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September 15th, 2004

Same-oh same-oh / two things is or are one? / a couple times

by Barbara Wallraff

John H. Franklin, of Peterborough, N.H., writes: “What is the origin of the phrase ‘same old same old’? My theory is that it should be ‘same-oh, same-oh,’ and it originated in Japan or Okinawa after World War II as a pidgin-English response to ‘How are you?’ or ‘How’s it going?’ In Japanese, words don’t end with consonants, so some words imported into the language have to be modified: For example, ‘besoboru’ is Japanese for ‘baseball.’”

Dear John: You’re probably right about the origin of “same old same old.” The earliest known appearance in print of any version of this expression was found by the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower: A character in a 1956 Korean War novel says “same-oh, same-oh.” And “samo’ or, perhaps to better suggest the pronunciation ‘same-o same-o’” turns up in a list of slang from “the bars and brothels of Yokohama during the decade or so after World War II.” This was published in a 2000 issue of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly. Its authors, D. Gordon and R.L. Spear, explain that the phrase would be an appropriate response to the pidgin-English question “How your day go?”

But you and I speak standard American English, not pidgin English -- and plenty of American English words end in consonants. We say that the Japanese play “baseball,” not “besoboru.” So it would be strange if our language stuck with the pidgin-English version of “same old same old.” Indeed, it hasn’t. “Same old same old” (sometimes with hyphens and sometimes with a comma after the first “old”) is seen in print far more often than any other spelling of this expression.

Mike Harris, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., writes: “Our remodeling company, Harris Group Construction, uses the phrase ‘Additions and Remodeling Are Our Specialty’ on our trucks and in our print advertising. We have spent years debating and asking others whether we should use ‘Is’ or ‘Are’ in this phrase. Would you please help us resolve this?”

Dear Mike: Good news: You have it right. Whether the subject is singular or plural determines the choice of a singular or a plural verb. Your subject is “Additions and Remodeling” -- definitely plural, so “Are” is the right verb. Never mind that the complement (the noun after the verb) in your slogan is singular. According to the rules of grammar, that doesn’t matter. If for some reason you wanted to turn the slogan around, though, making the subject the complement and vice versa, then you’d need a singular verb: “Our Specialty Is Additions and Remodeling.”

Barbara Vink, of Voorheesville, N.Y., writes: “The phrase ‘a couple times’ makes me wince. I hear ‘a couple (somethings)’ from presumably well-spoken television personalities and even see it written. Isn’t ‘a couple of’ still the grammatically correct usage?”

Dear Barbara: Not all language authorities agree with you -- but my favorite reference books do. The American Heritage Dictionary calls “couple” without “of” “informal” -- and that’s not the way most of us want TV personalities to speak. Garner’s Modern American Usage calls it “a low casualism.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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