Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

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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.

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When is a fair not a fair but a fête? Mainly in Ambridge.

(For the benefit of non-UK readers, Ambridge is a fictitious village, not the Ambridge, Pennsylvania. It is the setting for The Archers, the world’s longest-running soap, and a radio drama series that has been running since the year of my birth [don’t ask!] The people mentioned in this blog are characters in it.)

Recently, lexically inquisitive Lexi asked why the annual Ambridge extravaganza was billed as a fête not a fair. Her question revealed, as a tweetalonger put it, ‘Roy’s etymological deficit’. So, to help Roy’s courtship of this formidable woman (she holds an M.A. from Plovdiv, and is fruit-picking to help finance her doctorate at Sofia university), here’s a crib sheet. (Don’t ask what crib sheet has to do with Baby Jesus’s cradle, pretty please, Lexi!)

(This is also the kind of thing that Lynda might like to mug up on – surreptitiously, of course.)

Let’s start with fair, the older of the two words.

What does it mean, where does it come from, and how long has it been used in English?

What it means

Well, like so many English words it is affected by ‘polysemy’ That’s not a form of potato blight. It’s a sort of Lynda word for ‘many meanings.’ It affects all the most common words in English – e.g., ‘common’ doesn’t just mean ‘frequent’ it also means Tracy Horrobin, Matt, et al. (For teacher’s pets, here’s the pronunciation).

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comprehensively defines the original and core meaning of fair as: ‘A periodical gathering for the buying and selling of goods, at a place and time set out by charter, statute, or ancient custom, and often incorporating sideshows, competitions, and other entertainments.’

The first citation shown is from around 1300, and the next is from Piers Plowman: ‘Ich wente to þe Feire With mony maner marchaundise.’ [I went to the fair with many kinds of merchandise; note that spelling Feire].

The ‘Scarborough Fair’ of the famous ballad would have been of this kind, as would London’s huge and long-running Bartholomew Fair – around which Jonson based his homonymous play.

  1. Now, it wasn’t just the Tom Archers of this world who went to fairs to sell their (putrid) wares: just as in Ambridge, the less obsessive went for the gossip and the entertainment provided by the sideshows – in those halcyon days before ferret racing was ever dreamt of and fruit-picking was a purely domestic affair.

Out of those fripperies grew the sense of ‘funfair’. As the OED puts it: ‘Chiefly Brit. A gathering for entertainment at which rides, sideshows, and other amusements are set up, typically (but not always) on a temporary or periodical basis; the place at which such rides and amusements are set up.’

The OED says it’s often hard to separate that meaning from the first one, but their first example clearly refers to what we (and the recently totally silenced Henry – what ever happened to him? Has Rob eaten him?) understand by a fair:

1763   London Chron. 8 Jan. 1/3   ‘On Saturday the River Thames was frozen over so hard at Isleworth, that a fair was kept on it all day… There was a round-about for children to ride in, and all sorts of toys sold.

And then there’s Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow (1921): ‘Crome’s yearly Charity Fair had grown into a noisy thing of merry-go-rounds, cocoanut shies, and miscellaneous side shows—a real genuine fair on the grand scale.’

3.  Related to meaning 1 is the sort of trade fair that could really be a step change for the village if Ambridge had its own one: ‘an exhibition, esp. one designed to publicize a particular product or the products of one industry, country, etc. Frequently with modifying word.’ The London Book Fair or the Frankfurt Book Fair are examples. Perhaps Tom Archer should think about setting up a fermented foods trade fair: KimchAm 2017 (Kimchi + Ambridge) has a certain je ne sais quoi, but I’m sure readers can supply something rather better.

4 Then, briefly, there’s the meaning sometimes Merrye-Englanded as fayre, such as a church fair, ‘an event at which homemade or second-hand goods are sold to raise money for charity, often incorporating competitions, displays, sideshows, etc.’

Now, just to confuse Lexi, the OED equates that  last meaning to fête. And the picture here shows a church event called ‘fair’. But the great and the good of Ambridge decided to call it a fête. Why? Perhaps it sounds jollier than ‘fair’ and avoids the vulgar connotations of commercial funfairs. Moreover, if you google village fete it gets many fewer hits than village fair, so Ambridge is not following majority language use. But then if you use quotation marks in your search, ‘village fete’ is the winner. Other than that, who knows? I think it would be best to ask the organizers.

Sorry, Lexi. English is a bit like that.

As Dickens put it, in the mouth of one of his characters: ‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers.’ (By ‘Strangers’ he meant ‘foreigners’.)

Where did the word come from?
Like tens of thousands of English words, from French feire (compare the 1390 quotation above.) Which in turn comes from late Latin feria, the singular of feriae, ‘holy days’ on which such fairs were often held. The Latin word has descendants in other Romance languages too: una feria in Spanish means ‘fair’ as in 2 and 3 above; un día feriado in Latin American Spanish is a public holiday; the Portuguese words for Monday-Friday all contain the word feira, e.g. Segunda-feira (Monday), literally ‘second fair’.


Is much more recent. In the unrevised OED entry, where it is defined as ‘A festival, an entertainment on a large scale’, it first appears in a quotation of 1754 from Horace Walpole’s letters i.e. ‘The great fête at St. Cloud’ and later in Thackeray’s 1848 Pendennis ‘The guests at my Lord So-and-so’s fête’.

The ‘village fête’ meaning goes back only to 1893, defined as ‘A bazaar-like function designed to raise money for some charitable purpose.’ The year after we find arch-aesthete Walter Pater offering ‘Sincere congratulations on the success of the Fête.’ Which makes one wonder, who will be writing to congratulate Ambridge?

Like fair, fête too comes from Latin via French: Old French feste (noun), from Latin festa, neuter plural of festus ‘joyous’. Spanish has the ‘same’ word as fiesta.

So, Lexi, there you have it. Not exactly in a nutshell, though. What does in a nutshell mean, you ask. You use it to tell people that you are about to say something in very few words, or briefly, usually when summing up an explanation or reason you have just given. Think of a hazelnut and its shell, and you’ll see you can’t fit many words in there. How would you say that in Bulgarian?

PS: It’s ok to write fete without its little hat, or circumflex accent, if you like, but I’m sure in Ambridge they would insist on it.


gambit vs gamut. The whole gamut of emotions or gambit of emotions? Run the gamut or gambit?

Here’s a whole gamut of emotions. Or do I mean gambit? Read on.


The other day a friend used the word gambit in a context where gamut would have been the “natural” thing to say. It goes without saying that I didn’t behave like a language fascist and point this out to them (note my cunning use of the so-called “singular they/them” to conceal gender): I merely noted a linguistic event for later investigation (Pull the other one! Ed.)

And sure enough, there is objective evidence that this isn’t a one-off—which set me wondering why. Before delving into my lucubrations, let’s look at what the two words in question mean.

What do they mean? And how are they used?

First, gambit. This originated (1656) as a chess term, originally denoting a game or series of moves that entailed making a sacrifice to gain an advantage, and then narrowing semantically to mean specifically an opening in which a player offers a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.

However, unless you’re a chess buff, you’ll only encounter or use the word in the two other meanings that developed from those chess ones.

First historically and by frequency comes, as the OED defines it, “A remark intended to initiate or change the direction of a conversation or discussion”: e.g.

His favourite opening gambit is: ‘You are so beautiful, will you be my next wife?’.

Bernard made no response to Tom’s conversational gambits.

Typical adjectives that go with this meaning are opening and conversational.

Next, “A plan, stratagem, or ploy that is calculated to gain an advantage, esp. at the outset of a contest, negotiation, etc.”: e.g.

He sees the proposal as more of a diplomatic gambit than a serious defense proposal.

Campaign strategists are calling the plan a clever political gambit.

A more common or garden synonym for this meaning is tactic.

As in the examples, it needs adjectives to support it, such as diplomatic, bold, clever, desperate, daring, etc. Typical verbs of which it is the object are try and employ, and as subject, succeed/pay off/fail.

However, the most common verb in the corpus I consulted that “activates”1 gambit is run, of which more later.

Here’s another gamut of emotions. Mainly disagreeable, I agree.


As with gambit, and as with so very many words we use every day, gamut started life in a specific field of knowledge: music. Its more technical musical meanings needn’t concern us here, but one less technical meaning is “The full range of notes which a voice or instrument can produce, or which are used in a particular piece.” From this came its more generic modern meaning: “The whole gamut of something is the complete range of things of that kind, or a wide variety of things of that kind”: e.g.

Varied though the anthology may claim to be, it does not cover the whole gamut of Scottish poetry.

As the story unfolded throughout the past week, I experienced the gamut of emotions: shock, anger, sadness, disgust, confusion.2

The word is most often used in the syntax

the + (adjective) + gamut + of + noun(s),

and in particular in the noun group the whole gamut of.

Typical nouns are issues, topics, styles, activities, services and experience, but the most typical noun of all is emotions, as in the legendary, but somewhat apocryphal Dorothy Parker put-down of Katharine Hepburn’s acting ability: Miss Hepburn ran the whole gamut of emotions—from A to B.

Note the verb ran there, because run is far and away the most common verb “activating” gamut (followed in a lagging second place by cover.)

In what contexts are the words confused? And which way round?

Confusion of the two words is not that common, as discussed below; when it happens, gambit usually replaces gamut.

You may remember that when describing gambit I said run was its most common “activating” verb too, as in *The emotions run the gambit from joyous exultation to disgust, anger, and sadness, and each are [sic] performed so flawlessly as to take you, the viewer right into them as well.

The software underpinning the Oxford English Corpus, which I used here, makes it possible to compare the collocations of two different words (lemmas) using an analysis called “Sketch Diff”. (Bracketed figures below show the number of examples.) Using this for gambit and gamut shows that overlaps are restricted, as follows:

“activating” verb: run the gamut/gambit, (1746:50) cover the gamut/gambit (220:7)

noun + of: gamut/gambit of emotions (217:10)

adjective + noun: whole gamut/gambit (483:25)

As can be seen, the substitution of one for the other is a minority trend, unlike, e.g. replacing the etymologically correct minuscule with miniscule. Percentages of mistaken gambit out of all occurrences of the collocation in question range from 2.78 per cent (run…) to 4.92 per cent (whole…).

Another adjectival collocate of both words is usual (20:11). However, in only one of the eleven examples with gambit is it a slip: “*Emotions run the usual gambit of love and loss, but they’re sufficiently covered in metaphor and conceit, most often taking the guise of flowers and other elements of the natural world.”

Does it make any difference to understanding?

I humbly submit that it doesn’t. I’ve probably missed some, but here are some possible scenarios for people hearing/reading the confused use:

They know both words and their meanings will mentally (or verbally, if they want to lose friends) make the correction

They know only gambit, and know only its correct meaning, will interpret, query, or, possibly, attach a new (mistaken) meaning to the word

They  know only gambit, and have “gamut” as a meaning and will…well, nothing will happen, actually

People who know only gamut will mentally replace gambit with gamut

People who know neither word will work out the “meaning” of gambit from the surrounding context, and possibly perpetuate the error.

Why does the confusion occur?

Neither word is common. Gambit occurs less than once per million words. Gamut is more frequent, at almost 1.5 times per million. (But compare either with say, tactic(s), which occurs 26 times per million.) According to Collins, both fall within the 30,000 most common words of English, but that hardly makes them A-listers, given that a mere 7,000 words (lemmas) make up 90% of all texts.

Their relative infrequency means that there are not many opportunities available to sort sheep from goats, or one from the other.

In addition, I can’t help wondering whether phonetics or phonotactics plays a part: gambit contains the gamb– string that occurs in gamble, gambol and a total of 47 headwords in the OED. The string gamu– occurs only in—well,  you guessed it.

If you heard the word gamut and never saw it written, might you assimilate it to your known gambit?

Alternatively—and to be honest, as I get older I favour this interpretation more and more—it might be Dr Johnson’s “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

How old is this switching?

Some of the data in Google Ngrams is curious.3 For example, if you search for the string “gambit of emotions”, there seems to be a rash between 1968 and the mid-1990s, but then it disappears. Searching for “the whole gambit of” reveals an earliest example from 1937, including in Hansard and other parliamentary texts. However, Google Ngrams is a treacherous friend: it turns out that “the whole gambit” in Hansard means what it says, i.e. “the gambit in its entirety of…”.

An etymological note

Gambit is interesting in that it sems to be the bastard child of both Italian and Spanish.

On its first appearance in English it was gambett, showing a derivation from Italian gambetto, literally “little leg.” The OED etymology suggest this order of derivations:

gambito (Spanish, 1561) < gambetto (Italian, 14th century). Both -ito and -etto are diminutive suffixes in Spanish and Italian respectively, the ultimate source being Italian gamba = leg.

  1. In Mel’ˇcukian terms of lexical relations, Oper1
  2. Examples come from the excellent Collins Cobuild Dictionary, designed for ESL/EFL purposes, but actually extremely instructive IMHO for mother tongue speakers too.
  3. If you search for a string, Google will sometimes present examples that show the words occurring in the same context, but in isolation. This clearly skews results.



Cabin fever (and artichokes). What kind of cabin is that? Folk etymology (3/3)

Just to recap on the last couple of blogs, we’ve been talking about ‘folk etytmology’ in both its meanings: a) a story people tell about where a word comes from (e.g. posh = ‘port out starboard home’) or, as the online Oxford dictionary puts it, b)

‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage.’

(In this context, ‘popular’ should be interpreted as ‘of an idea, believed by many people’ rather than as ‘liked by large numbers of people.’)

I wonder if you’ve ever indulged in a bit of folk etymology. I know I have. Cabin fever: interpreting it as the longing to escape from confinement or cramped quarters, I related it to ships’ cabins. The story I told myself was that in the long voyages to India from Britain people must have become extremely frustrated at having only their cabin as a private space.

Baloney! (A word that is itself, probably, a folk etymology.) In fact, the cabins in question are of the log persuasion, the kind in which people might find themselves cooped up over the US or Canadian winter.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.

It seems to be a standing visual pun.

The OED defines cabin fever as ‘lassitude, restlessness, irritability, or aggressiveness resulting from being confined for too long with few or no companions’, which covers a multitude of scenarios.

The word first appears in a novel called…Cabin Fever: A novel, penned by one ‘Bertha Muzzy Bower’

The mind fed too long upon monotony succumbs to the insidious mental ailment which the West calls ‘cabin fever’.

Meaning b) above [‘The process by which the form of an unfamiliar or foreign word is adapted to a more familiar form through popular usage’] has two aspects: ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘foreign’.

(Of course, foreign words are initially unfamiliar precisely because of their foreignness, but ‘native’ English words can be unfamiliar too, as e.g. deserts with the second syllable stressed in just deserts, which then becomes just desserts.)

This process of folk etymology has resulted in the transformation over decades or even centuries of a small number of not uncommon words that we use unblinkingly. Loanwords are–or were–prone to undergo this process, as the next example illustrates:

(globe) artichoke: (Cynara scolymus) English borrowed this from the Italian articiocco (which was a borrowing from Spanish alcachofa, which was a borrowing from Arabic al-ḵaršūfa…). On its first appearance in English, it was already being reshaped, as you can see from the quotation below.

1531 MS. Acc. Bk. in Notes & Queries 2 Feb. (1884) 85/2

Bringing Archecokks to the Kings Grace.

What follows are a few choice quotations, showing the vagaries of its spelling, leading up to its first appearance in its current spelling, in 1727, i.e. almost two centuries after first landing on these shores.

1542 A. Borde Compend. Regyment Helth xx. sig. K.i

There is nothynge vsed to be eaten of Artochockes but ye hed of them.

1577 B. Googe tr. C. Heresbach Foure Bks. Husbandry ii. f. 63

The Hartichoch…is a kinde of Thistel, by the diligence of the Gardner, brought to be a good Garden hearbe.

1727 Swift Pastoral Dialogue Richmond-Lodge in Wks. (1735) II. 375

The Dean…Shall…steal my Artichokes no more.

The OED comments sagely on parallels with English that might have driven such changes:

‘Similarly, many of the English forms reflect reanalysis of the word by folk etymology. Forms with initial hart– are apparently influenced by association with heart, while the second element was apparently reanalysed as choke n.1 or choke v. from an early date. This has been variously explained as resulting from the belief that the flower contained an inedible centre which would choke anyone attempting to eat it (compare choke n.1 5), or resulting from the plant’s rapid growth which would quickly ‘choke’ anything else growing nearby (compare e.g. quot. 1641 at sense 2).’

The OED extract above mentions the stories which, from the original Archecokks, developed the cultivar artichoke: that you could choke on the centre of the plant, or that it would choke out other plants.

Artichok-- '...a kind of thistel...' and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Artichok– ‘…a kind of thistel…’ and a wonderfully architectural plant, to boot.

Another vegetable shares the name but is unrelated botanically: the Jerusalem artichoke. The ‘Jerusalem’ part is another example of folk etymology at work: it is an anglicisation of girasole, the Italian word for ‘sunflower’, which is the genus to which the Jerusalem artichoke belongs.

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I’ve blogged elsewhere about how cockroach and alligator, originally from Spanish, morphed from cucaracha and el lagarto respectively.

Here are some other folk etymologies, with hyperlinks to their definitions, of some well-known examples of loanwords adopting an English-friendly guise because of assumptions speakers made about them: belfry (nowt to do with bells, originally); blunderbuss, crayfish (nowt to do with fishy-wishies, originally), salt cellar (diddly-squat to do with the place you store your vintage Bordeaux).

My second bit of folk-etymologising concerns Benidorm, in Spain: SELF-EVIDENTLY, it is related somehow to the Spanish dormir for ‘sleep’, and bien for ‘well’, meaning you would sleep well there.

Complete tosh, of course; the origin of the name is Arabic.

What’s your folk etymology?

I’m not sure when I first ate artichoke, but it must have been in a French or French-inspired restaurant, because it was done in the traditional, dining etiquette-testing way. Fortunately, I must have been with someone who helped me avoid making a fox’s paw. The whole flower head is presented to you, vaguely in the manner of St John the Baptist’s head, on its own plate, with the individual scales or petals adroitly loosened through cooking. It then becomes a supreme test of your table manners to detach them one by one, delicately suck the flesh off each, and gracefully discard each armadillo-like scale, until you reach your culinary El Dorado, the heart.


If you fancy trying them at home–I can’t say I ever have–here’s a Delia.


Free rein or free reign? shoo-in or shoe-in? Folk etymology (2/3)


Eddie Mair’s fizzog

My previous blog on ‘false etymology’ related to this one was about fizzog, a word I hadn’t seen or heard in yonks.1 Of course, it was then inevitable that I should immediately stumble across it. In the Radio Times of 21–27 January, the velvet-voiced British broadcaster Eddie Mair wrote in his entertaining hebdomadal column: ‘Basil Fawlty would rightly have enquired of my disappointed fizzog,…’

Google Ngrams  for phizzog/fizzog in British English show a rather erratic pattern.

A second kind of folk etymology

The ‘false’ etymology or folk etymology I was prattling on about in the previous blog is essentially a cosy form of storytelling. Another word for it, as Michael Quinion has pointed out, is ‘etymythology’2.

The kind of ‘folk etymology’ I’m looking at today answers to a different definition.

As the 1897 (i.e. unrevised) OED entry puts it, in suitably constipated style:

‘usually, the popular perversion of the form of words in order to render it apparently significant’.

(I had to read that phrase more than once to relate ‘it’ back to ‘form’, because, when I read ‘words.’ I anticipated some backwards reference [anaphora] to it later on—but that might just be me.)

It’s hard to tell how much weight of thunderous disapproval and tut-tutting ‘perversion’ drew down upon itself in 1897, or whenever the entry was first drafted: however, it is worth bearing in mind that Kraft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis had been published in 1894.

I digress–bigly.

The OED currently provides only one citation for folk etymology by an eminent Victorian Scandinavianist and runologist (I only added that factoid because I have never before written the word runologist, and am unlikely to do so ever again.)

Back to the definition of folk etymology that I started talking about before I so rudely…

Even non-native speakers get the metaphor.

Free-rein is a management style. A non-native speaker gets the allusion.

The point about that kind of etymology is that, not content with telling tall stories, it actually changes language: enough people tell themselves the same story about a word to ‘operationalize’ that story by modifying, or agreeing to the modification of, the form of a word or phrase.

That seems perfectly normal and understandable. We want to make sense of the world and of our language. When we encounter a word or phrase whose form seems nonsensical, we will torture it into a different shape to extract a confession of meaning.


The process is one that produces–obviously–visible results. Often it happens with words borrowed from other languages. However, it often also affects ‘native’ English phrases.

For instance, to give something or someone free rein is a phrase that has been around since at least 1640, building on a rein idiom that goes back to Caxton’s day. It means ‘to allow total freedom of expression or action to someone or something’. Here is Caxton:

Caxton tr. G. de la Tour-Landry Bk. Knight of Tower (1971) vi. 19

She [sc. a mother] had gyuen her [sc. her daughter] the reyne ouerlong [Fr. lui avoit laissié la resne trop longue] in suffryng her to do all her wylle.

The rein in question is the strap of leather attached to a horse’s bit or bridle by means of which the rider controls his (or in the UK, at any rate, usually ‘her’) mount’s movements.


The metaphor in to give free rein to seems may seem blindingly obvious to some. It certainly does to me, and it’s not even as if I’m horsy (though the persistent stiffness in my right shoulder reminds me that I long ago incurred frozen shoulder by once incompetently falling off a gee-gee.) If you give a horse free rein, you hold the reins loosely to allow it to move freely.

Here’s a modern example:

My boss gave free rein to his well-trained sarcasm as he chastised me, but in the end he thought my ineptitude was so funny that he decided not to fire me.

There are other colourful idioms that use the word, such as to keep a tight rein on something or someone, and the reins of power.

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However, that metaphorical link with an essential piece of tack has been lost on many people in our non-equestrian society: the form to give free reign to something is now quite common—although exactly how common depends on where you look.

Confusion reigns–or does it rein?

Ngrams shows a rise over the decades in reign and a corresponding drop in rein. The Corpus of Contemporary American has 82 (22.5%) examples of free reign vs 283 (77.5%) for rein (This includes variants of the phrase such as allow free reign, have free reign, etc.) In the Oxford English Corpus, rein occurs about 38% of the time.

I wonder

‘I wonder what “to give free reign” to something means…’

The folk etymology involved in reign presumably runs something like this: ‘during a ruler’s reign they exercise power, which can range from limited to total. So, if they have free reign, their power must be unlimited’. Extending that interpretation to the metaphor then makes complete sense.

(And, as the Oxford words blog points out, the confusion affects not only free reign, but also, e.g. You mentioned Castro’s illness. Obviously, he turned the X reigns of power over to his brother, because…)

The rein/reign substitution is easy because both words sound identical. That homophony also explains shoe-in for the original shoo-in.

If someone is a shoo-in for a job, election, award (Oh, no! Not flippin’ Adele again!) or whatever, they are certain to get it, barring acts of God.

This jolly little chap, in the Horse of the Year Show, aged 3, must be destined to hold the reins of power.

This jolly chap, in the Horse of the Year Show at the tender age of 3, must surely be destined to hold the reins of power.

While the metaphor involved in free rein is still transparent to many, and must once have been so to all, the semantics of shoo-in are not immediately clear, although they too are horsy.

Going one step back from its equine origins, think of the noises you make as drive away your neighbour’s mangy cat, hens, etc., ‘Shoo! Shoo!’ , while you flap your hands wildly, kick out, and spit and growl (well, I do, anyway) at the unwelcome intruder.

From that comes the verb to shoo, which can mean ‘to frighten something away’, but can also mean ‘to move someone or something in a desired direction’:

I do not churlishly flatten her on to the sofa nor shoo her downstairs.

1973,   M. Amis Rachel Papers, 150.

From that comes the phrasal verb to shoo in, originally US slang, meaning ‘to allow a racehorse to win easily’:

There were many times presumably that ‘Tod’ would win through such manipulations, being ‘shooed in’, as it were.

1908 ,  G. E. Smith Racing Maxims & Methods of ‘Pittsburgh Phil’, ix. 123

And then that verb is nominalized:

A ‘skate’ is a horse having no class whatever, and rarely wins only in case of a ‘fluke’ or ‘shoo in’.

1928,   National Turf Digest (Baltimore), Dec. 929/2

Awww! A cynophilist's little self-indoggence.

Awww! A cynophilist’s little self-indoggence.

Given that almost Abrahamic succession of meanings, is it any wonder that people plump for shoe-in? Here’s my folksy definition, for what it’s worth.

If you or someone are a shoe-in for something, you can ease into it as easily as you can ease your feet into a shoe (with or without the help of a shoehorn) or into a pair of comfy slippers.

Obvious, really.

In CoCA, shoo-in appears nine times, eight of them in spoken data; shoe-in appears 44 times, 31 of them in spoken—, which, of course, raises the issue of transcription error. However, the 13 that are not spoken but written still outnumber the 9 of shoo-in.

Other well-known folk etymologies of this type (standard version first) give us

fazed (phased)
bated breath (baited breath)
just deserts (just desserts)
strait-laced (straight-laced)

to name just a few.

In the next blog, I’ll come back to some other changes wrought by folk etymology.

1 The OED dates yonks to the 1960s. It’s a bit of a memento mori to think that I can remember it coming in, and discussing with my chums/father/brother (not sure which) where it came from.

2 A term, I now discover, thanks to Ben Zimmer, the Sherlock Holmes of the linguistic microcosm, coined in 2004 by a linguist at Yale.


Predominately or predominantly? Don’t be pretentious: predominantly predominates.

Radio One in the United Kingdom, in England, which is listened to by predominately younger kids and teens…

Transcript of spoken, ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation), 2015

Oh, geddawaywivyou! The word is “predominantly”.

Editing an academic article the other day, I came across “predominately”.

“Oh, dear! That’s an unfortunate typo”, thought I. Luckily, I decided to double-check.

Shockhorror! It isn’t a typo.

Of course, the spelling “predominately” exists. It exists and is valid in the sense that it is recorded in dictionaries and has a long history: it’s been around since 1594. So what? So has “adamantive”, but who nowadays uses that?

It is arguably invalid quite simply because, if you use it, most people will think it is a typing mistake.

And it is perfectly reasonable for them to think that, because it is the rather uncommon cousin of the much more frequent “predominantly”. That is the version that most people will have been exposed to over time.

If you look up “predominately” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, you will see from the comments that a good third of people consulting wanted to check if it is a “real” word.

The stats prove it. In the several language corpora I consulted, “predominantly” is between ten and seventeen times more often used than “predominately”.

What’s more, as Google Ngrams and other sources suggest, “predominately” is a) used in US writing more than in any other variety, and b) crops up mostly in academic and technical subject matter. And even in COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American), it occurs a piffling three and a bit times per million words, compared to “predominantly’s” 22-plus times.


Even if people don’t think it is a mistake, the word will still draw their eye, which is probably not a good thing. And if it draws their eye, they may think it a deliberate – probably rather affected – stylistic choice. (“Oh, who’s a clever clogs then, using a word that nobody else uses!”)

A poll I posted on Twitter confirms the perception either that it is a mistake or that it is rather poncy. The choices and answers  were: is “predominately” a) a typo ( 65%); b) a ridiculous invention (0%); c) academically respectable (6%); and d) universally pretentious (29%)?

I am coolly objective about it in my edition of Fowler. Bryan Garner suggests that the adjective “predominate” used instead of “predominant” is a needless1 variant; I am now tempted to suggest that the same applies to “predominately”.

Some have tried to manufacture a factitious distinction between the two words, but lexicographers are having none of that. If you look it up in the OED, Collins, Macmillan and Merriam-Webster, you will find it cross-referred to predominantly.

The Oxford English Corpus shows that the two forms associate with the same words, e.g. composed predominantly/-ately of, occur predominantly/-ately in, etc.

Its use as a synonym below feels remarkably forced to me.


It should be allowed to die out, and few, I suspect, would regret its demise.

1“Needless variant” is pure lexicographerese, sanctified by usage. Why not “unnecessary”? “Needless” sounds somehow more crushingly final, I suppose. But otherwise, it only collocates with highly unpleasant things, such as death, loss, suffering, bloodshed, etc. Ah, so that’s why lexicographers associate it with variant: it’s like putting a collocational curse on that word. (Shades of negative semantic prosody, but we won’t go there.)