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Genius and etymology: Henry William Fox Talbot

By Anatoly Liberman
What does it take to be a successful etymologist? Obviously, an ability to put two and two together. But all scholarly work, every deduction needs this ability. The more words and forms one knows, the greater is the chance that the result will be reasonably convincing.

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Bickering and bitching

By Anatoly Liberman
Respectability in etymology is determined by age: the older, the better. The verb to bicker has been known since the fourteenth century, while the verb to bitch “complain; spoil” is a nineteenth-century invention. On the other hand, the noun bitch occurred already in Old English, so that it is not quite clear which of the two words—bitch or bicker—should be awarded the first place.

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Are we there yet?

By Elizabeth Knowles
Dictionary projects can famously, and sometimes fatally, overrun. In the nineteenth century especially, dictionaries for the more recondite foreign languages of past and present (from Coptic to Sanskrit) were compiled by independent scholars, enthusiasts who were ready to dedicate their lives to a particular project.

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The color gray in full bloom

By Anatoly Liberman
At the end of the nineteenth century, while working on the issue of the OED (then known as NED: New English Dictionary) that was to feature the word gray, James A. H. Murray sent letters to various people, asking their opinion about the differences between the variants gray and grey.

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Gray matter, part 3, or, going from dogs to cats and ghosts

By Anatoly Liberman
The shades of gray multiply (as promised in December 2013). Now that we know that greyhounds are not gray, we have to look at our other character, grimalkin. What bothers me is not so much the cat’s color or the witch’s disposition as the unsatisfactory state of etymology.

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Gray matter, part 2, or, going to the dogs again

By Anatoly Liberman
I am returning to greyhound, a word whose origin has been discussed with rare dedication and relatively meager results. The component -hound is the generic word for “dog” everywhere in Germanic, except English. I am aware of only one attempt to identify -hound with hunter (so in in the 1688 dictionary by Rúnolfur Jónsson).

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Gray matter, or many more shades of grey/gray, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
One day the great god Thor was traveling and found himself in a remote kingdom whose ruler humiliated him and his companions in every possible way. Much to his surprise and irritation, Thor discovered that he was a poor drinker, a poor wrestler, and too weak to pick up a cat from the floor. To be sure, his host, a cunning illusionist, tricked him.

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From the infancy of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
Someone who today seeks reliable information on the origin of English words will, naturally, consult some recent dictionary. However, not too rarely this information is insufficient and even wrong (rejected opinions may be presented there as reliable).

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Edwin Battistella’s Word of the Year Fantasy League

By Edwin Battistella
Oxford Dictionaries have been collecting lexicographic material and updating dictionaries for over a century now, though its Word of the Year award is still relatively recent. Only since 2004 Oxford Dictionaries have been selecting a word that captures the mood of the previous year. Thinking about the possible contenders for 2013 (twerk? fail? drone? shutdown? bitcoin?) got me to wondering about the past.

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“Stunning” success is still round the corner

By Anatoly Liberman
There are many ways to be surprised (confounded, dumbfounded, stupefied, flummoxed, and even flabbergasted). While recently discussing this topic, I half-promised to return to it, and, although the origin of astonish ~ astound ~ stun is less exciting than that of amaze, it is perhaps worthy of a brief note.

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The year in words: 2013

By Katherine Connor Martin
Oxford’s lexicographers use the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), a 2-billion-word corpus of contemporary English usage gathered since 2000, to provide accurate descriptions of how English is used around the world in real life. A corpus is simply a collection of texts that are richly tagged so that they can be analyzed using software (we use the Sketch Engine).

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The “brave” old etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
One of the minor questions addressed in my latest “gleanings” concerned the origin of the adjective brave. My comment brought forward a counter-comment by Peter Maher and resulted in an exchange of many letters between us, so that this post owes its appearance to him. Today I am returning to brave, a better-informed and more cautious man.

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Amazing!

By Anatoly Liberman
Words, as I have noted more than once, live up to their sense. For instance, in searching for the origin of amaze, one encounters numerous truly amazing reefs. This is the story. Old English had the verb amasian “confuse, surprise.”

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“Deuce,” “doozy,” and “floozy.” Part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
It is hard to hide something (anything) from Stephen Goranson (see his comment to Part 1), who will find a needle in a haystack, and The Canterville Ghost is a rather visible needle. Yet Oscar Wilde is no longer as popular as one could wish for.

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