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Save room for desserts.

Dear Word Detective:  In the sentence “The player had been on the field just eight minutes when he opened the scoring,” what word type would “just” fall under and why is it used? — Tom.

Good question. “Just” is a Swiss Army knife word. Consider how any times a day we use the word “just” in senses ranging from asking a caller to wait “just a minute” while we stop the dog from climbing into the refrigerator, to explaining that we mailed the check “just yesterday,” to pronouncing the porridge “just right.” And that’s not even counting the obnoxious ads exhorting us to “Just Do It.” Despite what you’ve heard about “the sleep of the just,” “just” never sleeps, and when it paces the room muttering to itself, we may beg, “Just leave us alone,” but it won’t. Is this making anyone else feel slightly queasy?

Never mind. Must have been the tuna omelet. Anyway, the “just” in your example of “just eight minutes” is an adverb, as is “just” in all of the uses I cited above except “sleep of the just,” in which it is an adjective (technically an “adjectival noun,” an adjective acting as a noun, as in “the poor” or “the meek”). In your example phrase “just eight minutes,” the word “just” is being used to mean “only” or “no more than.”

The adverbial “just” first appeared in English right around 1400, derived from the adjective “just,” which had entered English earlier in the 14th century. The root of “just” was the Latin “jus,” meaning “right or law” (which also underlies “justice” and is related to “jury,” “injury,” et al.). This Latin “jus” seems to have originated in religious cults (possibly originally meaning “sacred formulas”) and was separate from the mainstream Latin “lex,” meaning “law.” So it’s not surprising that the early uses of “just” as an adjective in English centered on moral and religious rightness and fidelity. The religious overtones had largely dropped away by Shakespeare’s day (“He was my Friend, faithful, and just to me,” Julius Caesar, 1616), and “just” as an adjective ever since has meant “true, fair, proper, reasonable and right” in various secular  senses.

“Just” as an adverb followed this semantic trail, initially meaning “precisely, properly, appropriately,” as we use it today in such phrases as “just as” (exactly as), “just so” (in precisely this manner or fashion). Somewhat more loosely, we use “just as” to denote the extent or degree of something (“I’ll be your friend just as long as you lend me money”). “Just” can also indicate likeness or being appropriate (“You seem to be just the thing for him,” 1809), or denote a specific amount or quantity (“It is just a fortnight since Mr. Gladstone embarked,” 1883). “Just” is also used to introduce an implied question (“One wonders just how biased a view we develop of the human ecology of tropical Africa,” 1974) or statement of fact (“Just how many bushels a man will place on an acre depends upon both his means and his judgment,” 1884). In both those sentences “just” could be replaced by “exactly” or “precisely.”

One of the uses of “just” that seems to have drifted furthest from its original meaning is “just” used in matters of time to mean “almost at that point; not long before or after” (“The apostle had just been speaking of Jesus Christ,” 1758) or “in a moment, very soon” (“Presently the Captain reply’d, Tell his Excellency, I am just a coming,” 1719). It can also mean “barely,” “merely” or “no more than” (“Everard had but just time to bid Wildrake hold the horses,” 1826).  “Just” is also used as an emphatic modifier meaning “absolutely,” as in “Bob’s arrest for mopery was just the final straw.” In the advertising slogan “Just Do It,” the “just” is, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes in its exhaustive entry on the word, being “used to extenuate the action expressed by a verb, and so to represent it as a small thing” (“Mother! Do just get in with me for a few minutes till the train starts,” 1898) or, in this case, simply a matter of initiative and discipline.

Many of these sub-senses of “just” overlap, obviously, and trying to finely parse the differences between the senses is asking for a fierce headache. But to say a player has been on the field for “just eight minutes” clearly invokes sense Five of the OED definition: “No more than; only, merely; barely.” That’s still in the ballpark with the original sense of “just” meaning “exactly,” but in this sense, with its overtones of “Gimme a break, it’s only been eight minutes,” it’s become an adverb with attitude.

Borrow / Lend

Gopher broke, can I borrow yours?

Dear Word Detective:  As a youngster in Minneapolis, I used to hear my classmates use “borrow” to mean “lend,” as in “I borrowed him five bucks and he hasn’t paid me back.” I had always written this off as the usage of children, but within the last two or three years I have heard it so used by adults on the “Judge Judy” program. And the curious thing is (cue the “Twilight Zone” music), whenever I have been able to note the origins of said persons, they have always been from Minnesota. Is this actually a gopherism that I missed out on by moving away before the age of 25? — Charles Anderson.

Judge Judy. That is all. Actually, I just realized that not only have I never watched Judge Judy, but I’ve been confusing her with Dr. Laura, whom I have also never watched (possibly because, as Wikipedia just pointed out, she’s a radio host). I also tend to confuse Sanjay Gupta with Doctor Oz. I probably just need to sit closer to the TV. Anyway, my impression of Judge Judy and her penitents is wholly based on clicking past her show on my way to the digital sub-channel that shows old sitcoms around here. (Mister Ed rules!) But there seems to be a whole slew of apparently fungible kangaroo court shows on the upper broadcast channels in the afternoon, and I’ve always wondered how people pick a favorite. Maybe they just go with the one their nephew was on.

I’ve never been to Minnesota, but I would have made more of an effort if I’d realized you guys worship gophers. Awesome. Here in Ohio the people call each other Buckeyes, which is a type of tree nut. No comment. People in Ohio say some strange things, but so far I haven’t noticed anything quite on the level of using “borrow” to mean “lend.” Maybe there’s something in those 10,000 lakes.

At first glance, there’s something profoundly disturbing about reversing the meaning of “borrow,” much more jarring than, say, using “literally” as an emphatic modifier of a figurative statement (“I opened the gas bill and literally had a heart attack”). Shakespeare’s advice in Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry,” kinda loses its point if you don’t observe the difference between the words.

Then again, this “borrow/lend” business has a history of confusion. The curious thing about the word “borrow” is that it originally meant something close to “lend.” A “borrow” (the now-obsolete noun, from Germanic roots meaning “to protect”) in Old English was a thing given as security or a guarantee, and “to borrow” was to take something of value as security for a loan, as pawnshops do today. The senses reversed early on in English, with the emphasis of “borrow” shifting to the “thing” taken as collateral, and eventually “to borrow” came to mean to take something belonging to someone else with a pledge, not necessarily involving money, that it would be returned in the future.

Elsewhere in the mix, “loan” and “lend” both come from the Old Norse “lan,” which meant “to let have.” Interestingly, as a verb, “to loan” is largely confined to the US; if you’re broke in London you’ll be looking for someone to “lend” you money.

Semantically, “borrow” and “lend” are a matched pair, like “come” and “go,” and “here” and “there,” two sides of the same conceptual coin. Some languages, in fact use one word to mean both actions and let context indicate the meaning (as some languages use one word to mean both “teach” and “learn”). The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) notes that the non-standard use of “borrow” to mean “to lend” is “scattered” across the US, but especially found west of the Great Lakes, i.e., in Gopherland. DARE also notes that this usage is found “especially among young speakers and speakers with [only] grade school educations.” This usage, however, is far from new; the first citation in DARE is from New York State in 1896, and “Will you borry me some sugar?” was noted in Kentucky in 1917.

So using “borrow” to mean “lend” is simply a dialectical variation, strongly centered in Minnesota. I’m sure that even as we speak there are people out there ranting against this deviant usage as a harbinger of the lang-pocalypse and the consequent death of civilization, but I can’t get terribly cranked up about it. It’s not like the government got confused about “borrow” and “lend” and started giving trillions of dollars to big banks.


That’s all, folks.

Dear Word Detective:  I am looking for the origin of the phrase “on the brink of disaster.” Can you help? — Dorothy.

Brink of disaster? Eve of destruction? End of Days? The Big Kablooey? What the noted futurologist Walter Mitty called the Pocketa-pocketa-pocalypse?

Why do you ask? Seriously, why is everybody suddenly fixated on the End of the World as We Know It (everybody except, of course, r.e.m. (r.i.p.) and a few million Mayans)? We went to the movies a while back and saw a film, called Take Shelter, about a guy in small-town Ohio who begins to see weird, scary things in the sky and decides to prepare for The End. Thing is, his Ohio small town was a dead ringer for our Ohio small town, right down to ugly wood paneling in the Lions Club, and nothing he saw in the sky struck me as all that unusual out here, all of which worried me. I guess when the zeitgeist starts rattling the shutters it’s time to stock up on freeze-dried Twinkies and firewood.

Today we use the word “brink” almost entirely in contexts where there is imminent danger of something bad happening (current headlines on Google News include “The week that Europe stumbled to the brink of disaster,” “US and China on brink of trade war over solar industry,” and “Billy Crystal Brings Oscars Back From the Brink”). But ’twas not always so.

When “brink” first appeared in English around 1300 (from Germanic roots meaning “edge of a field, grass-land, side of a hill”), it meant either “bank of a river, edge of the sea, etc.” or “the edge of a steep place, especially one might fall into, such a chasm, pit, canyon, etc.” A “brink,” in other words, could be simply the restful bank of a slowly moving river. “Brink” was also used to mean the edge or border of anything, even the brim of a cup or hat.

But it was that second “look out below” sense that produced, around 1600, the figurative use of “brink” to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says, “The very verge of some state, time, event, or action: now especially in the phrases ‘on,’ ‘to,’ ‘from the brink of’, a discovery, ruin, destruction, death, eternity, anarchy, revolution, absurdity, etc.”

While “brink” is used today in a few positive senses, such as “brink of a scientific breakthrough” or “brink of stardom,” the word still carries those “standing at the edge of the cliff” overtones. Thus the use of “brink” alone, without a prepositional phrase such as “of success” or the like, is almost invariably in the negative sense; one can only imagine what would happen to the Oscars if Billy Crystal had to cancel, but it doesn’t sound good.

This use of “brink” with an assumed connotation of a bad possible outcome produced, in the 1950s, the term “brinkmanship,” defined by the OED as “the art of advancing to the very brink of war but not engaging in it.” Since the potential “war” in question at that time was a full-on nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, “brinkmanship” was a very dangerous game to play (“He [Adlai Stevenson] derided the Secretary [of Defense, J. F. Dulles] for ‘boasting of his brinkmanship — the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss’,” NY Times, 2/26/56).

Since phrases involving something or someone “on the brink” of some bad thing or another have been common for more than 400 years at this point, and since “disaster” (from the Latin “dis,” unfavorable, plus “astrum,” star, giving us literally “ill-starred”) is just about that old in English, the chances of pinpointing the first use of “brink of disaster” are nil. On the bright side, after all the various “brinks” humanity has faced, we’re still here to worry about the Oscars and their brink, whatever it may be.