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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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Bamboozle

Two circumstances have induced me to turn to bamboozle. First, I am constantly asked about its origin and have to confess my ignorance (with the disclaimer: “No one knows where it came from”; my acquaintances seldom understand this statement, for I have a reputation to live up to and am expected to provide final answers about the derivation of all words). Second, the Internet recycles the same meager information at our disposal again and again (I am not the only recipient of the fateful question). Since the etymology of bamboozle is guesswork from beginning to end, it matters little how often the uninspiring truth is repeated. Below I will say what little I can about the verb.

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Mustang – Podictionary Word of the Day

Around 500 years ago the Spanish brought horses to the Americas and in the ensuing mêlée enough of those horses escaped captivity that they reestablished themselves as wild animals in the new world. Evidently more than 50 million years ago they evolved here but had become extinct. Although the name for wild horses in North America only emerged into English as mustang in 1808 this name was actually in the works by those same Spanish speakers before they ever shipped the horses across from Europe.

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Monthly Gleanings: June 2010

I often mention the fact that the questions I get tend to recur, and I do not feel obliged to answer them again and again. Among the favorites is the pronunciation of forte “loudly” and forte “a strong point.” Those who realize that the first word is from Italian and the second from French will have no difficulty keeping them apart, though I wonder why anyone would want to say forte instead of strong point or strong feature: in today’s intellectual climate, elegant foreignisms are paste rather than diamonds. Very common is the query about the difference between “I could care less” and “I could not care less.” The “classic” variant is with the negation. Perhaps someone decided that “I could not care less” means “I do care for it” and removed not.

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Break and Brake

Are break and brake related? Yes, they are, but the nature of their relationship deserves a detailed explanation. Break is an ancient word. It has cognates in all the Germanic languages, and Latin frango, whose root shows up in the borrowed words fragile, fragment, and refract, is believed to be allied to it (the infix n may be disregarded for reconstructing the protoform). The principal parts of break in Old English were brecan (infinitive), bræc (preterit singular; æ, as in Modern Engl. man), and brocen (past participle). At that time, verbs like break (so-called strong verbs, which displayed such alternations) had four principal parts.

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Spelling and Swelling: Bosom, Breast, And Others

In today’s English, the letters u and o have the same value in mutter and mother, and we have long since resigned ourselves to the fact that lover, clover, and mover are spelled alike but do not rhyme. (Therefore, every less familiar word, like plover, is a problem even to native speakers.) Those who want to know more about the causes of this madness will find an answer in any introduction to the history of English. I will state only a few essentials. For example, the vowel of mother was once long, as in school, but, unlike what happened in school, it became short and later acquired its modern pronunciation, as happened, for example, in but.

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From Week To Weak

This is a weekly blog, and ever since it began I have been meaning to write a post about the word week. Now that we are in the middle of the first week of the first summer month, the time appears to be ripe for my overdue project.

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Monthly Gleanings: May 2010

Dickens and non-standard speech. In connection with wash-up for worship in Pickwick, it has been noted that, according to some, Dickens’s phonetic spelling cannot be trusted. I am aware of this verdict (compare, among others, his enigmatic kyebosk for kibosh). His rendering of the Yorkshire dialect (in Nicholas Nickleby) and even of Cockney has been challenged more than once.

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