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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
The final sentence in the essay posted in January was not a statement but a question. We had looked at several hypotheses on the origin of the verb beg and found that none of them carried conviction. It also remained unclear whether beg was a back formation on beggar or whether beggar arose as a noun agent from the verb.

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Monthly gleanings for February 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
I am impressed. Not long ago I asked two riddles. Who coined the phrase indefatigable assiduity and who said that inspiration does not come to the indolent? The phrase with assiduity turns up on the Internet at once (it occurs in the first chapter of The Pickwick Papers), but John Cowan pointed out that Dickens may have used (parodied?) a popular cliché of that time.

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Farmily album: the rise of the felfie

By Jonathan Dent
Words are patient things. They need to be: language change is often a slow process, measured, for the most part, in centuries and not months. A new word (a neologism), whether it enters English as a loanword, a borrowing from another language, or whether it is formed within English from pre-existing words and affixes, usually has to wait until a decent interval has elapsed before it settles down and starts a lexical family of its own, becoming the parent (or etymon) to new words for which it provides one of the building blocks.

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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Bigot will wait until the end of this miniseries, because some time ago (26 October 2011) I published a special post on this word and now have only a short remark to add to it. But beggars and buggers cry out for recognition and should not be denied it.

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Genius and etymology: Henry William Fox Talbot

By Anatoly Liberman
What does it take to be a successful etymologist? Obviously, an ability to put two and two together. But all scholarly work, every deduction needs this ability. The more words and forms one knows, the greater is the chance that the result will be reasonably convincing.

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Bickering and bitching

By Anatoly Liberman
Respectability in etymology is determined by age: the older, the better. The verb to bicker has been known since the fourteenth century, while the verb to bitch “complain; spoil” is a nineteenth-century invention. On the other hand, the noun bitch occurred already in Old English, so that it is not quite clear which of the two words—bitch or bicker—should be awarded the first place.

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Are we there yet?

By Elizabeth Knowles
Dictionary projects can famously, and sometimes fatally, overrun. In the nineteenth century especially, dictionaries for the more recondite foreign languages of past and present (from Coptic to Sanskrit) were compiled by independent scholars, enthusiasts who were ready to dedicate their lives to a particular project.

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The color gray in full bloom

By Anatoly Liberman
At the end of the nineteenth century, while working on the issue of the OED (then known as NED: New English Dictionary) that was to feature the word gray, James A. H. Murray sent letters to various people, asking their opinion about the differences between the variants gray and grey.

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Gray matter, part 3, or, going from dogs to cats and ghosts

By Anatoly Liberman
The shades of gray multiply (as promised in December 2013). Now that we know that greyhounds are not gray, we have to look at our other character, grimalkin. What bothers me is not so much the cat’s color or the witch’s disposition as the unsatisfactory state of etymology.

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Gray matter, part 2, or, going to the dogs again

By Anatoly Liberman
I am returning to greyhound, a word whose origin has been discussed with rare dedication and relatively meager results. The component -hound is the generic word for “dog” everywhere in Germanic, except English. I am aware of only one attempt to identify -hound with hunter (so in in the 1688 dictionary by Rúnolfur Jónsson).

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Gray matter, or many more shades of grey/gray, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
One day the great god Thor was traveling and found himself in a remote kingdom whose ruler humiliated him and his companions in every possible way. Much to his surprise and irritation, Thor discovered that he was a poor drinker, a poor wrestler, and too weak to pick up a cat from the floor. To be sure, his host, a cunning illusionist, tricked him.

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From the infancy of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
Someone who today seeks reliable information on the origin of English words will, naturally, consult some recent dictionary. However, not too rarely this information is insufficient and even wrong (rejected opinions may be presented there as reliable).

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Edwin Battistella’s Word of the Year Fantasy League

By Edwin Battistella
Oxford Dictionaries have been collecting lexicographic material and updating dictionaries for over a century now, though its Word of the Year award is still relatively recent. Only since 2004 Oxford Dictionaries have been selecting a word that captures the mood of the previous year. Thinking about the possible contenders for 2013 (twerk? fail? drone? shutdown? bitcoin?) got me to wondering about the past.

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“Stunning” success is still round the corner

By Anatoly Liberman
There are many ways to be surprised (confounded, dumbfounded, stupefied, flummoxed, and even flabbergasted). While recently discussing this topic, I half-promised to return to it, and, although the origin of astonish ~ astound ~ stun is less exciting than that of amaze, it is perhaps worthy of a brief note.

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The year in words: 2013

By Katherine Connor Martin
Oxford’s lexicographers use the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), a 2-billion-word corpus of contemporary English usage gathered since 2000, to provide accurate descriptions of how English is used around the world in real life. A corpus is simply a collection of texts that are richly tagged so that they can be analyzed using software (we use the Sketch Engine).

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