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Ever-changing 'diapers'

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

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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?



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