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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Why does the European Day of Languages matter?

Each year, the European Union celebrates the European Day of Languages on 26 September. To mark this celebration of linguistic diversity, we asked the editors of Forum for Modern Language Studies to tell us why they think people should study some of the major European languages.

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Word Origins

The B-word and its kin

Not too long ago, I promised to return to the origin of b-d words. Today I’ll deal with Engl. bad and its look-alikes, possibly for the last time—not because everything is now clear (nothing is clear), but because I have said all I could, and even this post originated as an answer to the remarks by our correspondents John Larsson (Denmark) and Olivier van Renswoude (the Netherlands).

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Wading through an endless field, or, still gleaning

What is the origin of the now popular phrase in the house, as in “Ladies and gentlemen, Bobby Brown is in the house”? I don’t know, but a short explanation should be added to my response. A good deal depends on the meaning of the question “What is the origin of a certain phrase?” If the querist wonders when the phrase surfaced in writing, the date, given our resources, is usually ascertainable.

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English in 2065

Students are heading back to school this month and many recent high school grads are off to college. At institutions across the country, deans are dutifully studying the Beloit College Mindset List to remind their faculty of the recent cultural experiences that have shaped the today’s youth—and to remind us of how much the world has changed.

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Finding wisdom in Old English

Anglo-Saxon literature is full of advice on how to live a good life. Many Anglo-Saxon poems and proverbs describe the characteristics a wise person should strive to possess, offering counsel on how to treat others and how to obtain and use wisdom in life. Here are some words in Old English that describe what a wise person should aspire to be—and some qualities it’s better to avoid.

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The curious case of culprit

Amnesia, disguises, and mistaken identities? No, these are not the plot twists of a blockbuster thriller or bestselling page-turner. They are the story of the word culprit. At first glance, the origin of culprit looks simple enough. Mea culpa, culpable,exculpate, and the more obscure inculpate: these words come from the Latin culpa, “fault” or “blame.”

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How to write a compelling book review

Summer is a time when many of us have a little extra time for reading. For me, that means Go Set a Watchman, some Haruki Murukami and James Lee Burke, plus summer mysteries and thrillers. It means catching up on what local authors and friends have published. And it means reading new books in my field and writing book reviews.

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Coleridge’s way with words

Why should we commemorate Samuel Taylor Coleridge? The obvious reason is his high status as a poet, but a better one might be his exuberance as a wordsmith. As a poet, after all, he is widely known for only two relatively short works: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan.’ While the academy would no doubt add four or five others prized by specialists, the total number is still small.

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Pluto and its underworld minions

Early this week the spacecraft New Horizons began its flyby of Pluto, sending a wealth of information to back to Earth about Pluto and its moons. It’s an exciting time for astronomers and those intrigued by the dark dwarf planet. Pluto has special significance because it is the only planet in our solar system to have its status as a planet stripped and downgraded to a dwarf planet.

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Talkin’ about a ‘Revolution’

Amid Fourth of July parades and fireworks, I found myself asking this: why do we call this day ‘Independence Day’ rather than ‘Revolution Day?’ The short answer,of course, is that on 4 July, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a day that has been commemorated since 1777.

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Swear words, etymology, and the history of English

Have you ever noticed that many of our swear words sound very much like German ones and not at all like French ones? From vulgar words for body parts (a German Arsch is easy to identify, but not so much the French cul), to scatological and sexual verbs (doubtless you can spot what scheissen and ficken mean, English and German clearly draw their swear words from a shared stock in a way that English and French do not.

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Lies, truth, and meaning

Words have meaning. We use them to communicate to one another, and what we communicate depends, in part, on which words we use. What words mean varies from language to language. In many cases, we can communicate the same thing in different languages, but require different words to do so. And conversely, sometimes the very same words communicate different things in different languages.

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9780199313396 - Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Going sour: sweet words in slang

Slang—mocking, sneering, casting a jaundiced eye on the world’s proprieties—is by its nature sour. It finds approval hard, congratulation challenging, and affection almost impossible. Yet even if slang’s oldest meaning of “sugar” is money, and the second oldest a euphemism for the most common term for defecation, slang, for all its skepticism, cannot resist the tempting possibilities of “sweet.”

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Approaching the big bad word “bad”

In the near future I’ll have more than enough to say about bad, an adjective whose history is dismally obscure, but once again, and for the umpteenth time, we have to ask ourselves why there are words of undiscovered and seemingly undiscoverable origin. Historical linguists try to reconstruct ancient roots.

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“Deflategate,” Fox News, and frats: this year in public apologies

Since publishing Sorry About That a year ago, I’ve been trying to keep track of apologies in the news. Google sends me a handful of news items every day. Some are curious (“J.K. Rowling issues apology over slain ‘Harry Potter’ character”), some are cute (“Blizzard 2015: Meteorologist apologizes for ‘big forecast miss’”), and some are sad (“An open apology to my kids on the subject of my divorce”).

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