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Just say no?

Dear Word Detective: The word “nope,” which I use more often than Mrs. Higgenbottom would approve, raised my curiosity to the point of looking for its origins.  I turned to your column, and nope, it wasn’t there.  I looked in the Wiktionary site and it said “nope” is probably from “ope” which is a shortened form of some word I can’t remember how to spell right now, which is okay because I don’t believe it, anyway.  “Nope” is derived from “no,” isn’t it, the hard consonant added to make it more emphatic?  And when did it first appear? — B. L.

Good question.  Incidentally, I’d have made a lousy primary school English teacher, because I’ve never really had any burning desire to correct other people’s grammar and usage.  Ask me what word or form is commonly preferred, and I’ll be happy to tell you, but scribbling stern red ink on student essays is beyond my bailiwick.  Dipping my toe in Geezer Pond, however, I must admit that if I were a teacher today and received papers written in “txt-speak,” I might well lose it.  Of course, I’m probably not immune, and soon I’ll be getting queries from the cell folk about the origin of “j2luk” or “plez.”  Oddly enough, neither of those inventions (meaning “just to let you know” and “please,” respectively) is listed in Wiktionary, which is an open-source dictionary modeled on Wikipedia’s write-it-yourself approach.  Omg!

It took me a bit of puzzling to figure out where that connection to “ope” came from, since “nope” meaning “no” has nothing to do with any such word.  But what Wiktionary does not make very clear is that there are actually several “nopes” in English.  As a noun, one “nope” means “a blow to the head” (probably from the obsolete and mysterious English dialect word “nolp”).  Another “nope” is a common English regional dialect term for the bird known as the bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula).  This “nope” is thought to have arisen from “ope,” a variant of “alp,” another name for the bullfinch, through a process known as “metanalysis,” where one letter in a phrase (in this case, “an ope”) migrates to the other word (becoming “a nope”)  The same linguistic process transformed the original “a napron” (from the Old French “naperon,” small tablecloth) into our familiar “an apron” several hundred years ago.

Our “nope” meaning “no” is, technically, an adverb, often used as an interjection, and is an American invention.  Your hunch is, of course, absolutely right.  This “nope” is simply “no” with a very emphatic (but linguistically meaningless) “p” sound stuck on the end, much as “p” is appended to “yeah” to produce the more abrupt and emphatic “yep.”  The “p” in both cases is a signal to the listener that the matter is not up for discussion (“‘Have you been in Europe before?’ ‘Nope,’ she replied shortly,” 1918).  The earliest citation for “nope” in print found so far is surprisingly recent, from 1888.  But “nope” was almost certainly in common use long before that date, kept out of print as “improper colloquial usage” by the Mrs. Higgenbottoms of the day.

Gild the lily / Exception proves the rule

Bedtime for botanists.

Dear Word Detective:  I am wondering about the correct usage of two phrases.  “Paint the lily” is the correct phrase, but how did “gild the lily” become the more popular use?  And “the exception proves the rule” is how we hear this phrase worded, but there is another wording, perhaps even the truly correct one.  But it’s so obscure I only vaguely remember ever hearing it once.  Do you know what it is? — Scott Clarke.

I sure do, but something just occurred to me.  I think I enjoy answering emails that contain more than one question is because I’m so conditioned by those “buy one, get one free” offers in the supermarkets.  Now that money is especially tight, I’m even more on the lookout for such deals, although my enthusiasm has occasionally led, in retrospect, to some rather odd purchases.  Tonight, for instance, we’re having “twofer” sardines on potato rolls with what I suppose you might call Pop Tart salad.  More groat pudding, anyone?

I’ve actually answered both of these questions in the past, but they’re so frequently asked that a rerun certainly won’t hurt.  “To gild the lily” means “to adorn or embellish something that is already beautiful or perfect; to attempt to improve something that cannot be improved, and thereby to risk spoiling it through excess.”  But “gild the lily” is, as you note, actually a misquotation of the original.  In his play “The Life and Death of King John” (1595), Shakespeare wrote: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

I think we can agree that Shakespeare’s version is clearly superior.  “Gilding” (applying a thin layer of gold) to actual gold would be the epitome of pointless adornment, and to slather paint on a delicate lily would be shockingly vulgar.  Gilding a lily, in contrast, seems only vaguely silly.  So why do we say “gild the lily” today?  It’s impossible to say why or even when the change took place (although the first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for “gild the lily” dates to 1928).  Most likely someone misremembered Shakespeare’s line and committed it to print, thereafter to be copied by readers unfamiliar with the original.  Unfortunately, it’s far too late to propagate a correction, so we might as well get used to “gild the lily.”

“The exception proves the rule” is one of the most commonly misunderstood aphorisms in popular usage.  The legal doctrine on which it is based (which may be the longer form you’re thinking of) is “The exception proves (confirms) the rule in the cases not excepted,” meaning that a judge or other authority can grant an exception to a rule or law in a special case, while simultaneously affirming the basic validity of the rule itself.  The alternative would be to throw out the rule entirely (in which case the “exception” wouldn’t be an exception).  As I said in my explanation a few years back, it’s analogous to a parent letting a child stay up late on New Year’s Eve. Such bending of the rules on a special occasion doesn’t mean bedtime has been abolished from then on.

Founder / Flounder

Flounders founder, woodchucks chuck, film at 11.

Dear Word Detective:  Some time ago, perhaps circa 1975, I remember reading a very convincing column in the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun Times (I believe) which mentioned that even the more educated people misuse the word “flounder” in the context of being perplexed and put badly off balance, while the more accurate word is “founder,” which I had always thought meant only “to sink beneath the waves” as most folks use it.  Since I’ve not read or heard anything further to settle this quibble, can you tell me which you believe is the more correct word to use in this sense?  Thank you for clearing this up. — Don Brennecke.

I’ll do my best, but lately I’ve been having trouble explaining much of anything to anybody, including myself.  I think I may be paying too much attention to reality.  By the way, that column you read about 35 years ago may well have been written by my parents, William and Mary Morris.  Starting in 1954, my father (joined later by my mother) wrote  a syndicated newspaper column called “Words, Wit and Wisdom,” answering readers’ questions about word origins and usage, which eventually ran in hundreds of papers in the US and abroad.  This column is a continuation of that creation, now in its 55th year of uninterrupted publication.

The matter of “founder” versus “flounder” is exactly the sort of question my parents delighted in exploring, and in their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1985), they delivered a concise verdict:  “These two verbs are often confused and consequently misused.  ‘Flounder’ means to ‘thrash about,’ as would an animal mired in mud.  ‘Founder’ means to ‘fail completely, collapse or sink.’…”

To begin at the beginning, the verb “to founder” means, in its basic sense, “to sink completely, collapse,” or, in an extended sense, “to fail utterly.” The source of “founder” was the Old French “fondrer,” meaning “submerge, send to the bottom,” and its ultimate root is the Latin “fundus,” meaning “bottom” (which also gave us the words “foundation,” “found” and “fundamental,” among others).

“Flounder” as a verb is an odd bird.  (The noun “flounder,” a kind of flat fish, is etymologically unrelated to the verb “to flounder”).  The verb “to flounder” is almost certainly an alteration of “to founder,” influenced by other verbs, such as “blunder,” depicting clumsy or frantic motion.  When “flounder” first appeared in the 16th century, it meant “to stumble,” and later “to struggle clumsily.”  A bit later on, it came to mean “to struggle along with great difficulty.”

The confusion between “founder” and “flounder” arises when the extended figurative uses of the words converge.  If clueless Jim has been promoted to sales manager and can’t handle the job, he may well “flounder” (struggle along) for a few months before he “founders” (fails) completely.  In the example you gave, I would tend to think that “flounder” was actually the proper word, but without knowing the exact wording, it’s hard to be certain.