Category Archives: language and linguistics

Contronyms: to sanction or to sanction?

This article originally appeared on BoldFace, the official blog of Editors Toronto.

There are some words in English we may not know whether to sanction. They are so impregnated with meaning that their meaning may seem impregnable. If you try to hold them fast, you may find them too fast to hold; at best, you can hope that (of the senses available) one will have left and you will be left with the one that’s left. If, for instance, you ask someone to dust something and find instead they have dusted it, you might understandably lose your temper and have a fit of temper—especially if you are an inflammable, rather than inflammable, kind of person.

How do such self-opposite words—what Jack Herring labelled contronyms—come about? Sometimes it’s because sense and form cleave apart, and sometimes it’s because they cleave together. When they cleave, it’s typically because of a sense that cuts both ways; when they cleave, it’s likely because of forms being attracted by resemblance.

It may have started by coincidence. Latin had a prefix: in-, which referred to entry and commencement, and was related to the Germanic prefix in. It also happened to have another prefix: in- indicating negation, which was related to the Greek prefix an- and the Germanic prefix un-. Both of them can also change to il- before l (as you do when you illuminate the illiterate), to ir before r (as when it would be irresponsible to irrigate), and to im- before m, b, and p. Usually, this works fine; as a given word uses one or the other, and there is no confusion. But sometimes people reconstrue the meaning. Inflammable came to be back-formed to flammable and the in- taken as meaning “not”—sometimes.

But then sometimes people change word forms to what they think they’re supposed to be by their resemblance to other word forms. Take the word imprenable. The pren is the same as in the French prener (“take”). But somewhere in the 1500s some writers thought it should have a silent g as in reign and deign (both of which came down from Latin and stopped being pronounced), and so they made it impregnable. Perhaps by coincidence (or perhaps not), just around the same time, English borrowed the Latin impraegnare (“make pregnant”) and converted it to impregnate.

The seeds of confusion were thus sown on the basis of wanton cleaving to resemblance. This is also what happened in the case of cleofan and clifian, two Old English words. They were pronounced much like clave and cleave, respectively (plus suffixes, of course). Cleofan meant “sever” and clifian meant “adhere.” But over the centuries, the sounds spelled eo and ea shifted. Meanwhile, the pronunciation of clifian, which could have changed to resemble “clive,” stayed the same and the spelling shifted because there was this other word so much like it that had a very closely related sense.

Are opposites closely related? Indeed: differing only in one polarity. Sometimes opposites attract, meeting at the point of commonality and facing opposite directions. Sometimes the confusion comes not from fusion but fission: a nucleus of meaning that splits and heads in opposite directions. Take sanction, for instance. That sanct is the same as in sanctify; a sanction is a decree rendered inviolable – sanctified, given divine authority. But decrees can permit or prohibit. And so you can sanction an activity—expressly allow it—or sanction it—expressly prohibit it. Similarly, dust as a verb, converted from a noun, means to do something with dust, but that something can just as readily be to add dust as to remove it.

Sometimes the cleavage of forms is not so fast; it comes about gradually as the sense does not hold fast. Certain turns of phrase may help make the phrase become less certain and turn away. Take fast for example. Its first sense was “firmly fixed,” and, as an adverb, “in a firmly fixed manner.” But in the adverb sense it came to mean “very near” or “following closely,” as in fast beside and fast by. Shifting to a temporal sense, we came to have as fast as meaning “as soon as.” From that, fast came to have a sense of “quickly, swiftly,” which was then transferred to the adjective form. (Yes, fast meant “rapidly” before it meant “rapid.”) And now the original sense has mostly left and the newer sense is what is left.

That last sentence, by the way, holds the key to the Janus face of left. Leave can be intransitive—“depart”—or transitive—“depart from.” In either case, the one doing the departing is the one that has left; in the transitive, the one departed from is the one that is left: I leave it behind me, so it is left behind me. It’s not a real contradiction; it only seems so when an important word (is or has) is left out.

And sometimes contronyms come about because of sloppiness—they acquire a dusting of another sense because we don’t do the dusting on the original sense. Temper, for instance, has always meant “keep in due proportion, regulate”; it’s the source of temperance and temperature, after all. If you get angry, you lose your temper; just as you can have bad health, you can have a bad temper. But we are sometimes intemperate in our use of partial phrases. Bad temper can become just temper, and temper, temper! may be taken as meaning not “Let’s have some temper,” but “Let’s not have some temper.”

There are, of course, quite a lot more contronyms in the language. You are sure to find more—and the keys to their Janus-faced natures—if you look through a dictionary.

This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo.

Be on the ball with the origins of phrases

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

My topic today may seem a bit ribald, but I’m sure you’ll have a ball with it. It’s about monkey business with the origins of phrases, and how to make sure you stay on the ball and don’t hit a wall.

People love stories about the origins of words and phrases, but many of them are rather dodgy. A good general rule is: Look it up — on a reliable site such as or But if you don’t have immediate access to the web, or the phrase in question isn’t covered on the trustworthy sites, you can still apply a little real-world knowledge to estimate its trustworthiness.

Let’s start with two examples: cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey and balls to the wall. Those might seem rather off-colour, but popular accounts of their origins proclaim them both to be innocent. Let’s try applying our good sense to them.

For the brass monkey, the story often passed around is that on battleships, cannon balls were piled in pyramids on brass plates called monkeys, and when the weather got really cold, the differential shrinkage between the iron balls and the brass plate would cause the balls to dislodge.

For the wall, the story is that the balls in question are the two balls on a fighter pilot’s control sticks and the wall is the firewall between the pilot and the front of the plane — so balls to the wall means with the accelerator control and the ascend/descend control fully forward, putting you in a high-speed attack dive.

What do you think of the monkey story? It sounds convincing — don’t you remember something on a ship being called a “monkey,” and don’t metals shrink by different amounts with the cold? If you dwell on those, you might not stop to think about how steady the deck of a battleship isn’t. Really, balls piled in pyramids on a vessel where dishes slide off tables and shelves if they’re not held in place? And how much is that shrinkage, by the way? Do you have brass fixtures on your door? Do they shrink enough to pull on the screws or wood?

In fact, cannon balls were held in wooden frames so they wouldn’t roll all over. The “monkeys” on ships were “powder monkeys,” boys who carried charges. And a quick look online will tell you that the shrinkage rates of iron and brass are nearly identical — less than a millimetre per metre. As to the expression, earlier versions included references to freezing the tail off a brass monkey and being hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey. So the supposed “innocent” origin doesn’t pass the test — those are real monkey testes.

How about the pilots? What do those joysticks look like? If you recall that, sometimes at least, there’s a ball on each … you’re right. You’d be justified in reserving judgment on this one, because it’s so tidy, but the truth is that it’s correct: it came from fighter pilots in Korea and Vietnam. So that means it isn’t a crude reference? Heh. Please. These are military men. You can feel sure the double entendre was intended.

The army and the navy are often credited with popular turns of phrase. As we have seen, the credit is sometimes due and sometimes not. Another case where it is not due is on the ball. As you may know, at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich there is a red ball that is raised just before 1:00 pm each day and dropped exactly on the hour. It is bruited about that sailors who held fast to this time were said to be on the ball. It may seem reasonable enough; sailors did in fact need to use it to make sure their chronometers were accurate. But the historical record doesn’t support it. The phrase first showed up associated with baseball. Ah, yes, sports: a third field often credited — sometimes rightly — with the origins of phrases.

If that time ball sounds like an old acquaintance not to be forgot, then you are surely thinking of the one used in Times Square at New Year. Time balls for giving the hour to those at a distance were common in the 1800s, but their modern survival is mainly ceremonial, now most often associated with parties. Such as New Year’s balls? Well, yes, but that kind of ball — which we see also in have a ball (and yes, that’s where that phrase comes from) — may have music, but it does not require spheres. It comes from Latin ballare, “dance,” which we see in modern Spanish bailar, among others. A quick look in an etymological dictionary will tell you that.

And so we see you can truly have a ball with etymology — and, with good research, you can have another one, too.

None of it is true, and none of them are right

One of the more popular grammar superstitions is that none must always only be singular. This belief has less basis and produces more awkward results than the idea that you should never step on cracks in the sidewalk, but it persists, even though if you Google none is none are you will get a full page of authoritative sites, none of which supports it.

None of which support it. Not one of which supports it.

Ah, and there’s the thing: those who spread this bit of syntactic spit-over-the-shoulder support it with the contention that none is short for not one or no one. Since you would say no one agrees or not one of them agrees, you should – they counsel – say none agrees and none of them agrees.

Even if the supposed derivation were true, it wouldn’t matter: etymology is not a guide to current usage. Even words that have their current form due to a historical mistake still aren’t guided by the pre-mistake usage – although peas was a reanalysis of pease, which was singular, we can’t now say The peas is ready. (Well, not in standard English, anyway.) But none isn’t a contraction of no one or not one.

OK, to be fair, back in the mists of time it came from a root meaning ‘not’ and a root meaning ‘one’ or ‘any’. But by the time there was an English, it was already one word, nan or non, and it was already being used with plural as well as singular referents.

And there’s the important thing: you can use it with the singular. Of course you can. It’s the less common usage – when we want the singular we are more likely to say no one or not one – but it’s entirely available. You can even use the conjugation to make a subtle differentiation: “We expected deer, but none have arrived”; “We expected deer, but none has arrived.” (The former sentence might be spoken in a park, the latter perhaps in a restaurant.)

Given that every authoritative, learned source you can find will tell you that none can be singular or plural – and given that anyone well read in English knows it by reflex – how is it that so many people insist on this mumpsimus? Most likely just because it was enshrined in one book that remains popular, even though it is inconsistent, self-contradictory, and prone to declaring many of the most revered authors in the language to be wrong.

The book in question is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. If you want to know why people who know English syntax well tend not to be so fond of it, read Geoffrey Pullum’s “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” Pullum notes that on the matter of plural none, Strunk and White place themselves above Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Lucy Maude Montgomery.

They also place themselves above John Dryden (himself no wild descriptivist), Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, and Somerset Maugham – and that’s just in the short list of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. I particularly like these two illustrative quotations presented by the OED:

None are more ignorant of them than those learned Pedants…
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

There are none so deaf as those who will not hear the truth.
The Times, March 4, 1963

So trust your ear, and ignore those who self-deafen with this superstitious hypercorrection. None of them is right.

Who let that word into the dictionary?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

Every so often, Oxford or Merriam-Webster will release a list of words recently added to one of their dictionaries, and many people become grouchy at what they see as awful — or even fake — intrusions that have somehow been bootlegged into the hallowed halls of the official lexicon. You may even agree that they are right to be leery of such items as bae, selfie stick, lolcat, subtweet _and acquihire, all recently added to Oxford. The role of the dictionary is to be a signpost, after all, not a weathercock that flips with each language fad that blows through.

Fair enough: We look to the dictionary to know what the accepted words and meanings are. If we want to know what some asinine adolescent thinks should be a word, or thinks an existing word should mean, we go to Urban Dictionary, which is the great graffitied bathroom wall of the language. But when you put up a signpost, it has to point to the actual correct way to the destination, not to where you think they should have put the destination or the road to it. It also has to be updated with new signs when new towns or subdivisions are built. You might want to go to one of them, after all — just as you might want to know exactly what all those young people mean when they say, “My bae subtweeted me with a lolcat.” Where else than a dictionary will you find out? (You don’t want to ask one of those youths. They will just roll their eyes at you.)

A dictionary needn’t include every passing bit of slang that sprouts in the morning and withers in the afternoon, of course. A word has to have some staying power; it has to be well attested in published texts. Which means that you, dear readers, are the real bouncers at the language pub. As editor Sarah Grey told editors at the recent EAC conference, paraphrasing lexicographers Kory Stamper, Ben Zimmer and Steve Kleinedler, “If you’re waiting for dictionaries to say a word is OK, you should know that they’re waiting for you to start using it.”

It is always a judgment call, of course, as the good people at Oxford tell us. Some words don’t last as long as we think they will. Weblog is already archaic, shortened down to blog, and it has been a long time since anyone other than my father said zowie or anyone other than Prince Philip said gadzooks. But others have more staying power. As Ammon Shea tells us, a century ago Merriam-Webster’s Third Collegiate Dictionary added a large number of slang words, which some saw as disgraceful weeds in the language. Among them were several words that likely passed without remark in my opening paragraph — grouchy, awful (meaning bad), fake, bootleg and leery — along with bouncer, pub and many more.

Because language

First published on BoldFace, the official blog of EAC’s Toronto branch. Copyedited by Valerie Borden.

We have a beautiful opportunity to watch language change in action: English is gaining a new preposition.


Yes. Because change. Because language!

Do you find that jarring? Folks, this is how your language is made. Because may be gaining a new syntactic role, but this is not the first time it has done so.

Because has been a word in the English language for about 700 years. Before that, it was two words: by (at that time typically spelled bi) and cause. Preposition and noun. By cause of became because of; we also had because that—no longer in use—and because why, which has actually been around the whole time. Once the two words merged, the new single word naturally had a single syntactic role. In fact, even before the two words were written as one, they were already used to introduce a clause without further conjunction. See Chaucer’s prologue to the Franklin’s Tale: “by cause I am a burel man…”

So a multiple-word expression became a single modular unit. This happens in language—indeed, our prefixes and suffixes nearly all started out in the distant mists of history as separate words. Set as such, because sailed on for seven centuries, losing the that but otherwise holding steady. But we love to play with language like kids with erector sets, and, every so often, someone picks up a bit and sees if it can be screwed in somewhere else—just because.

Take a sentence. Any sentence. Even something that is used as a sentence but has no verb. Hey! There were some right there! Yes, we can and do use expressions such as “No” and “Hey, free candy!” and “The higher, the fewer” and “CAR!” in place of complete sentences. Since we can normally turn a complete sentence into a subordinate or coordinate clause, we should be able to use those other expressions the same way, right? Well, let’s just stick them in and see what happens: “I thought I could do it, but no.” “I’m dieting today, except hey, free candy!” “I climbed and discovered that the higher, the fewer.” “We scampered off the street because CAR!”

Do some of those seem more jarring than others? They well may. But for that very reason, they are more humorously effective. Consider this bit from a 1987 Saturday Night Live episode: “If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you’ll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.” That appears to have been one of the seeds of the because [expression] trend that is increasingly popular because jarringly humorous: “I was wired last night because mmm sugar.” “They want to bomb it to the Stone Age because FREEDOM!”

This is not the same as the literary usage seen in “increasingly popular because jarring”—that’s an established predicative usage with an implied “it is”—but that may have had a slight influence. Rather, the current use seems to take the whole expression and plop it in as a substitute for a structured clause, and to do so as a deliberate syntactic mirroring of the leap of logic that it presents. It does not actually turn because into a preposition; the noun is what is converted. We see similar structures with other conjunctions—“We are hungry, therefore PIZZA!” and a favourite of mine from more than a decade ago, “You make good points but have failed to consider that bite me.”

What does turn because into a preposition is the reanalysis of this construction by newer, naïve users. This is, in fact, how syntactic change tends to happen: for fun or convenience, speakers of a language modify a structure or turn of phrase; then a subsequent generation reinterprets that usage as a different, easier-to-assimilate structure. You will probably agree that because as a preposition is easier to assimilate into a standard grammar of English than a noun as a complete subordinate clause. So now we can see children using because where their parents would have used because of: “I liked it because the ponies.” And this usage does not seem to draw on the substitute-for-reasoning effect.

You may not like this new usage; it’s not what you’re used to. But it’s language change, and you’re seeing it in action. It will be a while before it is accepted in formal usage, though. Expect sticklers to be routinely purple in the face about it by, say, AD 2050.

There’s much more to be said and read on this topic. I direct your attention to the following fine articles:

No such thing as “American English”?

I received this afternoon the following email in response to my latest article for the BBC, “Why isn’t ‘American’ a language?”:


I am surprised by your article at today. First of all, there is no country by the name of America. Secondly, if you wish to refer to Americans, you are including everyone who lives anywhere in North or South America. Here in Canada we have many English dialects, as they do in the U.S.A., but ours align with the British English usage. Yes, that U.S.A. stands for United States OF America, as it is a republic within North America. I am a Canadian who is also an American, as Canada is in North America.

Therefore your article is specious. There is no such language as “American English”. The habit of US citizens calling themselves ‘Americans’ is hubris at its finest. One well known example is the ‘World Series’ which is anything but.

However, you are entitled to your misguided views, as I am mine. {;-)

Gordon W. Sharpe

As you may expect, I did not agree with his line of reasoning. Here is the response I sent to him:

A good day to you, Mr. Sharpe. I have a few points to make in response to your email.

First of all: I am a Canadian. I was born here, I grew up here, and I am sitting in my residence in Toronto as I type this.

Second: In my world, a Canadian is not an American. Call me a North American. Every Canadian I know (I do not count you among my acquaintances) bristles at being taken for an American – we all grew up resenting the USA, just as you evidently did. You are, in fact, the very first actual Canadian I recall seeing insist that Canadians are “Americans” tout court; everyone else I recall who has said that has been from the USA or Europe. The word “American” by itself is well established as referring only to a citizen of that country to the south of us, and Canadians rarely want to be confused with them, as you demonstrate. The rest of us on this land mass are North Americans and South Americans.

Third: The short form for “United States of America,” established virtually from its inception and accepted around the world – and in Canada, among Canadians, as you cannot avoid hearing – is “America.” The globally accepted demonym is “Americans.” A few people have attempted to call citizens of the USA “USians,” but it has not caught on. Citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia are called Micronesians, even though the region Micronesia includes other countries; citizens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are called Congolese, even though citizens of the Republic of the Congo are as well; citizens of the Republic of Ireland are called Irish, Northern Ireland notwithstanding; and so forth. Back when our country was the Dominion of Canada – I am sure you remember when it was stripped down to one word, in 1982 – we were nonetheless Canadians and our general standard dialect was Canadian English.

Fourth: I am a linguist with substantial education in dialects and variation, and I know quite well – and said so in the article – that there is considerable variation in American English. Notwithstanding that, American English as a whole is quite distinct from British English as a whole, and each of the two has a standard variety that is the basis of dictionaries, usage guides, and textbooks. I made reference to that in the article as well, but perhaps you didn’t finish reading it before you started typing.

Fifth: I make the larger part of my living as an editor and expert on Canadian English, and I must correct you on your belief that Canadian English aligns with British English usage. In fact, although we prefer certain British-style spellings, the larger part of our vocabulary hews to the American. We do not have boots and bonnets on our cars, or park the cars in carparks; we do not send unruly chavs to gaol or eat ices at the weekend; we recognize “centre” and “colour” but usually not “recognise”; our accents are closer to American accents – in fact, the non-Canadian accent closest to a standard Toronto accent is from California. I had originally intended to make mention of Canadian in the article, but the BBC has tight length limits, so that was one of a few things I trimmed out in the final draft.

I won’t argue with you about the hubris of “Word Series,” nor about American cultural self-centredness in general. But they were being called “Americans” well before they had their own country. As far as I’m concerned, they can keep it. Amerigo Vespucci was no one really worth commemorating so much anyway.

If you are wondering why I, a Canadian, wrote an article on American English for the British Broadcasting Corporation, it is because (a) they asked me to do so, (b) they paid me to do so, (c) I know the subject, and (d) I enjoy writing about it. Should Canadian English merit a mention? I’d like to think it is worth an article of its own. We shall see whether I can convince the BBC of that. :)


James Harbeck.

America’s liberties with English

My latest article for the BBC is about how American English came to be so different from British English – and why it didn’t come to be more different:

Why isn’t ‘American’ a language?