NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” today features a conversation between Grant Barrett, Geoffrey Pullum, and Martha Barnette on “new words, new blogs and new usage”; if you’ve got a spare half-hour, it’s a real pleasure. Grant and Geoff are two of my favorite wordanistas, and it’s great to hear them provide genuinely informed discussion of topics usually gnawed endlessly by cliche-ridden ignoramuses (and it was a particular thrill to hear Geoff’s peculiar accent, the result of a remarkably checkered career: born in Irvine, Scotland; moved to West Wickham, in Kent, while still very young; moved to London; joined a rock band and worked in Germany in nightclub residencies and on American air bases; went to college in York; moved to the States…). I particularly liked the sympathetic and friendly way they dealt with a young woman who called in to complain about people who write till for until and thru for through (yes, they explained that till is the older form). Here‘s a link to the show’s webpage; click on Listen (you’ll get a choice between RealAudio and WindowsMedia) and enjoy it. (Via


  1. Dr. Pullum’s explanation of until differs significantly from the OED’s, though; he gives it as starting around 1400, while the OED gives a quote from c1200, and he associates it with on till, while the OED associates it with and till. (This doesn’t really change the thrust of his argument, but unless the OED entry is inaccurate, I rather feel he should have stuck to facts he was sure of.)

  2. No, I’d much rather have him get the facts slightly wrong (he didn’t have the OED at hand, presumably) and correct the much more significant error of thinking till is a “corruption” of until.

  3. Well, sure, but I feel like he could have done that by saying simply, “actually, ’till’ is the older form, and ‘until’ is derived from it,” rather than by making up a new etymology for “until” . . .

  4. My OED has und + till, with the und Old Norse and not occurring on its own in English, where it’s already whole untill. Not and. Am I missing something? Also, unto is from until, from the time when to and til were still interfering because of Norse influences.
    Synchronic etymological arguments are really a bit disingenuous, aren’t they? Derivation tells you only a little about how a word is (or “should be”) used. But history is needed to deflate the argument that something is a recent, corrupt form. Plus, it’s tempting because those who are seduced by prescriptivists are often persuaded by etymology.
    All dictionaries of even moderate size do seem to have a standout paragraph that says exactly what needs to be said, namely that till is older than until, not the other way around; and that ’till is “nonstandard”, which is as close as they get to “wrong”.

  5. site back up? Excellent!

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