To finish the bar(r)-series, I deviated from my usual practice and chose a word about which there is at present relatively little controversy. However, all is not clear, and two theories about the origin of barricade still compete. According to one, the story begins with words like Italian barra and French barre “bar” (barricades bar access to certain places), while, according to the other, the first barricades were constructed of barrels filled with earth, stones, and the like, so that the starting point should be French barrique or Spanish barrica.
It’s graduation time at many of the nation’s schools and colleges. The commencement ceremony is a great exhalation for all involved and an annual rite of passage celebrating academic achievements. Commencement ceremonies typically feature a visiting dignitary who offers a few thousand inspirational words. Over the years, I’ve heard more of these speeches than I care to admit and have made my own checklist of suggestions for speakers. For those of you giving commencement speeches or listening to them, here’s my advice.
It is curious that, although the modern theory of evolution has its source in Charles Darwin’s great book On the Origin of Species (1859), the word evolution does not appear in the original text at all. In fact, Darwin seems deliberately to have avoided using the word evolution, preferring to refer to the process of biological change as ‘transmutation’. Some of the reasons for this, and for continuing confusion about the word evolution in the succeeding century and a half, can be unpacked from the word’s entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Lincoln’s last speech, delivered on 11 April 1865, seldom receives the attention it deserves. The prose is not poetic, but then it was not meant to inspire but to persuade. He had written the bulk of the speech weeks earlier in an attempt to convince Congress to readmit Louisiana to the Union.
The post two weeks ago was devoted to the origin and history of bar. In English, all words with the root bar- ~ barr- are from French. They usually have related forms in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, but their source in the Romance-speaking world remains a matter of unending debate.
May the Fourth be with you! Playing off a pun on one of the movie’s most famous quotes, May the 4th is the unofficial holiday in which Star Wars fans across the globe celebrate the beloved blockbuster series. The original Star Wars movie, now known as Star Wars IV: A New Hope, was released on 25 May 1977, but to those of us who waited in line after line to see it again and again in theaters, it will always be just Star Wars.
During the first run of my Coursera course on the bilingual brain, a student asked whether changing languages leads to people changing personalities. Considerable discussion ensued about this on the forums. My initial answer was that language was a marker of a set of circumstances and as such was likely to be accompanied by a shift in context.
Last month was a disaster: I confused the Wednesdays and then wrote 2014 for 2015. A student of the Middle Ages, I often forget in which millennium I live, so plus or minus one year does not really matter. We say: “The migration happened six or seven thousand years ago.” This is the degree of precision to which I am accustomed.
23 April marks St. George’s Day. While St. George is widely venerated throughout Christian communities, England especially honors him, its patron saint, on this day. Indeed, his cross, red on a white field, flies as England’s flag. St. George, of course, is legendary for the dragon he slew, yet St. George bested the beast in legend alone. From Beowulf to The Game of Thrones, this creature continues to breathe life (and fire) into our stories, art, and language; even the very word dragon hoards its own gold. Let’s brave our way into its etymological lair to see what treasures we might find.
A priest can be defrocked, and a lawyer disbarred. I wonder what happens to a historical linguist who cannot find an answer in his books. Is such an individual outsourced? A listener from Quebec (Québec) asked me about the origin of the noun bar. He wrote: “…we still say in French barrer la porte as they still do (though less and less) on the Atlantic side of France.
I have always been interested in linguistic heavy metal. In the literature on English phrases, two “metal idioms” have attracted special attention: dead as a doornail and to get (come) down to brass tacks. The latter phrase has fared especially well; in recent years, several unexpected early examples of it have been unearthed.
Last month marked the hundredth anniversary of the Federal Trade Commission, the regulatory agency that looks after consumer interests by enforcing truth in advertising laws. Established by the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the FTC opened its doors in March 16 of 2015, taking the place of the older Bureau of Corporations.
False friends (‘faux amis’) are words in one language which look the same as words in another. We therefore think that their meanings are the same and get a shock when we find they are not. Generations of French students have believed that demander means ‘demand’ (whereas it means ‘ask’) or librairie means ‘library’ (instead of ‘bookshop’). It is a sign of a mature understanding of a language when you can cope with the false friends, which can be some of its most frequently used words.
Leaving behind a legacy that transcends generations today, Abraham Lincoln was a veteran when it came to giving speeches. Delivering one of the most quoted speeches in history, Lincoln addressed the nation on a number of other occasions, captivating his audience and paving the way for generations to come. Here is an in-depth look at Lincoln’s eleven greatest speeches, in chronological order.
Many thanks for comments, questions, and reprimands, even though sometimes I am accused of the sins I have not committed. If I were a journalist, I would say that my remarks tend to be taken out of context. Of course I know what precession of the equinoxes is and italicized e, to point out that it is indeed the right form (precession, not procession).
Yesterday, we invited Eric Jarosinski, aka Nein Quarterly, to guest tweet on the Oxford Academic Twitter account. Instead of our usual academic news and insights, followers were treated to #OxfordMisfortuneCookies and other wisdom. As a former professor, Eric is all too familiar with the many absurdities of academia, which he addresses with his trademark voice of “utopian negation”. Here’s a brief compilation of his tweets.