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The Rum History of the Word “Rum”

By Anatoly Liberman
The most universal law of etymology is that we cannot explain the origin of a word unless we have a reasonably good idea of what the thing designated by the word means. For quite some time people pointed to India as the land in which rum was first consumed and did not realize that in other European languages rum was a borrowing from English. The misleading French spelling rhum suggested a connection with Greek rheum “stream, flow” (as in rheumatism). According to other old conjectures, rum is derived from aroma or saccharum. India led researchers to Sanskrit roma “water” as the word’s etymon, and this is what many otherwise solid 19th-century dictionaries said. Webster gave the vague, even meaningless reference “American,” but on the whole, the choice appeared to be between East and West Indies. Skeat, in the first edition of his dictionary (1882), suggested Malayan origins (from beram “alcoholic drink,” with the loss of the first syllable) and used his habitual eloquence to boost this hypothesis.

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Monthly Gleanings: September 2010

By Anatoly Liberman
Is Standard English pronunciation a viable concept? I think it is, even if only to a point. People’s accents differ, but some expectation of a more or less leveled pronunciation (that is, of the opposite of a broad dialect) in great public figures and media personalities probably exists. Jimmy Carter seems to have made an effort to sound less Georgian after he became President. If I am not mistaken, John Kennedy tried to suppress some of the most noticeable features of his Bostonian accent. But perhaps those changes happened under the influence of the new environment. In some countries, the idea of “Standard” has a stronger grip

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Episode 2 – Geeks

In the second episode of The Oxford Comment, Lauren and Michelle celebrate geekdom. They interview a Jeopardy champion, talk sex & attraction with a cockatoo, discover what makes an underdog a hero, and “geek out” with some locals.

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The Sinister Influence of the Left Hand

By Anatoly Liberman
There is something righteous about the right hand: it is supposed to point in the right direction and do everything right. In older Indo-European, even a special word existed for “right hand,” as evidenced by Greek dexios (stress on the last syllable), Latin dexter, and others. A strong association connects the right hand with the south and the left hand with the north. Someone standing with his face turned to the rising sun (for example, while praying), will have his right hand stretched to the south and his left hand to the north. Old Irish tuath meant both “north” and “left” (when facing east). This case is not unique.

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An Exercise in Material Culture, Part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I discussed the origin of the word cushion. Our correspondent wonders whether we are perhaps talking about bedrolls here. Judging by medieval miniatures from the East, old cushions were like those known to us, but the broad scope of referents, with the same word serving as the name of a cushion, bedcover, and mattress, does pose the question of the original object’s form and uses. The reconstructed sense “bundle”

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An Exercise in Material Culture, Part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Borrowed words usually come to us with borrowed things, whether it is melon, pear, pumpkin, potato or church, piano, and sputnik. Yet this is more or less true of the names of things. Outside the world of nouns, people often borrow words they either do not need or may have dispensed with. For example, bold is native, but its numerous synonyms (brave, courageous, intrepid, and quite a few others) are of Romance origin. Subtleties multiply until the embarrassment of riches chokes the speakers who no longer know which near synonym to choose. The infamous F-word was taken over from Low (= northern) German and superseded its English rivals, though nothing changed in the islanders’ habits and the old verbs were equally expressive and equally frequent. It is anybody’s guess why such a strange substitution happened.

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How Old is the Parasite “Like”?

By Anatoly Liberman
When did people begin to say: “I will, like, come tomorrow” and why do they say so? It may seem that the filler “like”, along with its twin “you know”, are of recent date, but this impression is wrong. It is, however, true that both became the plague in recent memory. Occasionally an etymologist discovers a word that was current in Middle or early Modern English, disappeared from view, and then seemingly resurfaced in the modern language. One wonders whether this is the same word…

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Etymological Pettifoggery

By Anatoly Liberman
In regards to the sphere of application, pettifogger belongs with huckster, hawker, and their synonym badger. All of them are obscure, badger being the hardest. Pettifoggers, shysters, and all kinds of hagglers have humble antecedents and usually live up to their names, which tend to be coined by their bearers. At one time it was customary to say that words like hullabaloo are as undignified as the things they designate. Today we call a marked correspondence between words’ meaning and their form iconicity

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The Price of Praise and Prizes, or Prizing up an Etymological Bottle

By Anatoly Liberman
In an essay posted a few months ago, I spoke about the origin of the verb allow and noted its insecure ties with Latin laudare “to praise.” “Allow” and “praise,” as it turned out, form a union not only in English. At that that time, I promised to return to the idea underlying the concept of praise and the etymology of the verb praise. Every man, it is said, has his price, and so does every praise.

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The Oddest English Spellings, Part 17

By Anatoly Liberman
Even the staunchest opponents of spelling reform should feel dismayed. How is it possible to sustain such chaos, now that sustainable has become the chief buzzword in our vocabulary? Never mind foreigners—they chose to study English and should pay for their decision, but what have native speakers done to deserve this torture? The answer is clear: they are too loyal to a fickle tradition.

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Deceptive Compounds, Part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Part 1 appeared long ago and dealt with blackguard, blackleg, and blackmail, three words whose history is unclear despite the seeming transparency of their structure. Were those guards as black as they were painted? Who had black legs, and did anyone ever receive black mail? As I then noted, the etymology of compounds may be evasive. One begins with obvious words (doormat, for example), passes by dormouse with its impenetrable first element, wonders at moonstone (does it have anything to do with the moon?), moonlighting, and moonshine (be it “foolish talk” or “illegally distilled whiskey”), experiences a temporary relief at the sight of roommate, and stops in bewilderment at mushroom. The way from dormouse to mushroom is full of pitfalls. (And shouldn’t pitfall be fallpit? Originally a pitfall was a trapdoor, a snare, a device for catching birds, but then why pit?).

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Monthly Gleanings: July 2010

by Anatoly Liberman HOOSIER. Almost exactly two years ago, on July 30, 2008, I posted an essay on the origin of the nickname Hoosier.  In it I expressed my cautious support of R. Hooser, who derived the “moniker” for an inhabitant of Indiana from a family name. I was cautious not because I found fault […]

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An Etymological Raft

When a journalist on a prestigious paper happens to use a word, it becomes common property almost at once. Suddenly I began noticing raft everywhere: a raft of shabby houses, a raft of proposals, and so forth. Whether raft will attain the status of a buzzword the future will show (it has such potential). Now is the time for all good writers to avoid it. Raft “multitude,” supposedly an Americanism, has slighting or disparaging overtones, though nowadays it sounds more like a colloquialism (“a whole bunch of…”). Its origin is unknown, but in search of help it may be useful to look at the other raft and its environment.

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“Refudiate this, word snobs!”

Here at Oxford, we love words. We love when they have ancient histories, we love when they have double-meanings, we love when they appear in alphabet soup, and we love when they are made up.

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The Long Arm of Calumny

The word libel has perfectly innocent antecedents. Its etymon is Latin libellus, the diminutive of liber “book,” whose root we can see in library. When libel (later also libelle) appeared in English toward the end of the 14th century—a borrowing from Old French—it meant exactly what one expects, that is, “a little book, pamphlet.” The rest is a classic example of a process called in works on historical semantics the deterioration of meaning. The OED traces every step of the downfall. “Little book” → “a formal document, a written declaration or statement” → “the document of the plaintiff containing his allegations and instituting a suit” → “a leaflet assailing or defaming someone’s character” → “any published statement damaging to the character of a person” → “any false or defamatory statement” (the last stage had been reached by the beginning of the 17th century).

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