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Word Origins And How We Know Them

On idioms in general and on “God’s-Acre” in particular

From time to time I receive letters encouraging me to discuss not only words but also idioms. I would be happy to do so if I were better equipped. The origin of proverbial sayings (unless they go back to so-called familiar quotations) and idioms is usually lost beyond recovery.

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Umbrellas and yellow ribbons: The language of the 2014 Hong Kong protests

Late September and October 2014 saw Hong Kong experience its most significant political protests since itThis ongoing event shows the inherent creativity of language, how it succinctly incorporates history, and the importance of context in making meaning. Language is thus a “time capsule” of a place. China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after it stopped being a British colony in 1997, promised universal suffrage in its Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of its political development.

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Word Origins And How We Know Them

A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 3

If you have read the previous parts of this “study,” you may remember that brown is defined as a color between orange and black, but lexicographical sources often abstain from definitions and refer to the color of familiar objects. They say that brown is the color of mud, dirt, coffee, chocolate, hazel, or chestnut.

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Battels and subfusc: the language of Oxford

Now that Noughth Week has come to an end and the university Full Term is upon us, I thought it might be an appropriate time to investigate the arcane world of Oxford jargon — the University of Oxford, that is. New students, or freshers, do not arrive in Oxford but come up; at the end of term they go down (irrespective of where they live).

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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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Is Arabic really a single language?

All language-learners face the difficulties of regional variations or dialects. Usually, it takes the form of an odd word or turn of phrase or a peculiar pronunciation. For most languages, incomprehension is only momentary, and the similarity — what linguists often refer to as the mutual intelligibility — between the standard language taught to foreigners and the regional speech pattern is maintained.

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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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Why learn Arabic?

To celebrate the launch of our new Oxford Arabic Dictionary (in print and online), the Chief Editor, Tressy Arts, explains why she decided to become an Arabist…When I tell people I’m an Arabist, they often look at me like they’re waiting for the punchline. Some confuse it with aerobics and look at me dubiously [...]

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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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Translating untranslatable words

For most language learners and lovers, translation is a hot topic. Should I translate new vocabulary into my first language? How can I say x in Japanese? Is this translated novel as good as the original? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that Pushkin isn’t Pushkin unless he’s read in Russian.

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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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Quebec French and the question of identity

The French language came to North America with the first French settlers in the 17th century. French and British forces had long been at war before the final victory of Britain in the mid 18th century; after the loss of New France, France lost contact with its settlers and Quebec French became isolated from European French.

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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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