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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Season’s greetings, or “That’s the cheese”

As every student of etymology knows, today, after at least five centuries of European historical linguistics, it is hard and often impossible to discover what has been said about the origin of any word of such well-researched languages as Classical Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, German, or English. Hence my fight for updated analytic etymological dictionaries […]

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Moping on a broomstick

One of the dialogues in Jonathan Swift’s work titled A complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation­ (1738) runs as follows

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Oxford Dictionaries

The advantage of ‘trans’

In the late 1990s, I attended a conference focused on “those who identify at the male end of the gender spectrum.” At the end of the conference, organizers asked each participant to fill out an exit poll, intended to capture demographic information about conference attendees.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

A laughing etymologist in a humorless crowd

I have noticed that many of my acquaintances misuse the phrases a dry sense of humor and a quiet sense of humor. Some people can tell a joke with a straight face, but, as a rule, they do it intentionally; their performance is studied and has little to do with “dryness.”

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Yes? Yeah….

Two weeks ago, I discussed the troubled origin of the word aye “yes,” as in the ayes have it, and promised to return to this word in connection with some other formulas of affirmation. The main of them is yes.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Monthly etymology gleanings for November 2014

As always, I want to thank those who have commented on the posts and written me letters bypassing the “official channels” (though nothing can be more in- or unofficial than this blog; I distinguish between inofficial and unofficial, to the disapproval of the spellchecker and some editors). I only wish there were more comments and letters.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

The ayes have it

The ayes may have it, but we, poor naysayers, remain in ignorance about the derivation of ay(e) “yes.” I hope to discuss the various forms of assent in December, and we’ll see that that the origin of some synonyms of ay(e) is also enigmatic.

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9780199742677

How did we get from snuff to vaping?

Oxford Dictionaries has selected vape as Word of the Year 2014, so we asked several experts to comment on language and the words that defined this past year. Vaping is having an interesting cultural moment. Use of the word is increasing rapidly, as the Oxford Dictionaries editors note, although many people are still unfamiliar with […]

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Oxford Dictionaries

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is… vape

As 2014 draws to a close, it’s time to look back and see which words have been significant throughout the past twelve months, and to announce the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Without further ado, we can exclusively reveal that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2014 is…vape.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

On idioms in general and on “God’s-Acre” in particular

From time to time I receive letters encouraging me to discuss not only words but also idioms. I would be happy to do so if I were better equipped. The origin of proverbial sayings (unless they go back to so-called familiar quotations) and idioms is usually lost beyond recovery.

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Umbrellas and yellow ribbons: The language of the 2014 Hong Kong protests

Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since itThis ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place. China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 3

If you have read the previous parts of this “study,” you may remember that brown is defined as a color between orange and black, but lexicographical sources often abstain from definitions and refer to the color of familiar objects. They say that brown is the color of mud, dirt, coffee, chocolate, hazel, or chestnut.

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9780199665280

Battels and subfusc: the language of Oxford

Now that Noughth Week has come to an end and the university Full Term is upon us, I thought it might be an appropriate time to investigate the arcane world of Oxford jargon — the University of Oxford, that is. New students, or freshers, do not arrive in Oxford but come up; at the end of term they go down (irrespective of where they live).

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 1

Color words are among the most mysterious ones to a historian of language and culture, and brown is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. At first blush (and we will see that it can have a brownish tint), everything is clear. Brown is produced by mixing red, yellow, and black.

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