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Low-Key Thoughts on ‘Highfalutin’

By Anatoly Liberman

Allegedly a nineteenth-century Americanism, highfalutin is now known everywhere in the English speaking world, but, as could be expected, its etymology has not been discovered—“as could be expected,” because the origin of such words is almost impossible to trace. Many years ago, while investigating the history of skedaddle, I think I found a reasonable source of this verb. I was neither the first nor the second to discover it, but I put some polish (“kibosh,” as sculptors said 150 years ago) on it. My thoughts on highfalutin are low-key for an obvious reason. As will be seen, I have only one feeble idea and am offering it in the hope that, despite the lack of a persuasive solution, it may redirect the search for the source of this enigmatic adjective. But before sharing my small treasure with the world, I would like to quote the explanation given in John Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (the spelling and punctuation of

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Monthly Gleanings: November 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

Many thanks for the letters, questions, and corrections. I am especially grateful to Benjamin Slade for calling my attention to the post on rum (beverage) in his blog and to Michael Quinion, who grappled with dilemna long before me, came to similar conclusions, and cited 18th-century examples of this horrific spelling. It seems to be ineradicable, and the sad thing is that some teachers insist on writing -mn- in this word, to the despair of their literate charges and the charges’ parents. It is also a pleasure to receive irrelevant personal letters telling me, for example, about a visit of a fox in the correspondent’s garden (in connection with my post on foxglove). Guilty of what Shakespeare in Sonnet 62 called the sin of self-love, I particularly relish letters that begin with introductions like: “I enjoy reading your blog.” I enjoy writing it, but aging actors need constant encouragement. So now that Thanksgiving is behind, thank you all very much.

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On the internet, nobody knows you can’t spell

By Dennis Baron
The English Spelling Society has released a report blaming the internet for what it sees as the current epidemic of bad spelling: “The increasing use of variant spellings . . . has been brought about by people typing at speed in chatrooms and on social networking sites where the general attitude is that there isn’t a need to correct typos or conform to spelling rules.”

Many people have come to the same conclusion, despite the fact that, by popular demand, almost all of our digital devices come equipped with unforgiving spell-checkers that mark every mistake with bright red lynes lines.

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On Giving Thought and Giving Thanks

By Anatoly Liberman
Every year, at the end of November some newspaper asks me about the history of the word turkey or about the origin of the idioms cold turkey and talk turkey. While waiting for the unavoidable query, I decided to devote a post to the history of the verbs think and thank. Their history is well-known, but it is not simple and not entirely trivial. “Think” is an abstract concept that must have grown from some more concrete one. For example, Latin cogitare “think” goes back to co- + -agitare, that is, “put in motion, turn over in the mind.” Think may perhaps be compared with archaic and rare Latin tongere “to know” (the second conjugation) and another verb meaning “weigh.” If the proposed correspondence is valid, the senses “know” and “think” evolved from the idea of weighing things in the mind, taking weighty decisions, or something similar.

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OUP UK 2010 Word of the Year: Big Society

By Susie Dent
Our final choice for the word of 2010, the coalition’s new dream of the big society, is no less a mirror of the times, in this case of the extraordinary political events of the year. The term’s success within a short period of time has been impressive, underscored by the ease with which it is now played upon: when the new PM visited China, both the Times and the Guardian headlined his challenge as ‘Cameron confronts the biggest society’.

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A Deliciously Rich Year for Language (nom nom!)

By Christine Lindberg

Popular culture . . .

In 2010, much of our uneasy fascination turned from zombie banks to plain old zombies. Well, maybe not “plain old.” It’s been a phenomenal year for zombies, who have commanded huge markets in the entertainment industry and a seemingly insatiable fan base.

As zombies roamed the planet, another breed of “outsiders”—nerds and geeks—continued to transcend the “lowliness” assigned to them in the 1950s. Just a generation ago, the word gleek (a fan of TV’s Glee) would have been considered a putdown, but now it is more a term of affection and is wholly embraced by the gleeks themselves.

One of television’s most familiar out-of-step characters will be missed when Michael Scott exits The Office at the end of this season, leaving us to wonder if there’s anyone else who can make the totally resistible phrase “that’s what she said” so irresistible?

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” :) when you say that, pardner” – the tweet police are watching

By Dennis Baron
Last Spring the New York Times reported that more and more grammar vigilantes are showing up on Twitter to police the typos and grammar mistakes that they find on users’ tweets. According to the Times, the tweet police “see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette,” and some of them go so far as to write algorithms that seek out tweets gone wrong (John Metcalfe, “The Self-Appointed Twitter Scolds,” April 28, 2010).

Twitter users post “tweets,” short messages no longer than 140 characters (spaces included). That length restriction can lead to beautifully-crafted, allusive, high-compression tweets where every word counts, a sort of digital haiku. But most tweets are not art. Instead, most users use Twitter to tell friends what they’re up to, send notes, and make offhand comments, so they squeeze as much text as possible into that limited space by resorting to abbreviations, acronyms, symbols, and numbers for letters, the kind of shorthand also found, and often criticized, in texting on a mobile phone.

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“Refudiate” Didn’t Start with Sarah Palin

By Ammon Shea

Every year, a group of people at OUP USA put our heads together and come up with a Word of the Year. This is an example of a word (or expression) that we feel has attracted a great deal of new interest in the year to date. It need not have been coined within the past twelve months (although it generally is a new word). It does not have to be a word that will stick around for a good length of time (it is very difficult to accurately predict which new words will have staying power). It does not even have to be a word that we plan on introducing into the dictionary (at least, not unless it seems fairly certain that it will stick around for a while).

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Walter W. Skeat Faces the World

By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I wrote that one day I would reproduce some memorable statements from Skeat’s letters to the editors. This day has arrived. I have several cartons full of paper clippings, the fruit of the loom that has been whirring incessantly for more than twenty years: hundreds of short and long articles about lexicographers, with Skeat occupying a place of honor. A self-educated man in everything that concerned the history of Germanic, he became the greatest expert in Old and Middle English and an incomparable etymologist. In England, only Murray, the editor of the OED, and Henry Sweet were his equals, and in Germany, only Eduard Sievers. Joseph Wright, another autodidact

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The Oxford Comment – Episode 6 – Refudiate

If you haven’t heard – well, how haven’t you heard? “Refudiate” is the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2010 Word of the Year.

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OUP USA 2010 Word of the Year: Refudiate

Tweet Editor’s note: I love being right. I really, really love it. In July, I guessed that “refudiate” would be named Word of the Year, and TA-DAH! I was right. What Paul the Octopus was to the FIFA World Cup, I am to WOTY (may he rest in peace). But that’s enough about me because […]

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Etymologists at War with a Flower: Foxglove

By Anatoly Liberman
The origin of plant names is one of the most interesting areas of etymology. I have dealt with henbane, hemlock, horehound, and mistletoe and know how thorny the gentlest flowers may be for a language historian. It is certain that horehound has nothing to do with hounds, and I hope to have shown that henbane did not get its name because it is particularly dangerous to hens (which hardly ever peck at it, and even if they did, why should they have been chosen as the poisonous plant’s preferred victims?). On the face of it, the word foxglove makes no sense, because foxes do without gloves and even without hands. The scientific name of foxglove is Digitalis (the best-known variety is Digitalis purpurea), apparently, because it looks like a thimble and can be easily fitted over a finger (Latin digitus “finger”). See more about it below. The puzzling part is fox-. It was such even in Old English (foxes glofa, though the name seems to have been applied to a different plant), so that nothing has been “corrupted,” to use one of the favorite words of 19th-century etymologists, both professional and amateurs.

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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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