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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Going through a phase

Wait, is this a phaser or a fazer?
  Which of these sentences is spelled correctly?
  1. But nothing fazes Richard, so he'll be up for it.
  2. But nothing phases Richard, so he'll be up for it. 
Did you say "phases"? If so, you were WRONG (ok, I admit it, it gives me a little thrill to be able to say that occasionally). Nothing fazes Richard.

The word meaning "disconcert, trouble" has nothing to do with "phase".  FAZE is a very old word, derived from Old English fésian (to drive away), which by the 15th century was also being used to mean "frighten, alarm". Like so many words that have died out of Standard British English, this one survived in North America, and by the 1830s had taken on the meaning "disconcert, disturb". It was subsequently revived in British English.

The homophone PHASE comes ultimately from the Greek word designating each of the aspects of the moon or a planet, according to the amount of its illumination. It is a mere stripling compared to "faze", having entered English in the 17th century. Very quickly its use was extended from the strictly astronomical sense to mean "a distinct period or stage in a process of change or development".

And then, GUESS WHAT??? It BECAME A VERB. 

First, in the early 1900s, in electrical engineering:

To adjust the phase of (an oscillation, alternating current, etc.), esp. in order to bring it into phase or synchrony with something else.

and then, in the late 1940s, more generally: 
To organize, carry out, or introduce in phases. Freq. with in (or out): to introduce into (or withdraw from) use, operation, etc., gradually or in stages.
Remarkably, people were unfazed by this function shift. As they should be.


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2 comments:

  1. But... this isn't a verb: "To adjust the phase of (an oscillation, alternating current, etc.), esp. in order to bring it into phase or synchrony with something else." It's still a noun. As is this: "To organize, carry out, or introduce in phases."

    The phase (aspect), a phase (section), in phase (or synchrony).. all nouns.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "to adjust", "to organize", "to carry out"... all verbal definitions

    ReplyDelete

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.