Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

'Ant' or 'Ahnt'? Capitalizing Cocktail Names. Archie Bunker.

Episode Summary

What's up with the fancy-schmancy "ahnt" pronunciation of the word "aunt"? And why are the rules about capitalizing cocktail names so wonky? We have all the answers today!

Episode Notes

What's up with the fancy-schmancy "ahnt" pronunciation of the word "aunt"? And why are the rules about capitalizing cocktail  names so wonky? We have all the answers today!


References for the "ahnt" segment by Valerie Fridland:

Phillips, Betty.  (1989). The Diffusion of a Borrowed Sound Change. Journal of English Linguistics22(2), 197–204.

Freeborn, Dennis.  (1992). From old English to standard English : a course book in language variation across time. University of Ottawa Press: Ottawa.

Grandgent, C.H. (1899). Franklin to Lowell. A Century of New England Pronunciation. Publication of the Modern Language Association, vol. 14 (2), 207-239.

Trudgill, Peter (2008). The Historical Sociolinguistics of Elite Accent Change: On Why RP is not Disappearing. Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 44: 3–12.

Walker, John. (1791). A critical pronouncing dictionary. London: Robinson.

Wells, John. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge University Press.

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff.

Today, we'll talk about why some people call your parent's sister an "aunt" and others caller her an "ant," and we'll talk about when you should capitalize the names of cocktails.

But first, thank you so much to Ethan for leaving a nice review on Apple Podcasts, writing "I like this show, but I don't understand why the tips have to be dirty," which made me laugh, and it's a question I get pretty regularly about the full name of the podcast, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, and actually the whole podcast network that I founded, Quick and Dirty Tips, and it's been a long time since I've answered that question, so I guess it's time again!

Here’s the story: When I was growing up, my mom would always use the phrase “quick and dirty” for something that was just the essentials. For example, she might say, “Let’s do a quick and dirty job on these dishes before we watch TV,” and we’d get things loaded in the dishwasher and probably get an especially dirty pan soaking in the sink, but we wouldn’t completely finish doing the dishes. 

So to me, doing a quick dirty job meant getting the most important parts done —and the parts that would set you up for an easier time in the future.

I haven’t been able to verify this, but I have a feeling it might be a regional saying or at least more popular in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up. For example, most people I encountered in the early years of the podcast didn’t seem familiar with the phrase, but when I was back visiting Seattle many years ago and was walking on the waterfront, I came across a banner for a Quick and Dirty boat building contest. It looked like people had just a few hours to build a boat out of plywood, and then they saw whose boat would float the farthest.

Now, when I was starting the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network way back in 2006, most podcasts were really long, and I wanted a description that let people know that these were short tips that had the most important information—the stuff you really needed, the stuff you’d find most useful and helpful. 

The podcast originally usually clocked in under five minutes, but people kept telling me they wanted more, so eventually I added segments and let some of them be longer and also started doing occasional interviews.

But that's why my network and podcast both have Quick and Dirty Tips in the name. It's how it all started.

And I do hear the phrase more often out in the world now than I did when I started, for example, I hear "quick and dirty" on the finance channel CNBC sometimes, and I always wonder if somehow they were influenced, either directly or maybe subconsciously, by my show or our podcast network!

Anyway, thanks again for the nice review Ethan, those are always helpful for encouraging other people to give the show a try, and I really appreciate it!

Is it antor ahnt?  Whats behind the great aversusahdivide.

Have you ever wondered why some Americans say the word "aunt," using what’s called a flat "a" sound, while others say "ahnt" using a broad "a" sound? One attempt to answer this question that made the rounds a while back hypothesized that "ah" brings a more nuanced meaning to the word. Namely, that "ahnts" are a lot richer than "ants." 

While this certainly might jibe with the sense we get when someone talks about their great ahnt Elizabeth, it doesn’t explain why other words like "path" and "dance" are also said with the "ah" vowel by many of those same people. After doing a bit more research instead of relying on internet rumors, it turns out the different pronunciations are actually relics of a vowel change that affected some English dialects but not others more than a hundred years ago.

A trip into our past (or pahst?)

To figure out the origin of the great "ant/aunt" divide, let’s travel back to 17th century Britain and see what language authorities had to say about how "aunt" should be pronounced. While of course it’s hard to know definitively what people actually said, a number of pronunciation and spelling books written at the time give us peek into what was at least considered the prevailing norm in prestigious Southern British speech. 

A number of these book mention the homophony (a fancy way of saying "same sound") of the words "aunt" [A-U-N-T] and "ant." [A-N-T]  For instance, grammarian Christopher Cooper lists them as words that sounded the same but differed in how they should be spelled in his 1687 book, "The English Teacher." This suggests they likely were not pronounced differently at that time by upper-class people in England.

But then we have to wonder which vowel was used for both these words, since all Cooper's book tells us is that the two words had the same pronunciation. After all, today in Northern British dialects, the two words are still pronounced the same way, but they are said more like the "ah" sound compared to the American pronunciation with the "a" sound. So, how can we tell whether the sound in the 1600s was more like American flat "a" (as in "ant") or British broad "a" (as in "ahnt") when there are no recordings from that time?

Although recordings would have been nice, it turns out they aren't necessary because we have something almost as good — language commentators! Linguists have found writings from the 18th century that make mention of some new fangled pronunciations working their way through the London "it" crowd — and that they were not so favorably viewed. 

For instance, in his book on proper pronunciation, famed elocutionist (essentially a proper speech coach) John Walker warns of an inelegant vowel sound making an appearance in certain words like "answer," "after" and "can’t." Want to take a guess which vowel he was referring to? It's actually the "ah" as in "ahnt" sound. The pronunciation we consider "fancy" today, was looked down on in such words back then!

People writing on proper speech at that time appear to suggest the sound of the "a" in "ant" was the established vowel sound in those words, while "ah" in "ahnt" was the shiny new upstart making its way from the mouths of the commoners into the mouths of the upper crust. But then, once it became popular in prominent London social circles, it started to take on the allure it still carries. 

The 'trap/bath' split

But because only certain words, like "bath," "ask," "after," and "aunt," started to be pronounced with this new vowel sound around this time, while others, like "trap," "hat," and "ant," (the insect) kept the original vowel, linguists refer to this pronunciation change as the "trap/bath split." Although the linguistic details of what prompted this split are pretty complex, it is likely that certain consonants caused people to say the vowels differently when those consonants were around, triggering this larger pattern.

Although this split pronunciation had probably started a bit earlier among the less-well heeled set, by the late 18th century, this TRAP/BATH split had spread to most of London’s upper crust. So, why does it not seem to have followed the British to America? Well, since many of the early settlers had left for the colonies well before this split really took hold, they brought only the original "a" pronunciation along for the ride. As a result, the founding dialects in the New World retained only the "a" vowel sound, rather than the new "ah" sound that became popular across the pond a little later.

From sea to shining sea

But how did this somewhat erratic pattern used in 18th century London society still make it eventually to some American shores? Pretty much like the rest of what came to the colonies — it arrived by boat. Even though the new-fangled "ah" sound had risen to prominence after many settlers had already left, many of those colonists still looked to London as the model of fashionable speech.

Particularly in coastal colonies, early settlers maintained strong cultural ties to the motherland. Some, like the Puritans in Massachusetts and wealthy southerners in the coastal south — for example, near Charleston — also sent their children back to finish their education. As a result, newer speech forms in London were imported and viewed as fancy-schmancy English.

This is why we tend to still see relics of this southern British pattern in speakers that hail from New England or the South — and why that pronunciation strikes us as somewhat high-brow. While the TRAP/BATH split in its entirety is relatively rare outside of a few pockets in New England today, the "ahnt" pronunciation has persevered more widely as a relic of this pattern, particularly in southern and African-American communities. 

It is also not unheard of that other Americans with no history from these "ah"-pronouncing groups are sometimes known to say "ahnt." But, in those cases, it is likely they just picked it up from having heard other people say it that way since individual words are easily spread if people find them appealing in some way. And, after all, since "ahnts" sound richer and much more high class than plain ol’ aunts, why wouldn't everybody want one?

That segment was written by Valerie Fridland, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of a forthcoming language book "Like, Literally, Dude" about all the speech habits we love to hate. You can find her at or on Twitter at @FridlandValerie.

A listener named Dan asked, "Do you capitalize the names of cocktails, such as bloody mary and mimosa?" And the question turned out to be more complicated than I initially imagined.

When should you capitalize cocktail and food names?

Some cocktail names are easy to figure out because they go by the standard capitalization rules. If they don’t include something that would be a proper noun, such as a person’s name or a city name, you don’t capitalize them. So "mimosa," "mudslide," and "pina colada" are all lowercase.

Typically lowercase cocktail names: 'manhattan' and 'daiquiri'

So far, so good. I thought drinks that had a person’s name, a country name, or city name would also follow the standard capitalization rules: they’re proper nouns, so they’d be capitalized. But that’s not the case because these names fall into a special category: they’re not literal uses of the proper nouns.

For example, most dictionaries and style guides recommend keeping "manhattan" lowercase when it is the name of a cocktail, because even though the name is derived from the city named Manhattan, it’s no longer associated with the city. They also recommend lowercase for “daiquiri,” even though the cocktail name comes from a city named Daiquiri in Cuba.

Cocktail names that seem to go either way: 'bloody mary' and 'white russian'

But sometimes it's hard to tell whether the drink name is still associated with a person or place. "Bloody mary" is sometimes capitalized, for example, because it was the nickname for Queen Mary I of England. But I didn't know that until I looked it up. It turns out Mary I ruled during a time of major religious strife, and she had so many Protestants killed that they gave her the nickname "Bloody Mary." You could argue that the cocktail name is capitalized because "Mary" is a name, but that doesn't really hold up because "Margarita" is a Spanish name, and yet when you call a drink a margarita, it's lowercase. 

"Bellini" is also sometimes capitalized because the drink, invented at Harry's Bar in Venice, is probably named after the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini. But sometimes it isn't capitalized.

And "white russian" (a drink made with vodka, Kahlúa, and cream) is also sometimes capitalized. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "White Russian" is the name of a language and a group of people in the region that used to be Russia.

However, I still couldn't figure out why “white russian,” “bellini,” and “bloody mary,” are sometimes capitalized, but “daiquiri” and “manhattan” aren’t.

What is the Chicago Style for cocktail names?

It turns out that whether you capitalize the names of foods or drinks that contain proper nouns is a style choice. The Chicago Manual of Style has the clearest rule: It says not to capitalize these terms unless the names literally refer to the city or person. For example, Chicago says not to capitalize "swiss cheese" unless you’re talking about cheese that comes from Switzerland. Following the Chicago rules, you wouldn’t capitalize "white russian," "bellini," "bloody mary," "irish coffee," or "french fries" for that matter.

What is the Merriam-Webster style for cocktail names?

However, Chicago does note, that they are in conflict with their own recommended dictionary, Webster's Third, and indeed, the Merriam-Webster dictionary website recommends capitalizing “Bloody Mary,” the “Irish” in “Irish coffee,” but not capitalizing "manhattan" when it's the name of a drink. And that’s why I was confused. I was looking for the answer in dictionaries that make case-by-case recommendations about the capitalization of each food or cocktail name instead of having a blanket rule like Chicago.

What are the AP Stylebook guidelines for capitalizing cocktail names?

Also, not all stylebook have a blanket rule. The AP Stylebook, for example, generally follows Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary, which like Webster's Third, also has some names capitalized and other names lowercase.

Even Chicago makes one exception, mentioned not in the stylebook itself but in the Q&A section: The editors say it's OK to capitalize whimsical cocktail names like "Florida Tracksuit," (a drink made with orange vodka, raspberry liqueur, and Red Bull … yuck!) … They say you can capitalize that so it's not confusing, so people know it's a cocktail name and not just a description of an outfit.

So the best advice I can give you when deciding whether to capitalize the names of cocktails or other foods and drinks that seem to include the names of people or places is to pick a style and be consistent. I’m going to follow Chicago style from now on and keep them almost all lowercase because it’s the simplest way to do it.

This week I have a familect story from someone who didn't leave a name, and the audio actually wasn't good enough to use, but I liked the story, so I'm just going to tell you about it. The word they use is "Archie Bunker" based on the character from the old TV show. Their family uses it as a noun to mean the act of offering someone something when you know they are going to refuse. For example, inviting someone to dinner when you know they've already cooked their dinner, so they won't actually come. The caller said it became so commonplace that their family would just know that if you wanted the credit for having offered someone something without having to actually fulfill the action, you'd just "make an Archie Bunker."

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil, who wrote and put on a play with his friends in high school inspired by the life of Hollywood producer Robert Evans, who worked on "Rosemary's Baby," "Love Story," "The Godfather," and "Chinatown." Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, and our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin. And our intern is Brendan Picha.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.

References for the "aunt" segment: 

Phillips, Betty.  (1989). The Diffusion of a Borrowed Sound Change. Journal of English Linguistics22(2), 197–204.

Freeborn, Dennis.  (1992). From old English to standard English : a course book in language variation across time. University of Ottawa Press: Ottawa.

Grandgent, C.H. (1899). Franklin to Lowell. A Century of New England Pronunciation. Publication of the Modern Language Association, vol. 14 (2), 207-239.

Trudgill, Peter (2008). The Historical Sociolinguistics of Elite Accent Change: On Why RP is not Disappearing. Studia Anglica Posnaniensia 44: 3–12.

Walker, John. (1791). A critical pronouncing dictionary. London: Robinson.

Wells, John. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge University Press.