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Monthly Gleanings: January 2011

By Anatoly Liberman

I have collected many examples about which I would like to hear the opinion of our correspondents. Perhaps I should even start an occasional column under the title “A Word Lover’s Complaint.”

Hanging as. Everybody must have seen sentences like the following: “…as the president, our cares must be your concern.” This syntax seems to be acceptable in American English, for it occurs everywhere, from the most carefully edited newspapers to essays by undergraduate students. The idea of the sentence given above is obvious: “you, being the president…” or “since you are the president…” but doesn’t the whole sound odd? Don’t we expect something like “as the president, you should (are expected to)….”

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On nuts, spoons, and the metaphors borrowed from sex & food

By Anatoly Liberman

Last week I mentioned the idiom to be (dead) nuts on ‘to be in love with’ and the verb spoon ‘to make love’ and promised to say something about both. After such a promise our readers must have spent the middle of January in awful suspense. So here goes. The semantic range of many slang words is often broad, but the multitude of senses attested for Engl. nut (see the OED) is amazing. I will reproduce some of them, both obsolete and current: “a source of pleasure or delight” (“To see me here would be simply nuts to her”), nuts in the phrases to be (dead) nuts on “to be in love of, fond of, or delighted with,”

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Erstwhile Slang: ‘Masher’…

By Anatoly Liberman

Mash has nothing to do with mass or mess, but it sounds like them, and since I have been meaning to write about masher ‘lady killer, etc.’ for a long time (see the last sentence of the previous post), I decided that this is the proper moment to do so. Some of our best dictionaries say that the origin of masher is unknown. However, if we disregard a few insupportable conjectures, the conclusion at which we will arrive won’t surprise anyone: masher is mash plus -er. Only mash poses problems. Masher enjoyed tremendous popularity during the last two decades of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, before it more or less faded from people’s memory.

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‘Mass,’ ‘Mess,’ ‘Miss,’ and their kin: Part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

Two weeks ago, I devoted a post to the history of the word mass “service.” While explaining how missa was abstracted from the Latin phrase missa est “is dismissed” and then turned into a noun, I quoted a bit ironically The Century Dictionary. In its opinion, the word for dismissal was applied to the entire service “by an easy transfer.” The transfer is far from easy, but I did not want to make a long post even longer and stopped there. As a result, I received two questions: one about the special literature on the etymology of mass and one just on this “easy transfer.” First the literature. Some titles are mentioned in my bibliography of English etymology. Perhaps the most interesting of them is the oldest, by John Bruce, “On the Word ‘Mass’” in Archaeologia 21, 1826, 113-16. In those days and even much later, journals on archeology, local antiquities, ethnology, and folklore often accepted contributions on the history of words (some of them still do).

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Monthly Gleanings: December 2010

By Anatoly Liberman

This is the last time I go gleaning in 2010. We are snowed in in the American Midwest (but so is everybody else), and, while looking for linguistic crumbs, I feel like the girl in the fairy tale who was sent by her evil stepmother to the forest in the middle of winter to return with a basket of wild strawberries. She met Father Frost (January). The old man, who had often seen the girl before, was touched by her sweet meekness and asked his brothers to help her. For one hour January gave way to his younger brothers, and “in May” the girl gathered the berries and returned home with a full basket and wearing a dress of incomparable beauty. Father Frost is around, the berries are on display in supermarkets, May will certainly come, and in the meantime I’ll go ahead and comment on the questions still unanswered in the previous twelve months.

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A Missionary Imposition (or a rambling sermon on miss/mess/mass and their kin)

By Anatoly Liberman
Probably everybody knows that Christmas, despite one s at the end, is a compound made up of Christ and mass. But few, unless they are word or church historians, have followed the intricate development of the word mass. In the 16th century, Martin Luther and the theologian Claudius de Sainctes derived mass from Hebrew missah “oblation; sacrifice”; this derivation still has supporters. Their opponents pointed out that such New Testament words as were coined in Hebrew (for instance, messiah and amen) came to Europe from Greek, but the Greek authors of the Christian epoch did not use missah. Closer to our time, opinions were divided over the original meaning of mass: did it designate “service” or (since mass mainly occurred in situations connected with the Eucharist) “feast”? Here mess “dish of food” gave trouble to etymologists. Is it a doublet of mass? And where does mass “a body of matter” (as in massive) come in?

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Why We Can’t Manage Without Fowler

By Duane W. Roller
Sitting on my desk, never out of reach, is one of the most durable of the Oxford World’s Classics: H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. First published in 1926, and now in its third revised edition, it has been a staple of writers for nearly a century. Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) was an English schoolmaster who turned to lexicography and worked on a number of Oxford University Press dictionary projects. But he will be forever remembered for his Dictionary of Modern English Usage, usually known by professional writers just as “Fowler.”

And what is Fowler? It is basically an encyclopedia of the usage of the English language. It provides a variety of nuggets on how to write English properly. If, like this writer, you can be

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A “Basket” Case of Etymology

By Anatoly Liberman

Words related to material culture often end up in a trashcan labeled “origin unknown.” This is not surprising, for things are regularly imported with their names, and those may be hard to trace to their roots. The number of English words for “basket” (some of them local and little used outside their dialects) is great, and the etymology of some has not been ascertained. For example, we have maund, strongly reminiscent of Dutch mand and possibly a borrowing from Dutch (“of debatable origin”), creel, from Old French (also “of uncertain origin,” perhaps ultimately from Latin craticulum, that is, a little cratis “wickerwork”), and punnet “a chip basket” (it surfaced only in the 19th century and appears to be a diminutive of pun, a dialectal variant of pound, for punnets, like other baskets, were in some places used as a measure; compare a basketful of…

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The Lion, the Witch, and the Wordbook

By Jeremy Marshall
Many dictionaries and guides are careful to warn readers about the difference between a faun and a fawn. However, anyone familiar with the tales of C. S. Lewis is unlikely to confuse these two shy inhabitants of woodland glades, since the goat-footed, part-human faun of classical Roman mythology is the first strange creature we encounter when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Those who know the film/movie version will be flocking back to the theaters this month to see more fantastical creatures in Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

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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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