Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

January 2011

Book thumbnail image

Monthly Gleanings: January 2011

By Anatoly Liberman

I have collected many examples about which I would like to hear the opinion of our correspondents. Perhaps I should even start an occasional column under the title “A Word Lover’s Complaint.”

Hanging as. Everybody must have seen sentences like the following: “…as the president, our cares must be your concern.” This syntax seems to be acceptable in American English, for it occurs everywhere, from the most carefully edited newspapers to essays by undergraduate students. The idea of the sentence given above is obvious: “you, being the president…” or “since you are the president…” but doesn’t the whole sound odd? Don’t we expect something like “as the president, you should (are expected to)….”

Read More
Book thumbnail image

On nuts, spoons, and the metaphors borrowed from sex & food

By Anatoly Liberman

Last week I mentioned the idiom to be (dead) nuts on ‘to be in love with’ and the verb spoon ‘to make love’ and promised to say something about both. After such a promise our readers must have spent the middle of January in awful suspense. So here goes. The semantic range of many slang words is often broad, but the multitude of senses attested for Engl. nut (see the OED) is amazing. I will reproduce some of them, both obsolete and current: “a source of pleasure or delight” (“To see me here would be simply nuts to her”), nuts in the phrases to be (dead) nuts on “to be in love of, fond of, or delighted with,”

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Erstwhile Slang: ‘Masher’…

By Anatoly Liberman

Mash has nothing to do with mass or mess, but it sounds like them, and since I have been meaning to write about masher ‘lady killer, etc.’ for a long time (see the last sentence of the previous post), I decided that this is the proper moment to do so. Some of our best dictionaries say that the origin of masher is unknown. However, if we disregard a few insupportable conjectures, the conclusion at which we will arrive won’t surprise anyone: masher is mash plus -er. Only mash poses problems. Masher enjoyed tremendous popularity during the last two decades of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, before it more or less faded from people’s memory.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Time to get Wilde

By Anatoly Liberman

Oscar Wilde is most often quoted for his infinite wit, and those who know him are mainly aware of his comedies. Some people are still charmed by his fairy tales (“The Happy Prince” and a few others; you should have seen how my undergraduate students – those poor products of popular culture – listen to this story!) and cannot shake off the attraction of The Picture of Dorian Gray. But usually he is mentioned, if at all, in the context of his innumerable mannerisms, the overblown cult of the beautiful, homosexuality, and tragic imprisonment. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a famous title, but I wonder who reads the poem today. More than anything else, Wilde wanted to sound brilliant, which did not cost him the least effort, because he was brilliant. His paradoxes have become proverbial.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

‘Mass,’ ‘Mess,’ ‘Miss,’ and their kin: Part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

Two weeks ago, I devoted a post to the history of the word mass “service.” While explaining how missa was abstracted from the Latin phrase missa est “is dismissed” and then turned into a noun, I quoted a bit ironically The Century Dictionary. In its opinion, the word for dismissal was applied to the entire service “by an easy transfer.” The transfer is far from easy, but I did not want to make a long post even longer and stopped there. As a result, I received two questions: one about the special literature on the etymology of mass and one just on this “easy transfer.” First the literature. Some titles are mentioned in my bibliography of English etymology. Perhaps the most interesting of them is the oldest, by John Bruce, “On the Word ‘Mass’” in Archaeologia 21, 1826, 113-16. In those days and even much later, journals on archeology, local antiquities, ethnology, and folklore often accepted contributions on the history of words (some of them still do).

Read More