Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Book thumbnail image

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”).

Read More
Book thumbnail image

‘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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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?

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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?

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Monthly etymology gleanings for October, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many questions and comments and will respond to them pell-mell.
Any more ~ anymore in positive statements. A correspondent from Pennsylvania wondered why those around him use anymore as meaning “these days, nowadays” (for example, Anymore, I just see people wearing skinny jeans with flip flops) and whether this usage owes anything to Pennsylvania Dutch. I am almost sure it does not.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

When a language dies

By Nancy C. Dorian
When he died recently, Bobby Hogg took the Cromarty fisherfolk dialect out of existence with him, at least as a fluently spoken mother tongue, and the media took notice. The BBC reported on his death, celebrating the unique nature of his native dialect. In an Associated Press report originating in London, his dialect was spoken of as “a little fragment of the English linguistic mosaic.” A knowledgeable University of Aberdeen linguist spoke of this as “the first time that an actual Scots dialect has so dramatically died with the passing of the last native speaker.”

Read More
Book thumbnail image

The oddest English spellings, part 21: Phony from top to bottom

By Anatoly Liberman
I have written more than once that the only hope to reform English spelling would be by doing it piecemeal, that is, by nibbling away at a comfortable pace. Unfortunately, reformers used to attack words like have and give and presented hav and giv to the irate public. This was too radical a measure; bushes exist for beating about them. Several chunks of orthographic fat are crying to be cut off.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

(Bi)Monthly Etymology Gleanings for July-August 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Farting and participles (not to be confused with cabbages and kings). Summer is supposed to be a dead season, but I cannot complain: many people have kindly offered their comments and sent questions. Of the topics discussed in July and August, flatulence turned out to be the greatest hit. I have nothing to add to the comments on fart. Apparently, next to the election campaign, the problem of comparable interest was breaking wind in Indo-European.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Understanding ‘the body’ in fairy tales

By Scott B. Weingart and Jeana Jorgensen
Computational analysis and feminist theory generally aren’t the first things that come to mind in association with fairy tales. This unlikely pairing, however, can lead to important insights regarding how cultures understand and represent themselves. For example, by looking at how characters are described in European fairy tales, we’ve been able to show how Western culture tends to bias the younger generation, especially the men.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Grammar sticklers may have OCD

By Dennis Baron
It used to be we thought that people who went around correcting other people’s grammar were just plain annoying. Now there’s evidence they are actually ill, suffering from a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder/oppositional defiant disorder (OCD/ODD). Researchers are calling it Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome, or GPS.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

I been, I seen, I done

By Anatoly Liberman
The forms in the title are substandard but ubiquitous in conversational English, and the universally understood reference to the genre called whodunit (it originated about seventy years ago) testifies to its partial victory. I have often heard the question about their origin and will try to answer it, though my information is scanty and to the best of my knowledge, a convincing theory of whodunit (the construction, not the genre) is lacking, which does not augur well for a detective story.

Read More