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Back to the fishbowl (1): ‘Herring’

By Anatoly Liberman
The fish known as Clupea harengas has two main names: in the Scandinavian countries, it is called sild or something similar (this name made its way to Finland and Russia), while in the lands where the West Germanic languages are spoken (English belongs to this group) the word is herring, also with several variants, for example, German Hering (the spelling Häring is quite obsolete), Dutch haring, and so forth. The rarely used English word sile “young herring” is a late adaptation of sild. The origin of both sild and herring is doubtful.

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Real ‘spunk’

By Anatoly Liberman
There was no word spunk in Swedish until Pippi coined it (an event recently celebrated in this blog), but in English it has existed since at least the sixteenth century. It is surrounded by a host of equally obscure look-alikes (that is, obscure from the etymological perspective). To deal with them, I should remind our readers that English, like all the other Indo-European languages, is full of words in which initial s- looks like a gratuitous addition. It pretends to be a prefix but carries no meaning; it does not even make words more expressive.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Many thanks to those who responded to the recent posts on adverbs, spelling, and cool dudes in Australia. I was also grateful for friendly remarks on the Pippi post and the German text of Lindgren Astrid’s book (in German, spunk, the Swedish name of the bug with green wings, as I now know, remained spunk).

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Children, Etymologists, and Heffalumps

By Anatoly Liberman
The problem with Christopher Robin’s woozles and heffalumps was that no one knew exactly what those creatures looked like. The boy just happened to be “lumping along” when he detected the exotic creature. “I saw one once,” said Piglet. “At least I think I did,” he said. “Only perhaps it wasn’t.” So did I,” said Pooh, wondering what a Heffalump was like. “You don’t often see them,” said Christopher Robin carelessly. Tracking a woozle was no easy task either. “Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”

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Criticizing the OED

By Anatoly Liberman
The literature on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary is extensive, but I am not sure that there is a book-length study of the reception of this great dictionary. When in 1884 the OED’s first fascicle reached the public, it was met with near universal admiration. I am aware of only two critics who went on record with their opinion that the venture was doomed to failure because it would take forever to complete, because all the words can not and should not be included in a dictionary, and because the slips at Murray’s disposal must contain numerous misspellings and mistakes.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Spelling. I am grateful for the generous comments on my post in the heartbreak series “The Oddest English Spellings.” Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Bell at a congress in Coventry, and around that time I corresponded with Valerie Yule. A positive comment from Peter Demaere (Canada) reinforced my message. The situation is as odd as English spelling. Spelling reform had famous supporters from the start. Great linguists, including Walter W. Skeat and Otto Jespersen, and outstanding authors and public figures agreed that we should no longer spell the way we do.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2012, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Shrew again. Soon after I posted an essay on shrew, in which I dissociated that word from a verb meaning “cut,” a correspondent asked me how my etymology (from “devil”) could be reconciled with the obvious connection between Old Engl. scirfemus (related to sceorfan “cut”) and German Schermaus (related to scheren, the same meaning), the latter from Middle High German scheremus. (The relevant forms can be found in the OED.) The connection referred to in the letter cannot be denied, but I think that both the Old English and the Middle High German word owe their existence to folk etymology: the shrew was associated with venom and its name underwent change.

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Bigger in size but equally ignorant: ‘shark’

By Anatoly Liberman
The fishy series in this blog began with shrimp, reached the heights of prawn, and now, bypassing countless intermediate steps, will offer a discussion of shark. I am sorry to admit that despite the monster’s size and voracity I can say deplorably little about the chosen subject, but, since I always deal with obscure vocabulary, I suffer from self-inflicted wounds and have no reason to complain. Before I come to the point, an apology is in order. While compiling my voluminous bibliography of English etymology, I didn’t encounter references to Tom Jones’s publication on shark.

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After ‘shrimp’ comes ‘prawn’

By Anatoly Liberman
Several people pointed out to me that I cannot distinguish a shrimp from a prawn, and I am afraid they are right. The picture copied for the shrimp post had the title “Shrimp cocktail,” but the shrimp there are too big and are really prawns. In any case, I decided to atone for my mistake and write a post on the etymology of prawn. This plan was hard to realize, because the origin of prawn is really, that is, hopelessly unknown: the word exists, but no one can say where it has come from. It is strange that more or less the same holds for shrimp and shark, though both are less opaque. There must have been some system behind calling those sea creatures. The fishermen who coined such names had a reason to call a shrimp a shrimp and a prawn a prawn.

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The Oddest English Spellings, Part 20

By Anatoly Liberman
Why don’t good and hood rhyme with food and mood? Why are friend and fiend spelled alike but pronounced differently? There is a better way of asking this question, because the reason for such oddities is always the same: English retains the spelling that made sense centuries ago. At one time, the graphic forms we learn one by one made sense. Later the pronunciation changed, while the spelling remained the same. Therefore, the right question is: What has happened to the pronunciation of the words that give us trouble?

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The bizarre history of the Oxford Latin Dictionary

By Chris Stray
When we are unsure of the meaning of a word, or want to know when it was first used, or what alternative spellings it has, we consult the dictionary. People often refer to “the dictionary,” in fact, as if there were only one, or as if it didn’t matter which one was consulted. But then most households probably only have one dictionary of any size, though consultation via computers, tablets, or smartphones is becoming increasingly common.

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Further Adventures of Scr-words, or, the Taming of ‘Shrew’

By Anatoly Liberman
Two weeks ago, I pondered the fortunes of the gregarious shrimp. The next ingredient of the scr- ~ shr- cocktail will be the much maligned but innocent shrew. As The Century Dictionary puts it, “there is no foundation in fact for the vulgar notion that shrews are poisonous, or for any other of the popular superstitions respecting these harmless little creatures.” The shrew is an insectivorous mammal. An old etymology traced shrew to a root meaning “cut” (as in shear) and glossed the word as “biter” on account of its allegedly venomous bite. Another version of this etymology refers to the shrew’s pointed snout. The Old High German cognate of shrew meant “dwarf” (a figure cut short?).

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Know your slang, poindexters?

Never mind if you’ve got the heebee-jeebies, how did we get that word? Winner of the Dartmouth Medal for RUSA/ALA Outstanding Reference Source and 2011 Booklist Editors’ Choice, Green’s Dictionary of Slang is a remarkable collection of this often reviled but endlessly fascinating area of the English language. From the past five centuries right up to the present day, and from all the different English-speaking countries and regions, it demonstrate the sheer scope of a lifetime of research by Jonathon Green, the leading slang lexicographer of our time. We dug through a few of the 10.3 million words and over 53,000 entries — definitions of 100,000 words with over 413,000 citations — to come up with a little quiz to celebrate.

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Monthly Etymology Gleanings for April 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Is loan a verb? Few questions have been asked with such regularity, and few answers have been so definitive, but people keep asking. Perhaps I might make a short introduction. Since English nouns of native origin have no endings (book, rope, pig, cow, goat) and even old borrowed nouns are often monosyllabic (wall, chair, table, desk, pen, lamp) and since infinitives also lack endings (come, go, see, take), the line separating the two grammatical categories is blurred. Some nouns and verbs had different forms in Old English. Such were love (noun) and love (verb); later they lost their endings and now coexist as homonyms. Other verbs were derived from “ready-made” nouns. The opposite process is less common, but consider the nouns meet, say, and go from the corresponding verbs. In principle, any noun can be converted into a verb. “Do students Professor, Dr., or Mr. us at this university?” “Don’t you uncle me!” The messages are perfectly clear.

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A scrumptious shrimp with a riddle

By Anatoly Liberman
My romance with shrimp began when, years ago, I looked up the etymology of scrumptious in some modern dictionary. Naturally, it turned out that the word’s origin is unknown (this happens every time I try to satisfy my curiosity in the area of my specialization). The usually sensible Century Dictionary suggests that scrumptious is an alternation of scrimptious, from scrimption, a funny noun going back to scrimp. The OED thinks so too.

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A Smidget of Regional Terms

By Mark Peters
There are some things I love to an unhealthy degree, such as The Shield, Russian imperial stouts, George Carlin’s comedy, mint chocolate chip ice cream, and Evil Dead 2. My heart beats equally fast for the Dictionary of American Regional English, which recently published its long-awaited final volume.

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