Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you


On tenterhooks or on tenderhooks? Eggcorns (3)


The chap on the left is attaching the cloth to a tenterhook, to keep the cloth nice and taut on its ‘tenter’ (frame).

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I’m on a role [;-)] with this eggcorn thang, so here’s a revamp of one I made earlier, to tied you over until the next in-death one I have time to pen.1

To be on tenterhooks: What does it mean?

You’ll probably have your own image. [You can add it mentally here…]

For me, it is to have that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling, being totally wrought up because you don’t know how something important is going to turn out, whether some news will be as bad as you feared, be it exam results, a job application, a medical test:

Britain’s farmers have been on tenterhooks since a vet found lesions–possible signs of foot and mouth disease–in the mouths of two sheep at the farm on Tuesday.”

Where does it come from?

Why tenterhooks? Most people absorb the phrase as a whole (or Gestalt, if we want to be pretentious): they grasp the meaning without analysing its constituent parts. Others grasp the meaning but change the form to tenDerhooks. That change is understandable, because who on earth knows what a tenterhook is? And if something is tender, it’s delicate and susceptible to harm or damage, and so, if I’m on tenderhooks–you get my drift when it comes to explaining the logic of this eggcorn.

Not to mention that, soundwise, it’s possibly another example of the t-flapping which/that accounts for several other eggcorns, such as trite and true, financial heartship and cuddlefish.

Well, it’s all to do with tenters—who are not hippy-dippy people who have anything to do with tents or camping. In fact, tenters are not people at all. (There is a word tenter meaning someone who lives in a tent, but that’s a different word.)

The kind of tenter we’re interested in is, according to the OED, “a wooden framework on which cloth is stretched after being milled, so that it may set or dry evenly and without shrinking”.

The OED also points out that tenters once stood in the open air in tenter-fields or grounds, and were a prominent feature in cloth-manufacturing districts. In other words, the original image is one of being very “tense”, in the sense of being stretched very tight, as can be clearly seen in the early quotation, from Cranmer, mentioned later on.

And in some antique panoramas of cities before or during industrialization the surrounding fields are filled with white waves of cloth suspended on tenters.

In the image here of Leeds in the 18th century (undated, but first quarter to first half, I guess, though I’m no costume expert) rows of tenters in some of the fields can just about be made out.

The origin of the word tenter, again according to the OED, is not certain, but may have to do with the Latin for stretching (tendĕre) or with the French for dye (teint).

And tenterhooks are?

As the OED puts it: “one of the hooks or bent nails set in a close row along the upper and lower bar of a tenter, by which the edges of the cloth are firmly held; a hooked or right-angled nail or spike; dial. a metal hook upon which anything is hung”.

How old is the word?

Tenters is first recorded in its literal sense from the 1300s (“Whon þe Iewes hedden þus nayled Criston þe cros as men doþ cloþ on a tey[n]tur”, Modern English: “When the Jews had thus nailed Christ on the cross as men doth cloth on a tenter“), while the last OED citation of the literal meaning is from a dialect dictionary of 1889.

Note the meaning drift:

Tenter-hooks, strong iron hooks put in ceilings and..joists.., on which bacon and other such things are hung. Glossary of Words from Manley & Corringham, Lincs. (ed. 2), E. Peacock.

Tenterhooks makes its first OED appearance in the form tentourhokes in a citation from the 1480 wardrobe accounts of King Edward IV’s daughter and Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York. She apparently needed 200.

Another sartorial context (1579) is provided by the Office of the revels of Queen Elizabeth I. You could buy a lot of them very cheap (by today’s standards): “Tainter Hookes at viiid the c.” (i.e. at eight pence the 100).


How old is the metaphor?

Very. Tenters was used in several phrases such as to put or stretch on the tenters in the 16th century. The next two quotations suggest by their visual immediacy how much tenters must have been part of everyday life. From the author of that jewel of our language The Book of Common Prayer, and Protestant martyr, Thomas Cranmer (1551): “But the Papistes haue set Christes wordes vppon the tenters and stretched them owt so farre, that they make his wordes to signyfy as pleaseth them, not as he ment”, (not a sentiment calculated to endear him to Queen Mary).

And in this simile by the Elizabethan dramatist Thomas Dekker (1602): “O Night, that…like a cloth of cloudes dost stretch thy limbes; Vpon the windy Tenters of the Ayre“.


Disraeli père, looking very intellectual and thoughtful.

Tenterhooks was used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond in various metaphors suggesting something causing suffering, and also the idea of stretching something beyond its proper bounds, as in this Isaac Disraeli (the Prime Minister’s dad) quote: “Honest men…sometimes strain truth on the tenter-hooks of fiction” (or, as we’d say nowadays, “are economical with the truth” or even use “alternative facts”).

However, according to the OED, the phrase to be on (the) tenterhooks meaning “to be in suspense” that has since become fossilized is first recorded only as late as 1748 in Smollett, and in its canonical form not until 1812, in the diary of soldier and diplomat Sir Robert Thomas Wilson: “Until I reach the imperial headquarters I shall be on tenter-hooks“.

Byron used the spelling “tender” – or did he?

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Aren’t I just fabulous? You can dress me up in this ridiculous, semi-oriental drag that no Englishman (or half-Scot, which I am) would be seen dead in and I still look like a lord. That’s breeding for you.

The line from Don Juan runs as follows:

[It] keeps the atrocious reader in suspense; The surest way for ladies and for books To bait their tender or their tenter-hooks.

Does tender here go with hooks? Or is it used in the meaning of “offering”?

How frequent is the eggcorn version?

To be on tenderhooks is relatively well known among eggcornisti, and seems to me to be part of the “eggcorn canon”. But, actually, how frequent is it? I’ve looked at various sources, such as the Oxford English Corpus, the Corpus of Contemporary American, of Historical American, and Google books (US), which all suggest that it isn’t at all frequent, at least in written sources. For instance, in the GloWbE (the Corpus of Global Web-Based English) it occurs 3 times against 241 for the correct version. Similarly in Google US books (155 billion words) the figures are 57 to 8,238.

Dictionaries don’t accept the eggcorn, and judging by relative frequency are unlikely to for a long time. I don’t think I’ll be on tenterhooks waiting to see if they do.

In case you think I’m being more than usually silly, tie over, indeath research and to be on a role are all genuine eggcorns. I didn’t stumble across them; I asked myself if they would exist in the wild, googled them, and, sure enough, they do. Almost any idiomatic phrase you care to think of will probably have an eggcorn version. Try it for yourself.


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Eggcorns (2). Let’s nip this in the butt!


It’s a dog-meet-dog world…

In the previous blog on this topic, I attempted to differentiate eggcorns from other verbal “slips”, and suggested that they illustrate how people try to make sense of idioms they hear that are both unfamiliar and seemingly nonsensical.

I also suggested that the difference between eggcorns and the originals that inspired them could often be reduced to a single sound. In other words, I want to hone in [sic] on the fact that not only are eggcorns semantically motivated and “logical”; they also often make sense from a sound point of view. They are not, as nothing in language is, random in the sense of being arbitrary, and are susceptible of rational explanation.

For instance, not only does damp squid make sense meaningwise; it replaces the voiced plosive /d/ with another one, /b/, rather than, say, replacing it with squit. which ends with a voiceless plosive, but could equally convey the meaning of dampness and unpleasantness.

The section on “typology” in the list that follows, hopefully, illustrates ways in which such modifications are phonetically non-random.

Of course, eggcorns can be highly amusing if they generate a surreal image. But the amusement they provide should be disinterested and kind-hearted; it should not be of the rebarbative “I despise you when you use poor grammar” school.

I also suggested that the survey I talked about in the earlier blog could not seriously be considered “research”. Which raises the question: where is evidence for eggcorns to be found?

Language corpora of different kinds are the obvious answer. There is also the mother of all eggcorn collections here, the eggcorn database set up by asphyxianados years ago. (I made that one up, in case you’re wondering, but a google does get some hits.)

That said, eggcorns are largely oral phenomena, and therefore looking in written sources for them might be akin to looking for God in a brewery. Nevertheless, written collections of one kind or another do shed some light. What follows is a detaiedl analysis of the first four in the original list (there’ll be further blogs on others). Each one is analysed according to the following criteria:

1.1 In eggcorn database? Y/N

1.2 If Yes, year of first citation mentioned in that database?

1.3 Typology

1.2 Frequency of original in the vast database GloWbE1 vs the eggcorn version

1.3 If in Google Ngrams, earliest relevant example

1.4.1 History & explanation (if applicable)

1.4.2 Other observations

(Numbering starts with the number of the entry in the list, and then continues with the numbers of the four categories and subcategories mentioned above.

  1. to be pacific (to be specific)
    1.1-1.1.2 (Eggcorn database & Year) N;
    1.1.3 (Typology) initial consonant phoneme drop;
    1.2 (In GloWbE?) N;
    1.3 (Google) no Googles, other than metalinguistic
    1.4.2 This one puzzles me. The use of “pacifically” for “specifically” is well attested; so much so, in fact, that is practically a meme. I suspect that whoever put the list together found this somewhere and regurgitated it.

  1. escape goat (scapegoat)
    2.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
    2.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) undated;
    2.1.3 (Typology) initial vowel phoneme addition;
    2.2 (GloWbE figs.) 3,094/63 escape goat; escapegoat 5;

2.3. (Earliest Ngrams citation) As can be seen on this link, 1853, it seems. That entry is from a French-English dictionary. Earlier quotations seem to be not germane to this discussion.
2.4.1 (History & explanation) The “scape” in scapegoat is escape with its first vowel chopped off. In Google Ngrams, some of its occurrences are metalinguistic, i.e. in discussion of how it came to be.

As Ben Zimmer pointed out in the eggcorn database: Note by Ben Zimmer, Nov. 15, 2010: “As explained by Merrill Perlman in ‘Passing the Blame’ (CJR Language Corner, 11/15/10), the change of scapegoat to escape goat simply brings it into line with its etymological origins:

‘The concept of the “scapegoat” is in the Bible, in Leviticus, as part of the ritual of atonement. The word “scape-goat” itself, though, did not appear until 1530, according to The Oxford English Dictionary: “In the Mosaic ritual of the Day of Atonement (Lev. xvi), that one of two goats that was chosen by lot to be sent alive into the wilderness, the sins of the people having been symbolically laid upon it, while the other was appointed to be sacrificed.” That first goat escaped death, though it was loaded with sin. Since “scape” was merely a spelling variation of “escape,” it was, literally, an “escape goat.” Maybe “escaped goat” would be more grammatically correct, but no matter.”’

It is also worth mentioning the further eggcorn scrapegoat.


  1. damp squid (damp squib)
    3.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
    3.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2005;
    3.1.3 (Typology) Final consonant phoneme swap (voiced plosives);
    3.2 (GloWbE figs.) 352/20;
    3.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) 1898 “By the time she returns to her ‘muttons’ all interest in the entertainment has evaporated, and the denouement fizzles out like a damp squid.” The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 68;

3.4.1 A squib is a type of firework, and a damp one doesn’t go off, and is therefore disappointing. The OED first records the idiom from as “recently” as 1846.
3.4.2 What can I say? This was the title my editor chose for my parvum opus. The idiom, in either form, seems to be far less known in the US than in the UK. In the earlier blog, I mentioned Jeanette Winterson’s remark that she grew up believing it was damp squid. Here it is again, for interest:

I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?


4. nipped it in the butt (nipped in the bud)
4.1.1 (In eggcorn database?) Y;
4.1.2 (If in, date of first citation) 2002;
4.1.3 (Typology) t/d-deletion2;
4.2 (GloWbE figs.) 462/2;
4.3 (Earliest Ngrams citation) n/a;

4.4.1 The original, nip in the bud, is a horticultural metaphor. First recorded in its current form in 1607, but known in a variant from 1590: F. Beaumont Woman Hater iii. i. sig. D4v   Yet I can frowne and nip a passion Euen in the bud.

4.4.2 I couldn’t track this down in Ngrams, which is perhaps not surprising, given its mere two occurrences in GloWbE. If you google “nip in the butt” millions of ostensible hits show up. I scanned the first two screens of hits, and all, bar one, were discussions of the misuse of one for t’other, or knowing puns.

The single exception, from a blogger who had grown up believing “in the butt” to be the correct version, shows how adept people are at rationalizing their own usage: “I thought the saying was more of a scare tactic. Basically if you don’t cut out the behavior that you are doing you will get nipped (bit, pinched, etc) in the butt. This was pretty powerful for me growing up.”

The confusion with butt is not only “logical”, as illustrated by the blogger’s comment above; it is also motivated by conflicting meanings of nip. For the in the butt version, people assign the meaning “bite, peck” etc. to the verb, as in the cartoon below.  However, the idiom derives from a different, and nowadays rarer meaning, which the OED classifies as sense 13 a: “Originally: to check or destroy the growth of (a plant), as by the physical removal of a bud or the like, or through the action of cold or frost. Later: to arrest or prevent the growth or development of (anything).”

Additionally, I would have thought that the existence of other frequent idioms with butt (pain in the butt, kick in the butt, etc.) must play a part.

1 GloWbE stands for “The Global Corpus of Web-based English, a corpus containing over 1.9 billion words of text from 20 countries where English is used.

2 t/d-deletion, discussed here, explains why e.g. skimmed milk might become skim milk, and why some estate agents wax lyrical if a house for sale “boasts” stain glass windows. Try saying end game very quickly. Now, is there a /d/ there? Be honest.


Eggcorns. Grit to my mill! (1)

On 8 December 2017, some British newspapers picked up a story about “eggcorns”. The Independent headed it “The 30 most misused phrases in the English language”.

According to the Indy, a British opticians and hearing care company “surveyed 2,000 British adults and found that 35 per cent of them used eggcorns without even realising they were saying something incorrectly”.

As its introduction, the article (drawn, I suspect from experience, more or less verbatim from the company’s press release) stated, “New research has revealed the 30 most commonly misused phrases in the UK. Known as eggcorns, the bizarre phrases often carry entirely different – and often hilariously nonsensical – meanings.” (The full list is at the end of this blog.)

Clearly, this is not serious “research”. For starters, what particular “English language” was being sampled? For example, were people recorded over a period of days, weeks, or months, and were the recordings then transcribed and analysed? Somehow, I think not. And a score of other questions could be asked.

Let’s leave methodology aside, though, and hone in [sic] on the purported “definition” of eggcorns: “bizarre phrases [that] often carry entirely different – and often hilariously nonsensical – meanings”.

No, sirree. eggcorns are quite the opposite of “nonsensical”: they are the hearers’ attempt to make sense of phrases that strike them as nonsensical by making them meaningful – at least for those hearers.

I’ve pontificated previously about eggcorns in general here, and about specific ones here and here. But, at the risk of repetition, here’s the OED definition again:

An alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.”

Incidentally, I’d highlight “reinterpretation” here, rather then “mishearing”: the sound stream reaching my ear may be the real McCoy, but my brain has to interpret it somehow by turning an “unknown unknown” into a sort of “known unknown”, if you catch my drift, and the result is an eggcorn.

The term was coined in 2003 by the eminent linguist Professor Geoff Pullum1, and derives from a “reinterpretation” of the “word” acorn2.

Oh, so it’s just a fancypants, linguists’ term for malapropism, right?

No. That’s why it was needed.

Malapropism involves “The mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect.” President Bush was famous for them, e.g. “We’ll let our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America will be the pacemakers.”—Houston, Sept. 6, 2000.

OK. So, it’s like folk etymology, then?

(You mean “folk etymology” in the meaning of “the transformation of one word or lexeme into another which then becomes institutionalized”, such as crayfish from Middle English, crevice, crevisse, with the –ice, –isse element reinterpreted as “fish”; or chaise lounge [recognised in some dictionaries] from chaise longue?)

No, because, in theory at any rate, eggcorns are the productions of one speaker, rather than of a speech community.

So, what defines an eggcorn?

Well, apart from being the production of one speaker – and such are going to be very hard to find written evidence for, aren’t they? – they often tend to differ from the original by a single sound, occasionally two. An example of that is damp squid for damp squib3. Alternatively, actually, they sound exactly the same as the original, but their existence only emerges when someone writes them down, as in ex-patriot for expatriate.

What’s more, many idioms that are eggcornized contain a word that rarely, or even never, occurs outside the idiom. What exactly is “grist“, anyway, and what is it doing in my mill? And what is a “squib“?

What evidence is there for the claim made?

I believe that any “research” mentioned in the article would be along these lines: the market research company surveying people created a list of thirty phrases with their original and eggcorn versions, and then asked their sample to say which was correct. If that is the case (and I’ll try to find out), the statement “35% of them used eggcorns” needs to be deconstructed. It could, after all, merely mean that 35 per cent of the sample got 1 phrase wrong, out of 30. More probably, however, there will have been a range: i.e. some answered 1, some 2, some 3, etc. (though none will have answered 30).

It would be interesting to know which were the most commonly misused, but that is too much to hope for.

More importantly, though, if the company created the list, it must have drawn on existing sources. That, as a bit of an eggcorn groupie and having myself done PR campaigns based on eggcorns, is what I suspect from the list, and from the dubious status of at least a couple of entries on it (“to be pacific”? “circus-sized”?)

For the moment, I’m going to analyse and comment on the first 12  in the list. But that’s material for another blog. Otherwise, this one will be too long.

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

1 The link to the Language Log post discussing the issue is here.

2 As the OED shows, the person who pronounced acorn as “eggcorn” and thus inspired the linguistic term was not alone, and not the first.

1844   S. G. McMahan Let. 16 June in A. L. Hurtado John Sutter (2006) 130   I hope you are as harty as you ust to be and that you have plenty of egg corn [acorn] bread which I cann not get her[e] and I hope to help you eat some of it soon.

1983   Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa24 Apr. 23 (caption)    Paper sacks held a variety of ‘recyclable’ goods including ladies’ shoes, pine cones, walnuts, used toys and, according to their sign, eggcorns (acorns).

If you say the word acorn in a sort of Texan drawl, you might hear how it could become eggcorn. Or, as Mark Liebermann puts it: “Note, by the way, that the author of this mis-hearing may be a speaker of the dialect in which ‘beg’ has the same vowel as the first syllable of ‘bagel’. For these folks, ‘egg corn’ and ‘acorn’ are really homonyms, if the first is not spoken so as to artificially separate the words.”

3 Jeanette Winterson is quoted as follows. Her explanation shows how very much eggcorns do make sense: “I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?”



U and non-U language – napkins and serviettes

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

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

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

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

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

Napkins looking like an unlikely ancient observatory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy in a rather fabulous wedding dress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where does the word ‘toilet’ come from? History

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

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

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

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

We’ve all been there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figures and ratios for discernable/ible in several corpora:

Oxford English Corpus:

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

BYU corpora:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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