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Word Origins And How We Know Them

A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 1

Color words are among the most mysterious ones to a historian of language and culture, and brown is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. At first blush (and we will see that it can have a brownish tint), everything is clear. Brown is produced by mixing red, yellow, and black.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

A wrapping rhapsody

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (ODEE) says about the verb wrap (with the abbreviations expanded): “…of unknown origin, similar in form and sense are North Frisian wrappe stop up, Danish dialectal vrappe stuff; and cf. Middle Engl. bewrappe, beside wlappe (XIV), LAP3.”

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

Doing things with verve

It occurred to me to write a short essay about the word verve by chance. As a general rule, I try to stick to my last and stay away from Romance etymology, even though the logic of research occasionally makes me meddle with it.

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The history of the word “qualm”

Once John Cowan suggested that I touch on the murky history of the noun qualm and try to shed light on it. To the extent that I can trust my database, this word, which is, naturally, featured in all dictionaries, hardly ever appears in the special scholarly literature.

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There are more ways than one to be thunderstruck

By Anatoly Liberman
On 20 November 2013, I discussed the verbs astonish, astound, and stun. Whatever the value of that discussion, it had a truly wonderful picture of a stunned cat and an ironic comment by Peter Maher on the use of the word stunning.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for July 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
Since I’ll be out of town at the end of July, I was not sure I would be able to write these “gleanings.” But the questions have been many, and I could answer some of them ahead of time.

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Which witch?

By Anatoly Liberman
To some people which and witch are homophones. Others, who differentiate between w and wh, distinguish them. This rather insignificant phenomenon is tackled in all books on English pronunciation and occasionally rises to the surface of “political discourse.”

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Living in a buzzworld

By Anatoly Liberman
A few weeks ago, I talked about euphemisms on Minnesota Public Radio. The comments were many and varied. Not unexpectedly, some callers also mentioned clichés, and I realized once again that in my resentment of unbridled political correctness, the overuse of buzzwords, and the ineradicable habit to suppress the truth by putting on it a coating of sugary euphemisms I am not alone.

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Marquises and other important people keeping up to the mark

By Anatoly Liberman
The names of titles have curious sources and often become international words. The history of some of them graces student textbooks. Marshal, for instance, is an English borrowing from French, though it came to French from Germanic, where it meant “mare servant” (skalkaz “servant, slave”). Constable meant “the count of the stable.”

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A globalized history of “baron,” part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
I will begin with a short summary of the previous post. In English texts, the noun baron surfaced in 1200, which means that it became current not much earlier than the end of the twelfth century. It has been traced to Semitic (a fanciful derivation), Celtic, Latin (a variety of proposals), and Germanic. The Old English words beorn “man; fighter, warrior” and bearn “child; bairn” are unlikely sources of baron.

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A globalized history of “baron,” part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Once again we are torn between Rome, the Romance-speaking world, and England. The word baron appeared in English texts in 1200, and it probably became current shortly before that time, for such an important military title would hardly have escaped written tradition for too long.

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