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Hay mow

Dear Word Detective: I grew up on a farm in central Illinois. We always referred to the upper part of the barn as the “hay mow.” A great place to play! My friend who grew up on a Missouri farm didn’t know what I was talking about. She said they simply called it the “hay loft.” So what does “mow” mean? It’s not pronounced like “moe,” but like “cow.” — Susan.

Interesting question. It took me a while after moving from New York City to rural Ohio to learn the difference between hay (various kinds of grass, etc., used primarily as food for livestock) and straw (dried stalks of threshed grain, used primarily for livestock bedding). A few years ago, our neighbor, who has about three acres of front lawn (as do we), got sick of having to mow it every week (as do I). Now he just mows around the edges and grows hay in the middle, which he sells to a local farmer. I’d love to do the same, but we have too many trees. Perhaps we should sell both hay and firewood.

The key to the mystery of “hay-mow” (and the reason that the “mow” in “hay-mow” rhymes with “cow”) is that there are actually two separate “mows” in English. (Truth be told, there are eleven “mows,” six nouns and five verbs, but we’re only going to examine the two most common forms.)

When we “mow” (rhymes with “moe”) the lawn, we’re using the verb “to mow,” meaning “to cut down grass or grain with a scythe or machine.” This “mow” is very old word, going back to Indo-European roots with the sense of “to cut.” The transferred sense of “mow” meaning “to cut down in battle; to destroy or kill indiscriminately or in great numbers” appeared in the 16th century. The use of “mow down” to mean “strike with an automobile” is first attested in print in  the 1960s, but it’s probably much older.

The “mow” in “hay-mow” (rhymes with “cow”) is a completely unrelated noun meaning “a heap or stack of hay, grain, corn, etc.” or “a place, especially a part of a barn, where hay or corn is heaped up and stored.” This “mow” is also a very old word (“muga” in Old English) that comes from Germanic roots meaning “heap.” While we’re at it, “hay” meaning “grass cut for fodder” is a similarly ancient word, in this case going back to roots meaning “that which can be mowed,” presumably with a scythe or similar tool.

So a “hay-mow” is simply a heap (“mow,” the “rhymes with cow” one) of hay, which may or may not be stored in a barn. Strictly speaking, a pile of hay (aka “haystack”) in a field is also a “hay-mow,” though the term is so associated with a pile of hay stored in a barn that “mow” has also come to mean that part of the barn itself. As you’ve noticed, such a part of the barn, if elevated, is also known as a “hay loft” (“loft” being an Old Norse word meaning “air or sky” as well as “upper room”).

So there’s that, but here’s this: there’s also the curious term “mowhay” to consider, although you’re very unlikely to encounter it in the American Midwest. A “mowhay” is an enclosure (often a little shed or enclosed yard) used to store a “mow” or “mows,” heaps of hay, corn, etc. Interestingly, the “hay” in “mowhay” is not the fodder sort of “hay,” though that is often its contents. This “hay” is a very old English dialect word meaning “fence” or “hedge,” and comes, in fact, from the same roots that gave us “hedge” (which used to mean any sort of boundary or fence, not necessarily one composed of shrubbery). So a “mowhay” could as well be called a “hay-hay,” assuming you’re not afraid of being mistaken for Krusty the Clown.

Coast is clear

Dear Word Detective: I was watching a cops-and-robbers show the other night, and one crook mentioned to another that “the coast is clear,” meaning that it was time to make their getaway. Where did this phrase come from? It sounds almost like another nautical expression, but I can’t imagine anyone referring to the whole coast of an island or continent at once. — Dave.

Good point. Of course, by the established conventions of crime shows, “the coast is clear” falls into the category of “famous last words.” It’s right up there with classic movie uh-ohs like “You guys go on ahead; I’m just gonna retie my shoes,” “I grew up eating these mushrooms” and “Look, a baby bear!” I’m sure there’s actually a room full of impossibly stylish and attractive cops employing technology that doesn’t exist to scan the crooks’ fingerprints from ten miles away. And they’ll have the crooks’ baby pictures before they’re halfway to the getaway car.

“Coast” is an unusually interesting word. For instance, we all know what’s meant by, say, “Barry moved to the West Coast.” But how, if at all, is that “coast” related to “Barry took his car out of gear and let it coast down the hill”? It would seem logical that the answer would be that there are two separate “coasts” in use, but they’re actually the same word.

“Coast” first appeared in Middle English (in the form “coste”), borrowed from the Old French “coste” (in modern French “côte”), which in turn was derived from the Latin “costa,” which meant “rib, flank or side” of a thing. In English in the 15th century, “coast” meant particularly the flank of a person or animal, the part protected by the ribs. The expression “by my coste” was equivalent to “by my side” (“This curdog by my coste .?will serve my sheepe to gather,” 1591).

“Coste” in Old French had also been used to mean “the edge or side of the land meeting the sea,” and English followed along and adopted this meaning too. A “coast” in English can be hundreds or thousands of miles long, but historically it can also be short stretch of “coastline” or even a small, specific place at the edge of a body of water. The phrase “the coast is clear” dates back to the 16th century and originally meant that if one were attempting a landing from the sea in hostile territory, the beach was clear of enemies. Similarly, if one were setting out from land on a mission that might meet opposition from ships, “the coast is clear” meant that enemy vessels were nowhere in evidence. “The coast is clear” was such a vivid turn of phrase that it almost immediately came into use in contexts far from any water to mean simply “the danger is over” or “there is no risk” (“With their supervisor gone for the afternoon, the coast was clear for the wastebasket basketball championships”).

Meanwhile, back in French, “côte” had also been used to mean “the side of a hill,” i.e., a slope, and in the 18th century we adopted (probably via French-speaking Canada) this sense of “coast,” but with the very specific meaning of “snow-covered slope down which one slides on a sled” (“The boys of Boston are as fond as the boys of the Revolutionary days of the coast on the Common,” 1883).

English had developed the verb “to coast” about the time that we adopted the noun, but we had always used it to mean things like “sail close to shore” or “move around the edge of something.” In the early 19th century, however, based on the “sled run” sense of the noun, we began to use “to coast” to mean “roll along on a bicycle, in a car, etc., with no power being applied, either downhill or by momentum.” By the 1930s, we were using “to coast” in a figurative sense to mean “to progress with little or no effort” (“The English team coasted comfortably to a total of 246,” 1957). So the “coast” in “the coast is clear” really is the same word as the “coasting” we do on a slow afternoon at work.


Dear Word Detective: When did people start saying “concerning,” as in “That huge glob of oil out there is concerning,” rather than “concerns me”? I hear it on the radio all the time now. — Laura Stempel.

Eww, creepy. I knew there was a reason I don’t listen to the radio. Actually, I do listen to the radio sometimes, specifically when I’m sitting in the car while a certain person is shopping, and it’s after 8 pm, so the local public radio station is playing the BBC World Service. That may sound like a rare combination of circumstances, but, trust me, it’s not. Let’s just say I know a ton about about unemployment in Estonia, fast food in sub-Saharan Africa, and the plight of orphaned elephants wherever it is they live, and I learned it all in the Kroger parking lot.

In any case, you’re right, and it isn’t just radio. A search of Google News today for “is concerning” produces 341 hits, most of them using “concerning” in the way you mention, which is as an adjective meaning “giving cause for anxiety or distress” (“Suicide is concerning at any age, but especially with our youth,” Deseret News). It’s hard to measure just when this particular use of the word became as popular as it apparently is now, but if you restrict your search to years before 2005, Google doesn’t find a single example. (There are obvious problems with this method, the increase in the number of publications Google indexes over the past few years being probably the biggest.)

Our word “concern” first appeared in English in the mid-15th century as a verb meaning “to perceive or discern.” The roots of “concern” are nicely poetic. It’s derived from the Latin verb “concernere,” a combination of “con,” together, and “cernere” meaning “to sift (as through a sieve)” as well as, figuratively, “to separate, distinguish, perceive.” In Medieval Latin “concernere” also carried the sense of “to look at, to regard, to have respect or reference to,” from which we take our modern use of “concern” meaning “to have a bearing or influence on, to pertain to, to affect” (“Bob was invited to the meeting because the new rules concern his position”).

This sense of “concern” meaning “affect or have an influence on” led to the use of “concern” to mean “engage the attention of,” and, in a reflexive use, to the phrase “to concern oneself,” to interest or trouble oneself with an issue or development (“Hee doth of late more publickly concerne himself in state affairs,” 1676). While it’s obviously possible to be suddenly interested in something good, it’s not surprising that by around 1674 we were using “concerned” to mean “troubled or distressed; anxious or sorrowful” about something.

The adjective “concerning,” which first appeared in print in the mid-17th century, followed a similar arc of development. Initially, “concerning” meant simply “important; that which gives cause for consideration; worth noticing or paying attention to.” A century later, however, “concerning” had taken on a connotation parallel to the “troubled” sense of “concerned,” and was being used to mean “troubling, distressing, worrying” (“I cannot bear any thing that is the least concerning to you,” S. Richardson, Pamela, 1740).

That’s the adjectival “concerning” that you hear on the radio, and there’s nothing wrong with it, although it’s never been as popular as the transitive use of the verb, probably because it’s less forceful and more vague (“Most Americans are concerned by the rise in unemployment” definitely beats “Most Americans find the rise in unemployment concerning” in my book). What’s weird about the usage you cite is the lack of an identifiable subject who is being “concerned” by the “concerning” thing. The oil glob may be “concerning,” but, literally, who cares? People in general? Stockbrokers? Porpoises? Oceanographers?

The omission of a subject who is feeling concerned in that usage is acceptable when an individual uses it in personal speech (“Bobby’s disobedience is concerning”), though it annoyingly assumes that the known universe agrees with the statement (as opposed to the more modest “concerns me”). That usage definitely has no place in straight news reporting, however, because it presents that sense of concern as an established, universally shared emotion, which it may well not be; some people may either not care at all or even think it’s a good thing. Drop out the “who,” and it’s no longer journalism. Google News, unfortunately, is full of such examples, and I, speaking only for myself, find that concerning.