mock, jeer, insult; to express contempt for, either in word or action’) to flout appears in a 1551 translation of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia:

In moste spiteful maner mockynge…and flowtynge them.

  1. Robinsontr. T. More Vtopia sig. Aiii

and Shakespeare used it in the Scottish play2.

The unrevised OED (1897) suggests a link with a Middle English spelling of flute (verb).

‘What has a flute got to do with it?’, you may well ask.

Pan by Picasso. Lithograph.

Well, the connection seems to run like this, according to authoritative sources. It might come from Dutch fluiten ‘whistle, play the flute, hiss (in derision)’ [remember that Dutch has gifted an extraordinary number of words to English]. In support of this origin, the Oxford Online Dictionary notes, ‘German dialect pfeifen auf, literally ‘pipe at’, has a similar extended meaning’. And the OED points to hiss having evolved similarly from simple ‘noise’ word to derision.

As far as I have been able to establish, flout started to be used with ‘rules, law, etc.’-style words in the mid-nineteenth century (Corpus of Historical American) but didn’t really take off in that use until the twentieth.

1 The Grauniad review of Beryl Bainbridge’s masterly last completed novel, According to Queeney, recounting Dr Johnson’s relationship with Mrs Thrale, has an interesting use of flaunt:  ‘Bainbridge respects her reader enough not to flaunt her research, though this is a novel stitched together from original material.’

2 DUNCAN: Whence cam’st thou, worthy Thane?

ROSS: From Fife, great King,

Where the Norwegian banners flout the sky

And fan our people cold.

Norway himself, with terrible numbers,

Assisted by that most disloyal traitor,

The Thane of Cawdor, began a dismal conflict

Till that Bellona’s bridegroom [sc. Macbeth], lapped in proof,

Confronted him with self-comparisons,

Point against point, rebellious arm ‘gainst arm,

Curbing his lavish spirit; and to conclude,

The victory fell on us—




Flaunting or flouting the law? (1)

If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up  and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!

[5-6 of 20 words good writers shouldn’t confuse]

(Four-minute read.)

I’ve been prompted by a comment on this site (h/t Rick), and by seeing flaunt for flout recently, to revise and republish this post from the early days of this blog.

What’s the issue?

Put simply, it is this: Are people who write sentences such as “motorists who blatantly flaunt the regulations for their safety and well-being” (instead of flout) woefully ignorant dunderheads who need remedial English and should not be allowed into print, or are they just following a long-standing and perfectly legitimate linguistic trend?

How you answer that question defines your place on the descriptive-prescriptive spectrum (if you answered “yes”, you are probably an out-and-out prescriptivist). Your answer could also depend on where you live, and which dictionary or usage guide you take as your bible.

What do these words mean?

Though sounding similar, they have—at least in origin—rather different meanings. If you flaunt something, you show it off in a way which is brash and overdone. The very use of the word suggests that flauntyou don’t approve of whoever is doing the flaunting. Typical things that people flaunt are their wealth, their sexuality, and themselves, or bits of their anatomy (ahem!).

He flaunts his riches like everyone in the business.
Women should have it both ways—they should be able to flaunt their sexuality and be taken seriously.
Katie seemed to be flaunting herself a little too much for Elizabeth’s liking.

If you flout a law, rules, regulations, convention, and semantically related nouns, you do not obey them, and you treat them with blatant disregard.

Around 10 smokers were openly flouting the ban when the Health Board’s environmental health inspectors arrived.

Spain ‘s Duchess of Alba, known as the “rebel noble,” has died at age 88. The wealthiest woman in Spain, she was also a bohemian, famous for her eccentric style and for flouting convention in numerous ways.

In another case, it rejected the appeal of a New Mexico photographer accused of flouting anti-discrimination laws by refusing to photograph a same-sex wedding.

A quote from Chinua Achebe (1987) illustrates the confusion between the two. “Your Excellency, let us not flaunt the wishes of the people.” “Flout, you mean,” I said. “The people?” asked His Excellency, ignoring my piece of pedantry.

Unlike some other pairs of confusable words, such as lord/laud, the confusion here seems to work only in one direction. IOW, people do not use flout instead of flaunt.

What do dictionaries and usage guides say?

Merriam-Webster gives that transitive use of flaunt two definitions.
1 to display ostentatiously or impudently:
2 to treat contemptuously
while adding a note, which states that the use of flaunt in this way “undoubtedly arose from confusion with flout”, but that the contexts in which it appears cannot be considered “substandard”.

On the other side of the pond, Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) states categorically that the two words “may sound similar but they have different meanings”. oedThe 1993 draft addition to the OED entry for flaunt notes that the usage “clearly arose by confusion, and is widely considered erroneous”.

Various British usage guides maintain the distinction rigidly, and the Economist style guide’s witty note runs “Flaunt means display; flout means disdain. If you flout this distinction, you will flaunt your ignorance”. The Australian Macquarie dictionary notes “Flaunt is commonly confused with flout”.

Nevertheless, ODO admits that in the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) “the second and third commonest objects of flaunt, after wealth, are law and rules”.

What does the evidence say?

Other corpora (Corpus of Contemporary American, the NOW corpus, and the Global Corpus of web-based English (GloWbE) present a similar picture of the most frequent collocates of flaunt. For instance, in GloWbE, the most common noun object of flaunt is wealth, followed in equal second place by body and law. The other corpora show a similar pattern.

However, if you look at relative frequency, that is, at how often each verb has as its object a noun in the semantic field of “law, regulation, etc.”, things start to look rather different. For instance, in GloWbE again, you have the following (flout/flaunt) ratio:

law 287:37
laws 100:18
rules 212:25
convention 31:3

That shows a percentage of between 10 and 15 percent for flaunt with those collocates. Figures from the NOW corpus show a rather lower percentage, which may be due to its being journalistic, and therefore more ‘edited’:

law 1614:77
rules 2116:96
convention 82:4

So, while Merriam-Webster is less prescriptive than Oxford, Macquarie, and British style guides, in that it accepts the contested use, these figures suggest that many, many more writers across the twenty varieties of English represented in the corpora mentioned actually maintain the distinction than those that ignore it.



Given the current state of things, any reply to my original question has to be nuanced. So, if you read something that contains collocations such as flauntrules, regulations, convention, you could try to suppress a sigh for the total collapse and degradation of the English language and just give the writer the benefit of the doubt: it is presumably part of her or his idiolect.

Flaunt has been used to mean “flout” since the 1920s, according to that draft addition to the OED entry, and appears regularly, particularly in journalistic writing. At least one dictionary recognizes it as having that meaning; in the long run, others may accept it too.

On the other hand, if you are writing or editing something, there is an argument that it would be wise to maintain the distinction, and, possibly, tactfully, raise the issue with the author. In that way, you or they might avoid the involuntary sighs of some of your (probably older) readers as they are distracted from the content of your message by what they see as a flaw in its form.


Worst enemy or worse enemy? Eggcorns (6)

I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

In the previous blog, I mentioned the eggcorn ‘own worse enemy’, and raised various questions about the original version ‘to be one’s own worst enemy’:

  1. What is its origin?
  2. Are there similar idioms in other European languages? and…
  3. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases

For reasons which I hope will become clear, I’ll start with 2.

Is there a similarly worded idiom in other European languages?

Yes, in several.

(Handily, Oxford bilingual dictionaries online seem to cover the same source language (English) items, which makes comparison delightfully easy.)

For French/Italian/Portuguese and Spanish there is a word-for-word equivalent:

être son pire ennemi;
essere il peggiore nemico di se stesso;
é o seu pior inimigo;
su peor enemigo es ella misma (Last two are equivalent to she’s her own worst enemy.)

German doesn’t mirror the Romance languages, and instead has niemandem schaden als sich selbst ‘to harm nobody other than oneself‘.

But, perhaps curiously, Russian mirrors the Romance languages: он сам себе злейший враг,
‘He himself to himself is his worst/most ferocious enemy’.

Now, has this same image/metaphor occurred to different people at different times in different languages, both Romance and Slavic?


It goes without saying that languages borrow whole phrases from each other (‘It goes without saying’ is a loan-translation from French ça va sans se dire). But if a phrase spreads over several languages, it inevitably raises the suspicion that there must be a common source.

To be one’s own worst enemy’ sounds like a time-honoured cliché. And where would one look for a common source for t-h clichés? To our linguistic alma mater, Latin, of course.

Where does the phrase come from?

Searches in several sources were initially fruitless because they did not even give the phrase pageroom.  However, Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it in a list of must-avoid clichés, the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms has it, and, finally, the Penguin Dictionary of Clichés (also known as The Cat’s Pyjamas) suggests that it goes back to ‘Greek and Roman times’, an ancestry which is frustratingly vague.

However, a concatenation of googles eventually led me to none other than Cicero. In a letter to Atticus he describes Julius Caesar as

sed tamen nihil inimicius quam sibi ipse; Cicero, ad Atticum X. 12a.

Word for word, that is ‘but still, nothing is more harmful than he himself to himself’, which sounds a bit like a poor back-translation from Klingon, or Yoda’s version of ‘He’s his own worst enemy.

Yet, lo and behold (a phrase that never actually appears in the Bible, despite its pseudo-biblical patina), a translation of Cicero’s letter renders the Latin as ‘he has no worse enemy than himself’, which seems remarkably close to the modern, clichéd version.

Beyond Cicero, I can venture no further, though Google, that propagator of wrongly attributed quotes, suggests an Aristotelian origin.

They’re their own worst enemy
In the original eggcorn that led me down the primrose path of this particular phrase, we had ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’. For American readers I suspect the plural verb reads oddly in any case, since collectives regularly take a singular verb in U.S. usage. But here what intrigued me was the singular enemy; the sentence seems to be totally AC/DC as regards singular/plural: collective + plural verb + plural possessive + singular complement.

On a strict interpretation of concord, could it be argued that their should be followed by enemies? Probably. But then the thought occurs that enemy itself has a collective meaning (1.1) that allows both singular and plural verb concord, e.g. the enemy are/is already upon us.

In one small corpus, a search for ‘their own worst enem.*’ had the two variants neatly and exactly balanced. In a larger one, enemies was preponderant in a ratio of 132:73. Below is an example of each kind.

Do France’s squabbling Socialists have a future? Lately, the Socialists have looked like their own worst enemies.

A whole generation of people has been lost. Ultimately, the terrorists are their own worst enemy. The utopian goals most terrorist organizations set leave their foes few options.

I can discern no difference between them.

All I can see is PLURAL SUBJ + PLURAL VERB + their + own.

So, is this in the end a classic case of linguistic free variation?


Own worst enemy or own worse enemy? Eggcorns (5)

No punctuation in contractions? Well never accept it, will we?

I’m my own worse enemy, I really am

Oh, what a fount of inspiration is that little bird. Watching the Scotland vs. Ireland Six Nations Match on Saturday (10 March) and tweeting at the same time added to the thrills and spills, even if it meant missing a few crucial moments. (Even J.K. Rowling was tweeting. Gosh! Scotland lost abysmally, btw.) And it can throw up the odd language curiosity. One such was ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’.

Yay! Another eggcorn spotted in the wild. This one is not in the ‘famed’ (how I loathe, detest and revile that word, which I only put in so that I could say quite how much…) eggcorn database, so there was no illumination to be found there as I wondered how frequent it might be.

It also piqued my curiosity in other ways.

  1. Is the eggcorn on the increase?
  2. How old is the eggcorn?
  3. How did the eggcorn come about?
  4. Where does the original phrase come from?
  5. Is there a similar idiom in other European languages? and…
  6. My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases?

How frequent is the eggcorn?

That, I thought, is going to depend on where you look, surely?

As it turns out, it does, but the differences are not huge. Three different corpora I consulted give figures ranging from just under 2 per cent to 3.63 per cent of all occurrences of both forms.

A Google for “own worse enemy” in quotation marks scores 32,700 against “own worst enemy” at 2,590,000, but I suspect that doesn’t prove anything very much.

Is it on the increase?

I couldn’t tell you. When I entered the search string ‘own worse enemy_INF’ in Google Ngrams, it plotted a seemingly vertiginous rise from the 1980s onwards. But the numbers are so small they don’t tell you very much. If you enter both strings], i.e. …worse… and …worst…, you can see a much gentler rise for …worst…, going back to the nineteenth century.

How old is the eggcorn?

Coming across any eggcorn, one might be tempted to tut-tut, shake one’s head, and condemn modern illiteracy. If you are so tempted, refrain. Like many other eggcorns and ‘mistakes’, …own worse enemy has a venerable history—at least as far as Ngrams goes—1881 being its premiere there.

‘It is not too much to say that the man who has any interest in fruit production or selling in this State, and yet places obstructions in the way of the execution of laws intended to foster that industry, is his own worse enemy, and a blind leader of the blind.’ This seems to have to do with a crisis in the horticultural industry of aphis on pear and apple trees, i.e. probably greenfly and blackfly.

How did/does it come about?

From a meaning point of view, it baffles me. But I’m probably too close to it to see the wood for the trees. I mean, everyone can use the superlative—man’s best friend, I am the greatest, etc. If you use the comparative, as here, what’s the comparison? I’m probably overthinking, though, because there’s another explanation, which is  phonetic, and it seems quite simple. It’s yet another case of final t-/d-deletion, the same linguistic brand that is proud to bring you it’s a doggy-dog world, midrift, coal-hearted and cold slaw. Knock off the final -t of own worst enemy, and you have…

And I’m own worst enemy because I put off blogging, and then weeks go by I don’t post anything.


lactose intolerant, lack toast (and) intolerant, lack toast and tolerant: eggcorns (4)

Continuing my intrepid expedition into the fabled Kingdom of Eggcornia (“Here bee dragoons”), in this blog I’ll look at one more from the first ten of the list I mentioned originally. (The full list is at the bottom of this blog.) It is lack toast intolerant, and variants.

I’ll use the notation that I used and explained in an earlier blog.

lack toast intolerant, lack toast and tolerant and even lack toast and tall or rent, lack toast and toddler ant, etc. (lactose intolerant)

9.1.1 (In eggcorn database?)  Y;
9.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2004;

9.1.3 Typology possible t-insertion, at least for lack toast intolerant; in other words, the reverse of final d/t deletion, the phenomenon that explains explains e.g. dog-eat-dog becoming doggy-dog

9.2 (GloWbE figs.) n/a;

9.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) n/a;

9.4.1 (History and explanation) I think this one is on the Barbary shores of the fabled land of Eggcornia. Or rather, it is more spoken about than spoken. Many of the Google hits for it are metalinguistic: people are slagging it off as a mistake.
However, it’s been around for quite a while: this site refers to its being mentioned in 1997, and Susie Dent mentioned it in her Language Report for 2006. And this Youtube link is an example, as is one of my images.
Being lactose intolerant has to do with milk products. Someone who had never heard the phrase before might assume there was a t missing, insert it, and come up with lack toast intolerant. But it doesn’t at first sight make a great deal of sense.

But then there is the “reshaping” lack toast and tolerant, which, actually makes more sense and might shed some light on lack toast intolerant. It makes more sense because, if I don’t know what the lactose in lactose intolerant is about, my thought processes might go something like this:

  • From context, it’s about food allergies;
  • Oh, yeah, some people are allergic to wheat products;
  • Toast’s got wheat in it, right?
  • So, what they’re saying is, they’re intolerant because they can’t eat toast;
  • Sure, I dig. Who wouldn’t be a bit grumpy if you can’t even eat toast?
  • And then, with the reformulation to lack toast and tolerant, the meaning is that the person so described, being wrongly supposed to be allergic to wheat, is now tolerant because they have not got toast, which contains it.

Far-fetched? Possibly. I’ll let you decide. I came up with this explanation, before discovering that someone else humorously suggested something along the same lines (see below).

The alternative, of course, and equally, or more likely, is that whoever uses the eggcorn understands exactly what the referent is, but has just never thought about analysing the individual parts of the phrase.

9.4.2 (Other observations) FWIW, Google searches using quotation marks produce these figures:

“lack toast intolerant” 39,600
“lack toast and tolerant” 8,240
“lack toast and intolerant” 327

In The Ants are My Friends (2007), Martin Toseland jokes about the last one: “If you wake up in a bad mood, don’t get breakfast soon enough and are generally a complete pain, you can be described as ‘lack toast and intolerant’;…”

  1. To be pacific (instead of to be specific)
  2. An escape goat (instead of a scapegoat)
  3. Damp squid (instead of damp squib)
  4. Nipped it in the butt (instead of nipped in the bud)
  5. On tender hooks (instead of on tenterhooks)
  6. Cold slaw (instead of coleslaw)
  7. A doggie-dog world (instead of dog-eat-dog world)
  8. Circus-sized (instead of circumcised)
  9. Lack toast and tolerant (instead of lactose intolerant)
  10. Got off scotch free (instead of got off scot-free)
  11. To all intensive purposes (instead of to all intents and purposes)
  12. Boo to a ghost (instead of boo to a goose)
  13. Card shark (instead of card sharp)
  14. Butt naked (instead of buck naked)
  15. Hunger pains (instead of hunger pangs)
  16. Tongue and cheek (instead of tongue-in-cheek)
  17. It’s a mute point (instead of moot point)
  18. Pass mustard (instead of pass muster)
  19. Just deserves (instead of just deserts)
  20. Foe par (instead of faux pas)
  21. Social leopard (instead of social leper)
  22. Biting my time (instead of biding my time)
  23. Curled up in the feeble position (instead of curled up in the foetal position)
  24. Curve your enthusiasm (instead of curb your enthusiasm)
  25. Heimlich remover (instead of Heimlich manoeuvre)
  26. Ex-patriot (instead of expatriate)
  27. Extract revenge (instead of exact revenge)
  28. Self -depreciating (instead of self-deprecating)
  29. As dust fell (instead of as dusk fell)
  30. Last stitch effort (instead of last ditch effort)






Blog-gate: what happens when your WordPress site is suspended?

I was totally flabbergasted and bemused.


Gentle reader, I’m sorry if you were notified about a new blog post but then couldn’t read the post because this blog was temporarily down. So, I thought I’d explain in my usual OTT style, in case you were wondering what was going on and whether I’d been arrested and locked up. Or, at the very least, I’d been bad-mouthing someone, or gone off on a rant about something and been censored.

On Wednesday my blog was suspended for no apparent reason.

What I learned

  • It’s not fatal.
  • If you query such a suspension as a mistake, WordPress responds very rapidly and appropriately. (And considering my site is free, that’s pretty impressive on their part.)
  • Back up you your blog after every single new blog post (with WordPress it’s so easy it’s like ‘stealing candy from a baby’).
  • Finalise the content, and save it somewhere else, for the record, before posting. (Till now, I drafted all blogs in Word first, and then edited them online. Time-consuming, and other people probably don’t, but it’s the way I liked to work. From now on, I’ll make sure the Word version is the final one, and then just copy and paste.)

What happened?

On Wednesday 25 Jan. I posted a new (revamped) blog about ‘on tender/tenterhooks’. As I always do, I publicised it on Twitter, with a link to the blog. I’m glad I did, because a tweep alerted me to this notice that now appeared when he tried to follow the link:

This blog has been archived or suspended in accordance with our Terms of Service. For more information and to contact us please read this support document.

How did I react?

That sounded pretty drastic to me; a visit to my site did nothing to reassure me.

All I was able to see was a kind of disembowelled, disembodied ghost of a dashboard with only a couple of options. No blog post of any kind. Things just seemed to be getting worse and worse. Glug!

Where had all those tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of words posted over the last six or seven years gone?
How dare they snaffle and then annihilate my intellectual property!
How am I going to start again from scratch?
What about those thousands of visits I get very month? How can I build those up again on a new site?

Fortunately, however, and despite my mounting irritation and anxiety, that wraith-like d’board still allowed me to export my content, which I promptly did.

If you’re enjoying this blog, and finding it useful or informative, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Sign up and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I blog regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and whatever language point floats my boat on any given day according to my mood swings. Enjoy!

Reasons for which I surmised it was suspended

Once I got over the initial puzzlement and shock, I asked myself what Terms of Service I could possibly have infringed. The User Guidelines page mentions all the things you’d expect: basically, no hate speech/porn/nicking other people’s stuff/advertising/infringement of copyright.

My brain went into a paroxysm of mini-paranoia.

  • Someone’s got it in for me, and has maliciously reported me.
  • My blog’s been hacked.
  • Oh dear, I’ve used an image that is copyright, and the copyright lawyers have got it in for me.
  • The OED have complained, because I quote profusely from it, and have got it in for me.
  • I’ve used ‘naughty’ words (such as ‘toilet’), and somehow this has been picked up by a naughty-word-cleansing algorithm, which also has it in for me. (Better half was adamant it was my title ‘toilet talk’ that had caused it.)
  • I included a sarcastic mention of the SNP in a blog, and they’ve got it in for me.

And so on and so forth.

My head is going to explode.

At the back of my mind I thought: ‘Shurely, this is shome ridiculoush mishtake?’ At the same time, I was incensed because the notification did not mention a specific fault or infringement.

I felt myself plummeting into a literally (?) Kafkaesque nightmare world of being tried by an invisible judge for a nameless crime. (The ToS page said something along the lines of ‘The final decision is ours’.)

Why had it been suspended?

Fortunately, the ghost dashboard also allows you to send a message if you think your blog has been suspended in error.

I sent such a message, explaining that my blog is purely about ‘language’, and wondered how many days or weeks it would take to hear back (if I ever did).

Well, ‘my relief was palpable’ (what a strong collocation that is, isn’t it?) when, within the space of a couple of hours a Community Guardian got back to say:

Your site was mistakenly flagged by our automated anti-spam controls. We have reviewed your site and have removed the suspension notice.

They also apologised for the error and any inconvenience.

I’m impressed, actually, by the speed of response.

So there you have it. The culprit was an automated routine, not a person.

So, all’s well that ends well, but the answer raised another question: what in my site fell foul of the automated routine? And, might it happen again? Well, at least I know what to do now.

I asked if any specific words might have caused it, and they told me that doesn’t happen.

In any case, I’m thankful to WordPress for such a quick response. And I’m thankful that I don’t have to start from scratch. Phew, and double-phew! Everything is luxe, calme et volupté once again.

‘Luxe, calme et volupté’, Matisse, 1904, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Title taken from Baudelaire’s poem L’invitation au voyage, from Les fleurs du mal.