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‘Awning’ and ‘tarpaulin’

By Anatoly Liberman
The title of this post sounds like an introduction of two standup comedians, but my purpose is to narrate a story of two nautical words. The origin of one seems to be lost, the other looks deceptively transparent; but there may be hope. Both turned up in the seventeenth century: in 1624 (awning) and 1607 (tarpaulin) respectively.

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Glissandos and glissandon’ts

As a musician, I found this absolutely shocking — here I thought I’d been hearing the glissando (the effect created when, for example, a pianist runs his finger up or down the keyboard), all my life, and suddenly it turned out that the very legitimacy of the word had been dismissed by Blom, a prominent music-writer linguist, more than 30 years before I was even born.

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A global ingle-neuk, or, the size of our vocabulary

By Anatoly Liberman
The size of our passive vocabulary depends on the volume of our reading.  Those who grew up in the seventies of the twentieth century read little in their childhood and youth, and had minimal exposure to classical literature even in their own language. Their children are, naturally, still more ignorant. I have often heard the slogan: “Don’t generalize!” and I am not. I am speaking about a mass phenomenon, not about exceptional cases.

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The history of the OED Appeals

The efforts of members of the public have been at the heart of the Oxford English Dictionary for over 150 years. The Dictionary couldn’t have been written without these contributions. We are calling on language lovers everywhere to help us trace the history of words whose origins are shrouded in mystery, with a brand new Appeals area of OED.com. The OED’s record of appealing to the public for assistance stretches back to its very beginnings—to a time when the project not only had nothing to do with Oxford, but wasn’t even a dictionary.

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The OED needs you! Announcing the new OED Appeals

Today the Oxford English Dictionary announces the launch of OED Appeals, a dedicated community space on the OED website where OED editors solicit help in unearthing new information about the history and usage of English. The website will enable the public to post evidence in direct response to editors, fostering a collective effort to record the English language and find the true roots of our vocabulary.

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Monthly etymology gleanings, part 2, September 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Last week’s “gleanings” were devoted to spelling and ended with the promise to address the other questions in the next installment. But, since the previous part inspired some comments, I will briefly return to Spelling Reform. One of the questions was: “Who needs the reform?” Everybody does. At present, children spend hours learning “hieroglyphs” like chair, choir, character, ache, douche, weird, pierce, any and many versus Annie and manly, live (verb) versus live (adjective), and hundreds of others.

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Monthly etymology gleanings, part 1, September

By Anatoly Liberman
First and foremost, many thanks to those who have sent questions and comments and corrected my mistakes. A good deal has been written about the nature of mistakes, and wise dicta along the errare humanum est lines have been formulated. Yes, to err is human, but it is the stupidity and “injustice” of some mistakes that are particularly vexing.

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Do birds and fowls fly?

By Anatoly Liberman
An etymologist is constantly on the lookout for so-called motivation. Why is a cat called cat, and why do English speakers say tree if the Romans called the same object arbor? As everybody knows, the “ultimate truth” usually escapes us. Once upon a time (about five thousand or even more years ago?) in a hotly debated locality there lived the early Indo-Europeans, and we still use words going back to their partly unpronounceable sound complexes.

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The oddest English spellings, part 21: Phony from top to bottom

By Anatoly Liberman
I have written more than once that the only hope to reform English spelling would be by doing it piecemeal, that is, by nibbling away at a comfortable pace. Unfortunately, reformers used to attack words like have and give and presented hav and giv to the irate public. This was too radical a measure; bushes exist for beating about them. Several chunks of orthographic fat are crying to be cut off.

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A brief history of western music defined

Many of you may have seen the cdza video “An Abridged History of Western Music in 16 Genres | cdza Opus No. 7″ (below) that went viral this summer. (cdza, founded by Joe Sabia, Michael Thurber, and Matt McCorkle, create musical video experiments.) To complement this lively celebration of the history of western music, from ragtime to reggae and baroque to bluegrass, we thought about how we can put this music into words. Here’s a quick list of definitions, drawn from the latest edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Music, to help lead you through each genre.

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Do you ‘cuss’ your stars when you go ‘bust’?

By Anatoly Liberman
Here, for a change, I will present two words (cuss and bust) whose origin is known quite well, but their development will allow us to delve into the many and profound mysteries of r. Both Dickens and Thackeray knew (that is, allowed their characters to use) the verb cuss, and no one had has ever had any doubts that cuss means “curse.” Bust is an Americanism, now probably understood everywhere in the English-speaking world. The change of curse and burst to cuss and bust seems trivial only at first sight.

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Finding the right word

How do you choose the right word? Some just don’t fit what you’re trying to convey, either in the labor of love prose for your creative writing class, or the rogue auto-correct function on your phone. Can you shed lacerations instead of tears? How is the word barren an attack on women? How do writers such as Joshua Ferris, Francine Prose, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Simon Winchester weigh and inveigh against words?

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What’s so super about Super PACs?

By Katherine Connor Martin
Back in January we published a short glossary of the jargon of the presidential primaries. Now that the campaign has begun in earnest, here is our brief guide to some of the most perplexing vocabulary of this year’s general election. It may seem like the 2012 US presidential election has stretched on for eons, but it only officially begins with the major parties’ quadrennial nominating conventions, on August 27–30 (Republicans) and September 3–6 (Democrats). How can they be called nominating conventions if we already know who the nominees are?

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(Bi)Monthly Etymology Gleanings for July-August 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Farting and participles (not to be confused with cabbages and kings). Summer is supposed to be a dead season, but I cannot complain: many people have kindly offered their comments and sent questions. Of the topics discussed in July and August, flatulence turned out to be the greatest hit. I have nothing to add to the comments on fart. Apparently, next to the election campaign, the problem of comparable interest was breaking wind in Indo-European.

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The jarring word ‘ajar’

By Anatoly Liberman
All modern dictionaries state that the adverb ajar goes back to the phrase on char, literally “on the turn” (= “in the act of turning”). This is, most probably, a correct derivation. However, such unanimity among even the most authoritative recent sources should be taken with caution because reference books tend to copy from one another. Recycling a plausible opinion again and again produces an illusion of solidity in an area notorious for debatable results. That is why it is so interesting to read books published before Skeat’s dictionary (1882) and the OED came out.

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Red and yellow and pink and green…

By Katherine Shaw
Many of us learn the colours of the rainbow from an early age, but have you ever wondered where the names for the different shades we see around us come from? The origins of many of the words for the colours of the visible spectrum go back far in time, and are ultimately unknown. But the origins of others are better recorded.

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