Mark Liberman at the Log posts a message from a correspondent who quotes a news story that says “The actor and comedian span off the road and crashed the high-powered vehicle into a tree” and asks “‘Span’? I’ve never seen or heard this before in my life. Is this a Britishism or just an error? It should be ‘spun,’ right?” That would have been my reaction as well (though I’m aware that “span” is the older form, as in “When Adam delved and Eve span”), but apparently a lot of people in the UK think it’s perfectly normal. Frequent LH commenter Zythophile said “As a Briton, I’d be happy with ‘the car span off the road’, but I’d have to say ‘the company spun off its oil assets into a separate operation’.” Commenter Martin wrote “I’m British, I’ve used spin, span, spun all my life (a lot more than 25 years!).[…] but a bit of Googling suggests there are other Brits who claim never to have heard it…” So I turn to the Varied Reader: do you use “span” as the past tense, and if so, do you use it always and everywhere or make a distinction like Zythophile’s?


  1. Marc Leavitt says

    Where I live (New Jersey) in the northeastern United States, we use it very occasionally in the venacular(his car span out of control), but most people use “spun.”

  2. Marc Leavitt says

    Pardon the typo: “vernacular.”

  3. I wouldn’t make the ‘spun off’ distinction, myself. Nothing wrong with span, though. I’d say it’s ‘spin, span, had spun’. I think ‘the car spun off the road’ sounds funny. It would have to be ‘the car was spun …’ for me to say it.
    Of course half an hour from now I might feel differently.

  4. I can’t remember ever hearing it (and I’m British).

  5. Paul Clapham says

    “Span” sounds right to me in theory as the past tense of “spin”, but in real life I would go to considerable lengths to avoid using it as such.

  6. Span sounds find to me (British) and is common enough in reporting Formula 1 races, eg in the Guardian.

  7. Always and everywhere. (I’m British)

  8. It would sound much more natural to me as “his car done span off the road.” “Span,” by itself, just don’t sound right.

  9. Informal variant, sure. I wouldn’t use it in my application to Harvard.

  10. “a bit of Googling suggests there are other Brits who claim never to have heard it”: but are they the Sort of People who would say “the boat sunk”?
    I’d say that “span out of control” is good Brenglish.

  11. I wouldn’t blink at either “span” or “spun”; I think I’d tend to use “span” myself but couldn’t swear to it. If I think about it too much they both start to look wrong. (Zythophile’s distinction sounds plausible.)

  12. D Sky Onosson says

    My two pre-teen Canadian children both confirm, the right answer would be “spinned”, and they seemed more confused by “span” than “spun”.

  13. To me, “spun” for both simple past and past participle is what I’ve heard and said all my life. I did not catch on to the fact that “span” is the older simple past form until I encountered it in British writing (maybe for the first time in Sayers’s “Gaudy Night”). “Spinned” sounds like a child’s wrong guess. The word “homespun” may help to keep the word “spun” alive.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I (Brit) always say “spun” – I think; introspection is not always a safe guide in these matters.
    Nevertheless “span” sounds perfectly OK to me, and I wouldn’t have found anything odd about the original quote.
    However, thinking about it, I wouldn’t accept “span” in the spin-doctor sense.
    So I’d accept
    Eve span.
    Charlotte span a web.
    The car span round.
    but not
    *Alastair Campbell span for Tony Blair.
    Possibly this is because it would summon up a pleasing picture of literal spinning which seems inappropriate in context.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Agree with Zythophile about the unnaturalness of
    *span off (its assets)
    I suppose (for me) “span” is basically OK only for the core intransitive sense of “rotated” and for the olde worlde craft, where an olde worlde preterite maybe fits by association.

  16. I spun the plates on the end of a pole where they span for a while before dropping off.
    I use both and think there must be a rule but I couldn’t tell you what it was (since I’m not a linguist just a language user). The variants each sound separately right in different contexts.
    Brit Eng

  17. Actually, forget Alastair Campbell. more spinned against than spinning on its own seems to be quite popular in Britain, getting 12,700 hits.

  18. Having just searched the latest draft of my currently completed novel (he said grandly) I find four spun and one span.
    1) He spun Ash round and pushed him towards the corridor.
    2) He was giving a quick summary of how his career in language had led to computing which had spun off into an interest in code breaking and espionage
    3) He spun back to the man, pointed the gun and fired
    4)The dog had landed on its feet. It span round, disorientated, then locked eyes with Ash and sprang back at him.
    The only conclusion I can draw is that there might be too much energetic spinning around going on in general.

  19. As an Aussie living for many years in the UK, I’ve never heard anyone say “span off the road” nor would I think of using it. In the Formula 1 example, I reported on F1 for many years and never had occasion to write “span off”, nor knew of anyone else who used it. That “Dodgy” (Tony Dodgins) did, doesn’t surprise me ! (Sorry Dodgy…)

  20. The Log People weren’t the first to discuss this question. Here is a Span-ish English site has lots and lots of examples of span as a past tense in English. They agree that it’s English English and not USA English, and one Irishman doesn’t like it much either.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Seems like you only use “span” for the intransitive verb, which was part of what I was thinking of for my own usage.
    However, your example also makes me realise that I was wrong, as I don’t have any problem with
    I span the plates.
    I think it must be that “span” for me only sounds right for the literal “rotate” sense, regardless of transitivity, and for the arts-and-crafts-and-spiders activity …

  22. I’m in the ‘never heard it, never used it’ class. When I read the LL post, it struck me as a deliberate archaism.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Pursuing my guess about the Zythophile phenomenon, I’m trying to think of any parallels where older morphology is found with a word in its core senses and more innovative morphology with the secondary, derived usages, metaphorical senses, etc.
    If it weren’t late on Sunday evening I’m sure I could think of lots …
    Zythophile might just have the transitive vs intransitive thing that PK seems to, though.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    “Mouses”, I suppose; not a brilliant example, admittedly, given that mostly those things attached to computers are called “mice” too. On the other hand, it’s positively ungrammatical to call the furry ones mouses, whereas calling the computer accessories mouses just sounds like you haven’t heard of Facebook.

  25. “just sounds like you haven’t heard of Facebook”: no, no; as though you haven’t heard of Facebook.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    We hip and happening youngsters who have heard of Facebook laugh at your zombie rules.

  27. Australian (but not living there), and I can’t say I’ve seen or heard ‘span’.
    Oh, and Happy New Year! (Yesterday was Lunar New Year’s Day in China; today is Lunar New Year’s Day in Mongolia.)

  28. Okay, having thunk about this… :p
    Spin/span/spun seems similar to swim/swam/swum and sink/sank/sunk. For sink/sank/sunk, sank seems more common for an active subject: the ship sank, while sunk seems more common for a passive subject: the ship was sunk, and either seems suitable for an object: they sank/sunk the ship. For swim/swam/swum, there’s little use for swum. For spin/span/spun, ‘the care span out of control’ seems more consistent with the pattern, but ‘the car spun out of control’ might emphasize the ‘out of control.’
    Then again, ‘I spun around’ doesn’t fit the sink/sank/sunk pattern.

  29. “He spun around” is unremarkable to me, but with effort I can hear how odd it would sound to someone who says “he span around”.
    Then I think of “he swung around” and wonder if anyone says “swang”.
    @David Eddyshaw: and yet there is the 1935 Dorothy L. Sayers sentence, in which “… the road span away behind her …” or sume such.

  30. some

  31. Eric Oliver says

    I think I would say span (in casual conversation) and write spun… The same way I would say thinkin’ but write thinking. Of course in formal conversation I would say spun and thinking. (Eastern/Northern Canadian)

  32. Of course.
    And what the hell is a formal conversation?

  33. I really don’t understand what the fuss is all about:
    “Well, there’s egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and span; egg bacon and span; egg bacon sausage and span; span bacon sausage and span; span egg span span bacon and span; span sausage span span bacon span tomato and span.”
    Entirely unremarkable.

  34. span span span span span span span span

  35. Formal conversation: the kind you have with your boss when he’s telling you you’re being let go.

  36. I remember reading the quote about Adam and Eve and the gentleman, long ago, and understanding span as the past tense of the verb to spin, but I didn’t remember the form when I saw it again on LLog and here. If pressed for a preterite form I might have tried spun.
    I don’t think I would say “the car span/spun off the road”: if I had to describe such a situation I would be more likely to say “the wheels started to spin” or “the car went spinning off the road”, not in order to avoid the preterite but because it seems to me that I have heard such phrases much more often than the plain word.
    As for the literal meaning, I learned to spin wool a long time ago but don’t remember learning the preterite form.

  37. Formal conversation: the kind you have with your boss when he’s telling you you’re being let go.
    I can’t think of a better occasion to let fly with some informalities than that. Most of us have no need for informal and formal conversation; not unless we’re lawyers, politicians, actors or policemen. I certainly speak equally informally to everyone. Speech isn’t like written language.
    Eric Oliver: I’m sorry I was rude!

  38. Wally: Well, your boss is certainly being very careful what he says to you, at least in the U.S., because he doesn’t want to be hit by a wrongful-termination lawsuit. It behooves you to be just as careful.

  39. Wally: Well, your boss is certainly being very careful what he says to you, at least in the U.S., because he doesn’t want to be hit by a wrongful-termination lawsuit. It behooves you to be just as careful.

  40. Trond Engen says

    It may be me, and it may be Norway, or it may be my business ot the smalltown world I live in. But in my own experience as an engineer maintaining clients and as a client of accountants and lawyers, the only use I can see of a formal register would be as something to let go of immediately to highlight that our professional relationship will be both sincere and down to earth. Not that I care to pretend formal at first, but I sense that some do.

  41. Yes, exactly. I suppose we’re going out of our way to avoid it.

  42. Trond Engen says

    There’s no such thing as formal underwear.

  43. Trond Engen says

    The only use I can see of formal underwear would be as something etc.

  44. J.W. Brewer says

    One oddity about the old “When Adam dalf and Eve span” context is that in my very post-Medieval dialect I typically pronounce “gentleman” with a reduced vowel in the final syllable. In other words, it rhymes better with “spun” than “span.” Unless, of course, “span” was prononced like “spun” . . . By way of parallel, “Englishman” rhymes with “fee, fi, fo, fum,” not “fam.”

  45. No, span was /span/, neither /spæn/ nor /spʌn/.

  46. ktschwarz says

    Best-selling appearances of span: J.K. Rowling used span as the past tense of spin at least 5 times in the Harry Potter books, in the UK first printings; all 5 were changed to spun in the US versions, while only one was changed to spun in later UK printings. There’s also spun some other times in the UK editions as well. I saw one fanfic author peeving at others who had apparently picked up span from the books.

    Douglas Adams used span around/span round several times in the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, as well as spun sometimes. As far as I can tell from what Google-searchable editions are available, all of them were changed to spun in US editions.

    According to “A corpus study of some rare English verbs” by Laurie Bauer (2015):

    Span as a past tense of SPIN ‘turn on the spot’ is extremely rare: only one example in the BNC, with another one where span is a form of SPIN ‘make thread’.

    Yet Google Books finds dozens of examples of span round in 21st-century fiction, probably all British; at least, “round” instead of “around” sounds British to me. It’s still *relatively* uncommon: in the Google ngram “spun round” is over 30 times more common than “span round” in British English as of 2019.

  47. David Marjanović says

    “Mouses”, I suppose; not a brilliant example, admittedly, given that mostly those things attached to computers are called “mice” too.

    Field mouses is a striking example I’ve come across. I actually asked back, and yes, the native speaker in question uses mice just fine, but only for simple mice, not for compound ones.

    Also sabertooths – short for saber-toothed cats rather than for their teeth, but it would never occur to a German-speaking mind to let such mere pragmatic concerns override grammar.

  48. @David Marjanović: I don’t think that sabretooth* is actually short for sabre-toothed “cat.” Rather, I suspect the popularity of bare sabretooth has a lot to do with killjoy zoologists who objected to the animal’s original name, sabre-toothed tiger, on the largely spurious** grounds that it was not a tiger. (The alternative name sabre-toothed lion is also attested before the less evocative but more “modern” sabre-toothed cat.) It is true that sabre-toothed cat actually seems to predate sabretooth, but I suspect that the latter got a big boost from the unappealingly bland character of the former in comparison with the original of sabre-toothed tiger.

    * Although the spelling “saber” instead of “sabre” is common in North America, I think for the felid genus the spelling “sabretooth” is a lot more common pretty much everywhere. Even for the definitively North American Marvel villain, it’s spelled that way. (This seems like it might actually be trickier than it is, since Sabretooth was created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, who were both British-born American citizens. However, they both came to America in childhood, and the writer Claremont, who presumably would have chosen the spelling, immigrated with his family when he was only three, and his language seems to be completely Americanized. And while Sabretooth later became specifically an enemy of Wolverine, with definite Canadian associations, that was not his original role, but rather something that was added later, after the spelling of his name was fixed.)

    ** Unlike the better known (to the extent of being a clue to a valuable magical item in a rather meta Dungeons & Dragons adventure) peeve of complaining that apes are not monkeys, the complaint that sabre-toothed tigers are not tigers at least makes sense cladistically, if not linguistically.

  49. John Cowan says

    “Mouses”, I suppose; not a brilliant example, admittedly, given that mostly those things attached to computers are called “mice” too.

    As of Pinker’s Words and Rules (1999), the plural of (computer) mouse was actively avoided, and I remember this stage of the language as well: signs in computer stores simply read “Mouse”, even though all other signs were in the plural. Pinker discussed this to make a point about how irregulars are often irregular only in particular senses, another case being “at the foot of the mountain” vs. “at the *feet of the mountains”, where the unacceptability of foots simply makes the phrase unpluralizable.

    Yesterday was Lunar New Year’s Day in China; today is Lunar New Year’s Day in Mongolia.

    How does that happen? The phase of the moon is the same everywhere in the world.

    for the felid genus the spelling “sabretooth” is a lot more common pretty much everywhere

    The article Smilodon ‘scalpel-tooth’ uses saber-tooth consistently, and it is the form of the entry in both M-W and AHD. There are three species: S. gracilis ‘slender’, S. fatalis ‘fatal, deadly'[*], and S. populator, which does not mean ‘that which populates’, as populor is a deponent verb meaning ‘lay waste to, destroy’. Wikt says that De Vaan says it is from an earlier sense ‘have an army pass through’; as populus can mean ‘crowd, multitude’, this makes sense.

    [*] A counterexample to the claim that a Latin derivative in English never means the same thing as its Latin original, although fatalis can also mean ‘(pre)destined’.

  50. killjoy zoologists who objected to the animal’s original name, sabre-toothed tiger,

    Oh, I never got that memo. (There’s been a bit happening lately …) I shall continue to ignore it.

  51. @John Cowan: There is no reason that different lunisolar calendars have to mark the beginning of the month at exactly the same point in the lunar cycle. For example, different Islamic sects disagree about whether it is permissible to use binoculars or telescopes to spot the new moon,* or whether it has to be done with the naked eye. So the different Islamic (so-called**) calendars may sometimes be a day apart.*** (As I recall, this became an issue in Iraq when there was disagreement about whether the date scheduled for Saddam Hussein’s execution was appropriate. By the local Sunni reckoning—and Hussein, in spite of his surname, was nominally a Sunni—it may have been too close to a holiday, but the Shi’ites at the justice ministry apparently disagreed, because they were a day off.)

    * The use of new moon in English to refer to the dark of the moon (rather than the more etymological and logical first appearance of the waxing crescent) bewildered me when I first encountered it as a child, and I still think it’s an unfortunate slippage in terminology. However, lunar cycle terminology is weird in other ways as well; as a glaring example, a half moon and a quarter moon are the sane thing.

    ** As has been previously noted, the Islamic reckonning of dates fails to satisfy some of the most basic criteria for what constitutes a calendar. A couple weeks ago, the new Rabbi at my synagogue, trying to discuss the differences between Jewish and Islamic timekeeping, described Muslims as using a “pure lunar year.” I said that actually wasn’t right, since a year is a fundamentally solar phenomenon.

    *** At least these differences are never compounded, since the hilal is onserved anew each lunar cycle.

  52. The use of new moon in English
    Same in German (Neumond). German WP says it’s called that way because during that phase the moon renews itself; colour me doubtful. WP also says that the Swiss call that phase a more sensible Leermond “empty moon”. The Latin seems to be interlunium, so we can’t blame “new moon” on the Romans.

  53. an unfortunate slippage in terminology

    There’s been a similar mix-up with ‘Blue Moon’:

    conjectured the wrong rule for ‘blue moons’, which led to the modern colloquial misunderstanding that …

    By the new/misinterpreted rule a Blue Moon “happens every two to three years” and quite regularly. Not what you’d expect from “once in a Blue Moon”.

  54. Interesting.
    That WP article needs to be edited, it is quite a mess…

  55. David Marjanović says

    I don’t think that sabretooth* is actually short for sabre-toothed “cat.”

    It is when actual paleontologists use it. That’s also when -er- is more common.

    I didn’t even know the Marvel character.

    the felid genus

    The whole subfamily Machairodontinae, including dirk-toothed and scimitar-toothed cats and the cookie-cutter cat (Xenosmilus). Felinae are the conical-toothed cats.

    ‘have an army pass through’

    Oh! Exactly analogous to German verheeren; verheerend is now an adjective/adverb meaning “catastrophic” and much more common than the verb.

    The Latin seems to be interlunium, so we can’t blame “new moon” on the Romans.

    Sure we can: the moon is annihilated and replaced every month, the period between two moons is called interlunium, and it ends when the new moon appears. Just a bit of anticipation will give the Germanic usage.

    I’ve never heard of a quarter moon.

  56. @AntC: And that’s not even the original meaning of blue moon. A blue moon was already a proverbial rare event in the seventeenth century, and originally referred to rare instances of the moon actually appearing visibly blue. (By way of explaining this oldest definition, the OED notes, “On rare occasions the moon can appear distinctly blue owing to the presence of smoke or dust particles in the atmosphere.”) Somehow, the meaning was transferred to the occurrence of extra full moons during certain periods—something which is merely uncommon, rather than truly rare, and which is also readily predictable, unlike the atmospheric conditions that give rise to true blue moons.

    @David Marjanović: I don’t know exactly what you mean by, “It is when actual paleontologists use it.” Maybe paleontologists who are not native English speakers think of it as a shortening of “saber-toothed cat” (however they opt to spell it). However, it is an English word in its own right, and it almost certainly originated as a shortening of “sabre-toothed tiger.”

    The “quarter moon” terminology arises from the fact there are two natural ways to describe the moon’s position in its monthly cycle as a fraction. You can use the fraction of the full moon that is visible,* or you can use the fraction of the cycle that has elapsed. When there is a waxing half moon, which occurs one fourth of the way through the month, the moon is at its “first quarter.” The waning half moon occurs at the “third quarter.” And those two points in the cycle are thus also sometimes referred to as “quarter moons.”

    * A number of years ago, I met up with my brother with my brother when he was back in America for a systems neuroscience conference in Atlanta. At the posters session, we talked with a couple of students from the Yerkes National Primate Research Center** who had done a study of whether—as folklore suggested—fights were more likely around the dark of the moon. I think they had done this sort of on a lark, since they had years of data about when the center’s chimps got into major fights and figured they could maybe get a publication out of it. However, they had had a hard time figuring out how divide up their data, and they had eventually settled on showing the rates of fights in three bins: on the three nights around the dark of the moon, the three nights around the full moon, and all other nights. I suggested that they could alternatively use the lunar illuminance, to have an nearly continuous variable against which they could plot their observed rates of chip aggression. They liked the idea, and we had an interesting discussion about it.

    Afterward, my brother, who had been anxious about having me attend the poster session with him, expressed his surprise that I had been so constructive in my feedback, rather than savaging the two students for making a poor choice of independent variable. I reminded him that providing useful research for graduate student researchers was, you know, my job.

    ** Renamed last year, because Yerkes supported eugenics.

  57. David Marjanović says

    However, it is an English word in its own right

    Sure, but it’s also a technical term despite not being Latin or Greek. There are others that aren’t more widely known, like bear-dog “amphicyonid” and dog-bear “hemicyonid”.

  58. @David Marjanović: I see what you are saying now, and you are evidently correct.

    The oldest usage of sabre-tooth as a head noun (as opposed to an attributive modifier) cited by the OED—and the oldest one that I was previously familiar with—is from a poem by Kipling, where it looks like it could be a nonce clipping of “sabre-tooth tiger”:


    Once, on a glittering ice-field, ages and ages ago,
    Ung, a maker of pictures, fashioned an image of snow.
    Fashioned the form of a tribesman—gaily he whistled and sung,
    Working the snow with his fingers. Read ye the Story of Ung!

    Pleased was his tribe with that image—came in their hundreds to scan—
    Handled it, smelt it, and grunted: “Verily, this is a man!
    Thus do we carry our lances—thus is a war-belt slung.
    Ay, it is even as we are. Glory and honour to Ung!”

    Later he pictured an aurochs—later he pictured a bear—
    Pictured the sabre-tooth tiger dragging a man to his lair—
    Pictured the mountainous mammoth, hairy, abhorrent, alone—
    Out of the love that he bore them, scribing them clearly on bone.

    Swift came the tribe to behold them, peering and pushing and still—
    Men of the berg-battered beaches, men of the boulder-hatched hill,
    Hunters and fishers and trappers—presently whispering low;
    “Yea, they are like—and it may be…. But how does the Picture-man know?

    “Ung—hath he slept with the Aurochs—watched where the Mastodon roam?
    Spoke on the ice with the Bow-head—followed the Sabre-tooth home?
    Nay! These are toys of his fancy! If he have cheated us so,
    How is there truth in his image—the man that he fashioned of snow?”

    Wroth was that maker of pictures—hotly he answered the call:
    “Hunters and fishers and trappers, children and fools are ye all!
    Look at the beasts when ye hunt them!” Swift from the tumult he broke,
    Ran to the cave of his father and told him the shame that they spoke.

    And the father of Ung gave answer, that was old and wise in the craft,
    Maker of pictures aforetime, he leaned on his lance and laughed:
    “If they could see as thou seest they would do what thou hast done,
    And each man would make him a picture, and—what would become of my son?

    “There would be no pelts of the reindeer, flung down at thy cave for a gift,
    Nor dole of the oily timber that strands with the Baltic drift;
    No store of well-drilled needles, nor ouches of amber pale;
    No new-cut tongues of the bison, nor meat of the stranded whale.

    Thou hast not toiled at the fishing when the sodden trammels freeze,
    Nor worked the war-boats outward, through the rush of the rock-staked seas,
    Yet they bring thee fish and plunder—full meal and an easy bed—
    And all for the sake of thy pictures.” And Ung held down his head.

    Thou hast not stood to the aurochs when the red snow reeks of the fight;
    Men have no time at the houghing to count his curls aright:
    And the heart of the hairy mammoth thou sayest they do not see,
    Yet they save it whole from the beaches and broil the best for thee.

    “And now do they press to thy pictures, with open mouth and eye,
    And a little gift in the doorway, and the praise no gift can buy:
    But—sure they have doubted thy pictures, and that is a grievous stain—
    Son that can see so clearly, return them their gifts again.”

    And Ung looked down at his deerskins—their broad shell-tasselled bands—
    And Ung drew downward his mitten and looked at his naked hands;
    And he gloved himself and departed, and he heard his father, behind:
    “Son that can see so clearly, rejoice that thy tribe is blind!”

    Straight on that glittering ice-field, by the caves of the lost Dordogne,
    Ung, a maker of pictures, fell to his scribing on bone—
    Even to mammoth editions. Gaily he whistled and sung,
    Blessing his tribe for their blindness. Heed ye the Story of Ung!

    However, it appears that the word was already in use by naturalists in the second half of the nineteenth century, precisely because it was felt that these kind of large-toothed predators, whatever their cladistic affiliations, formed a general ecological type. The earliest discussion of the term I can find is in a popularizing account from 1864, The Stream of Life On Our Globe: Its Archives, Traditions, and Laws, As Revealed by Modern Discoveries in Geology and Palaeontology by the surgeon John Laws Milton (perhaps better known for his treatise on gonorrhea). Milton mentions as his source another book with an even more obviously popularizing name Geological Gossip: Or, Stray Chapters on Earth and Ocean by the professor and mining geologist David T. Ansted (an academic sibling of Charles Darwin, both of them having been advised by Adam Sedgwick). However, in his discussion of these mammals, Ansted does not actually use the bare noun sabre-tooth that Milton does.

    I have not located any technical publications that use sabre-tooth (or some other variation) at a bare noun, with essentially the same scientific meaning as today, prior to the publication of Milton’s book; however, it seems like those examples almost certainly must exist. At the very least it is clear that the term was part of the paleontological discourse by the 1860s at the latest, and one can find several printed reports from the 1870s online, in which the term is used with the modern technical meaning.

  59. David Marjanović says

    Pictured the mountainous mammoth, hairy, abhorrent, alone—

    monstrum horrendum informe ingens, quae lumen adspecit

  60. (perhaps better known for his treatise on gonorrhea)

    Ohhh, _that_ John Laws Milton!

  61. ktschwarz says

    ouches of amber pale

    I thought that was a typo for pouches, but on looking it up, found that ouch or ouche is a noun (archaic, obsolete, or historical depending on which dictionary you ask) meaning a brooch, clasp, or ornament. It went through the Great Vowel Shift, so it’s pronounced the same as the interjection “ouch!” Derived from Anglo-Norman and Old French nusche, nouche, etc. via metanalysis, just like apron. And that Kipling quote is cited in the OED.

    The interjection “ouch!” is recent, only attested since the 19th century. It’s not simply an expressive noise but a linguistic convention, and conventions change.

  62. Interesting about “ouch”. I’d guess it came from “ow”, with a history resembling that of nope and welp, mutatis mutandis.

  63. ktschwarz says

    The earliest known attestation of ow! is only barely earlier than the earliest known ouch!, 1834 vs. 1838. OED on ouch!:

    perhaps < German autsch, interjection expressing sudden pain (the earliest examples are all U.S., and perhaps hence < Pennsylvania German), although compare also ow int.

    I couldn’t immediately find anything more, just repetitions of this.

    Nope and yep are also first attested in the 19th-century US; the OED doesn’t have welp as a headword, but it’s recorded s.v. well as “1900s– welp (U.S. regional)”.

  64. In the entry for ou int., it and and its variants (ouȝ, ov, owe, owgh, owh, owhȝ, ouh…) go back to 1300. owhȝ is attested from 1330.

    Interesting about the German connection. I suppose German went from au to autsch.

    Welp now has a subtly specific meaning; something like resignation, perhaps? It’s typically said with a rising intonation, which makes me think that originally glottal tightening led to closure, and subsequently a labial closure.

  65. In Modern Hebrew, the interjection [oj] is supplemented by [ojç̠]~[ojʃ], expressing frustration. I don’t know if it has a precedent in Yiddish or such.

  66. @ktschwarz: Whenever I look at that poem again, after not having read it for a few years, there is about a fifty percent chance that I will have to look up houghing and ouches to see what they mean

    @Y: That version of the interjection is definitely part of my (and several generations of my family’s) Yiddish vocabulary.

  67. ktschwarz says

    ou/ow/owe/oo (pronounced /u/ per OED, or [u:, ɔu, ʌu] per DSL) is “surprise, excitement” rather than pain, but it’s plausible for the meaning to shift that way. The label of “Now chiefly Scottish” is interesting considering that the first “ow!” that OED interprets as pain is by a Scottish poet, translating Faust. Plenty of opportunity for Scottish influence on American English.

    The OED’s attribution to German, even with the “perhaps” qualification, feels a bit under-researched to me: they came up with that in 1903 on the basis of a single quotation cited as Let. fr. Pennsylvanian Correspondent, which they apparently couldn’t locate in the 2004 revision, since they had to resort to citing themselves as N.E.D. rather than giving a real source. They did add this earlier quotation:

    1838 J. C. Neal Charcoal Sketches 38 ‘Ouch!’ shrieked Dabbs; ‘my eye, how it hurts!’

    … which is consistent with a Pennsylvania origin, since that book was written by a Philadelphia journalist about Philadelphia. But if that’s where it came from, I’d like to see an evidence trail spreading out from there. In fact, they did have another citation in OED2:

    1843 ‘R. Carlton’ New Purchase I. ii. 9 The tiers becoming all vocal with ‘bless my soul's’—‘my goodnesses!’—and vulgar ‘ouches!’

    … which, in context, describes a sudden jolting stop on a stagecoach from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. I’d say they should have kept this one and dropped the one where they lost the source.

    There’s another occurrence in Charcoal Sketches that suggests that ouch wasn’t well established in English yet:

    “Ouch!” ejaculated a voice from the interior, the word being one not to be found in the dictionaries, but which, in common parlance, means that a sensation too acute to be agreeable has been excited.

    Ouch! is also deplored by an Introductory lessons in English grammar, published in 1846 in Kentucky, in a list of Common Errors in Speech:

    Ouch—for the interjection Oh; as, “Ouch! you hurt me.” CORRECTION: “Oh! you hurt me.”

    … though that in itself doesn’t prove it was new, since the list of errors also includes e.g. mad=angry and mighty=very, which go back to Middle English.

  68. David Marjanović says

    I suppose German went from au to autsch.

    Also aua and auatsch.

  69. David Marjanović says

    Assembled field mouses and sabertooths, meet only childs.

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