When did “our” stop being used as an adjective (as in “other our dominions”, “any our Subjects”)?

While reading a letter written by Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1588, I came across a certain construction that doesn’t seem to be grammatical in English: RIGHT trustie, and righte welbelovid cousines wee greete you well. Whereas heertofore upon the advertismentes, from time to time and from sondrie places, of the great preparations of … Read more

Why is the phrase “cake walk” informally used to describe an easy to achieve task, while its origin says a different story?

From Oxford Dictionaries Online: cakewalk ˈkeɪkwɔːk/ noun 1. (informal) an absurdly or surprisingly easy task. “winning the league won’t be a cakewalk for them” 2. historical a dancing contest among black Americans in which a cake was awarded as a prize. How did the phrase take a different meaning over time? Answer Here is the … Read more

History of additional sounds introduced to English

Today I was curious about the rarity of the consonant cluster sr in the English language. I found a WordReference forum from 2006 that asked about the matter. The general response is that because English historically lacks the sr cluster, native speakers are unfamiliar with it, and unlikely to produce it. (The most familiar word … Read more

If you aren’t “immune”, could you be “mune”?

In English, “immune”, meaning “invulnerable”, seems to be the antithesis of a hypothetical word “mune”, which would logically mean “vulnerable”. Is there, or has there ever been a word “mune”, to which “immune” would be the antithesis? Answer Almost. The issue here is that the medical sense is based on a transfer from finance/taxation: immune: … Read more

‘Gwine’: How accurate is the African-American dialect in early 20th c writing?

A recent question here about “fo’ sho’” produced answers with a number of quotes of Southern US or AAE (African American English) varieties. To my ear, these quotes sounded awful and I question their authenticity. The sound like The quotes come primarily from late 19th c literature. Some more famous examples: Jim is written in … Read more

“Out of respect” versus other “out of”

Why do English people employ the expression “out of respect” (for dead people, for example) to denote respectful attention, whereas other expressions based on “out of” are more denoting: something now missing (“out of sight”, “out of milk”), a strictly negative sense (“out of question”), a movement out (“move out of the house”), or a … Read more

Origin and evolution of ‘on the bubble’ in senses related to ‘having an uncertain outcome’

Yesterday’s print New York Times had this headline for a story about activists trying to persuade Senator Susan Collins of Maine to vote against the tax bill now before Congress (the online headline is “Last-Ditch Effort to Sway Senator on Tax Bill Involves Personal Pleas”): Personal Pleas to Senator on the Bubble The usage of … Read more

Why has the “plague” on our houses become a “pox?”

There is a famous phrase in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, spoken by Mercutio: A plague o’ both your houses! This phrase is often alluded to in contemporary writing. But in the 20th century, many of the allusions replace the word plague with pox. Reaching for quick examples is not hard. This quote from a letter … Read more

History of the phrase “strange fruit”

Appearances in the early 19th century, and before, tie some figurative uses of the phrase ‘strange fruit’ to religion and politics, and then later to US racism, particularly southern racism. For example, this early use from an 1838 edition of The clockmaker, or, The sayings and doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville ties the sense … Read more