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Codger and His Evil Brother, Cadger

By Anatoly Liberman
Old codger is a phrase most speakers of American English still understand (in British English it has much greater currency), but cadger is either obsolete or dead. Yet the two words are often discussed in concert. A cadger was a traveling vendor, whose duties may have differed from that of a hawker, a peddler (the British spelling is pedlar), or a badger, but all those people were street dealers of sorts. The OED defines cadger so: “a carrier; esp. a species of itinerant dealer who travels with a horse and cart (or formerly with a pack-horse), collecting butter, eggs, poultry, etc., from remote country farms for disposal in the town, and at the same time supplying the rural districts with small wares from the shops.” This meaning was recorded as early as the middle of the 15th century. Derogatory senses like “a person prone to mooching” surfaced in books much later. Also late is the verb cadge “beg,” believed to be a back formation from the noun (like beg from beggar). The origin of cadger is unknown, and I have nothing to say on this subject, except for guessing that it must have been influenced by badger and citing a very old opinion, according to which in the days of falconry the man who bore the “cadge” or cage (a perch for the hawk) was called cadger. This etymology has little to recommend it.

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A literal paradox: “literally” generally means ‘figuratively’

By Dennis Baron
The English language is full of paradoxes, like the fact that “literally” pretty much always means ‘figuratively.’ Other words mean their opposites as well – “scan” means both ‘read closely’ and ‘skim.’ “Restive” originally meant ‘standing still’ but now it often means ‘antsy.’ “Dust” can mean ‘to sprinkle with dust’ and ‘to remove the dust from something.’ “Oversight” means both looking closely at something and ignoring it. “Sanction” sometimes means ‘forbid,’ sometimes, ‘allow.’ And then there’s “ravel,” which means ‘ravel, or tangle’ as well as its opposite, ‘unravel,’ as when Macbeth evokes “Sleepe that knits up the rauel’d Sleeue of Care.”

No one objects to these paradoxes. But if you say “I literally jumped out of my skin,” critics will jump on your lack of literacy. Their insistence that literally can only mean, well, ‘literally,’ ignores the fact that word has meant ‘figuratively’ for centuries.

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How to Read a Word

By Elizabeth Knowles
When I began working for Oxford Dictionaries over thirty years ago, it was as a library researcher for the Supplement to OED. Volume 3, O–Scz, was then in preparation, and the key part of my job was to find earlier examples of the words and phrases for which entries were being written. Armed with a degree in English (Old Norse and Old English a speciality) and a diploma in librarianship, I was one of a group of privileged people given access to the closed stacks of the Bodleian Library.

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Monthly Gleanings: October 2010

By Anatoly Liberman
In 1984, old newspapers were regularly rewritten, to conform to the political demands of the day. With the Internet, the past is easy to alter. In a recent post, I mentioned C. Sweet, the man who discovered the origin of the word pedigree, and added (most imprudently) that I know nothing about this person and that he was no relative of the famous Henry Sweet. Stephen Goranson pointed out right away that in Skeat’s article devoted to the subject, C. was expanded to Charles and that Charles Sweet was Henry’s brother. I have the article in my office, which means I, too, at one time read it and knew who C. Sweet was. Grieved and

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From “Breast” to “Brisket” (Not Counting Dessert)

By Anatoly Liberman
It seems reasonable that brisket should in some way be related to breast: after all, brisket is the breast of an animal. But the path leading from one word to the other is neither straight nor narrow. Most probably, it does not even exist. In what follows I am greatly indebted to the Swedish scholar Bertil Sandahl, who published an article on brisket and its cognates in 1964. The Oxford English Dictionary has no citations of brisket prior to 1450, but Sandahl discovered bresket in a document written in 1328-1329, and if his interpretation is correct, the date should be pushed back quite considerably. Before 1535, the favored (possibly, the only) form in English was bruchet(te).

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Why pay through the nose?

By Anatoly Liberman
Why indeed? But despite our financial woes, I am interested in the origin of the idiom, not in exorbitant prices. On the face of it (and the nose cannot be separated from the face), the idiom pay through the nose makes no sense. Current since the second half of the 17th century and probably transparent to the contemporaries, it later joined such puzzling phrases as kick the bucket and bees’ knees.

Idioms are harder to trace to their “roots” than words. Etymology, though not an exact science, is governed by certain regularities (sound correspondences, patterns of semantic change, and so forth), but a search for the origin of idioms rarely needs the expertise of historical linguists. They will offer good

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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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The Oxford Comment – 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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