< Back to front page Text size +

Ever-changing 'diapers'

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  February 21, 2007 04:18 PM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

As I mentioned in last Sunday's Word column, it was Jon Stewart's report on the Lisa Nowak incident -- with its multiple uses of diapers in a context that sounded singular -- that got me wondering about the status of the word. I e-mailed lexicographer Ben Zimmer for help untangling the singular/plural possibilities of diapers, and boy, did he answer the call.

His first round of results, "Astronaut drives 900 miles wearing . . . ", appeared on Language Log last week; the second, "Diapers, diapers, and more diapers," is up today, with more detailed evidence that both diapers and a pair of diapers can be used to mean a diaper.

Zimmer's oldest example (so far) of singular diapers dates from a 1915 infant-care book, which uses "dry diapers" to mean "a dry diaper": "Directly before the nursing or feeding time it [the baby] should be put in dry diapers and properly powdered."

And "pair of diapers" appears by 1930: "We wish that when the New Year is welcomed into Wisconsin that they'll give the poor little tyke something besides a pair of diapers."

James Michael Curley, Harold Ickes, and the comic strips "L'il Abner" and "Moon Mullins" also supply important evidence. Who'd have thought there was so much to discover in diapers?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


Browse this blog

by category