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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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“Deuce,” “doozy,” and “floozy.” Part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Don’t hold your breath: all three words, especially the second and the third, came in from the cold and will return there. Nor do we know whether anything connects them. Deuce is by far the oldest of the three. Our attestations of it go back to the middle of the seventeenth century.

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Ostentatious breeches, gods’ braggadocio, and ars poetica

By Anatoly Liberman
As promised, I am returning to the English verb brag and the Old Scandinavian god Bragi (see the previous post). If compared with boast, brag would seem to be more suggestive of bluster and hot air. Yet both may have been specimens of Middle English slang or expressive formations.

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No simplistic etymology of “simpleton”

By Anatoly Liberman
Simpleton is an irritating word. At first sight, its origin contains no secrets: simple + ton. And that may be all there is to it despite the obscurity of -ton. We find this explanation in the OED and in the dictionaries dependent on it.

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Looking “askance”

By Anatoly Liberman
I have been meaning to tell the story of askance for quite some time—as a parable or an exemplum. Popular books and blogs prefer to deal with so-called interesting words. Dude, snob, and haberdasher always arouse a measure of enthusiasm, along with the whole nine yards, dated and recent slang, and the outwardly undecipherable family names.

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Three recent theories of “kibosh”

By Anatoly Liberman
The phrase put the kibosh on surfaced in texts in the early thirties of the nineteenth century. For a long time etymologists have been trying to discover what kibosh means and where it came from. Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Gaelic Irish, and French have been explored for that purpose.

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How courteous are you at court?

By Anatoly Liberman
“Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to look at the Queen,/ Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, what did you there?/ I frightened a little mouse under the chair.” Evidently, our power of observation depends on our background and current interests.

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Flutes and flatterers

By Anatoly Liberman
The names of musical instruments constitute one of the most intriguing chapters in the science and pseudoscience of etymology. Many such names travel from land to land, and we are surprised when a word with romantic overtones reveals a prosaic origin. For example, lute is from Arabic (al’ud: the definite article followed by a word for “wood, timber”).

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When it rains, it does not necessarily pour

By Anatoly Liberman
Contrary to some people’s expectation, July has arrived, and it rains incessantly, that is, in the parts of the world not suffering from drought. I often feel guilty on account of my avoiding the burning questions of our time.

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The highest dictionary in the land?

By Dennis Baron
Perhaps the highest-profile cases to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this term are the two involving the definition of marriage. U.S. v. Windsor challenges the federal definition of marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman” (Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], 1 USC § 7), and Hollingsworth v. Perry seeks a ruling on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage which reads, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

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Multifarious Devils, part 4. Goblin

By Anatoly Liberman
Petty devils are all around us. Products of so-called low mythology, they often have impenetrable names. (Higher mythology deals with gods, yet their names are often equally opaque!) Some such evil creatures have appeared, figuratively speaking, the day before yesterday, but that does not prevent them from hiding their origin with envious dexterity (after all, they are imps). A famous evader is gremlin.

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Multifarious Devils, part 2. Old Nick and the Crocodile

By Anatoly Liberman
In our enlightened age, we are beginning to forget how thickly the world of our ancestors was populated by imps and devils. Shakespeare still felt at home among them, would have recognized Grimalkin, and, as noted in a recent post, knew the charm aroint thee, which scared away witches. Flibbertigibbet (a member of a sizable family in King Lear), the wily Rumpelstilzchen, and their kin have names that are sometimes hard to decipher, a fact of which Rumpelstilzchen was fully aware.

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