Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


Merry Twixmas! But what is Twixmas?

4-minute read

What is Twixmas?

In response to the routine question ‘What are you doing for Christmas?’, I’ve been telling people we’re at home but then going away between Christmas and Hogmanay. To some, I’ve said we’re going away for Twixmas, and they have mostly understood straightaway that I meant the period from the twenty-seventh onwards (because Boxing Day presumably still comes under the heading of ‘Christmas’ in commercial terms).

I hadn’t come across Twixmas until, I think, the year before last (2016). The delightful hotel where we used to hole up for three or four days over Christmas later stopped doing Christmas packages due to lack of demand. (We had been the youngest couple there, which was gratifying from a narcissistic point of view; sadly, we think some of the auld yins might have moved on to a better place, hence the lack of demand.)

Anyway, the last time we were there enjoying our Christmas ‘tucker’, the hotel also offered a ‘Twixmas’ break.

Now, in context, sandwiched as it was between Xmas and New Year packages, it was blindingly obvious that Twixmas referred to the period between Crimbles and New Year.

But with less context is it so clear?

This Beeb vid from last year suggests possibly not.

(Context is all. It is clear from what the presenter says at the beginning and people’s responses that they were asked ‘Have you heard of Twixmas?’ In other words, there was no genuine linguistic context.)

It is not yet defined in any of the major dictionaries, as far as I can see.

English has a rather restricted repertoire of ways to make new words. One often-used way is to splice existing words together in the way an unscrupulous car dealer might weld two cars together in a ‘cut and shut’. Such combinations of two (or more) words are extremely common.

With cars, the join is intended to be invisible. With words, however, speakers need to sense where that join lies so they can deduce the meaning. Let’s take Brexit (sorry to mention it, you must be as sick to death of hearing about it as everyone else), which is a combination of British/Britain and Exit. The name for such hybrids is ‘portmanteau’1 or ‘blend’.

Alice and portmanteaus

The portmanteau we’re talking about now is Twixmas. It is presumably a blend of betwixt with Christmas (whereas it could, say, have been Tweenmas, from between, but then it wouldn’t rhyme, and would be even more opaque.)

It has its pros and cons.

On the con side:

  • Twix is a kind of sweet widely known in Britain. As the video (December 2017) shows, some people thought Twixmas might be a confection (figuratively, and almost literally).
  • Only one person in that video knew what it meant.
  • The suffix –mas is not widely known or highly productive these (post-Christian) days.

(While historically it appears in a handful of religious feast days, as the OED shows [e.g. Candlemas, Lammas, Martinmas], the one that more people might have heard of is Michaelmas, as it is used to refer to the autumn term at some schools and universities. Not to mention Michaelmas daisies.)

  • It is a made-up word, invented by the advertising and marketing industry to make us part with our money. (Or, as the top definition in Urban Dictionary rather bitterly puts it, ‘capitalist pigs [sic] idea to squeeze more profit from christianity [sic] and abusing the poor minimum wagers to slave away there [sic] holiday season.’)

On the plus side:

    • It expresses in one word what otherwise would take at least seven, thereby embodying the principle of economy, which is often a driver of language change.
    • It rhymes with Christmas, which makes it – or should make it – easy to remember.
    • Other ‘invented’ words have stood the test of time, such as blurb.
    • It is arguably ingenious, taking the twix– element from betwixt, a word which possibly conjures up the set phrase betwixt and between. (Note in the video how the two older ladies get this immediately.)

Will it last?

Only time will tell.

But whatever you are doing for Twixmas, I hope you have fun.

And here’s wishing you a successful and prosperous 2019!

NB: According to the video, it’s only 27-29 December. I suppose 30 December is subsumed under New Year celebrations.

I don’t know about you, but the final ‘Merry Twixmas’ really doesn’t work.

1Portmanteau is not an ‘invented’ word itself, but its linguistic meaning was ‘invented’ by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.

To understand the appropriateness of the word, it is necessary to realise the kind of luggage it denotes in its literal meaning. As the OED defines it (emboldening mine): A case or bag for carrying clothing and other belongings when travelling; (originally) one of a form suitable for carrying on horseback; (now esp.) one in the form of a stiff leather case hinged at the back to open into two equal parts.

Not just any old portmanteau, but a Luis Vuitton one.

Humpty Dumpty is explaining the meaning of some of the words in the ‘Jabberwocky’ poem, the first couplet of which runs ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves | did gyre and gimble in the wabe’.

‘That’s enough to begin with,’ Humpty Dumpty interrupted : ‘there are plenty of hard words there. “Brillig” means four o’clock in the afternoon—the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.’

‘That’ll do very well,’ said Alice : ‘and “slithy”?’

‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

‘I see it now,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully : ‘and what are “toves”?’

‘Well, “toves” are something like badgers—they’re something like lizards—and they’re something like corkscrews.’

‘They must be very curious creatures.’

‘They are that,’ said Humpty Dumpty : ‘also they make their nests under sun-dials—also they live on cheese.’

(The space before the colons above is deliberate, echoing the original printing convention, which is still followed in French.)



Champ at the bit or chomp at the bit? Which is correct?

4-minute read


  • Chomp at the bit appears more often in most modern written sources than champ…;
  • Dictionaries make no comment about chomp’s correctness;
  • A small survey suggests that most people would edit chomp to champ;
  • I comment on it in my Fowler, but only one other usage guide does;
  • Insisting that champ is the only correct form seems to be a ‘thing’.

On one of my posts a reader commented how much it annoyed them when people said chomp at the bit rather than champ at the bit and suggested I should blog about it. So here goes.

To quote verbatim, my correspondent (there must, surely, be a more up-to-date word for someone who comments on a blog post) wrote: ‘I hear a lot of people who say “chomping at the bit” rather than “champing at the bit” which whether or not it has come into common use is wrong and smacks of a poor education and a poor vocabulary.’

That raises two obvious major questions.

Q1: Has chomp … in fact come into common use?

In other words, how common is it vs champ?

(And, might there be ‘regional’ variation?)

Q2: Who decides whether it is ‘wrong’? What do they say?

It also raised in my mind…

Q3: What do editors and others who care, think?

And, of course,

Q4: What do these words mean, and what is the history of and relation between the two forms – and any others, such as chafing.

I’ll answer the first three each in two parts, a short answer and then a longer one for anyone who wants more information. For the sake of (relative) brevity in this post, Q4 requires a separate post.

Q1: Has chomp come into common use?

Short answer:

Yes. And in most varieties of English it is more often used than champ.

Longer answer:

It depends where in the English-speaking world you’re talking about, and also what kind of writing.

I consulted six sets of data: The Oxford English Corpus February 2014, Oxford Monitor Corpus April 2018, the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, the Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), the Corpus of Historical American (COHA) and the Hansard corpus.

According to the Oxford English Corpus data consulted, while in February 2014 chomp.* at the bit was more frequent than champ.*, (414:310) the picture varied by region.

(The .* means all forms of the verb, although 88 per cent are continuous tenses in any case, i.e. with the form champing/chomping.)

In BrE chomp.* was less frequent (97:121) but in U.S. English the opposite was true (201/102). Canadian usage was in line with U.S., while Australian was closer to British (chomp.* 15: champ.* 25).

However, by the time of the April 2018 Monitor Corpus, things had changed for BrE: chomp.* was now commoner (224:174). Whether this is an indication of increasing U.S. influence it is impossible to say. For the U.S., the difference between the two forms had increased (876: 336), but for Australia the difference had stayed almost exactly the same in percentage terms (chomp.* 40: champ.* 68). Overall, the ratio was 2,245:1,143.

Just to confuse matters, there is another idiom, which is “get the bit between one’s teeth”, as this cartoon illustrates. That’s when the horse moves the bit away from where it normally sits and takes control. That’s why Trump’s “riders” are pulling so hard: he’s outa control.

The three other data sources consulted are from the Brigham Young University corpora. The Global Corpus of Web-based English (GloWbE), which covers 20 different country varieties of English, showed chomp.* to be more than twice as frequent (377:152) and to be more frequent in every country except Australia. But even there, the gap had narrowed (chomp 24: champ 32).

The NOW corpus showed chomp.* to be about 57 per cent or so commoner than champ, that is, by a smaller margin than the GloWbE data (1415:901). My hunch is that because this material is written by journalists of various kinds, who are more likely to have an idea of what is considered to be correct, they are more likely to ‘correct’ themselves, in contrast to the GloWbE writers, who can be anyone anywhere.

Then, to see what a historical corpus showed, I looked at COHA, which is the largest such corpus available. It showed chomp.* at six occurrences, and first appearing as late as the 1980s, and champ.* at 20 and first appearing in 1880.

Finally, the Hansard corpus, i.e. a corpus of British parliamentary proceedings 1802–2005, produces an intriguing result. A search for verbs preceding the string at the bit produces 49 examples of champ from the 1930s onwards, seven of chafing, and one each of straining and pulling but absolutely none of chomp. Does this mean that the honourable members to a person believe it is the correct and only version? Or could it be that the transcribers have corrected what was said?

Q2: Who decides whether it is ‘wrong’? What do they say?

Short answer:

Well, each of us can (and often does in practice) decide if we think a particular use of a word, phrase, etc., is wrong, but it is generally dictionaries and usage guides that are taken as objective judges of such matters.

The OED, the Oxford Online Dictionary, Collins and Merriam-Webster make no comment about the correctness or otherwise of chomp.

Longer answer:

It is not listed in either the Cambridge Guide to English Usage or the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage. I added it to my edition of Fowler and noted there that chomp is more frequent than champ in the corpus I consulted at the time and sententiously ended the note with ‘some purists will see it as an egregious mistake, even though it is recorded in dictionaries’.

It is also mentioned in Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage.

The dictionaries consulted deal with it as follows:

  • Oxford Dictionary Online: just gives the phrase chomp at the bit under chomp.
  • OED: In a 2007 draft addition, notes ‘Chiefly  Amer. to chomp at the bit: = to champ at the bit’. In other words, it says it is the equivalent of champ, but refrains from judgement on the phrase itself. However, the whole (1972?) entry for chomp is headed by the rubric formerly dialect and U.S., which could be construed as relegating U.S. English to the status of a dialect (!), though I’m quite sure this is not what the lexicographers meant.
  • Collins: the dictionary for learners, Cobuild, lists chomp at the bit without comment.
  • However, the dictionary for mother-tongue speakers for British English does not list it under chomp, but the dictionary for U.S. English does.
  • Merriam-Webster Unabridged shows both versions without comment.
  • However, the online version cross-refers the relevant meaning of chomp to the entry for the verb champ while specifying that chomp in that meaning is usually in the phrase chomping at the bit. This could either be an example of lexicographers being economical, or a subtle implication that champ is preferable.

Q3: What do editors, and others who care and are presumably vocabulary-rich, think?

Who knows?

A simple way would be to ask them whether they would leave it or emend it when editing.

I tried that.

In a tiny survey on Twitter, 9 out of 12 people said they would change it.

17% I’m not U.S. & wld leave

42% I’m not U.S. & wld change

08% I’m U.S. & wld leave it

33% I’m U.S. & wld change it

There is also the poll at the head of the blog. Please take part.

I’ll blog separately about the history and meaning of the two words.

Merry Christmas, btw!



You say underarm, I say armpit. Or oxter. Or…?

7-minute read

A recent article in the i (Independent) reported that 40 per cent of men aged 16 to 24 removed the hair from their underarms. (Yuck! To the shaving, I mean, not the hair.)

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have underarms. I have armpits. And if I spoke Scots, I might well use the word oxter for “The hollow under the arm where it is attached to the trunk, below the shoulder; the axilla”.

“So what?” you might well ask.

Well, there are three reasons for my interest. Two of them are linguistic. First, underarm for me still carries a hygienic and sanitised whiff of advertising-speak. (It is also tagged in my mental lexicon as an adjective, as in under-arm deodorant.) And second, on investigating I find a surprising number of words – ten, actually – have been used for this generally unloved and unregarded little anatomical dingle.

Those words also show some of the sources from which English has hoovered up words over the centuries. They are the usual suspects of French (at various stages of development), Latin, Dutch (at various stages…), Old English, Nordic.

The third reason could, at a pinch (U.S. in a pinch), be called sociological.

That the 16–24-year-olds lawn-mower their oxters puzzles me (as someone almost three times that age). Why? I find it enough of a bind having to shave one’s fizzog regularly, without resorting to a form of cosmetic self-punishment that until not so long ago was the exclusive bane of women.

This body-hairlessness thang was called the “Love Island” effect in the article. (I can’t say I’ve ever watched that programme and have no intention of doing so now.) However, so it seems, the young chaps appearing on it are invariably never hirsute; and therefore, apparently, any braw young tup in the so-called “real world” has to be similarly hairless if he is to have any hope of finding his ewe-mate.

Beats me. Call me reactionary, call me a fuddy-duddy, call me a dinosaur, call me a dodo, call me granddad, call me a Piers Morgan (no, please, anything but that) – I just find it somehow unmanly.

I’ve digressed bigly.

Going back to matters of language, underarm first appeared in 1933. That’s right, rather less than a century ago.

Q: You mean, it was taboo to talk about them before that, like Victorian piano legs, and all that?

A: Er, no. I don’t.

I mean that there’s a long and quirky history of talking about axillae (as the anatomists would have it) that goes something like what follows. I list below the OED dates for the different words; choose a juicy citation or two for each; and mention the etymology.

A armhole – before 1325 (Edward II sits on the English throne; David II on the Scottish throne)

1535   Bible (CoverdaleJer. xxxviii. 12   Put these ragges and cloutes vnder thine arme holes.

(AV Put now these old cast clouts and rotten rags under thine armholes under the cords.)

<from…well, you’ve beaten me to it, arm + hole.

Clearly, shaving your armpits can make you as epicene as this Perseus. By Eugène Romain Thirion (French, 1839–1910).

B armpit – before 1333 (Edward II’s son Edward III on the throne of England; David II on the throne of Scotland)

?c1450   in G. Müller Aus Mittelengl. Medizintexten (1929) 32 (MED)   Þe stynkynge breth of mannys armpittis.

(Note that breth here has its old meaning of “odour, smell”.)

<arm + pit.

C oxter c. 1420 – (James I on Scottish throne; Henry V on English throne)

1914   J. Joyce Dubliners 206   Many a good man went to the penny-a-week school with a sod of turf under his oxter.

<from Old English ōxtaōhsta, perhaps influenced by Nordic words.

D assel(e) ?c. 1450) – (Henry VI, endower of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge; James II, Scotland)

Merlin 116   The speres on their asseles, theire sheldes be-fore her bristes. [Cf. Joinv. in Littré ‘le glaive dessous s’essele et l’escu devant li’.]

OED marks “obsolete, rare”.

<“Old French essele (modern aisselle) < Latin axilla armpit; or, for earlier English axleeaxleexle, shoulder, between which and the Old French there was an early confusion.”

E okselle 1489 – marked “rare” in the OED, so where else it occurs, I don’t know.

(Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, on English throne; his son-in-law to be, James IV, rex scottorum)

1489   Caxton tr. C. de Pisan Bk. Fayttes of Armes ii. xxxv. 150   He dide putte two grete boteylles vndre his okselles and the see.

OED marks “obsolete, rare”. This is a bit of an oddity. The OED says it comes from

“Apparently <Middle Dutch ocsele, oxel, oxele (Dutch oksel , Dutch regional (West Flemish) oksele )” but also points out that in the citation shown above it translates Middle French esselles , plural of esselle, i.e. the French at the time for “armpits”.

F wings 1586 – (Elizabeth I on English throne, Shakespeare 22 years old; James VI on Scottish throne)

1586   T. Bowes tr. P. de la Primaudaye French Acad. I. 499   He tooke hir with both his armes by the wings [Fr. les aisselles].

This is what is known as a “nonce” use, which means it was specially “created” for the context shown.

<“from wing, which is Middle English, first in plural forms wengewengenwenges; Old Norse vængir”

Since the Latin ala means both “wing” and “armpit”, I wonder if the 1586 writer was also influenced by that fact.

G axilla 1616 – (James VI now also on English throne as James I)

This is the first appearance of what is now the standard medical/anatomical term, from Latin, and part of the huge seventeenth-century influx into English of Latinisms.

A. Read Εωματογραϕία Ανθρωπίη 152 The backe part of the shoulder top, called axilla

<”Latin, = armpit; diminutive of *axula, whence āla: compare axle n.1 Common in late Latin in form ascella.”

H enmontery1655 (No monarch was on the throne; the interregnum)

Fuller Church-hist. Brit.x. 87   He was shot through the Enmontery of the left Arm.

The OED says this word = emunctory, which means “of or pertaining to blowing of the nose.” Quite how that relates to armpits I really don’t know, and am afraid to surmise.

<French émonctoire, < modern Latin ēmunctōrius.

And penultimately, this newcomer or upstart:

I underarm – 1933 (George V King of Great Britain and Emperor of India)

1933 Southwestern Reporter 331 427/1   An extensive scar remained upon her right breast, underarm and back.

1966   in G. N. Leech Eng. in Advertising xv. 138   Veet ‘O’ leaves skin satin-soft, makes underarms immaculate, arms and legs fuzz-free.

1981   M. Angelou Heart of Woman viii. 111   I had to get away from the man’s electricity… My underarms tingled and my stomach contents fell to my groin.

Mmm. Perhaps male body-shaving is not such a bad idea after all. I feel faintly queasy, I confess.

However, as English has a habit of castrating words, we next get to…

J pit – 1955 (Queenie, as she is affectionately known by some, on the throne)

1955   J. P. Donleavy Ginger Man xvii. 205   No fuss. No excuses. Fine person. Am I smelling? Sniff a pit. Little musty. Can’t have everything.

1973   M. Amis Rachel Papers 71   Complete body-service..pits clipped, toes manicured, pubic hair permed and styled, each tooth brushed, tongue scraped, nose pruned.

This is slangy and is a clipping (ouch) of armpit to pit.

<The word pit Is described by the OED as from “common Germanic”, and the OED points to similar words in Dutch, German (Pfütze), Old Icelandic, Swedish and Danish, < a Germanic base, apparently < classical Latin puteus well, pit, shaft, of unknown origin.

Ten “synonyms” in all.

Now, I can see that talking about a bit of your body and including the word pit might put the squeamish off. (The modern cosmetics industry has loadza dosh to gain by deterring people from accepting their own humble corporeality.) Perhaps there are too many negative connotations attaching to pit, such as “it’s the pits” and “the armpit of the universe”, both originally U.S. Perhaps that explains the progression towards underarms. If you take a word like armpit and make it unsavoury not only literally but metaphorically, then you have to find a euphemism to replace it. Enter underarm.

In support of that contention, your honour, I submit that if you look at contemporary citations for the armpit vs underarm you will find that the words associated with them are generally not the same.

From looking at vast amounts of 2014 data, the following patterns struck me.

Adjective + noun: Only armpits are sweaty, unshaven or unshaved, smelly, stinking or rancid.

(Because, you see, to become an underarm you have to be clean and odourless!)

Both armpits and underarms can be hairy, but the first outnumber the second almost 10 to 1, and hairy underarms only afflict non-British speakers.

Verb + noun, noun + verb: armpits are the object or subject of many verbs, such as sniff, nuzzle, scratch, and smell. For shave, armpits again outnumber underarms 10 to 1, suggesting that underarms are mainly already shaved. And wash only applies to armpits. Which implies, well, you know…

Need I go on?

At this point, I’ll sign off wondering how long the phrase “That will put hairs on your chest” will survive if this trend continues.

And I’ll note one version of an old Spanish proverbial ditty that is at variance with the “Love Island effect.”
El hombre y el oso,
cuanto más peludo, más hermoso

Men and bears,
The hairier they are, the more beautiful they are.

(The “canonical” version runs, El hombre y el oso,
cuanto más feo, más hermoso,
…the uglier they are, the more beautiful)

Even Andromeda managed to shave her pits, despite being chained to a rock. Amazing the lengths some women will go to to look good. I suppose she didn’t want to put Perseus off. Judging by his position, he’ll stop at nothing to double-check. Titian, 1554-1556.

Leave a comment

Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma, Chameleon. How to use commas (2). Pompeo and commas and CMOS.

3-minute read

In the wake of Secretary Pompeo’s edicts about punctuation, which hit the U.S. headlines in late September this year, I blogged about the conflict between commas as what I will call “syntactic boundary markers” and as pauses in speech. I suggested that commas are art, not science. By which I mean that there are several circumstances in which most authorities agree they are optional. Inserting or omitting them thus becomes a matter of personal style, not of blind rulebook-following .

The State Department circulated emails with examples of good and bad comma use. An extract from these Pompean edicts illustrates my contention perfectly. The Chicago Manual of Style (henceforth CMOS) 6.26 gives the example below and the State Department emails lifted it verbatim – except that they added the comma after and, suggesting it be removed.

Burton examined the documents for over an hour, and, if Smedley had not intervened, the forgery would have been revealed.

First, it’s worth noting that CMOS itself says this: “When a dependent clause intervenes between two other clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, causing the coordinating and subordinating conjunctions to appear next to each other (e.g., and ifbut if), the conjunctions need not be separated by a comma.” [Underlining and emboldening mine].

“Need not” does not mean “must not” or “should not”.

Second, at the end of 6.26 CMOS says, “Strictly speaking, it would not be wrong to add a comma between the conjunctions in any of the examples above.”

CMOS is thus indulging in a sort of now-you-see it, now-you-don’t disclaimer.

Moreover, I suspect that to understand the reasoning behind the veto on commas in those circumstances could strain even the most nitpicky State Department staff because of the terminology involved. But, in case it helps you, gentle reader, here goes. (There are links to Englicious’s helpful glossary for each term.)

A: Burton examined the documents for over an hour, = MAIN CLAUSE



D: Smedley had not intervened, = DEPENDENT (or SUBORDINATE) CLAUSE

d: the forgery would have been revealed. = SECOND MAIN CLAUSE

Whether you insert that comma or not, IMHO, depends on how comma-friendly or comma-averse you are.

I would retain it but accept that others will consider it fussy.

My argument would be that writing the sentence comma-less thus

Burton examined the documents for over an hour, and if Smedley had not intervened, the forgery would have been revealed.

seems to me incomplete. And it seems so for a reason that CMOS also admits: “Such usage, which would extend the logic of commas in pairs, (see 6.17) may be preferred in certain cases for emphasis or clarity.”

A subtle argument could be made that that comma is dispensable in the sentence as it currently stands but would become necessary if the dependent clause were extended, for example like this:

Burton examined the documents for over an hour, and if Smedley had not intervened, the forgery would have been revealed.

Burton examined the documents for over an hour, and, if Smedley had not intervened so excitedly that he seemed to be on the point of blowing a gasket, the forgery would have been revealed.

In academic writing, where long sentences are the order of the day and the authors themselves often get trapped in the maze of their own verbiage, I tend to insert such commas to break up the flow and provide balance to sentences. But the length of that dependent clause can have an impact, as also might the weight and balance of the surrounding clauses, as I hope the comma-laden example above suggests.

In contrast, the following example is from a work whose prose style has been described as “needlessly obscure.” That said, and despite what I say in the previous paragraph, I would not insert a comma after the highlighted if.

If, indeed, as Fallon, Quilligan, and Franke argue, Milton’s Paradise Lost eschews the sacramental innocence of the sign that has been miraculously transformed into a sacred object, and if the poem’s central epistemological claim is to the internal processes of interpretatively spiritual (that is subjective) truth, then the poem’s uniformity of vision and tactile materiality lend these processes real, indeed tangible, substance.

(It’s only 62 words long but feels wearisomely longer to me.)

And the reason I wouldn’t is that that if follows on clearly and logically from the If that introduces the whole sentence. It is a discoursal if being used to construct an argument, in that way that connotes “let us suppose this proposition to be true, and I too am doing so for the sake of my argument”. It is not the hypothetical if of the CMOS examples, in which something might or might not have happened.

Over such minutiae – now there’s a word I can never quite decide how to pronounce, but the link shows I am not alone – do we editors cavil. Perhaps it really is time to get out more.

But before I put on my coat, here’s a question for any editors “out there”. Would you leave the emboldened comma in this (authentic) sentence or remove it?

The upregulation of myocardial beta-1 receptors has been shown to re-sensitize the myocardium to adrenergic stimulation with dobutamine and, if a similar upregulation of sinoatrial beta-1 receptors took place, may partially or fully restore chronotropic competence.

Leave a comment

Seamlessly or seemlessly? No contest. It’s seamlessly.

3-minute read

This month’s comedy club show was seemlessly held together by Liverpudlian compere Silky (by name, not by nature),

notes a British English website.

…calls for Mr Molloy to explain, changed seemlessly to calls for him to resign once his explanation of a simple, honest error became public,

an Irish newspaper recounts.

Dear authors and writers all, it’s SEAMLESSLYe.g.

to integrate users’ disparate supply-chain systems, so that buyers and sellers can communicate seamlessly with each other. 

Any decent spellchecker ought to spot the mistake.

That said, you are far from alone in your mistake, although it’s very much a minority trend. (The News on the Web corpus has 75 vs. 27,018 examples, a minuscule percentage. But that’s as it should be, since that corpus contains journalism. The iWeb corpus of general language has 777 vs. 98,078.)

What does seamlessly mean?

According to the Oxford Online Dictionary’s elegantly eloquent definition: “Smoothly and continuously, with no apparent gaps or spaces between one part and the next.” That entry contains plentiful examples, such as:

Each song is seamlessly integrated into the film.

The conversation flowed seamlessly.

History has a way of ignoring such insolent details, of weaving them seamlessly into its larger narrative fabric.

And here’s another apposite example, this time from Collins:

The story flits between the two different eras that seamlessly link together as it progresses.
Sun, 2016

Seamlessly‘s a metaphor. A seamless garment, for instance, is one which consists of a single piece of material, with no seams.

(The seamless garment metaphor was common in 17 C, is enshrined in a certain trend in current religious ethics and refers to a biblical quotation.1)

Note the soldiers, bottom right, casting lots for Christ’s raiment. Fresco from Stavronikita Monastery, by Theophanes the Cretan, 1545-1546

According to the un-updated OED entry, none other than Emily Dickinson was the first to use it figuratively, metaphorically, in 1862:

As if some Caravan of Sound Had parted Rank, Then knit, and swept—In Seamless Company.

Then the metaphor became more widespread, especially in describing history as a seamless web (1898), a phrase I seem to remember first encountering at university. That phrase gives a new twist to the metaphor and still seems to be in current use:

Such is the unity of all history that any one [sic] who endeavours to tell a piece of it must feel that his first sentence tears a seamless web.
F. Pollock & F. W. Maitland History of English Law (ed. 2) I. i. i. 1

In place of these dogmas, Quine proposes a metaphor that our system of beliefs is a seamless web. (2000)

And Auden used it in Under Sirius (1949):

And last night, you say, you dreamed of that bright blue morning,
The hawthorn hedges in bloom,
When, serene in their ivory vessels,
The three wise Maries come,
Sossing through seamless waters, piloted in
By sea-horse and fluent dolphin:

[To soss is defined by the OED as “to splash in mud or dirt”.]

And, finally, seamlessly the adverb premieres in 1906:

The whole web is woven seamlessly and without break.
G. Saintsbury, History of English Prosody

Now, seemlessly wants to mean the same thing. Or rather, its exponents want it to. And I think it’s easy to see why this eggcorn exists – though it is not yet recorded in the eggcorn database.

If you asked someone to explain why seemlessly should mean “without a break”, I guess they’d say, “Well, you use it when one thing blends into another so smoothly that it doesn’t even seem to be changing, and so you don’t notice it. Nothing seems to be happening. The process is “seemless.”

Something like that, anyway.

The only problem is it’s not a “word.” That is, no dictionary recognizes it.

But hang on! “There IS an adjective seemless”, someone cries. (First used in The Faerie Queene.)

The only problem is it means “unseemly; shameful; unfitting”. Well, not the only problem. It’s also “archaic”, which is dictionary-speak for “Nobody uses it any more”. But if they did, seemlessly would mean “shamefully”.

Not really the meaning people want.

When I told my partner my version of the explanation for seamlessly, they suggested – being much cannier than me – seenlessly. Sure enough, it exists, but with a piffling 96 hits on Google is very much under the radar at the moment. From a review on Amazon:

I love how the author seenlessly incorporates “big words” into sentences that students can identify the meaning through context clues. 

But here seenlessly means “invisibly”, I suspect.

1 John, 19:23-24

23 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout.
24 They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.


Pompeo and commas and CMOS. How to use commas (1).

5-minute read
(Less for you speed-readers out there: well done, you!)

James Thurber was once asked why there was a comma in the sentence “After dinner, the men went into the living room.” He replied that it had been added by Harold Ross, the New Yorker editor, and that the comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.

A stickler for commas

A fortnight or so ago, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State (for Brits, sort of the equivalent of the Foreign Secretary) was in the news because of emails circulating in his bailiwick urging, at his behest, careful use of commas: “The Secretary has underscored the need for appropriate use of commas…”

The hacks pounced on it gleefully, like flies round you know what; here was another golden opportunity to mock a member of an administration most of them detest.

Besides, his pedantry was piquant grist to their mill of slagging a President who rides roughshod over basic spelling and punctuation rules. [I’m not terribly keen on “piquant grist”, but if you must, you must; nor on the rest of the sentence, really. Sigh. Ed.]

They claimed to find it baffling, if not downright ridiculous, or[,] at the very least[,] highly suspect, that a man concerned with weighty matters of state could be bothered about a piddling little convention. The patronizing tone of mock-incredulity abounded, as displayed here.

But hang on a moment.

Let’s leave the toxic politics1 of all this aside for a while… [note, two words, a while].

Journalists are (allegedly) literate. Those Americans who write (rather than pontificate orally) have their very own style guide, the AP Stylebook. Most serious printed media similarly have their individual style guides (e.g., in Britain, The Times, The Telegraph, The Economist, The Guardian/Observer).

Such style guides don’t provide comprehensive guidance on how to use commas – presumably because any competent journalist is presumed to already know (a dangerous presumption these days, when much online news seems to be written by novices or interns whose grasp of the finer points of English can be hazy). Journalists who belittle attempts to help State Department officials punctuate “better” could be considered a mite disingenuous.

What’s wrong with good, old-fashioned rules?

What could be wrong with proffering advice to drafters struggling with the minutiae of comma use?

In the punctuation pecking order, commas are the most underrated and overlooked mark; yet[,] they are the most versatile and useful – and, surely, the most frequent.

Being the most versatile, they are also the most complex. As illustration, for example, the excellent Penguin How to Punctate devotes a generous 54 pages to them[,] compared with the 15 it devotes to the full stop[,] and the 16 to the colon.

However, it’s easier to give simple rules than to say, “Well in some cases do this, but in others do that, it’s all a matter of editorial judgement”[,] as the Penguin book does. Otherwise, who knows where we might end up? And simple rules is what the emails circulating in the State Department enjoin.

Or are they simple?

Hardly a science

The problem is, wielding commas is an art, not a science.

The emails cite the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) as their bible[,] and refer to specific rules. [I put a comma there, and Grammarly and CMOS don’t like it, but I do. But then, I have been accused of over-commaing.]

The following type of comma was approved:

  1. CMOS 22 states: “When independent clauses are joined by andbutorsoyet, or any other coordinating conjunction, a comma usually precedes the conjunction.”

So far, so good, but it then goes on to say, “If the clauses are very short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted (as in the last two examples) unless the clauses are part of a series.”

Rules within rules and wheels within wheels

So, we have Rule A, with exception B, which has its own exception C.

Simples, egh?

The State Department example, lifted straight from CMOS and showing appropriate use, was: a) We activated the alarm, but the intruder was already inside.

Is that first clause “very short”, at a mere four words?

Seemingly not, in this instance.

Yet the examples given by CMOS for exception B have comma-less first clauses with that exact same number of words.

b) Electra played the guitar and Tambora sang.

c) Raise your right hand and repeat after me.

Both have four words, like that clause which is closed off by a comma We activated the alarm.

Which raises the question, what is “very short”?

Perhaps we should [,] therefore [,] resort to the clauses being “closely connected”. But how does one define, let alone measure, that “connectedness”?

I repeat, commas are an art, not a science, and this would-be rule only highlights that fact.

Pause (possibly for thought)

I think most people (editors) would happily accept the need for a comma in example a) (We activated the alarm, but the intruder was already inside).

Similarly, a comma in b) (Electra played the guitar and Tambora sang) might seem OTT to many. But could one, hand on heart, say it was plain wrong?

And the same applies to c) (Raise your right hand and repeat after me).

If you base where to put commas purely on grammatical function/syntax, you ignore one of their key functions, namely, to indicate pauses, that is, treating what was written as if it is to be spoken; and [,] to provide emphasis.

For example, if spoken, Raise your right hand and repeat after me would sound perfunctory and formulaic, whereas Raise your right hand, and repeat after me arguably matches the gravity of the occasion.

The Penguin guide suggests several tests to decide where to insert a comma. One of them is “If in doubt about a comma, apply the ‘pause test’. Say the sentence to yourself, and if you hear a pause, put in a comma …”

Fine, as far as it goes, but I might “hear” a pause [,] and you might not, or vice versa.

And it seems that in the past [,] writers “heard” pauses more often than we do.

The twelve years, continued Mrs Dean,  following that dismal period,1  were the happiest of my life: my greatest troubles in their passage rose from our little lady’s trifling illnesses, which she had to experience in common with all children, rich and poor. For the rest, after the first six months,2 she grew like a larch,3and could walk and talk in her own way,4 before the heath blossomed a second time over.

Cap. 18, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

The first marked comma separates its subject – The twelve years – from its verb – were – in a way not nowadays allowed (although it is, in my experience, quite common in academic writing, mainly due to long-windedness).

The second, separating a prepositional phrase saying “when” from the main clause, could nowadays easily be left out.

The third clearly contravenes CMOS 6.23: “A comma is not normally used to separate a two-part compound predicate joined by a coordinating conjunction  (A compound predicate occurs when a subject that is shared by two or more clauses is not repeated after the first clause.)” [Emphasis mine].

And the fourth, separating a following subordinate clause from its main clause, is not nowadays generally considered necessary.

Could anyone say they are wrong? Outmoded, possibly, but effective.

“If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad” (in my case, my friends say[,] that boat sailed long ago) is a quotation doing the rounds, possibly uttered by a frustrated lexicographer.

The thought applies equally to commas.

1 In a comment on one of the reports about Pompeo’s punctiliousness, someone said: ”It’s so comforting that a person suffering from OCD is one of the adults in the room with the person with malignant narcissistic personality disorder.”


Is it “one and the same” or “one in the same”?

Lesedauer: 4 min

Microsecond summary

One in the same” will generally be considered wrong. No dictionary recognizes it. You should avoid it and use the standard form of “one and the same.”

Apart from shoring up my prejudices (a function it performs I suspect for so many people) Twitter occasionally lobs a new (to me) eggcorn my way.

One it flung at me recently is “one in the same”.

It should be “one and the same”.

What does “one and the same” mean?

As the Collins Cobuild dictionary helpfully defines it, “When two or more people or things are thought to be separate and you say that they are one and the same, you mean that they are in fact one single person or thing.”

You use it mostly, but not exclusively, as the complement of to be, in the latter’s various forms, as these examples suggest.

Luckily, Nancy’s father and her attorney were one and the same person.

I’m willing to work for the party because its interests and my interests are one and the same.

I grew up equating sex with love, believing them to be one and the same.

As you can see, the phrase can either be used on its own or with a following noun (person, 1st e.g. above.)

The nouns people most often use with it, other than person, are time and thing, but, as the last two examples below show, you can use it with any noun appropriate to your meaning.

They [sc. beaver dams] are at one and the same time parts of beaver societies and parts of beaver nature.

…that is to say, that sexuality and gender are not one and the same thing, and their complex interaction not only varies from one society to the next but also within a given culture.

It is possible that different paradigms introduce different ways of classifying one and the same set of objects.

The imagination must carry me out of myself into the feelings of others by one and the same process by which I am thrown forward as it were into my future being.

Hazlitt, Essay on the Principle of Human Action, i, 1–2.

Who uses it? Why do people get it wrong?

It crops up most frequently in formal or technical prose in the areas of the Arts and Humanities and Religion and Law. That means it is not common in general writing or speech, which helps explain why people convert it to “one in the same”.

And the speech mechanism of that conversion is not far to seek: in speaking, the phrase will be pronounced “one ’n’ the same”, and people who have never come across it in writing will interpret that ‘n’ as ‘in’.

Does “one in the same” make any sense?

Merriam-Webster online suggests that it doesn’t and argues that it would have to refer to a Russian doll-type arrangement.

I’m not so sure.

At the back of my mind, for that use of “in” I hear an echo of religious, specifically Christian, specifically Trinitarian, usage, i.e. God the three in one, but perhaps that’s just me.

(Can someone hear things at the back of their mind? Only asking. Ed.)

On a more mundane level, it must, surely, be influenced by advertising phrases highlighting the benefits of a product, such as being a “2-in-1 laptop and tablet”.

Other than that, I can’t fathom what it means to people who use it. I’d have to ask them.

It has been argued that it makes sense if you think of one thing being inside a clone of itself. In the case of people, though, that explanation could suggest (auto)cannibalism. Eeek!

Surprisingly, though, it is used in the same sort of circles that use the correct form, judging by the examples in the eggcorn database, e.g. Any time you visit our service desks, you will have the agreeable impression that helping the library and staying young are one in the same.

(UC Berkeley, Annual Report of the Libraries, Fall 2001).

The Merriam-Webster usage note also cites examples from publications which one can’t help feeling ought to have editors who know better, e.g.

a politician whose public and private persona seem to be one in the same.
— Newsweek, 8 Sept. 2017

Where does “one and the same” come from?

It is a calque, or translation of the Latin unus et idem, meaning, erm, “one and the same”, recorded as being used by Cicero and Horace.1 Piquantly, its first citation in the OED is from a translation from Latin, possibly by Cranmer, of Edward Fox and others’ treatise about the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s marriage to his brother’s wife (Catherine of Aragon) titled The determinations of the moste famous and mooste excellent vniuersities of Italy and Fraunce, that it is so vnlefull [sic] for a man to marie his brothers wyfe, that the pope hath no power to dispence therewith.

One and the same selfe man may be bothe a preest and a maryed man.

The phrase occurs 451 times in the OED, which gives some indication of its embeddedness in English.


How often do people muck it up?

That depends on where you look. In a corpus of academic journals (as one might hope but not necessarily expect these days) the dunderhead version is vanishingly small, 7 vs. 1994 (i.e. less than 0.5 per cent). In a general corpus (OEC, 2014) the proportions change to 192 vs. 3,183 (i.e. 6 per cent). And in a more recent corpus, 750ish vs. 4,283 (i.e. 17.5 per cent).

A few people are even using it slightly differently, in comparisons to mean “exactly the same as”:

Fructose is the sugar that’s prevalent in fruits, and it’s one in the same as cane sugar, which is simply much more concentrated.

And then there’s the song by Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato (whoever they might be; I only found it by googling). They spell it correctly, but then others misspell it.

As M-W poignantly pleads “Please try to avoid misinterpreting this venerable phrase.”

1 From Horace’s Epistles we have …ego, utrum Nave ferar magna an parva, ferar unus et idem.

I, whether I be carried in a large or a small boat, shall be carried as one and the same man.

Which, as the motto of the Royal Navy’s training establishment HMS Collingwood is sexed up and, at one and the same time, dumbed down to ferar unus et idem, “I shall carry on regardless”. A noble and uplifting sentiment, somewhat undermined by the existence of the film Carry On Regardless.