It's (versus Its), Cats and Catsup, Landscape, Right (versus Left, et al.), and a visit from The Willies


Dear Evan: Lately it seems that everywhere I turn I see evidence of the rapid decay of American grammar. But even though I've become accustomed to errors in advertisements and on television, I have continued to hold newspapers to a higher standard. Imagine my shock, therefore, when a recent headline in The New York Times used "it's" as a possessive, rather than the proper "its" (no apostrophe). Am I fighting a losing battle? -- Donna Hamlin, New York, NY.

I hope it's not a losing battle, but I can't promise you victory, considering how quickly popular grammar seems to be going to the damnation bow-wows. Then again, the confusion of "its" with "it's" may be an infuriating symbol of grammatical ignorance, but it's not a clear- cut case if we look at the history of English, as we shall see.

Strictly speaking, in modern usage the possessive form of the pronoun "it" is, as you note, "its." The formation "it's" is a contraction, standing for "it is" (or "it has"). Thus we might say "It's (it is) a nice day for sailing, but my boat has lost its (the boat's) rudder." The difference between the two forms is clear, but evidently curiously difficult for many people to remember.

At the risk of giving aid and comfort to the "ungrammarians" among us, however, I must note that the difference between "it's" and "its" was not always so definite. Until the 19th century, in fact, "it's" was usually considered the possessive of "it" -- in the Fall, a tree shed "it's" leaves. The usual contraction of "it is" was "'tis." Only when "'tis" came to be regarded as an archaic form in the 19th century did the use of "it's" as a contraction of "it is" push out the use of "it's" as a possessive. I know this is a bit hard to follow, but the point is that the "rule" used to be the exact opposite of what it is today. And on that note, I move that we adjourn our seminar until next time, when we'll explore a few more holes in the logic surrounding our little friend "it."

In our last excursion together, we began to explore the popular confusion between "it's" as a contraction of "it is" or "it has" ("It's going to rain") and "its" as the possessive form of the pronoun "it" ("A tiger can't change its stripes"). It has become increasingly common to see the two forms confused, not just in everyday use, but also in the news media up to and including The New York Times.

Yet the case for the rule regarding "it's and its," as we noted last time, is not as clear- cut as we might imagine. Until the 19th century, in fact, "it's" was used most commonly as the possessive of "it" -- just the opposite of the current "rule." The contraction of "it is" was usually "'tis," as often heard in Shakespeare's plays. Even after the use of "'tis" faded, "it's" was used for both the possessive and the contraction, and the reader would have to judge which was meant by the context in which it was used. The modern rule regarding "it's," it would seem, is a fairly arbitrary decree.

Another point to consider is that when we are using nouns (as opposed to pronouns), the "apostrophe -s" form is used quite successfully to cover both the contraction and the possessive: "Jane's (Jane is) going to the meeting, but Bob is carrying Jane's (belonging to Jane) notebook." Why, we might ask, shouldn't "it's" follow the same rule, and serve as both possessive and contraction? It would then be up to the reader to judge what is meant by the context, not a terribly difficult task in most cases.

Still, old habits die hard, and most literate people will always find confusion of the two forms annoying, as well they should. The folks confusing "its" with "it's" are not, after all, linguistic revolutionaries fighting for simpler grammar -- they simply don't know the difference. So for the time being, it's probably wise to insist on the difference between the two forms.



A friend of mine recently asked me where the word "catsup" came from, and, although I knew that I'd known the answer at one time, my mind, as usual, went utterly blank. I then compounded my predicament by protesting, "But I used to know! I even wrote a column about it!" Shaking his head sadly, and muttering something along the lines of "It's really sad when the old mind goes," my friend wandered off. Here, therefore, to prove that I am not yet an utter feeb, is the original column from several years ago.

Dear Evan: I wrote an essay for my English class recently in which I mentioned "french fries and ketchup." My teacher changed the spelling to "catsup." I went home and looked in the refrigerator and the bottle says "ketchup." My dictionary lists both as acceptable, but which is more correct?

Neither spelling, "catsup" or "ketchup", is more correct than the other. The only difference I know of is that people who strive too hard for correctness invariably seem to prefer "catsup." Perhaps they imagine that there is some connection with "cat's supper," but anyone who has dealt with cats wouldn't dream of trying to feed them ketchup.

Human beings, on the other hand, love catsup. Americans eat it, according to a recent article in Vogue, at the rate of three bottles per person per year. But the original ketchup bore little resemblance to what might be called our national sauce. The words "ketchup" and "catsup" both come from the Malay word "kechap," from the Chinese word "ketsiap," a sauce made from fermented fish and brine. Pickled fish sauce may not sound all that appealing on french fries, but the Malay word "kechap" itself really only meant "taste." After the word migrated into English in the 17th century (as "catchup," still an accepted spelling), it was applied to a variety of sauces and condiments. It was only with the importation of the tomato to Europe from its native habitat in South America that what we now know as ketchup was born. Modern ketchup is made of tomato sauce, vinegar, sugar and spices, and not a speck, thank heavens, of pickled fish.


Dear Mr. Morris: In your column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette you mentioned that "scape" was a form of "escape" in the 18th century. So what is the derivation of "landscape"? Does one "scape" the land? -- Jane P. Gwyer, Pittsburgh, PA.

No, it's an entirely different word. For the benefit of readers who may feel as though they've come in halfway through the movie, the column referred to was my answer to a reader's query about a Time Magazine article that had termed the late Graham Greene a "scapegrace." In the course of explaining that "scapegrace" meant "scamp or scoundrel," I noted that "scape" was a form of "escape" common in the 18th century, which when combined with "grace," meant one who escapes, or flees, the grace of God.

I should have explained more fully that "scape" is what linguists call an "aphetic" form of "escape," meaning simply that the first vowel had been lopped off. The word "escape" has a particularly interesting origin. Most authorities believe that it came from a Vulgar Latin word "excappare," in turn based on "ex" (out) plus "cappare" (cloak), the theory being that in order to escape it would be wise to discard one's heavy cloak.

"Landscape," on the other hand, comes to us from the Dutch word "landschap." The "chap" in the Dutch word meant "state or condition," and entered English separately as the suffix "ship," found in such words as "friendship" and "statesmanship." The Dutch "landschap" was originally, and still is, a painting term, meaning a picture of scenery. The English "landscape" also first described a painting, and only in the 17th century came to mean the countryside itself. As a verb meaning to lay out a garden or plant trees and shrubs, etc., "landscape" is a 20th century invention.

The "scape" suffix has been lent to a wide range of words on the presumption that it has something to do with "looking" or "seeing" -- seascape, moonscape, even "cloudscape." There's even a very popular computer program used on the Internet called "Netscape," which is about as far from Dutch paintings as one can get.


Right (vs. Left)

Dear Evan: The word "right" is used as a way of saying "correct," but it is also used in reference to political orientation. I was wondering if this was because when the political usage was formed, it was the correct view, whereas the left was wrong. What do you think? -- Susan Lutinger, Bronx, NY.

I think I have to tread very carefully here, that's what I think. I do my best to keep this column rigorously non-partisan, and plan to do so until one party establishes a clear monopoly on idiocy. Don't hold your breath.

There is a connection between the "correct" sense of "right" and the "politically conservative" sense, but it's not as direct a connection as you imagine. The word "right" itself comes from the Old English "riht," meaning "straight," related to the Latin "rectus," also meaning "straight" and source of "rectify" and "rectitude." Even way back when, "right" was also used metaphorically to mean "good, just or proper," which is where we get the Bill of Rights sense of the word -- "rights" are principles of fairness.

Once "right" became established as a synonym for "correct," people busied themselves for a while deciding what was "right" and what was not. Eventually they got around to noticing that most people found it easier to do things with the hand on the arm opposite their hearts, and decided that this must be the correct, or "right" hand to use. This bizarre prejudice persisted for centuries, and was no mere metaphor -- I have several left-handed friends who were forced to use their right, "correct" hands to write in elementary school.

The political sense of "right" owes its origin to the "right hand," rather than the "correct," sense of "right." Delegates to the French National Assemble of 1789 sorted themselves out by political affiliation, the conservatives deciding to sit on the right side of the chamber and the radicals on the left. Perhaps because the words "right" and "left" are two very short ways of summing up fundamental political disagreements, the terms have been used in this sense for more than 200 years.

A Visit from the Willies

Dear Mr. Morris: I've often heard people say that this or that gives them "the Willies." Why not "the Freddies" or "the Stevies"? I'd appreciate learning where and how this term originated. -- John Robben, Old Greenwich, CT

By virtue of an eerie coincidence, I happened to be puzzling over the origin of "willies" just as your letter arrived (start the spooky music, please). The previous evening I had attended a performance by the American Ballet Theater of "Giselle." In the first act of the ballet, Giselle, a sturdy peasant girl, responds to a procession of unsuitable suitors by dancing herself to death. (I know, I know -- I didn't entirely understand this part myself).

In Act Two, the now defunct but still remarkably sprightly Giselle meets up with a troupe of spectral Rockettes who haunt the nearby forest and are known as, guess what, the "willies." Together they dance around a good deal until the suitor Giselle really liked all along wanders by, whereupon the "willies" literally dance him into the ground, and the two lovers live, or don't live, happily ever after. I love culture, don't you?

I have checked several reference works, and most agree that "the willies," meaning "the jitters" or "nervous apprehension," is of "unknown origin." One exception, my own parents' Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, traces "the willies" to the slang expression "willie-boy," meaning "sissy" -- presumably the sort who would be prone to the "willies."

That theory is far from impossible, but I think I may have found, thanks to my evening with "Giselle," a more likely source. The "willies" in the ballet take their name from the Serbo-Croatian word "vila" (in English, "wili" or "willi") meaning a wood-nymph or fairy, usually the spirit of a betrothed girl who died after being jilted by her lover. It seems entirely possible to me that "willi," the spirit or ghost, became the "willies," the feeling that something creepy is going on. Now, where's that spooky music I ordered?

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