Today’s Insult to Philology.

It’s been a while since I ranted about linguistic idiocy in the media (a regular feature of this blog back in the days when the sainted Bill Safire perpetrated his NY Times column), but Zach Helfand’s New Yorker piece on tipping (archived) pushed me right over the edge. In the course of a potted history of the practice, Helfand writes:

By the seventeenth century, visitors to aristocratic estates were expected to pay “vails” to the staff. This might have lowered payroll for the estate itself. At least one aristocrat helped himself to some of this new income stream; he threw frequent parties to increase revenues. The system spread. English coffeehouses were said to set out urns inscribed with “To Insure Promptitude.” Customers tossed in coins. Eventually, the inscription was shortened to “TIP.”

When I got to that last sentence, I cursed so loudly I alarmed my wife. It would have been bad enough to see such blithering idiocy in our wretched local paper, but in the New Yorker! This isn’t some obscure byway of etymology about which reasonable people can disagree, this is the kind of dumbass just-so story I would hope the better sort of high school students would be too sophisticated to share. It’s on the level of “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.” For the record, tip is a slang verb originally meaning (in the words of the OED, entry revised 2023) “To give, lend, or present (something) to a person; to do or perform (something) for a person’s benefit” (first citation 1610 “Tip me that Cheate, Giue me that thing”); the OED says:

Origin uncertain. Perhaps a specific use of tip v.¹, with the thing given being regarded as touching the recipient lightly; however, the notion of touching seems generally less obvious here than in such constructions as those at touch v. II.21. Alternatively, perhaps a specific use of tip v.², with allusion to the notion of tilting something towards a recipient so that it can be taken.

But the exact source doesn’t matter; the vital point is that acronymic origin stories are bullshit except in a few modern and well-known cases. In the words of Melissa Mohr’s CSM story, Colorful stories of acronyms are often false:

English words rarely get their start as acronyms. Looking at the number of folk etymologies that explain acronymic origins, though, you might think that many common terms were stitched together from the first letters of other words. English does contain acronyms, of course, but they tend to be produced in academic, military, or governmental contexts, and first appeared in the late 19th century.

For the latter, she gives the examples of laser, snafu, and scuba. But posh is not from “port out, starboard home,” news is not from “North, East, West, and South,” and tip is not, repeat not, from “To Insure Promptitude.” Is it too much trouble to just look in a dictionary?

And of course the problem is that once you discover one alleged fact is wrong, you stop giving the benefit of the doubt to others. Did Trotsky really refuse to tip when he was living in the Bronx? I’m sure not taking Helfand’s word for it. Bring back the fact checkers!

Update. I was pleased to see this letter in the Feb. 5 issue of the NYkr:

Tip of the Iceberg

I very much enjoyed Zach Helfand’s thorough and interesting piece on tipping (“Tipping Points,” January 1st & 8th). However, the story about the word “tip” beginning as an acronym for “To Insure Promptitude,” sometime in the eighteenth century, is almost surely apocryphal, as are most rumored etymologies involving acronyms, which did not become widespread until the twentieth century.

According to Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary, the use of “tip” to mean “give a gratuity to” first appeared in 1706, and is believed to derive from its use in thieves’ jargon to mean “give, hand, pass.” In 1909, a version of the claim about the acronym which Helfand cites appeared in Frederick W. Hackwood’s book “Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England.” A reviewer debunked it that same year, writing, “We deprecate the careless repetition of popular etymologies such as the notion that ‘tip’ originated from an abbreviated inscription on a box placed on the sideboard in old coaching-inns, the full meaning of which was ‘To Insure Promptitude.’ ”

Kate Deimling
Brooklyn, N.Y.

You tell ’em, Kate!


  1. Were you aware that ‘cop’ is from ‘constable on patrol’? I can’t remember where I came across that one. Oh, and ‘working on government service’ is another good one.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    Not that this excuses the insult, but I wonder if the “were said” in “English coffeehouses were said” is specifically meant as a hedge intended to signal that the author is not personally vouching for the historical accuracy of the claim, he’s just reporting that others have said this happened. Obviously, mentioning that “it has frequently been asserted that X” without adding when appropriate “but all scholars with actual relevant expertise agree that X is ahistorical nonsense” is a problem despite the hedge.

  3. I’m pretty sure if Harold Ross saw “were said” in a manuscript he would have scrawled “by whom?” in the margin. Weaselly bullshit is still bullshit.

  4. I would go further than you and say that colorful stories are generally bullshit, with or without spurious acronyms. (Especially when they’re about the origins of words and nursery rhymes!)

  5. And why “were said” rather than “are said”? The most natural reading for me it that the sayers were doing their saying while English coffeehouses were still a thing, as opposed to at some vague time in the intervening centuries.

  6. David Marjanović says

    It’s on the level of “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.”

    Yeah. Everybody knows that one’s actually “Fornication Under Consent of the King”… *barf*

    “North, East, West, and South,”

    I’m speechless.

    Obviously, mentioning that “it has frequently been asserted that X” without adding when appropriate “but all scholars with actual relevant expertise agree that X is ahistorical nonsense” is a problem despite the hedge.

    There are amoral people out there who don’t understand this and believe it’s always fine to present a fun* story uncommented.

    * As Ephraim Kishon put it: “After he had finished laughing, …”

  7. And see also People Under No King.

  8. “Were said” further sets the story in some unknowable mythical domain, for which the writer has no responsibility.

  9. That Trotsky didn’t tip, with negative consequences at the Triangle Dairy Restaurant (he was mostly a vegetarian), goes back to “Trotsky in the Bronx” (Esquire 1965). I suspect (on minimal evidence other than age) that Helfand got it from Rubenstein.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    I suspect that this is not so much an insult, properly speaking, as a reflection of the sad fact that individuals can consider themselves as having a broad liberal education, without actually being aware in the least that there even exists such a thing as the scientific study of language: not even such things as etymologies based on actual evidence. The same mindset as leads to people of this sort wittering on about the supposed badness of what they call the “passive tense.”

    I suppose that ignorance of this kind could be characterised as a sort of meta-insult to Philology, though.

    It is not confined to linguistics, this attitude: I vaguely recall some classically-“trained” nitwit expressing the view that a man (always) with a proper liberal education could “get up” Science (sic) in six weeks. (I haven’t tried to rediscover the name of the nitwit: some people do not deserve to be remembered. If anyone knows, don’t tell me.)

    [If, on the other hand, Helfand does know better, but feels that such accuracy is wasted on his readers, then it is indeed an insult: but not to Philology; rather, it is an insult to the readership of the New Yorker.]

  11. My middle school students enjoy explaining that one of their subjects is Mental Abuse To Humans, but I don’t think they really believe it. Nice job with the title!

  12. cuchuflete says

    For a long list of philological atrocities, including the bogus tip etymology,
    have a look here:

  13. Nice job with the title!


  14. Tip me that cheat, give me that thing, break me off a piece of that kit kat bar

  15. I suspect that this is not so much an insult, properly speaking, as a reflection of the sad fact that individuals can consider themselves as having a broad liberal education, without actually being aware in the least that there even exists such a thing as the scientific study of language

    Yes, yes, of course people are ignorant of all manner of things without realizing it. As a quondam editor, I can assure you that manuscripts by perfectly respectable people of considerable academic/intellectual attainment are filled with absurd misstatements; how could they not be? We are all abysmally ignorant of almost everything. I do not blame Helfand — I blame the magazine that is supposed to save its authors from their own ignorance, and once upon a time did so very well.

  16. Even the word acronym is not very old. From Ben Zimmer’s NY Times column Dec. 16, 2010, which I happen to remember:

    “….It took another century for acronym to make the scene in English, taking off during World War II (though the German equivalent, Akronym, had been in use since the early 1920s). Stephen Goranson, a researcher at Duke University, recently discovered a use of acronym from 1940, but even then it could be used in the broader meaning. In “Paris Gazette,” a novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, a character discusses the abbreviation of “Paris German News” as P.G.N.: “Pee-gee-enn; what’s the word for words like that, made out of initials? … It’s an acronym, that’s what it is. That’s what they call words made up of initials. So I remember it after all; that’s at least something….”

    I vaguely, unreliably, may recall that the German term was a bit (three decades?) older than 1920.

    Rabbinic Hebrew may be a different story.

  17. Dave Wilton has a Big List entry on the history of tip in the money and information senses. I’m surprised that the OED revised the money sense and not the information sense — usually they revise homonyms together, and it doesn’t seem very clear that the information sense should be a different headword, rather than a semantic development of the same word. They have the phrase “tip (someone) the wink/nod” (chiefly British) under the money sense, perhaps because it’s attested from the 1600s, but it actually means information, though tip meaning information is only attested independently without the phrase since the 1800s.

  18. Dave has a good, succinct warning in conclusion: “Whenever one hears an acronymic origin, one should immediately question it. Most stories of acronymic word origins are false.”

  19. David Marjanović says

    though the German equivalent, Akronym, had been in use since the early 1920s

    Much less use than in English, though; it’s a technical term not known to many people. In general usage, acronyms, initialisms and abbreviations are all lumped under Abkürzung.

  20. I can confirm that; “acronym” is a word I learnt only when I learnt English, not one I already knew from German.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Same here, I’m pretty sure.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    I have just recalled that hat is fond of the good Louisiana-Cajun word “lagniappe” which is kinda/sorta not-unlike a (monetary) tip. So now I think the world needs a completely bogus “backronym” etymology purporting to explain “lagniappe” via L.A.G.N.I.A.P.P.E., which are no doubt interpretable as the first letters of some vaguely semantically-apt Cajun-French phrase.

    It does seem that in English most bogus-folk-etymology-via-backronym accounts are for words of let’s say three to five letters, although of course words of that length make up a big chunk of the English lexicon. Maybe there’s room for a statistical study of at what point a word just gets too long to be within the practical skill set of the backronym-inventors?

  23. David Marjanović says

    The names of many Acts of Congress are backronyms, often of 6 to 7 letters, I think.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, whether Congressional staff engaged in that common-but-dubious practice work harder at it than do hobbyists simply trying to invent amusing bogus etymologies might be one subquestion the researchers could examine.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Yet presented in all brevity. Perfect!

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    @MMcM: Thanks for the interesting link. Maybe someone from the Louisiana delegation should be offering the LAGNIAPPE Act of 2024. Even though “lagniappe” doesn’t have a very impressive scrabble score.

  27. Louisiana Always Gives Neighborly Individuals A Petit Po-boy Extra.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    Overall brevity is well and good, but here’s an overly in-depth analysis from that link:

    # But some seem like complete non sequiturs. Perhaps the biggest puzzle is the Build America Bonds Extension for Rural and Urban Transportation and Highways Act (BABE RUTH) Act. There’s no evidence that the sponsor, Rep. Laura Richardson (D-CA), is even a Yankees fan. #

    The trouble with overly in-depth analysis is that it sucks you into overly in-depth, further analysis. “So maybe her husband/yardworker is a Yankees fan.” Inquiring minds fall into the rabbit-hole and never come back out, not even in China.

    Addendum: there are even links to descriptions of the individual bills ! “Help me!”

  29. Helfand got the story, complete with the weaseling “said”, from the book he mentions right before the quoted part, Tipping by Kerry Segrave (1998). It’s in a *book*, it must be true!

    Many accounts have it that the word originated in a London coffeehouse on Fleet Street frequented by Samuel Johnson and his cronies, such as Oliver Goldsmith. (The time was probably between 1756, when Goldsmith came to London, and 1774 when he died.) On the table was a bowl with the words “To Insure Promptitude” printed around it. Taking the first letter of each word, the phrase, it is said, was shortened to tip.

    Gotta love the pseudo-sophistication that makes a show of being as exact as possible about the date of the event, without a clue about the date of the *source*. Primary source? Duh, what’s that? Segrave does at least suggest some doubt:

    Other theories hold that the word tip comes form the Dutch tippen, meaning “to tap,” and referring to the sound of a coin being clicked against a glass to catch a waiter’s attention …
    “Tip” was apparently in use even before the time of Johnson, Goldsmith, and Fleet Street coffeehouses … The Oxford English Dictionary gives four uses of the word tip prior to 1753 …

    But Helfand probably skipped all that, or thought it was too boring to mention.

    The surprising thing is that this bogus etymology is actually much older than almost all real acronyms. I’m finding a lot of hits in the 1890s.

  30. Trond Engen says

    Arduously Contrived Rigid Order of Nouns Yielding Mnemonic.

  31. But Helfand probably skipped all that, or thought it was too boring to mention.

    Oh dear. OK, I’m blaming him as well as the editorial staff.

  32. David Marjanović says

    What a time – when lexicographers had cronies!

  33. Artificial Concoction Reducing Outrageously Numerous Yawnworthy Mentions

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    Blame them all! Even unto former Congresswoman Richardson of California – couldn’t immediately google up info about her team loyalties if any but back in the 111th Congress she was a co-sponsor of H. Res. 1351, which aimed to “Congratulat[e] Dallas Braden and the Oakland Athletics baseball team for pitching a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Mother’s Day, May 9, 2010.”

  35. I went looking for the earliest printed tip = to insure promptitude. Which is, unfortunately, actually used innocently and legitimately. Plus the digitization metadata is so messy.

    I’m sure it’s older, but I did find this from 1909, which is notable because a contemporary review says bullshit one should look in the NED for real etymologies.

  36. “North east west south” is the oldest fakeronym that I know of, attested from 1842. “To insure promptness” is also surprisingly old: the earliest appearance I found is in The Insurance Press (New York City), Nov. 6, 1895:

    It is related that in an old-time English tavern a receptacle for small coin was placed in a conspicuous spot, on which appeared the words: “To insure promptness.” Whatever was put in the box was divided among the servants. Other taverns followed the example, and soon the three words were abbreviated to “T.I.P.”—everybody knowing what they meant. Then the punctuation marks were dropped and the word “tip” was born. To insure promptness with news read THE INSURANCE PRESS.

    From then on, the story shows up with various elaborations in Literary Digest, Pernin’s Monthly Stenographer, Girls’ Friendly Society in America Associates’ Record, etc., and in England from at least 1898 in Journal of the British Homœopathic Society, Illustrated London News, etc. — with somebody writing to Notes and Queries in 1899 asking “whether there is good authority for it”. It sounds like it was a wheeze that was going around, but not everybody realized it was a joke.

    “To insure promptness” is paired in some of the early citations with “fad” = “for a day”.
    How come that one didn’t get its share of fame?

  37. 1. On a tourist cruise recently the (otherwise very affable and funny) guide told us that manure on ships was “Stowed High In Transit”.

    2. I read somewhere that tipping, when introduced into the USA in the late 19th or early 20th century, was regarded as a foreign and undemocratic practice that would degrade American morals.
    Here in Australia tipping is not a general practice; thanks to our history of unionism and minimum wage laws.

  38. In the U.S., the tip jar for coffeehouses and other counter service places is a later introduction yet, I think going back to the 1980s. Do they have those in any otherwise tip-free countries?

  39. @ Y
    Australia, though generally tip-free, does have tip jars in cafes and shops. Tipping is voluntary and not obligatory. Usually, you might drop your change into the tip jar.

    I’m not sure how effective tip jars have been since Covid, when just about everyone went cashless.

  40. @zyxt’s description also applies to N.Z.

    I think we were cashless long before Covid. Given NZ’s hazardous telecoms in remote areas (like my local shopping centre), I always also carry cash just in case of no eftpos – but seldom need it.

  41. which is notable because a contemporary review says bullshit one should look in the NED for real etymologies.

    Wonderful, thanks for that!

  42. January First-of-May says

    How old is tip of the hat (or similar)? Naively I’d have thought the money sense of “tip” to have derived from that – it feels like a similar gesture-of-recognition kind of thing.

    (Wikipedia says it’s 19th century so maybe not old enough.)

  43. Traditionally, in German restaurants (and also many other European countries), people were served by one waiter who took the order, served meals and drinks, cleared away used dishes etc., and presented the bill and received the payment. They also often escorted you to your table in places where you couldn’t choose your table by yourself (having to wait to be shown to your table is much less customary in Germany than in North America, except in very high-end restaurants). These waiters would get their tip by either being allowed to keep the change or by being handed some amount as tip specifically.
    I associate tip jars with places where this system of “one table, one waiter” isn’t used and taking orders, serving and clearing are done by different people, and with places where you order and pay at a bar or a counter, which all became more prevalent around the 80s, so coinciding with the period when Y started noticing it.

  44. I wonder whether an acronymically titled bill is more or less likely to become law.

  45. I vaguely recall some classically-“trained” nitwit expressing the view that a man (always) with a proper liberal education could “get up” Science (sic) in six weeks.

    And on the other side, there’s Gross and Levitt, in Higher Superstition, saying that they’re pretty sure they could just waltz in and teach any humanities course. (If I misremember this, I’m sure someone will tell me.)

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    As far as I can make out from the WP entry for the book, it lays into theories which bear much the same relationship to the actual Humanities as pseudoscience does to actual Science. (Though they appear to have missed a trick with Noam Chomsky. Perhaps they only like shooting fish in a barrell.)

    Even at that, they may have underestimated the difficulty of a being an influential pseudohumanist.

    (Biologists seem to have more of a tendency to misjudge the limits of their expertise than, say, physicists. But perhaps I am generalising on the basis of too small a sample, and am unduly scarred by crap papers in Nature written by biologists who think that they have solved comparative linguistics by Science. And then, on the other side, there’s always Murray Gell-Mann …)

    The only really worthwhile criticism of bad work in the humanities comes from people who do good, rigorous work in the humanities, not from amateurs who systematically underestimate the intellectual difficulties of the fields in question.

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    Nurse and Hinnebusch’s excellent Swahili and Sabaki: a Linguistic History is a shining example of what I mean: it was written in response to Ali Mazrui’s nonsense on the subject.

    That’s the way to do it. It’s no use attacking Mazrui’s Afrocentrism on ideological grounds: you need to show exactly why and how he was wrong. Only linguists can do that: not biologists or mathematicians.

  48. John Cowan says

    Just what is Mazrui’s nonsense on the subject? All I can find out online about Mazrui is that he believes Africa has three main cultural strands (indigenous, Islamic, Western), that he got in trouble with the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities for presenting a personal rather than a “balanced” view of this in his TV documentary, that he admired Qaddafi in the typical way in which intellectuals admire dictators from a distance, and that he thought majority-ruled South Africa would become a nuclear power and dominate the continent.

  49. I believe Hinnebusch later wrote “What Kind of Language is Swahili?” to specifically explain how their work addressed Mazrui (the other one, but they collaborated on The Power of Babel) and Shariff. And, to a somewhat lesser extent, Allen, who, while he had urged caution in historians integrating the work of linguists (because linguistics hard?), made what appear to be shaky claims about Cushitic in Swahili. (Though, to be fair, that’s all posthumous, so perhaps we don’t really know whether the Sabaki etc. details might have passed the necessary threshold.)

  50. Just what is Mazrui’s nonsense on the subject?

    Within the narrow confines of linguistics, I believe it was that Swahili is an Arabic pidgin, rather than a Bantu lingua franca with late Arabic loanwords in specific areas.

  51. I actually went and looked and Alamin Mazrui is Ali Mazrui’s nephew. This is their book, including a number of papers they coauthored in this area.

  52. David Marjanović: What a time – when lexicographers had cronies!

    Indeed, could there be any better term for Boswell than crony?*

    David Eddyshaw: Biologists seem to have more of a tendency to misjudge the limits of their expertise than, say, physicists. But perhaps I am generalising on the basis of too small a sample, and am unduly scarred by crap papers in Nature…

    It’s a truism (and in my experience, an accurate one) that no scientists overestimate the breadth of their expertise than physicists. However, physicists, even the misinformed ones, don’t tend to publish in Nature or Science. There is some wild stuff in the interdisciplinary research section of Physical Review Letters though.

    *Apart from raging cauldron of sexually-transmitted infections.

  53. David Eddyshaw says

    MMcM has beaten me to it.

    I’m afraid I confused the issue by calling Mazrui an Afrocentrist, which was pretty sloppy of me: it’s a rather different set of preconceptions that he imposed on the data in the case of the origins of Swahili.

    It still counts as the kind of bad scholarship corrupted by ideology that can only be properly opposed by good scholarship, not by attacks on the ideology (which actually has quite a lot going for it, as far as that goes.)

    However, physicists, even the misinformed ones, don’t tend to publish in Nature or Science

    Ah. I should have researched the issue more thoroughly …

    It’s certainly true that there are very capable people in pretty much every field who have difficulty understanding that their undoubted talent does not of itself make them an expert on every issue they feel disposed to pontificate on. It’s at least less annoying (and much less harmful) than the tendency of those whose sole expertise is in Applied Greed to suppose that they know how human society should be organised.

  54. Charles Perry says

    I have a feeling that awareness of acronyms resulted from the multitude of governmental agencies that sprouted in the 1930s — in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but also New Deal USA. The full names of the agencies were too long for common use. FBI, NRA, KGB, SS, etc. Same phenomenon we see in the obscure medical conditions that TV ads address today.

  55. Charles Perry says

    BTW, if a tip is to insure promptness, it ought to be given before the service, right?

  56. Good point!

  57. John Cowan says

    Thanks all for informing me about Mazrui and his (their) nonsense. There remains this question:

    bad scholarship corrupted by ideology

    How would the ideology be affected by the difference between Bantuized Arabic and Arabized Bantu? Both would align with two of the prongs of Tripartite Africa.

  58. David Eddyshaw says

    That’s why I said I had muddied the waters. His beliefs about the origins of Swahili are not logically entailed by that, but part of a (locally popular) misconception about the origins of the Swahili people; the basic idea is that all that really matters is patrilineal descent. It’s important in this worldview for the language not to turn out to be “just” a Bantu language.

    I recall him in the television program implying that the digging of the Suez canal was a nefarious colonialist plot to separate Africa from the Arabian peninsula with which it naturally belonged culturally.

    (Islam is of course truly of very great importance in the history of Africa: even more so West Africa. But not quite as fundamental as Mazrui supposed, even so. But he was quite right to deny that Africa was ever culturally isolated.)

  59. Yeah, that television program was an annoying mix of sensible correcting-the-record and batshit ideology.

  60. However, physicists, even the misinformed ones, don’t tend to publish in Nature or Science

    Well, there has been (since 2005) a journal going by the name Nature Physics. And even before then, Nature published some kinds of physics — high temperature superconductors, liquid crystals, nanomaterials, various quantum stuff. I believe the first paper on a so-called Schrodinger atom state was in Science.

    Neither journal has much interest in particle physics, which I believe is Brett’s bailiwick, but that’s in large part because advances these days are incremental and because it’s not an easy subject to convey to a wide audience — which is still part of the raison d’etre of both publications.

  61. John Cowan says

    Science used to publish planetary astronomy when I was a kid (my dad had a free subscription). I don’t know if they do now.

  62. tip is a slang verb

    To be precise, it originated as slang, but the sense that the article is about is respectable now. It was still colloq. in the OED1 in 1912, but now it’s only “Originally slang” — it’s not slang anymore when it’s in tax codes. And the OED’s entry for the noun tip n.3 derived from the verb isn’t labeled slang at all, even for the earliest recorded use in 1755.

    Bring back the fact checkers!

    Uh oh, according to this profile, Helfand’s job title *is* fact checker. I was wondering why nobody called out @zhelfand on twitter — but it wouldn’t do any good, he knows and he doesn’t care. In his own weaseling words:

    Zach Helfand: The etymology is disputed. The often told tale is that it’s an acronym for “to ensure promptitude.” The story is that at old taverns in England, at coffee houses, there was an urn that was set out and people would drop a coin in there to get more prompt service. Etymologically, people who study this are skeptical. They think there’s not a lot of evidence for it. But that’s the tale that’s often told.

    Lol, nerds who think “evidence” is relevant to journalism, get the stick out of your butts!

  63. David Eddyshaw says

    Helfand’s job title *is* fact checker

    Quis custodiet …?

  64. That is extraordinarily depressing.

  65. David Marjanović says

    As I said, amoral.

  66. “to ensure promptitude.”

    From now on, I will correct people, in a superior way, letting them know that the word is properly “tep”.

  67. Gah, how did I miss that! That one, at least, is not on Helfand, since it was a radio interview. Maybe it was transcribed by a robot. The transcript also refers to “high-profile restaurant tours like Danny Meyer” (i.e., restaurateurs).

  68. J.W. Brewer says

    Re “tep”: FWIW the google books ngram viewer has “ensure” as slightly more common than “insure” until the 1840’s, and in its “British English” subcorpus that remained the case thereafter. “Promptitude” is shown to be more common than “promptness” until the 1860’s.

  69. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s an occurrence of the relevant trigram from an 1811 description of Napoleon’s reforms of French government. “It was undoubtedly with a view to ensure promptitude and energy in the execution of commands, that the different branches of administration, contributions, conscription, and police, were placed upon a military footing.”

  70. See the Update for a polite but stern letter in the following issue.

  71. John Cowan says

    Same phenomenon we see in the obscure medical conditions that TV ads address today.

    Indeed. In neurology alone, Gale had PGAD (readily treatable by a short course of drugs, once you or your doctor realizes it’s a problem, whereas I have PMLD (for which I take nightly pills to this day).

  72. David Marjanović says



  73. Stu Clayton says

    Däumling is also the part of a mitten into which the thumb goes. The rest of the mitten doesn’t have separate cubbyholes for the fingers.

    A Däumling is also a thumbstall.

  74. David Marjanović says

    the part of a mitten into which the thumb goes

    Didn’t know that had a name.

    also a thumbstall

    I only knew that as Fingerhut. (Same as “foxglove“.)

  75. David Eddyshaw says


    The Intertubes seem to think that this stands for “Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities”, which seems an improbable diagnosis in your own case …

  76. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    The one time I tried to read Old Norse, it was a learner’s prose version of Þrymskviða, and at one point Thor and Loki spend the night in a cave that turns out to be the Däumling of a jotun’s mitten. That’s all I know about mittens.

  77. at one point Thor and Loki spend the night in a cave that turns out to be the Däumling of a jotun’s mitten

    Maybe the prose version you read was translated for my sixth-grade reader. It was my introduction to Norse mythology.

  78. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I don’t think I ever registered what grade level it was intended for, but looking back it probably wasn’t college or university. I did have access to a university library very early, but I mostly got my stuff from the municipal one until I moved to Copenhagen myself. I certainly did not read ON at school in sixth grade, age 10-11. (Latin in ninth, yes, but maybe we’re talking about different ways of counting grades).

  79. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Do the ngram results include things which are insured in the sense of having money paid into a scheme in case of damage/theft/whatever?

    I would use ‘insure’ for that and ‘ensure’ for the other, and I’m not sure it had occurred to me that they’re forms of the same word.

  80. January First-of-May says

    I would use ‘insure’ for that and ‘ensure’ for the other, and I’m not sure it had occurred to me that they’re forms of the same word.

    Seconded – except that “promptitude”, specifically, seems too nebulous to be insured in that meaning, so some other meaning has to be found and “weird spelling of ensure” might well be the only option.

  81. While manifestly a doublet, they have clearly diverged enough to be considered separate words. Note that insurance is an everyday word, but I would consider ensurance nonstandard (for my dialect, at least).

  82. J.W. Brewer says

    @JanFoM: You can indeed buy insurance against financial loss caused by, e.g., the failure of a cargo ship to get where it was supposed to be going with the expected promptitude (google, e.g. “marine delay insurance”), but I don’t think “promptitude” is a lexeme typically used in those policies or discourse about them.

    For a wackier doublet, do “endorse[ment]” v. “indorse[ment].”

  83. Keith Ivey says

    How is “endorse”/”indorse” wackier? For me “indorse” is just an old variant of “endorse”, and dictionaries seem to agree. There’s no specialization in meaning. But even if there were, how would it be wacky?

    Insurance companies do sometimes use the word “assurance”, for extra terminological confusion.

  84. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, maybe wackiness is in the eye of the beholder. It’s more that “indorse” is archaic/obsolete except in some odd contexts/domains where it isn’t, and it can be a bit jarring/disorienting to see the less usual variant precisely because it doesn’t really have any different semantics in context.

  85. David Marjanović says

    Insurance companies do sometimes use the word “assurance”, for extra terminological confusion.

    Oh, that is interesting, because in German that’s the same word – Versicherung. “Ensure”, of course, is completely different: sicherstellen.

    Ich kann Ihnen versichern “I can assure you”
    Ich kann Sie versichern “I can insure you”

  86. Stu Clayton says

    Ich kann sie verunsichern “I can shake her confidence”

    Ich kann ihre Versicherung kündigen “I can terminate her insurance policy”

    Ich kann sie entsichern “I can unlock it [the gun]”

    Die Ente ist gut versichert “The Citroen 2CV is well-insured”

  87. David Marjanović says

    Quite so.

  88. David M,

    Not entirely thread-related, but we’re discussing spurious acronym-based etymologies, and this is about the etymology of an acronym. And i feel like you’d know. What is the t in mtDNA? I looked around and can’t find an answer. Did they just pull the t from mito- to distinguish it from some other mDNA that was once popular?

  89. @Ryan: Usually, “mDNA” means the same thing as “mtDNA.” The folklore I learned was that they look two letters from “mitochondrial” to avoid misreading “mDNA” as the more common “mRNA.” (Speaking of which, there must also be mtRNA, which ought to be further subdivided into mtmRNA and mttRNA, but I can recall ever seeing them discussed under those names.)

    For my feelings on a related term, see here.

  90. Thanks.

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