Wednesday, 9 December 2009

On couple (of)

A correspondent writes to ask about the premodifying use of couple without a following of. She has found a usage comment in her Canadian Oxford Dictionary which says that this usage 'is highly informal and should be avoided in writing', whereas her Merriam-Webster states that the usage 'has been called non-standard, but it is not'. "Why has the usage developed?', she asks.

Couple of goes back to the 14th century, whereas the of-less construction seems to be relatively recent. The OED first recorded usage is 1925, and tags the expression as 'US colloquial': 'a couple months in Italy', 'a couple hundred'. The American origin is enough to explain British caution, and thus the difference in attitude of the two dictionaries.

But where did the usage come from? I opt for a phonological explanation. The reduction of of resulted in coupla, usually written that way (as also cuppa tea and suchlike) . That has a first recorded usage of 1908. It would have been a short step to elide the vowel completely. Reinforcement may then have come from the later usage couple more, where of is disallowed, as in: 'Wait a couple more minutes' (cf also 'Wait a couple minutes more'). That began to appear in the 1930s.

The Merriam-Webster comment suggests that the usage has become increasingly accepted in the US, but not everyone agrees. It's made very little headway in the UK, so far.

12 comments:

Jack Lynch said...

OED will, I'm sure, find plenty of examples from before 1925. I don't see any examples in a very quick search of ECCO (1700-1800), but a trawl through Google Books for "couple hours" (probably the most common example of the usage) turns up plenty of examples, even after we delete possessives like "couple hours' time." They go back at least as far as 1831.

Most are American, but not all; Fleet Papers (London, 1841) includes "couple hours," as does The Englishman's Magazine (London, 1831) and History of the Rise and Progress of the Bengal Army (London, 1850).

I'm interested to see "couple hours" in the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medicine and two online copies of the 1834 ed. of Walter Scott's Anne of Geierstein (1829, but I don't see it in that text). It leads me to wonder whether it was a provincialism.

R A Harless said...

In my Communication Arts and Science class this semester at Penn State York (USA) we used a textbook from the UK. I found it interesting, but some of the examples confused my classmates such as "Reisin Raid Copper" as a sample headline. What's the quote about the US and UK, separated by a common language?

Lipman said...

Could be a Germanism, too, especially in America. My guess is all of these helped, but basically it's a direct simplification, similar to skipping other auxiliary words as in see you (on) Monday.

Barrie England said...

The phonological explanation is persuasive, but does anyone, in the US, or anywhere else, say or write, ‘a cup coffee, ‘a pint milk’ or ‘a glass wine’?

DC said...

Excellent comment, Jack. And now, come to think of it, I have heard it in Irish English.

DC said...

I don't understand the headline either. Not sure how this relates to the topic of this post.

Lipman said...

Thought about the lack of parallels for "cup (of) coffee", too, but that actually speaks in favour of the phonological explanation, as opposed to mere simplification or the influence of German or Irish Gaelic. After all, couple ends a syllabic l. (Not that I could find an ad-hoc reason why this would make a difference.)

UB said...

Being a numbered quantity, "couple" is more like "dozen," which has uses with and without "of" for some time, as the OED shows. We still use it both ways: A dozen friends, a dozen of my friends; a dozen lollipops, a dozen of those; and so on. "Of" is just fading. Give it a couple more decades and it will be like "dozen." Or maybe it already is.

Barrie England said...

So does 'bottle'! Bottle beer, anyone?

DC said...

Useful analogy with dozen. The of seems obligatory in the plural, though (dozens of X - anyone prepared to drop it here? And of seems pretty stable for other quantities, such as brace (of pigeons), pair, combination, and so on.

Lipman said...

Don't remember hearing "bottle beer", but that would support the idea that the syllabic l of couple and the n of dozen play a role in "swallowing" the schwa.

Chaa006 said...

Much as I find "a couple <whatever>" distasteful, the use of "of" in recipes seems entirely optional : I am quite used to reading "2 tablespoons flour; 1 cup water" and so on, where in non-recipe usage the "of" would be almost mandatory.