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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
As usual, many thanks for the letters, questions, and comments. I answered some of them privately, when I thought that the material would not be interesting to most of our readers. In a few cases (and this is what I always say) I simply took the information into account. My lack of reaction should not be misunderstood for indifference or ingratitude.

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Kotodama: the multi-faced Japanese myth of the spirit of language

By Naoko Hosokawa
In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama (言霊, ことだま); a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language. This belief originates in ancient times as part of Shintoist ritual but the idea has survived through Japanese history and the term kotodama is still frequently mentioned in public discourse.

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Small triumphs of etymology: “oof”

By Anatoly Liberman
There is an almost incomprehensible number of English words for money and various coins. Some of them, like shilling, are very old. We know (or we think that we know) where they came from. Other words (the majority) surfaced as slang, and our record of them seldom goes beyond the early modern period.

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Little triumphs of etymology: “pedigree”

By Anatoly Liberman
If I find enough material, I may tell several stories about how after multiple failures the ultimate origin of a common English word has been found to (almost) everybody’s satisfaction. The opening chapter in my prospective Decameron will deal with pedigree, which surfaced in English texts in the early fifteenth century.

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Henry James, or, on the business of being a thing

By Jeff Sherwood
It is virtually impossible for an English-language lexicographer to ignore the long shadow cast by Henry James, that late nineteenth-century writer of fiction, criticism, and travelogues. We can attribute this in the first place to the sheer cosmopolitanism of his prose.

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Henry Bradley on spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I wrote about Henry Bradley’s role in making the OED what it is: a mine of information, an incomparable authority on the English language, and a source of inspiration to lexicographers all over the world

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Unsung heroes of English etymology: Henry Bradley (1845-1923)

By Anatoly Liberman
At one time I intended to write a series of posts about the scholars who made significant contributions to English etymology but whose names are little known to the general public. Not that any etymologists can vie with politicians, actors, or athletes when it comes to funding and fame, but some of them wrote books and dictionaries and for a while stayed in the public eye.

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Word histories: conscious uncoupling

By Simon Thomas
Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin (better known as an Oscar-winning actress and the Grammy-winning lead singer of Coldplay respectively) recently announced that they would be separating. While the news of any separation is sad, we can’t deny that the report also carried some linguistic interest.

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Etymology as a profession

By Anatoly Liberman
Two or three times a year I receive questions about what the profession of an etymologist entails. I usually answer them briefly in my “gleanings,” and once I even devoted a post to this subject. Perhaps it won’t hurt if I return to the often-asked question again.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for March 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
Beguines.
The origin of Beguine is bound to remain unknown, if “unknown” means that no answer exists that makes further discussion useless. No doubt, the color gray could give rise to the name. If it were not so, this etymology would not have been offered and defended by many scholars.

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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 4

By Anatoly Liberman
Apart from realizing that each of the three words in question (beggar, bugger, and bigot) needs an individual etymology, we should keep in mind that all of them arose as terms of abuse and sound somewhat alike. The Beguines,Beghards, and Albigensians have already been dealt with.

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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 3

By Anatoly Liberman
Unlike so many words featured in this blog, bugger has a well-ascertained origin, but it belongs with the rest of this series because it sheds light on its companions beggar and bigot.

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How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?

By Lynne Murphy
For 20 years, 14 of those in England, I’ve been giving lectures about the social power afforded to dictionaries, exhorting my students to discard the belief that dictionaries are infallible authorities. The students laugh at my stories about nuns who told me that ain’t couldn’t be a word because it wasn’t in the (school) dictionary and about people who talk about the Dictionary in the same way that they talk about the Bible.

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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
The final sentence in the essay posted in January was not a statement but a question. We had looked at several hypotheses on the origin of the verb beg and found that none of them carried conviction. It also remained unclear whether beg was a back formation on beggar or whether beggar arose as a noun agent from the verb.

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Monthly gleanings for February 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
I am impressed. Not long ago I asked two riddles. Who coined the phrase indefatigable assiduity and who said that inspiration does not come to the indolent? The phrase with assiduity turns up on the Internet at once (it occurs in the first chapter of The Pickwick Papers), but John Cowan pointed out that Dickens may have used (parodied?) a popular cliché of that time.

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