I noticed that the community doesn't really agree with itself on the subject of what's on topic and off topic when it comes to the amount of research needed. I'm seeing this on questions that would only be marginally on-topic for a site like ELL because they're about etymology or phrase history. What's particularly worrying is that some of these questions include research (even if it's "softball" research). And it's not just "that one guy"; between these examples, there are at least four different users involved.

Personally, I'd like to see fewer etymology questions closed even when they actually have no research because the research itself is so often outdated. Or the information available is super vague. Or the good information can only be found behind paywalls. Or there's a ton of misinformation (folk etymology). This is apparently relevant so I'm expanding on it below under "about why even the best sources aren't enough".

While the Stack Exchange format doesn't fix all these problems, it provides a pretty great solution: Post a new, better answer. This, of course, only works when the question is open.

Thus I'd like to open the discussion for this particular class of questions and also the specific examples here. I only have two examples because time tends to ruin examples via deletion and aging away of close votes so you would have to be keeping track.

Case 1

Recently, I edited a question to add "research" in the hopes that the question would be reopened, then cast a reopen vote to put it into the reopen queue. Much to my confusion, three users voted to keep the question closed, which caused the question to be removed from the reopen queue.

Reopen? Reopened.

The question is Where does the term "on the nose" come from?. And here is the reopen queue review.

Case 2

Even more recently, I added "research" to a different question to prevent it from being closed. I think it had one close vote when I did that. Later, I find it in the review queue with a total of three close votes, one of which was cast from the review queue. This means that two people voted to close it after the research was added. (Since then, one of these votes was either retracted or aged away.)

There's nothing that needs to be done per se about this question since it's not closed.

The question is What's the origin of "hung for a toad"? Where is it used?. And here is the close vote review.

Honorable Mention

(Stolen from this post mentioned in the comments.)

This question is a bit different from the others, since it was closed for "not being about English". Twice. It was also deleted at one point, for some reason. The other difference is that it included research from the very first revision. After looking at it, what happened isn't really a mystery, although I disagree with the closure. "What is the origin of these words" is always an English question in my book.

Reopen? Reopened.

What is the origin of the "half your age, plus seven" phrase?

About why even the best sources aren't always enough

I have a silver badge in etymology, but I'm not a professional. Despite this fact, I've found that I'm often able to beat the Oxford English Dictionary when it comes to earliest quotation, particularly when it comes to phrases. Sometimes, this can be done with what I consider a simple Google Books search (quote marks plus date range, sorted by date). The reason for this is simple, although it took me a while to figure it out: etymology is a field of continuous research.

As technology progresses, more and more old texts are being digitized, and OCR is getting better and better. The senior executive editor of the OED (Johnathan Dent) mentions the importance of technology in etymological research here. There's a lot to research, so many of the OED pages are horrifically out of date, but you can't know this unless you have access to the individual page (it's a bit confusing, but it will say "This entry has not yet been fully updated" although there may be some info that's up-to-date, namely draft additions). Other sources don't even mention when their research was done, so it's impossible to know how good it is.

In other words, even if a search appears to bring up the right information, you may not be getting the best answer.

About me adding research

To prevent any confusion in advance, there are several reasons why I don't just take the question and ask it better myself:

  • The question already has an answer (applicable to both now, although only case 1 had an answer when I edited it)
  • I can't answer clarifying questions (applicable in case #2)
  • It would make me feel like I'm "stealing" the question. You can't really "steal" an idea or a CC-BY-SA post that you properly attributed, so this is all about perceptions and personal ethics and such. No judgement though.
  • Fixing things makes me feel good.

I've done this in the past and it's successfully reopened at least one question. I've also seen others doing the same thing. It's like a necessary evil given our close vote culture.

  • 4
    These are interesting questions -- but I like odd expressions -- and you added enough research to pass the research test, IMO. Users who VTC on the basis of no or not enough research should reflect that if everyone did exhaustive research before posting a question, no questions would ever be posted.
    – ab2
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 21:33
  • Aversion against etymological questions is an old issue on ELU. There is number of users who dislike this sort of questions, no matter how much research you present, and they will VTC them almost automatically. Related: english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7853/…
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 21:56
  • Interesting point about the 'on the nose' question, one of the closers happened to have answered the question a couple hours before. That seems to be incoherent behavior.
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 8, 2018 at 22:59
  • The reopen queue has rejected the first question, it would be nice to know why FIVE members (so far) have decided to keep it closed. I haven't cast my vote to reopen, yet. I'm curious to see what happens. Don't worry, before the day is over, if no one else casts a reopen vote, I'll probably do it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 11:52
  • 2
    Probably because the answer is very easy to Google
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 11:57
  • @Mari-LouA - easy to google, less to find. Apparently very few sources give details about its etymology, namely the AHD as far as I could find.
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 9, 2018 at 16:20
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA You can google anything, but will you find the right answer? In this particular case I don't see anything that reconciles the two answers posted on that question currently. For things in general, I've added a section to explain why the information in existing sources isn't always the best answer out there.
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 17:15
  • 2
    The research you added was very weak, minimal, it suggested restraint on your behalf. It hinted that you knew where to look. Well so do I. And so do many other users here too. Copy and pasting answers is not difficult nor time-consuming. The same users (plural!) who post answers after mere minutes is that proof, and unfortunately, SE awards users who post first, and not those who spend an entire afternoon or even a day's of research before posting the best possible answer. And, we all know who those users (we can count them on one hand) are.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 18:06
  • @Mari-LouA Well, I did describe it as "softball research". My reasoning is that if I include a better source I also have to explain why it's not good enough, and that explanation will be more me than OP. I forget where I was going to get the answer when I actually edited, but now it's clear that I need to look in newspapers and such. Also, while it's not as easy, I have been able to find & post original etymological research quickly enough to beat out the copy/paste answers. FGITW FTW :P
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 20:44
  • 1
    @Laurel My reasoning is that if I include a better source I also have to explain why it's not good enough I disagree, if you find two or more conflicting sources with different dates that makes the question so much more interesting and a challenge. Another reason why I didn't jump to reopen is b/c it looked boring. And before anyone says a word, I didn't cast any vote to close it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 20:48
  • @Mari-LouA I'm not sure if I even realized that there was conflicting info until after the question was reopened. What's worse, I don't even know if I even completely read the existing answer (lbf's, before it was completely changed) before I did the edit, since I think I wanted to just use the OED to answer. The question wasn't even open at that point so there was no reason to thoroughly research an answer :P
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 20:58
  • 1
    If Googleable information shouldn’t be posted just on the assumption that it is “too easy to find” (the OED included) then a new set of rules should be drawn to state what paper based information we all should refer to.
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 10, 2018 at 21:48
  • 1
    Are etymology questions as a whole more likely to get closed, moreso than other questions?
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 14:51

2 Answers 2



  1. Etymology questions are no different from any other on-topic question. If they show no effort and no research, they should be placed on hold until the OP, or someone else, fixes/improves their post.

  2. Etymology questions that show research and are not duplicates, should not be closed except in those instances when the answer can be easily googled (see below).

Laurel states [emphasis mine]

What's particularly worrying is that some of these questions include research (even if it's "softball" research).

Case 1

Do we want to see what this question originally looked like when it was closed?

  1. Where does the term, "on the nose" come from?
    Where does the term, "on the nose" (to mean accuracy) come from?

A question consisting of a single line. The OP did not even try to research the answer or if they did, they hadn't shown it. There's a good reason why we ask users to share their research or at least show they attempted. If we didn't, EL&U would become a Q&A etymology dictionary free of charge.

To Laurel's bewilderment, despite adding the requisite research

…three users voted to keep the question closed, which caused the question to be removed from the reopen queue.

That research was very softball, minimalist, it suggested restraint. It hinted that the hi-rep editor knew where to find an answer or could have provided more content. And I suspect that was one of the reasons why the edited question was rejected in the queue.

Was it fair to reject it? No, it wasn't. But the question only supplied the etymology of “nose”. Not impressive detective work by a high-rep user to say the least but perhaps I can guess why Laurel's research was a squishy sponge ball attempt.

Some users complain vociferously when a question they consider off-topic is edited. They accuse editors of tampering with the question or making such radical changes that the newly edited question bears no resemblance with the original (usually a wild exaggeration) But users such as myself, @user240918, @Sven Yargs, @JEL, and @sumelic have all, at one time or another, attempted to save or reopen questions we believed were either important for the site or closed unfairly for being off-topic. There's nothing wrong with adding research on a question to make it on-topic. A question that if left alone would rot in the catacombs of EL&U.

Honorable Mention

In my very opinionated view, it should never have been closed in the first place, and it's a disgrace it was ever deleted in the first place. The OP had included the research from the beginning.

enter image description here

Someone, a hi-rep user, objected [emphasis mine]

This question, despite being interesting, has nothing whatsoever to do with English. "How far is it to the Moon?" has as much to do with English. Asking for its etymology doesn't mean it has a linguistic history, which it doesn't.

Luckily, common sense prevailed, the incriminating term etymology was switched to origin, and What is the origin of the "half your age, plus seven" phrase? is now reopened.

Google's role

If Googleable information shouldn’t be posted just on the assumption that it is “too easy to find” (the OED included) then a new set of rules should be drawn to state what paper-based information we all should refer to @user240918

Questions that ask about the origins of phrases, catch-phrases, slogans, and idioms are always on-topic if the user (or new contributor) shares their research. If the question has not been asked before, it must stay open on the condition that the user has shared or shown that their research efforts have been fruitless.

The research doesn't have to include several different sources, even one reference is enough, just as long as it makes it clear why the question is being asked. Personally, I do not count as research the excuse “I Googled but couldn't find an answer” (We also get that here).

Let's Use Common Sense

Should a question about the history and meaning of “to be or not to be” be left open?

Using the exact phraseology from Case 1, someone might post the following:

Where does “to be or not to be” come from?

It's on-topic, it's an extremely common slogan, and what's more, it has never been asked on this site either. But is it too easy to answer and Google?

Undoubtedly, yes. So, closure is the only sensible option.

What about the following hypothetical question?

What does ‘a man's best friend is his dog’ mean?

Would that question be on-topic today on EL&U? Would a question that didn't even attempt to look up its meaning survive longer than a couple of hours on the main page? Then why should it be any different if the question is about its origin?

Same thing, EL&U users are expected to look up definitions on the Internet, and it's the easiest thing in the world to do. Can't find an answer? Then say so in the question. SHARE the research.

What if the OP explained their confusion?

What does it mean a dog is a “best friend”? (title)

I often see or hear the saying “A dog is a man's best friend”

  1. Why is it only "man" and not men and women?
  2. "Why isn't it "pet"? How can a dog be a friend to a person?

In my culture dogs are said to be unclean and I think they are also very dangerous animals, so I do not understand this phrase.

Next to none research but it matters less. The question seems to be quite interesting, and the answer is not easy to Google unless you know where to look.

The OP explained why they are asking, and answering the question would include its historical origin and a grammar explanation. That would be quite a good question for this site, pity I can't post it here myself. If I did, users would shut it down within hours because I am a high-rep user who should know better.

  • I've incorporated a few of comments I left under the OP in this answer and where it was possible, I've now deleted.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 11, 2018 at 10:46
  • That question (1/2 plus 7) and the one answer has nothing whatsoever to do with the English language. It's simply a sociological question, expressed in a number of different ways. If the question were about a particular wording, I'd find that entirely on-topic.
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 17:23
  • Your use of the phrasing "it's a disgrace it was ever deleted in the first place" right next to naming names (sure, only mine is visible, but that is strange just by itself) is a bit tendentious. Can't we all just get along here without touchy words like 'disgrace'? How about "disagree strongly" and make a case for it?
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 17:27
  • @Mitch [comments merged & edited] I did add the disclaimer: "In my very opinionated view". And I also made the case for disagreeing strongly with its closure and its temporary deletion, the Q had the research from the very beginning. I summarised my ethos (I think it is shared by most members) in the TL;DR . And even if the Q was not "technically" about etymology the same standards apply.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 9:48
  • Please support the claim that the Q (which was answered by Sven Yargs who knows a thing or two about etymology) “…has nothing whatsoever to do with the English language. It's simply a sociological question…” says you and who else?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 9:54
  • @Mitch would you VTC Mine’s a gin and tonic because it is a, basically, a sociological question?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 10:01
  • I’d call it VTC addiction!!!
    – user 66974
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 10:11
  • @user240918 I try to be objective, and objectively, there are a lot of bad, poorly written, off-topic questions on EL&U that should and need to be closed. I've stopped reviewing b/c the task is disheartening.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 10:17
  • @Mari-LouA I wouldn't close the "Mine's a gin and tonic" because there's no obvious literal meaning (and it passes the other quality criteria).
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 13, 2018 at 12:22
  • I don't understand: "If we didn't, EL&U would become a Q&A etymology dictionary free of charge." If a question is poor, down-vote. All content here is provided by users, "free of charge". No Q or A is here unless someone donates it freely. I don't have an ax to grind in this controversy, but it's not clear to me why a user who is curious about a term's etymology needs to research the Q before posing it. If s?he doesn't, and if the Q is simple or boring, it is ignored or down-voted, no? Filtering by closing can improve Qs, but so can down-voting. And comments suggesting research can help too.
    – Drew
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 3:13
  • @Drew drawing from my experience as a newcomer, many of the downvotes my early answers received were not explained, and it was very very frustrating not knowing what was "wrong". Now that I am older and wiser, I can see why someone would DV but that's only because I am a stubborn old jenny, and need to understand through trial and error. Anonymous DV s are absolutely fine with users who know the system and are familiar with the community "vibe" but do not help newcomers.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 7:54
  • (2) when a question is closed, there's a banner and it helps explain what is missing.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 8:04
  • @Mari-LouA: I agree about that. (But votes should be anonymous.) And I see now that I upvoted comments on this general question, long ago, that I now might disagree with. I now tend to think we should be soft on "unresearched" questions that are either interesting or not so simple. On some programming/software SE sites there is often more tolerance for a question that is not researched but that is interesting or whose answers can be interesting, and this can help people. I know that EL&U wants to be mainly for serious language pros, but there's a gap between that community and EL learners.
    – Drew
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 16:48

Here are some thoughts I have on the matter:

The probable reason

One thing that needs to be considered is that it takes time for things to be processed through the review queue, and even if a question is rendered acceptable by community standards, there is no guarantee that it will get enough exposure. That the questions were reopened here at meta suggests to me that this was probably why it remained closed after your edit.

Some Other Reasons for Concern

I agree that there are conflicting ideologies regarding the research guidance. It seems to be roughly down the middle between the philosophy of General Reference Standard wherein a commonly available resource that adequately answers the question needs to actually exist for a question to be closed, and Show the Research Standard where any question which fails to produce research is closed. Each proceedure has its own pros and cons. However, it should first be noted that they both share the same common motivations of addressing overly simple questions, and even some of the same outcomes.

Regarding those common outcomes

I think that we can rule out the Oxford English Dictionary as being the reason for closure. In the first case, questions are given impunity from a research requirement when a direct authoritative answer is not readily available to the general public, and even when the O.E.D. does authoritatively answer a question, its text is not made readily available. In the latter case, we presume that the questioner's own research efforts are enough to prove that just any ol' answer is not enough, almost irrespective of what resources they choose for their research. Either way, lack of accessibility is not a concern here.

Regarding those common motivations

Those are mostly explained in Are Some Questions Too Simple by Jeff Atwood, and the question Should We Introduce A Reasonable Research Standard. We are trying to prevent questions that can be can be "definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference site "with no additional explanation necessary." and to "draw the line in order to avoid English Language & Usage becoming an aggregator of other online resources".

Specific Thoughts Regarding Case 1

I am concerned about the outcome of this case. My own cursory research, to determine if the question complies with the general reference flowchart, was to check to see what the search results for "On the Nose" and Origin was on google, duckduckgo and bing (which won't archive unfortunately). In all three cases I got the phrasefinder's answer within the first three results. It was the top answer on Bing and Google. In this respect, your edit in the first case failed to serve the purpose of our closure reason. I believe that these are reasonably obvious search terms, and if I am not mistaken in that respect, any question regarding this subject should include that article in its research and explain why it is suspected to be inadequate, because it is the first place any reasonable effort would have looked. Just to be clear, I do not mean to suggest that anything that can be found with the aid of a search engine should be barred, but it should not be from a trusted resource within the first few results of the most cursory search for the subject.

You did not want to do that, because you thought it would be overly transformative and put words in the questioner's mouth. I do respect that, because that has its own problems, and as such would be against editing guidelines that prohibit changing the intention of the post. If I recall correctly, one of the reasons an edit can be rejected in the review queue is because it attempts to answer the question, which is effectively what adding research often seems like it tries to do.

However, as a result, the phrasefinder's answer was also included in an answer that simply aggregated theories with no further user input, which is precisely the sort of thing we wished to prevent. I do not mean to be too harsh. I commented upon that answer, and I do agree in part with the response provided with Sven Yargs and user in that there is some value in comiling resources to demonstrate the current state of affairs to demonstrate a present lack of consensus. However, at the same time I believe this is moreso the responsibility of the question than an answer to one, and especially so if the answer does not even attempt to express the conclusion it is trying to support, and why the competing theories are all equally plausible.

Do remember that the help center guidelines for referencing material written by others in an answer requests that we do not merely copy text from external resources, but use select portions to support our own hypothesis. Our contributions need a somewhat personalized touch in order to truly be ours.

Most of the people we are trying to help are not the direct questioner, but people who share the questioner's concern doing a search engine query that will lead them to the webpage. I think that we should leave the impression that we are a distinctly useful resource that is worth checking to them. Now I agree that sometimes even the best of resouces are not enough. I may even agree that questions of origination are a matter of continous research that can not be "definitively and permanently answered". However, we have to have a reasonable expectation regarding what constitutes "enough". When a presumptively correct and readily available answer exists, disaster can still strike. People will exercise faith in the best of resources which are assumed to have rigorously researched the matter, unless it is shown beforehand that any pre-existing available information is inadequate, so these sorts of questions may garner many votes for them under the presumption that they are correct.

When this is at its very worst, what we end up with is a potentially wrong answer that has an overhwelming amount of consensus expressed through faithful votes, and accepted by the user, making it practically pointless for anybody to try and write a better answer to compete with it on our website, because it will be little viewed and perhaps forever doomed to live in the shadow of the overrated answer.

When it is at its very best, the answer is correct but this is optimizing for sand, not pearls and detracts from the distinct usefulness of English Language & Usage as a resource. It also fills the internet with needlessly redundant information, making the truth just that much harder to research because our search result may push a better one down a rank, and displace it onto another page. These are still undesirable consequences.

When a direct answer to the question does not already exist, this is not as much of a problem: There is no general reference to exercise faith in, so people trying to answer the question need to thoroughly explain their own hypothesis and exercise some effort in compiling their own evidence to prove why it is likely to be the best one.

When questioners include the research themselves to it establishes a minimal standard of evidience. It means an equivalent resources is dissatisfactory to submit as an answer all on its own, because it may be no more truthful than what they already provided. The accepted answer will probably require more thorough treatment, and the people auditing the answers may have an idea that the post is not exactly doing anything to actually help address the concern.

In either of those cases, I would personally grant a question impunity from this type of closure because for all practical intents and purposes, the problem is solved. However, I can not say the same about unilaterally imposed edits.

Correct me if I am wrong, but "softball" research by editors does not seem to actually fix the problem much at all. It neither disproves the existance of a problematic general reference answer, nor does it inform us as to what the questioner considers acceptable evidence. Because of these considerations, I would only propose that we edit questions to include research if we can thoroughly prove that the question is presently unsettled. I do appreciate that you were not trying to make an overly transformative post, but by editing in intentionally weak research, there is a considerable risk that a general reference answer will become the accepted answer because the questioner who did not do that research is still in control. That is purportedly the very last thing that we want.

Other Thoughts Regarding Proceedure

If our proceedure does not effectively address the concerns we meant for it to address, then we may as well not have the closure reason, for lack of any practical purpose. It can only serve to obstruct potentially interesting answers from being given to potentially good subject matter. We should not be doing something so harmful unless there is an overriding benefit to us, such as the ones aforementioned.

That is not to say I do not sympathize with your concern that we may be overly zealous with our closure reason. Similarly to your concern for questions of origination as a matter of continous research, I wish people took word comparison questions more seriously, since those often do not have any sort of directly documented answer. The dictionary is not at all designed to directly compare words and it almost always takes some extra work to explain out what difference the definitions impart, if they even address the concern at all. However, despite that and the fact that I think the most commonly checked resources may be in error, I would not encourage reopening a word-comparison question if my cursory research had shown that the question was already addressed by a commonly available existing resource, such as a dictionary of usage, unless I had a reason to suspect that the given answer was wrong and wanted to add my own answer. I do not see you answering the On the Nose Question, and I do not know the full extent of why you so for all we know the Phrasefinder's answer may be the best information currently possible, particularly since it makes reference to a specific dated document, and may be treated as such unless otherwise is proven.

As such, in the future, what I would advise that if you want to have a question reopened without cajoling the questioner into editing the question themselves, that you do is perform a reasonably thorough research effort demonstrating your interest in the question, and consult meta with your planned edit to determine if your interpretation of the post is reasonable by consensus. This way, critical eyes can audit the proposal and determine if iyour proposed edit honors the meaning of the original question, and meta has the chance to audit whether or not the edit solves the problem. This is what I tried to do when I asked if Why Can We Use Inadequate but not Inspecific should be reopened, and I only took action once I got the go-ahead after waiting for a consensus to be established.

  • I'm still reading through things, but the way the reopen queue works is that questions stay in the queue until they are either reopened or get three "leave closed" votes or the reopen votes age away. Undoubtedly, the reason why Case 1 wasn't reopened the first time is because it's an older question and it was no longer in the reopen queue. Had different people seen it in the queue, I'm certain it would have been reopened. Thus, the question I was really asking was why those people voted for it to stay closed, but that sounds terrible as a title :P
    – Laurel Mod
    Commented Nov 12, 2018 at 21:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .