I keep receiving this question with some regularity (once a year or so), and, since I have answered it several times, I’ll confine myself to a few very general remarks. Etymology is a branch of historical linguistics dealing with the origin of words. It looks at the sound shape and meaning of words and at the cultural milieu in which words were coined. Quite often a word has related forms in several languages, and all of them have to be compared.
We all know the classic Shakespearean lines – “To be or not to be,” “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” or “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” — but how would these famous lines have sounded to Elizabethan audiences? Are we currently misinterpreting the Bard? This question has been on the mind of Shakespeare scholars, directors, actors, and audiences for a long time, and has proved a tricky problem.
The strange exclamation in the title means “Fiddlesticks! Humbug! Nonsense!” Many people will recognize the phrase (for, among others, Dickens and Agatha Christie used it), but today hardly anyone requires Betty Martin’s help for giving vent to indignant amazement. However, the Internet is abuzz with questions about the origin of the idiom, guarded explanations, and readers’ comments.
This is a postscript to last week’s post on fog. To get my point across, as they say, let me begin with a few short remarks on word origins, according to the picture emerging from our best dictionaries.
Some years ago, I sent off a manuscript to an editor. After the usual period of review, the editor sent back a note saying that he liked the work, but suggested that I should make it “less academic.” I reworked a number of things and sent back a revised version with more examples and a lighter tone. A week later, I got a short email back saying “No really, make it less academic.”
The idea that many, if not most, people exhibit physical signs – tells – when they lie is an old idea – one that has been extensively studied by psychologists, and is of obvious practical interest to fields as otherwise disparate as gambling and law enforcement. Some of the tells that indicate someone is lying include:
Sometimes when looking at some piece of reality, puzzling choices have to be made when describing it as ‘one’, as ‘many’ or perhaps as neither ‘one’ nor ‘many’. Three woodblock prints of the artist Hokusai can illustrate the issue.
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river,… Fog down the river….” This is Dickens (1852). But in 1889 Oscar Wilde insisted that the fogs had appeared in London only when the Impressionists discovered them, that is, they may have been around for centuries, but only thanks to the Impressionists, London experienced a dramatic change in its climate.
The election campaign season licenses two cohorts—politicians and journalists—to take up an even greater share of public discourse than is normally allotted to them. Both of these groups have a demonstrable and statistically verifiable tendency towards cliché, and so it is to be expected that in what’s left of the run-up to the US elections, the public forum will be awash in clichés. And so it is!
I am in Palermo, sitting on the floor of the puppet museum with a circle of teenagers. Around us hang gaudy, dormant marionettes of characters from the Orlando Furioso: the valiant Orlando and his horse Brigliadoro, his rival Rinaldo, his beloved the beautiful Angelica. Their stories are amazing, the stuff of epic and romance; but in fact the teenagers around me, all boys, have been through adventures no less extraordinary, though harsh and real.
The verb curse, as already noted, occurred in Old English, but it has no cognates in other Germanic languages and lacks an obvious etymon. The same, of course, holds for the noun curse. The OED keeps saying that the origin of curse is unknown.
Peter Gilliver has been an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1987, and is now one of the Dictionary’s most experienced lexicographers; he has also contributed to several other dictionaries published by Oxford University Press. In addition to his lexicographical work, he has been writing and speaking about the history of the OED for over fifteen years. In this two part Q&A, we learn more about how his passion for lexicography inspired him to write a book on the development of the Oxford English Dictionary.
Mr. Madhukar Gogate, a retired engineer from India, has written me several times, and I want to comment on some of his observations. He notes that there is no interest in the reform in Great Britain and the United States. I have to agree.
Peter Gilliver has been an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary since 1987, and is now one of the Dictionary’s most experienced lexicographers; he has also contributed to several other dictionaries published by OUP. In addition to his lexicographical work, he has been writing and speaking about the history of the OED for over fifteen years. In this two part Q&A, we learn more about how his passion for lexicography inspired him.
Curse is a much more complicated concept than blessing, because there are numerous ways to wish someone bad luck. Oral tradition (“folklore”) has retained countless examples of imprecations. Someone might want a neighbor’s cow to stop giving milk or another neighbor’s wife to become barren.
Do you have a tattoo to care for? If not, shouldn’t you ask yourself, why not? Butterflies on calves, angel wings on shoulders, Celtic crosses across chests of law-abiding citizens have superseded anchors and arrow-pierced hearts on biceps of the demimonde. The size of your body surface area is the limit, because, “YAS, this gives you life!”