fourteenth letter of the English alphabet; in chemistry, the symbol for nitrogen.
In late Middle English a and an commonly were joined to the following noun, if that word began with a vowel, which caused confusion over how such words ought to be divided when written separately. In nickname, newt, and British dialectal naunt, the -n- belongs to a preceding indefinite article an or possessive pronoun mine.
Other examples of this from Middle English manuscripts include a neilond ("an island," early 13c.), a narawe ("an arrow," c. 1400), a nox ("an ox," c. 1400), a noke ("an oak," early 15c.), a nappyle ("an apple," early 15c.), a negge ("an egg," 15c.), a nynche ("an inch," c. 1400), a nostryche ("an ostrich," c. 1500). My naunt for mine aunt is recorded from 13c.-17c. None other could be no noder (mid-15c.). My nown (for mine own) was frequent 15c.-18c. In 16c., an idiot sometimes became a nidiot (1530s), which, with still-common casual pronunciation, became nidget (1570s), now, alas, no longer whinnying with us.
It is "of constant recurrence" in the 15c. vocabularies, according to Thomas Wright, their modern editor. One has, among many others, Hoc alphabetum ... a nabse, from misdivision of an ABC (and pronouncing it as a word), and Hic culus ... a ners. Also compare nonce, pigsney. Even in 19c. provincial English and U.S., noration (from an oration) was "a speech; a rumor."
The process also worked in surnames, from oblique cases of Old English at "by, near," as in Nock/Nokes/Noaks from atten Oke "by the oak;" Nye from atten ye "near the lowland;" and see Nashville. (Elision of the vowel of the definite article also took place and was standard in Chancery English of the 15c.: þarchebisshop for "the archbishop," thorient for "the orient.")
But it is more common for an English word to lose an -n- to a preceding a: apron, auger, adder, umpire, humble pie, etc. By a related error in Elizabethan English, natomy or atomy was common for anatomy, noyance (annoyance) and noying (adj.) turn up 14c.-17c., and Marlowe (1590) has Natolian for Anatolian. The tendency is not limited to English: compare Luxor, jade (n.1), lute, omelet, and Modern Greek mera for hēmera, the first syllable being confused with the article.
The mathematical use of n for "an indefinite number" is attested by 1717 in phrases such as to the nth power (see nth). In Middle English n. was written in form documents to indicate an unspecified name of a person to be supplied by the speaker or reader.
c. 1200, materie, "the subject of a mental act or a course of thought, speech, or expression," from Anglo-French matere, Old French matere "subject, theme, topic; substance, content; character, education" (12c., Modern French matière) and directly from Latin materia "substance from which something is made," also "hard inner wood of a tree." According to de Vaan and Watkins, this is from mater "origin, source, mother" (see mother (n.1)). The sense developed and expanded in Latin in philosophy by influence of Greek hylē (see hylo-) "wood, firewood," in a general sense "material," used by Aristotle for "matter" in the philosophical sense.
The Latin word also is the source of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian materia, Dutch, German, and Danish materie, vernacular Spanish madera, Portuguese madeira "wood" (compare Madeira). The Middle English word also sometimes was used specifically as "piece of wood."
From c. 1200 as "a subject of a literary work, content of what is written, main theme;" sense of "narrative, tale, story" is from c. 1300. Meaning "physical substance generally" is from mid-14c.; that of "substance of which some specific object is or may be composed" is attested from late 14c. Meaning "piece of business, affair, activity, situation; subject of debate or controversy, question under discussion" is from late 14c. In law, "something which is to be tried or proved," 1530s.
Matter of course "something expected" attested from 1739 (adjectival phrase matter-of-course "proceeding as a natural consequence" is by 1840). For that matter "as far as that goes, as far as that is concerned" is attested from 1670s. What is the matter "what concerns (someone), what is the cause of the difficulty" is attested from mid-15c., from matter in the sense of "circumstance or condition as affecting persons and things." To make no matter to "be no difference to" also is mid-15c., with matter in the meaning "importance, consequence."
digraph used in Old French for the "tsh" sound. In some French dialects, including that of Paris (but not that of Picardy), Latin ca- became French "tsha." This was introduced to English after the Norman Conquest, in words borrowed from Old French such as chaste, charity, chief (adj.). Under French influence, -ch- also was inserted into Anglo-Saxon words that had the same sound (such as bleach, chest, church) which in Old English still was written with a simple -c-, and into those that had formerly been spelled with a -c- and pronounced "k" such as chin and much.
As French evolved, the "t" sound dropped out of -ch-, so in later loan-words from French -ch- has only the sound "sh-" (chauffeur, machine (n.), chivalry, etc.).
It turns up as well in words from classical languages (chaos, echo, etc.). Most uses of -ch- in Roman Latin were in words from Greek, which in Greek would be pronounced correctly as /k/ + /h/, as in modern blockhead, but most Romans would have said merely /k/, and this was the regular pronunciation in English. Before c. 1500 such words were regularly spelled with a -c- (Crist, cronicle, scoole), but Modern English has preserved or restored the etymological spelling in most of them (chemical, chorus, monarch).
Sometimes ch- is written to keep -c- hard before a front vowel, as still in modern Italian. In some languages (Welsh, Spanish, Czech) ch- can be treated as a separate letter and words in it are alphabetized after -c- (or, in Czech and Slovak, after -h-). The sound also is heard in words from more distant languages (as in cheetah, chintz), and the digraph also is used to represent the sound in Scottish loch.
"large, voracious fish," by 1560s, perhaps mid-15c., if an isolated instance in a diary in Middle English Compendium is the same word, of uncertain origin.
The meaning "dishonest person who preys on others," though attested from 1599 (sharker "artful swindler" in this sense is from 1594), may be the original sense, later transferred to the large, voracious marine fish. If so, it is possibly from German Schorck, a variant of Schurke "scoundrel, villain," agent noun of Middle High German schürgen (German schüren) "to poke, stir."
On an old theory, the English word is from a Mayan word, xoc, which might have meant "shark." Northern Europeans seem not to have been familiar with the larger sort of sharks before voyages to the tropics began. A slightly earlier name for it in English was tiburon, from Spanish tiburón (1520s), which probably is from a native word from South America, such as Tupi uperu "shark" (source also of Portuguese tubarão, Catalan tauró).
Middle English had hound-fish (early 14c.), which probably was used of dogfish and other small sharks. The general Germanic word seems to be represented by Old Norse har (Norwegian hai, Danis haj, Dutch haai, German Hai, also borrowed in Finnish, Latvian), which is of unknown origin. French requin is literally "grimacer," from Norman requin, from Old French reschignier "to bare the teeth, grimace."
An ancient Greek word for a shark was karkharias, from karkharos "sharp, jagged, biting," but the old theory that traces the eEnglish word to this has been dropped. Other Greek words for large selachians were aetos, bous, lamia, narkē; skylion was "dogfish." Latin used squalus, from the root of English whale (n.); Lithuanian ryklys is literally "swallower."
The English word was applied (or re-applied) to voracious or predatory persons, on the image of the fish, from 1707 (originally of pick-pockets); loan shark is attested from 1905.
There is the ordinary Brown Shark, or sea attorney, so called by sailors; a grasping, rapacious varlet, that in spite of the hard knocks received from it, often snapped viciously at our steering oar. [Herman Melville, "Mardi"]
Old English life (dative lif) "animated corporeal existence; lifetime, period between birth and death; the history of an individual from birth to death, written account of a person's life; way of life (good or bad); condition of being a living thing, opposite of death; spiritual existence imparted by God, through Christ, to the believer," from Proto-Germanic *leiban (source also of Old Norse lif "life, body," Old Frisian, Old Saxon lif "life, person, body," Dutch lijf "body," Old High German lib "life," German Leib "body"), properly "continuance, perseverance," from PIE root *leip- "to stick, adhere."
The noun associated with live (v.) "to live," which is literally "to continue, remain." Extended 1703 to inanimate objects, "term of duration or existence." Sense of "vitality, energy in action, expression, etc." is from 1580s. Meaning "conspicuously active part of human existence, pleasures or pursuits of the world or society" is by 1770s. Meaning "cause or source of living" led to the sense "vivifying or animating principle," and thus "one who keeps things lively" in life of the party (1787). Meaning "imprisonment for life, a life sentence" is from 1903. Paired alliteratively with limb from 1640s. Not on your life "by no means" is attested from 1896.
In gaming, an additional turn at play for a character; this transferred use was prefigured by uses in card-playing (1806), billiards (1856), etc., in reference to a certain number of chances or required objects without which one's turn at the game fails. The life "the living form or model, semblance" is from 1590s. Life-and-death "of dire importance" is from 1822; life-or-death (adj.) is from 1897. Life-jacket is from 1840; life-preserver from 1630s of anything that is meant to save a life, 1803 of devices worn to prevent drowning. Life-saver is from 1883, figurative use from 1909, as a brand of hard sugar candy from 1912, so called for shape.
Life-form is from 1861; life-cycle is from 1855; life-expectancy from 1847; life-history in biology from 1870; life-science from 1935. Life-work "the labor to which one's life has been devoted" is from 1848. Expression this is the life is from 1919; verbal shrug that's life is from 1924 (earlier such is life, 1778).
Old English softe, earlier sefte, "gentle, mild-natured; easeful, comfortable, calm, undisturbed; luxurious," from West Germanic *samfti, from Proto-Germanic *samftijaz "level, even, smooth, gentle, soft" (source also of Old Saxon safti, Old High German semfti, German sanft; and from a variant form with -ch- for -f-, Middle Dutch sachte, Dutch zacht, German sacht), from PIE root *sem- (1) "one; as one, together with" (the source of seem andsame). The etymological sense would be "smooth and agreeable," to the touch, senses, or mind.
From c. 1200 of persons, hearts, etc., "tender, yielding to emotions," also "easily moved or swayed; soft-hearted, sympathetic; docile." It is attested from late 14c. as "indulgent," also "physically feeble; effeminate, easily overcome, lacking manly courage." The meaning "foolish, simple, silly" is attested from 1620s.
It is attested from mid-13c. of material things, "not stiff, not coarse, fine; yielding readily to pressure." Of sounds or voices, "quiet, not loud or harsh," from early 13c. Of words, "mild, restrained; courteous" mid-14c. From late 14c. of wind, rain, etc.
From 1755 of water ("relatively free from mineral salts"), from 1789 of coal (generally meaning bituminous as opposed to anthractic). In reference to drinks, "non-alcoholic" by 1880. Of letters (-c-, -g-, etc.) when pronounced with more sibilance and less plosiveness, 1630s.
In reference to technology, "using natural resources," by 1974, perhaps 1970. Of a science or methods or data, "not subject to experimental verification, not mathematical," c. 1960.
Many phrases simply are contrasts to earlier ones in hard: Soft landing is from 1958 and the U.S. space program; soft rock as a music style is attested from 1969. Soft spot "weak or vulnerable place," literal and figurative, is by 1933, colloquial. The soft sell sales pitch that relies on gentle persuasions is so called by 1955. Soft-shoe as a dancing style is attested from 1927. The photographic soft-focus (adj.), in reference to camera lenses or shots, is from 1917; figurative use of it is by 1961. The softer sex "women collectively" is from 1640s.
A sound found chiefly in words of Old English, Old Norse or Greek origin, unpronounceable by Normans and many other Europeans. In Greek, the sound corresponds etymologically to Sanskrit -dh- and English -d-; and it was represented graphically by -TH- and at first pronounced as a true aspirate (as still in English outhouse, shithead, etc.).
But by 2c. B.C.E. the Greek letter theta was in universal use and had the modern "-th-" sound. Latin had neither the letter nor the sound, however, and the Romans represented Greek theta by -TH-, which they generally pronounced, at least in Late Latin, as simple "-t-" (passed down to Romanic languages, as in Spanish termal "thermal," teoria "theory," teatro "theater").
In Germanic languages it represents PIE *-t- and was common at the start of words or after stressed vowels. To represent it, Old English and Old Norse used the characters ð "eth" (a modified form of -d-) and þ "thorn," which originally was a rune. Old English, unlike Old Norse, seems never to have standardized which of the two versions of the sound ("hard" and "soft") was represented by which of the two letters.
The digraph -th- sometimes appears in early Old English, on the Roman model, and it returned in Middle English with the French scribes, driving out eth by c. 1250, but thorn persisted, especially in demonstratives (þat, þe, þis, etc.), even as other words were being spelled with -th-. The advent of printing dealt its death-blow, however, as types were imported from continental founders, who had no thorn. For a time y was used in its place (especially in Scotland), because it had a similar shape, hence ye for the in historical tourist trap Ye Olde _______ Shoppe (it never was pronounced "ye," only spelled that way).
The awareness that some Latin words in t- were from Greek th- encouraged over-correction in English and created unetymological forms such as Thames and author, while some words borrowed from Romanic languages preserve, on the Roman model, the Greek -th- spelling but the simple Latin "t" pronunciation (as in Thomas and thyme).
"cylinder of wood or metal with a spiral ridge (the thread) round it," c. 1400, scrue, from Old Frenchescröe, escroue "nut, cylindrical socket, screw-hole," a word of uncertain etymology; not found in other Romanic languages.
Perhaps via Gallo-Roman *scroba or West Germanic *scruva from Vulgar Latin scrobis "screw-head groove," in classical Latin "ditch, trench," also "vagina" (Diez, though OED finds this "phonologically impossible"). OED Seems to lean toward a group of apparently cognate Germanic words (Middle Low German, Middle Dutch schruve, Dutch schroef, German Schraube, Swedish skrufva "screw"), but these are said elsewhere to be French loan-words.
Kluge, Watkins and others trace it to Latin scrofa "breeding sow," perhaps on some fancied resemblance of the holes or furrows left by a rooting swine (compare Portuguese porca, Spanish perca "a female screw," from Latin porca "sow"). Latin scrofa in the "sow" sense is a specific Medieval Latin use; the word is literally "digger, rooter" (from PIE root *sker- (1) "to cut").
Originally an apparatus for lifting weight or pressing with it, hence its later consideration as one of the mechanical powers. The meaning "metal pin or tapered bolt with a spiral ridge, used to join articles of wood or metal," is by 1620s (specifically as wood-screw by 1841). The meaning "a twist or turn to one side" is by 1709.
The sense of "means of pressure or coercion" is from 1640s, often the screws, probably in reference to instruments of torture (as in thumbscrews). Meaning "prison guard, warder" is by 1812 in underworld slang, originally in reference to the key they carried (screw as slang for "key" is attested by 1795). In student slang, "professor or tutor who requires students to work hard" (1851).
The meaning "metal instrument with a winding or spiral shape or motion, used to draw corks from bottles" is by 1650s. As short for screw-propeller, by 1838. The sense of "small portion (of a commodity) wrapped up in a twist of paper" is by 1836. The British slang sense of "salary, wages: is by 1858, but the notion in it is obscure. The slang meaning "an act of copulation" is recorded from 1929 (canting sense of "a prostitute" is attested from 1725). Slang phrase have a screw loose "have a dangerous (usually mental) weakness" is recorded from 1810.
"of the nature of blood, pertaining to blood, bleeding, covered in blood," Old English blodig, adjective from blod (see blood (n.) + -y (2)). Common Germanic, compare Old Frisian blodich, Old Saxon blôdag, Dutch bloedig, Old High German bluotag, German blutig. The English word is attested from late 14c. as "involving bloodshed" and by 1560s as "bloodthirsty, cruel, tainted with blood-crimes."
It has been a British intensive swear word at least since 1676. Weekley relates it to the purely intensive use of the cognate Dutch bloed, German Blut. Perhaps it is influenced by bloods in the slang sense of "rowdy young aristocrats" (18c., see blood (n.)), via expressions such as bloody drunk "as drunk as a blood," and it might be ultimately from the general association of the blood and high emotions and heated passions.
Partridge reports that bloody was "respectable" before c. 1750, and it was used by Dryden, Fielding and Swift, but it was heavily tabooed c. 1750-c. 1920. Johnson calls it "very vulgar," and OED writes of it, "now constantly in the mouths of the lowest classes, but by respectable people considered 'a horrid word', on par with obscene or profane language."
The onset of the taboo against bloody coincides with the increase in linguistic prudery that presaged the Victorian Era but it is hard to say what the precise cause was in the case of this specific word. Attempts have been made to explain the term's extraordinary shock power by invoking etymology. Theories that derive it from such oaths as "By our Lady" or "God's blood" seem farfetched, however. More likely, the taboo stemmed from the fear that many people have of blood and, in the minds of some, from an association with menstrual bleeding. Whatever, the term was debarred from polite society during the whole of the nineteenth century. [Rawson]
Shaw shocked theatergoers when he put it in the mouth of Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion" (1913), and for a time the word was known euphemistically as the Shavian adjective. It was avoided in print as late as 1936. Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, saw 13 civilians were killed by British troops at protest in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.