Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you


It’s a dog’s life (Part II). Is a ‘dog’s life’ good, bad, or indifferent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Times, 6 March 1898

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

American Speech, 18 46, 1943

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

Courier Mail (Austr.), 10 June 2006.

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

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

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

It’s a dog’s life

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

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

Mr. Ford afterwards had a dogs life among them.

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

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

Bristol Evening Post, 29 April 2003

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What does ‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world’ mean? And a doggy dog world?


It was National Dog Day the other day (26 August), which set me thinking about all the many phrases into which our canine friends nuzzle their way.

Actually, I say ‘canine friends’ somewhat tongue in cheek, as I’m rather ambivalent – not to say cynical1 – about the whole mutt race. On the one hand, I’ve never owned one (though I have owned three cats); I’ve been bitten – well, ‘nipped’ would be more accurate – twice (both times by Alsatians/German shepherds2); I can’t abide incessant barking or yapping; and the number of times I’ve had to scrape doggy doo out of my corrugated soles does not endear the little darlings to me (though, of course, I recognise that is their owners’ fault, not theirs.)

On the other hand – and this must be genetic in humans and instinctive – when I see one, the urge to pat/stroke/caress is almost overwhelming – as is the need to talk in that kind of potentially shaming canine baby talk people automatically adopt (‘Who’s a clever boy, then?’).

When I see cute pictures of pooches I gurgle.  When our neighbour’s cockapoo (I ask you! Whoever dreamt up that portmanteau had cloth ears) aka ‘Hector’ leaps into our garden and has to be scooped up and returned home, he always spreads a broad grin across my wizened fizzog, because he is, frankly, completely mental and absolutely adorable.

Clearly, some kind of therapy is required.

‘A dog is a dog is a dog’ Gertrude Stein might have said. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) seems to disagree, since it gives the noun dog no fewer than…down, boy, wait for it…88 ‘senses’ i.e. different meanings, and 166 subentries (many of which are the proverbs and phrases I’ll be coming on to).

And dog is also one of those mysterious OED words that have the experts staring into the void: ’ Origin: Of unknown origin. Etymology: Origin unknown.’

I digress ‘majorly’.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world

…is a bit of a cliché. Where does it come from? The first relevant quotation in the OED is from a 5 August 1794 headline in the Gazette of the United States: ‘Dog eat dog’. The next quotation (1822) is from a British source, and then The Times of 30 December 1854 has:

‘It was dog eat dog—tit for tat… the customers cheated us in their fabrics; we cheated the customers with our goods.’

But why should a dog eat another dog? Have you ever seen it happening? Have you heard about it? Me neither. Yes, some barbaric people (used to) organise dog fights, but the losing hound dies or is slaughtered, not eaten.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world and variants, in fact, echo an earlier proverb that comes all the way from Latin. That proverb, nowadays less common than its pup, is ‘dog does not eat dog’ which comes from the Latin grammarian Varro’s canis caninam non est3, literally ‘dog dog’s flesh not eats’.

This is first recorded by the OED from the 1543 anti-Catholic diatribe The Huntyng & Fyndyng out  of the Romishe Fox sig. Aiiv by the cleric and naturalist W. Turner (the Dictionary of National Biography opines that ‘Turner’s exposition of protestant teachings alternates with sometimes scurrilous sexual imagery and coarsely textured abuse’):

That the prouerb may haue a place on dog will not eat of an other dogges fleshe nether will on wolf eat of an other.

Shakespeare played with the idea in Troilus and Cressida ‘One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard?’ (v. vii. 19)

And Charles Kingsley (he of The Water Babies4) used the canonical form in Hereward the Wake, which I quote here in case it comes in handy for the British team during Brexit negotiations:

Dog does not eat dog, and it is hard to be robbed by an Englishman, after being robbed a dozen times by the French.’ (II. xi)

(Hereward the Wake led local resistance in the Fens to the invading Normans [i.e. ‘French’].)

It’s a doggy dog world

Now, the idea of mutts eating one another must have struck some cynophiles as so bizarre and inconceivable that they had to eggcornize it to ‘it’s a doggy dog world’, as recorded in the eggcorns database (the hyperlinks there to sources are dead, btw) and as it pops up in Google Ngrams.

e.g. ‘Americans are always in a rush, always looking at the clock, never waiting patiently. It’s a doggy dog world out there.’

The mechanism for the eggcorn is easy to understand, as the database points out: it’s t/d deletion (the ‘t’ of eat), which also accounts for other eggcorns such as *coal-hearted and *bran-new. What I can’t quite grasp is what kind of world a doggy dog one is, in the perception of the eggcornizers.

1 Ultimately from the Greek word for dog, κύων, κυνός (kyōn, kynos) via κυνικός (kynikos) ‘dog-like, currish, churlish’, via Latin cynicus, with possibly some influence of French.

2 What is it with me and Guatemalan Alsatians? The first bite was administered to me as a child in Guatemala; the second as an adult in Argentina by the Guatemalan ambassador’s dog, no less.

3 That est, btw, has nothing to do with the 3rd person singular of the verb ‘to be’ esse, meaning ‘is’, as in i.e. ‘id est’; it is an archaic form of the verb edĕre, ‘to eat’, from which, ultimately, comes English edible.

Inevitably, sometimes described as The Water Babes, the which title could give rise to all sorts of erotic imaginings if one is that way inclined.


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.



We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (2/2)

This is the face my gran pulls every time she hears “around” used instead of “about”. I’m worried her false teeth will fall out.

What’s this about?

As the title shows, it’s the continuation of the earlier blog on this topic:

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past.
  • Some people loathe it.
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?
  • If you were editing, how would you replace it?

For those in a hurry, here are the conclusions:

  • Around does seem to be on the increase in combination with certain kinds of noun.
  • It is not only a replacement for about: it can also replace or stand in for other phrases and prepositions (e.g. on, over).
  • It is not free, in the sense that it cannot fit into any slot where about works (e.g. you could not say “I know nothing around it”).
  • As far as I can tell, it is used chiefly in the syntagma NOUN (often plural) + around + NOUN (often plural or uncount, and including verbal nouns [“gerunds”, if you must]).
  • If one wished to edit it out, it is often clear immediately how to do so.

The earlier blog concluded with this paragraph:

“Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.”

Now, please read on… [A ten-minute read — or one minute if you’re Oscar Wilde]

Some examples of the contested use

Using Google Ngrams to find nouns preceding around produces only the literal meaning, e.g. arms around (i.e. he put his arms around her).

However, the OEC (Oxford English Corpus) comes to the rescue – sort of. If you look for plural nouns followed by around, and exclude the obvious physical meanings (e.g. business leaders around the world) you get problems, ideas around and, heaven forbid, pace my correspondent, stories around. Here are some examples:

  1. “…Ruiz constructs a vertiginous cascade of stories around a same theme that bleed into each other with a baffling, hypnotic fluidity.” Senses of Cinema, 2002
  2. “…Hastings believes there has been insufficient debate about what he sees as the huge social problems around the marketing of fast food and snacks.” Sunday Business Post, 2003.
  3. Things Fall Apart involves a range of questions around the term “Third World.” The Hindu: Literary Review, 2002.
  4. “There were also a number of other problems around the workings of the gate including the width of the net clearance provided by the gate, …” England and Wales High Court Decisions, 2003.
  5. “Basically, gay artists have pushed sexual politics and ideas around sexual art quite far.” Montreal Mirror, 2002.

What becomes apparent from these examples is that, actually, in my opinion, in only the third and fifth of them could you realistically replace about with around. Try it yourself, to see what you think. In the other three, an adjectival phrase is needed, or a different preposition could have been used: in the first something like “stories on/dealing with/ concerned with, etc. a same theme”; in the second and fourth “with/connected with/arising from/caused by, etc…problems”.

So, what is going on?

As the first part of the OED definition suggests (“In reference or relation to; concerning, about”), around is not solely a modish or overused replacement for about in the meaning of “concerning”, though it often is just that. Take the phrase “ideas around sexual art” from the last quotation above. There are two entities – ideas and sexual art – and the speaker wishes to state that there is some kind of relationship between them, but the nature of this relationship is unspecified.

Possible explanations

  1. If you wanted to be leadenly literalistic, you could argue that this use of around foregrounds its physical meaning to create an image of something hovering around something else without actually touching it. That interpretation would then interpret the widespread use of issues around as a kind of liberal pussyfooting around sensitive issues. (The theory of reiconization, discussed at the end, seems to have great explanatory power, and could be taken to reinforce this interpretation.)
  2. Alternatively, one could suggest that the speaker is either being deliberately vague, or accidentally wooly.
  3. Alternatively yet again, one could simply say that the choice of around as the preposition following issues and related words is merely an increasingly prominent collocation – in the way that veritable is with smorgasbord  – while noting that it is not the only possible combination.

In fact, in the February 2014 OEC, issues around was less frequent than issues about (1744:2384) and the latter appears in examples such as the following where around could just as easily have been used:

“With or without these qualifications, the argument presented here raises general issues about the study of nineteenth-century expedition photography.” Art Bulletin, December 2003.

“Debates between the validity of medical and Neoplatonic interpretations of love thus clarify the extent to which what is seen as natural in love is a cultural construction involving wider philosophical issues about the body and gender.” Early Modern Literary Studies, May 2002.

Such collocational prominence for around seems to be self-perpetuating or self-reinforcing; the more people hear the collocation, the more people use it, and so on, ad infinitum. As evidence of this, the balance has changed dramatically in the space of three years: in the even larger May 2017 Monitor Corpus, issues around (excluding “around the world”) garners 7,496, issues about 4,606.

The process could be that the collocation is constantly expanding from issues as the head noun to other sets of words related semantically to core notions such as DISCUSSING, WORRYING, and REGULATING — and others still to be defined.

A search for PLURAL NOUNS + around + NOUN (of any kind) in the OEC threw up almost 115,000 examples. Most of them were in the physical sense; a small, random sample provided the collocations for our sense shown near the end of this blog.

Where did this use come from?

Because around in its “literal” physical meaning is more frequently used in AmE than BrE, it would be tempting to assume that this “new” use is ultimately American. I do not have enough information to say one way or the other; however, the earliest OED citation is from the British magazine Punch, from 1897. The next one noted by the OED is American, but then the 1970 one is, as far as I can tell, British. It is interesting that all include nouns relating to DISCUSSING rather than the word issues.

“Essence of Parliament… Useful, but not precisely alluring, debate around Employers’ Liability Bill.”
1897,  Punch 29 May 263/3

“The rather outstanding feature throughout the programs was the discussion around the larger problems of rural service.”
1938, Wisconsin Libr. Bull. July 133/1

“The..publication…has stimulated discussion around pre-capitalist economic formations of the non-European type.” 1970, M. A. Cook Stud. in Econ. Hist. Middle East (1978) 278 (note)

How frequent is it?

If someone has a linguistic bugbear such as the one I am blogging about, they are psychologically primed to notice it (and wince, scream, throw a hairy fit, etc.) whenever it happens. It then becomes a prominent feature of their perception of language, irrespective of how often it actually occurs in the stream of language they are exposed to.

Linguists call this the “frequency illusion”, meaning that once one notices a particular phenomenon one notices it over and over and over again and therefore believes it to be more frequent than it actually is (“frequency” here being objective, i.e. how often per million words of “text” [which covers spoken and written] does it occur?).

As mentioned earlier, Google Ngrams shows a fairly vertiginous rise in “issues around” in AmE and BrE. The use in British English takes off later than it does in AmE, which might provide some support for AmE spreading the use.

Other off-the-top-of-the-head collocations show an increase, like issues around, from the 1960s onwards:

discussion/rules/worries/anxiety/concerns/ around”.

On a purely anecdotal level, I’ve been noting its use in speech recently, particularly on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme I’ve put in brackets how I think it could be replaced if one (i.e. an editor) wanted to. The more I’ve looked into this, the more it strikes me that people use it in speech because there isn’t time to retrieve the more traditional/conventional/expected collocation — and because it is shorter — and because of reiconization.

challenges around – 22 June 2017 – British Chancellor of the Exchequer (posed by)
choices around – 23 June 2017 – a chief constable (recast the whole sentence?)
safety regimes around cladding – 26 June 2017 – I can’t remember who, sorry! (regulating, for)

And this was part of a statement by a CEO about a controversial issue:

“Instead, they were intended to outline a view that it is key for businesses in Scotland to have stability and clarity around ongoing important political issues.” (about, with regard to, when it comes to)

The most “arounded” conversation I have heard, however, comes from the leader of the Northern Ireland DUP party, Arlene Foster, from 26 May 2017, a part transcript of which is below.

Q: …
A: Well, I think this is an election about a couple of things. First of all, it’s about Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom – it’s also around getting the best deal for Northern Ireland in EU exit negotiations and making sure that we have a strong team to do that, and of course, it’s about the restoration of devolution as well.

Q: …
A: Oh, I think it can, and I think it can send a very clear message in relation to the Union. The Stormont elections were perilously close around a different set of circumstances…

In the first part, around looks like a way of not repeating about for the third time. In the second, however, it is distinctly unusual, given that there is a well-established prepositional collocation of under/in…circumstances. Moreover, it does not match the sytactic pattern mentioned earlier.

Other examples…

“I think after Will’s behaviour around women joining the team he should have been asked to leave already.” (over) (Twitter)

From OEC sample

“Though Zuckerberg has talked much about his opinions around borrowing ideas…” (about)

“…incomplete research into existing legal issues around encryption…” (affectingrelating to)

“The report recommended a raft of improvements around communication, stakeholder engagement, coaching, roles and responsibilities and leadership.” (to)

“The Government also agreed to lifting the restrictions around day-release for eligible prisoners…” (on)

“…directors emerged from a marathon board meeting on Thursday having resolved to implement new protocols around contracts after bungling negotiations…” (for, regulating, governing, etc.)

The wince factor

This is a purely and utterly subjective phenomenon – which is not to belittle its emotional intensity, but to state an obvious truth (or truism). [For example, I detest the pronunciation of “perfect” as /ˈpəːfɛkt/ rather than  /ˈpəːfɪkt/ because a) to my mind it reflects “spelling pronunciation”, and b) it is not the pronunciation I grew up  with. However, others might find this particular bugbear hard to understand or share.]

Words constantly change meaning and use. What is unusual, I believe, about around is that it is a preposition. Changes in the use of preposition are perhaps more noticeable because they are grammatical words, and grammatical words do not change that often or that quickly.

The eminent linguist Dwight Bolinger long ago devised the concept of “reiconization” to explain the increasing use of about to replace “of” in phrases such as “We’re more aware about it” rather than “aware of”.

I believe a similar process has happened/is happening with around: it sounds more graphic and literal than the now “empty” about.

Finally, we have no problem with the extension from the literal, spatial meaning of about to the less literal one of “concerning”. One could ask, why should around be any different?

Text of the abstract of the Bolinger article about reiconization (World Englishes, November, 1988).

“Reiconization refers to the process of reanalysis in which a meaningless or semantically opaque item is replaced by a new item with a transparent meaning. When the replaced (deiconized) item combines with other items to form a larger expression, the effect of reiconization is to maintain or restore the original meaning of the larger expression. This process is readily observable in the case of prepositions. For instance, the preposition of lacks a central meaning, and consequently, it is often replaced by the more iconic about or for, as in talk about rather than talk of. Similar examples can be found for other prepositions. Reiconization is not restricted to the replacement of prepositions, but operates at higher levels as well. The respecification of each in the reciprocal, each other, and the reanalysis evidenced by folk etymologies furnish examples of the operation of reiconization at different levels.”

One has to pay to read the article online. I shan’t attempt to summarize it, but will merely say that Bolinger gives several examples showing NOUN/ADJ/VERB + of collocations in which of is replaced by about: 

proud                                        |
I didn’t know what to make | about
disdainful                                 |
wary                                          |

He then goes on to say that while those phrases are reiconized by means of about, about itself is deiconized in the pair about vs around (in US English, at any rate.) Thus, to mess about is replaced by mess around, similarly,
stroll |
stand | about –> around 

That deiconization of about seems to go a long way towards explaining the rise and rise of around discussed in this blog.


We need to talk about “around” or around “around” (1/2)

“I can’t stand this misuse of ‘around'”, she shrieked, pressing the heels of her hands hard into her temples as if she were trying to give her brain some relief from its distress.

What’s this about?

  • The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past;
  • Some people loathe it;
  • How recent is this use?
  • Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
  • How frequent is it?
  • What objective evidence is there?

In a review a couple of years ago of my revision of Fowler, I was taken to task for not having dealt with the phrase “issues around”.

Recently, a correspondent, clearly in some linguistic distress, wrote to me about around, “the” – in her words – “new all-purpose preposition”. Her email was headed drolly “around around”. I quote some of it (underlining added).

I wanted to write to share my pain at the creeping use of around and ask your opinion of how it could possibly have crept so far and so fast. While five years ago or so it was restricted to the speech of a certain type of person (politicians, civil servants etc), I’m now hearing it everywhere and even seeing it written down more and more, including in the headlines of supposedly serious newspapers.”

In case, gentle reader, you are unaware of the use of around being alluded to, it is where, previously, most people would have used about. My correspondent continues:

I find it hard to understand is how it has slipped so smoothly into people’s speech. To me, ‘a story about’ is a phrase I learnt when I was little and I’d find it hard to change to “a story around” without putting serious thought into changing my natural way of speaking (and I think about language a lot).”

Someone unkinder than me (I?) might jibe that perhaps the wrong kind of thinking is going on. I digress.

I find it so upsetting that the wide variety of prepositions we’ve used for years has been replaced by this jarring interloper that kicks me in the teeth every time I hear it.

I know I’m being slightly overdramatic but I find it all so frustrating. I am something of a pedantic linguist but I love new, genuine changes that I think enrich the language (the sort of slang heard on The Wire). I detest the glibness and impoverishing effect on language of around.”

In Michael Winner mode, I might be tempted to say “Calm down, dear!” (Drat, I’ve just unwittingly revealed the gender of my correspondent and simultaneously outed myself as a chauvinist pig. So be it.)

That email raises several issues. I will deal only with the language (briefly), the question of newness, the question of frequency, and what I shall call “the wince factor”.

When I started work on my revision of Fowler a few years back, I originally intended to include around with its continual and seemingly unstoppable quest for Lebensraum. I decided not to, for several reasons; however, were another revision to happen, I would feel obliged to put it in. And I would have to do so because my correspondent – and I know she is not alone – shows all the signs of emotional distress that afflict certain people – me included – when faced with a usage they intensely dislike. Not being a psychologist, I cannot comment on how such distress relates to other psychological phenomena. But the language is typical of the overwrought phrases that people use when decrying what they see as solecism: “share my pain”, “jarring interloper”, “kicks me in the teeth”. From this, and from my previous experience of this kind of complaint, it is clear that there is a specific subgenre of “language grousing” one of whose characteristics is physical pain metaphors of the most hyperbolic kind.

(As it happens, my email writer did not acknowledge my lengthy reply, which might suggest that the outburst was a way of letting off steam. That might explain the extreme language.)

As for how my correspondent distinguishes between “new, genuine” changes and those affected by “glibness” or “an impoverishing effect”, the answer must surely be “Because I say so”. It is stating the obvious to say that such distinctions are an entirely subjective matter: your “glib” or “impoverishing” word or phrase may be my metaphor of choice.

Anyway, let’s draw a line under that aspect and move on. (Now, there’s a couple of “glib” phrases.)

How recent is this use of around?

Arnold Zwicky identified a phenomenon he dubbed the “recency illusion”, namely “the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent”. My correspondent suggests that around to mean “about” has crept in and assumed a stranglehold over the last five years. It is undoubtedly older than that (and see also later on). In my mind, it is inextricably welded to the preceding noun issues, and I recall mentally noting this collocation issues around well over a decade ago, when it struck me as the jargon of the mealy-mouthed.

As regards the newness of this use of around = “about”, it is worth noting that the very recently revised OED entry (March 2016) includes a meaning category (B. II 11) defined as “In reference or relation to; concerning, about”, whereas the 2nd edition 1989 entry did not.  This shows that the OED lexicographers have decided it is a “thing.”

Now, I first noticed this issues around collocation as an irritating – to my sensibility, anyway – linguistic tic of academics, social workers, hacks and bien-pensant politicians. Google Ngrams shows its vertiginous ascent in that collocation quite clearly. (The texts in which it occurs are, Google confirms, indeed of the kind I have just mentioned.) What is noticeable, though, is that its irresistible rise and rise is not that recent. It is true that between 1980 and 2000 Google shows it rocketing up (its frequency in occurrences per million words goes up almost fourfold), but it had started its ascent well before that, roughly trebling between 1960 and 1980.

Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.

tbc very soon…