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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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When in Rome, swear as the Romans do

What’s the meaning of the word irrumatio? In Ancient Rome, to threaten another individual with irrumatio qualified as one of the highest offenses, topping off a list of seemingly frivolous obscenities that — needless to say — did not survive into the modern era.

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Do we need the apostrophe?

By Simon Horobin
The recent decision by Devon County Council to drop the apostrophe from its road signs was met with dismay and anger by those concerned about the preservation of linguistic standards. Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, branded it an ‘Apostrophe Catastrophe’ which ‘captures in microcosm the kind of thinking that pervades our government, our institutions, our times’, drawing parallels with the government’s handling of the banking crisis, binge-drinking and sexual assault. Similar prophecies of doom followed the decision by the bookseller Waterstones to drop the apostrophe from its shop names.

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Gleanings from Dickens

By Anatoly Liberman
Some time ago I read Sidney P. Moss’s 1984 book Charles Dickens’ Quarrel with America. Those who remember Martin Cuzzlewit and the last chapter of American Notes must have a good idea of the “quarrel.” However, this post is, naturally, not on the book or on Dickens’s nice statement: “I have to go to America—on my way to the Devil” (this statement is used as an epigraph to Moss’s work).

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Will boys be boys?

By Anatoly Liberman
Within a year, two recent articles on the origin of the word boy have come to my attention. This is great news. Keeping a talent of such value under a bushel and withholding it from the rest of the world would be unforgivable. Nowadays, if a philological journal does not come as a reward for the membership in a popular society, its circulation is extremely low.

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An Oxford Companion to Game of Thrones

The long-awaited third season of Game of Thrones premiers on HBO 31 March 2013 and Oxford University Press has everything you need to get ready, whether you’re looking to brush up on your dragon lore, forge your own Valyrian steel, or learn about some of the most dramatic real-life succession fights culled from our archives.

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A history of psycholinguistics in the pre-Chomskyan era

By Willem Levelt
How do we speak and how do we understand language? It is widely believed that the scientific study of these uniquely human abilities was launched during the 1950s with the advent of Noam Chomsky’s generative linguistics. True, modern psycholinguistics received a major impulse from this “cognitive revolution,” but the empirical study of how we speak and listen and how children acquire these amazing skills has its roots in the late 18th century

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Monthly etymology gleanings for February 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
My usual thanks to those who have commented on the posts, written me letters privately or through OUP, and corrected the rare but irritating typos. I especially appreciate comments that deal with the languages remote from my sphere of interest: Arabic, Farsi, Romany, and so forth. But, even while dealing with the languages that are close to my area of expertise (for example, Sanskrit and Frisian), quite naturally, I feel less comfortable in them than in English, German, or Icelandic (my “turf”).

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‘Guests’ and ‘hosts’

By Anatoly Liberman
The questions people ask about word origins usually concern slang, family names, and idioms. I cannot remember being ever asked about the etymology of house, fox, or sun. These are such common words that we take them for granted, and yet their history is often complicated and instructive. In this blog, I usually stay away from them, but I sometimes let my Indo-European sympathies run away with me. Today’s subject is of this type.

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Maybe academics aren’t so stupid after all

By Peter Elbow
People who care about good language tend to assume that casual spoken language is full of chaos and error. I shared this belief till I did some substantial research into the linguistics of speech. There’s a surprising reason why we — academics and well-educated folk — should hold this belief: we are the greatest culprits. It turns out that our speech is the most incoherent. Who knew that working class speakers handle spoken English better than academics and the well-educated?

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Monthly etymology gleanings for January 2013, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Last time I was writing my monthly gleanings in anticipation of the New Year. January 1 came and went, but good memories of many things remain. I would like to begin this set with saying how pleased and touched I was by our correspondents’ appreciation of my work, by their words of encouragement, and by their promise to go on reading the blog in the future. Writing weekly posts is a great pleasure.

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How come the past of ‘go’ is ‘went?’

By Anatoly Liberman
Very long ago, one of our correspondents asked me how irregular forms like good—better and go—went originated. Not only was he aware of the linguistic side of the problem but he also knew the technical term for this phenomenon, namely “suppletion.” One cannot say the simplest sentence in English without running into suppletive forms. Consider the conjugation of the verb to be: am, is, are. Why is the list so diverse? And why is it mad—madder and rude—ruder, but bad—worse and good—better?

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The Dirty Dozens

English has two great rhyming slanguages, cockney rhyming slang and the dozens, the African American insult game. We’ll leave the parsing of cockney phrases for now and examine the dirty, bawdy, and wonderful world of verbal street duels. While its origins lie in “yo’ mama” jokes, this is language meant for music, as rap and hip-hop today can attest. Here’s a taste with an excerpt from Elijah Wald’s The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for December 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
A Happy New Year to our readers and correspondents! Questions, comments, and friendly corrections have been a source of inspiration to this blog throughout 2012, as they have been since its inception. Quite a few posts appeared in response to the questions I received through OUP and privately (by email). As before, the most exciting themes have been smut and spelling.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for November 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
It has been a tempestuous month in the world but a quiet one in the department of English etymology. Both the comments and the questions I received dealt with separate words, and there have been not too many of them.
Lollygag. In July 2007 I already wrote what I thought about this word. Although most people, at least in America, say lollygag, its doublet lallygag is well-known. The variation is typical.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for October, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Fowl, fox, and pooch. My cautious reservations about a tie between the etymon of fowl and the verb fly were dismissed in one of the comments. Therefore, a few additional notes on that word may be in order. The origin of fowl is uncertain, that is, controversial, not quite unknown.

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