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Oh, what lark!

By Anatoly Liberman
For some time I have fought a trench war, trying to prove that fowl and fly are not connected. The pictures of an emu and an ostrich appended to the original post were expected to clinch the argument, but nothing worked. A few days ago, I saw a rafter of turkeys strutting leisurely along a busy street. Passersby were looking on with amused glee while drivers honked. The birds (clearly, “fowl”) crossed the road without showing the slightest signs of excitement.

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Mars: A lexicographer’s perspective

By Richard Holden
The planet Mars might initially seem an odd choice for Place of the Year. It has hardly any atmosphere and is more or less geologically inactive, meaning that it has remained essentially unchanged for millions of years. 2012 isn’t much different from one million BC as far as Mars is concerned. However, here on Earth, 2012 has been a notable year for the Red Planet.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for November 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
It has been a tempestuous month in the world but a quiet one in the department of English etymology. Both the comments and the questions I received dealt with separate words, and there have been not too many of them.
Lollygag. In July 2007 I already wrote what I thought about this word. Although most people, at least in America, say lollygag, its doublet lallygag is well-known. The variation is typical.

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Words we’re thankful for

Here on the OxfordWords blog we’re constantly awed and impressed by the breadth and depth of the English language. As this is a great week to be appreciative, we’ve asked some fellow language-lovers which word they’re most thankful for. From quark to quotidian, ych a fi to robot, here’s what they said:

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Shakespearean passions around ‘bullyragging’

By Anatoly Liberman
After writing a post on bully, I decided to turn my attention to bullyrag, noun and verb, both branded as obscure. The verb has been attested in several forms, but only ballarag is of some interest. Ballywrag is a fanciful spelling of ballarag, while bullrag contains the familiar two elements without a connecting vowel.

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Seven words that gained fame on TV shows

Television shows have a huge influence on popular culture, and so it is not surprising that many words and phrases have come into common usage through the medium of television. Here are a few of our favourite words and phrases that were popularized through iconic TV shows.

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A lovable bully

By Anatoly Liberman
Bullying is a hot topic. Strict laws have been passed with the view of intimidating the intimidators or at least keeping them at bay. Regardless of the consequences such measures may have, linguists cannot ignore the problem and keep out of the public eye. So to arms, comrades! That a word like bully should vex etymologists needn’t surprise anybody.

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Oxford Dictionaries UK Word of the Year 2012: ‘omnishambles’

By Fiona McPherson
A common misconception about the work of a lexicographer is that we sit around in the manner of a cabal each week and argue about what words to include or reject. The fantasy is that we each suggest a word or two and then, after a heated debate, vote, with the result that some words emerge victorious and begin the journey to the dictionary page, while those that are blackballed are consigned to lexical oblivion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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Oxford Dictionaries USA Word of the Year 2012: ‘to GIF’

By Katherine Martin
The GIF, a compressed file format for images that can be used to create simple, looping animations, turned 25 this year, but like so many other relics of the 80s, it has never been trendier. GIF celebrated a lexical milestone in 2012, gaining traction as a verb, not just a noun. The GIF has evolved from a medium for pop-cultural memes into a tool with serious applications including research and journalism, and its lexical identity is transforming to keep pace.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for October, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Fowl, fox, and pooch. My cautious reservations about a tie between the etymon of fowl and the verb fly were dismissed in one of the comments. Therefore, a few additional notes on that word may be in order. The origin of fowl is uncertain, that is, controversial, not quite unknown.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for October, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many questions and comments and will respond to them pell-mell.
Any more ~ anymore in positive statements. A correspondent from Pennsylvania wondered why those around him use anymore as meaning “these days, nowadays” (for example, Anymore, I just see people wearing skinny jeans with flip flops) and whether this usage owes anything to Pennsylvania Dutch. I am almost sure it does not.

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An etymologist among the gods

By Anatoly Liberman
Etymology, a subject rarely studied on our campuses, enjoys the respect of many people, even though they persist in calling it entomology. Human beings always want to know the origin of things, but sometimes etymology is made to carry double, like the horse in O. Henry’s story “The Roads We Take.” For instance, it is sometimes said that etymology helps us to use words correctly. Alas, it very seldom does so. If someone asks us about the meaning of the adjective debonair and is not only informed that a debonair man is genial, suave, and so forth but also that the adjective goes back to the French phrase de bon aire “of good disposition (nature),” this may help.

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The birth of disco

By Denny Hilton
On this day in 1959, a nightclub opened its doors in the quiet city of Aachen, West Germany, and a small revolution in music took place. The Scotch-Club was similar to many restaurant-cum-dancehalls of the time, with one exception: rather than hire a live band to provide the entertainment, its owner decided instead to install a record player…

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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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