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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Alphabet soup, part 2: H and Y

By Anatoly Liberman
This is a story of the names of two letters. Appreciate the fact that I did not call it “A Tale of Two Letters.” No other phrase has been pawed over to such an extent as the title of Dickens’s novel.

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Alphabet soup, part 1: V and Z

By Anatoly Liberman
It is common knowledge that an average page of an English dictionary contains at least twice as many borrowed as native words, even though come, go, see, sit, stand, do, make, man, woman, in, on, and other similar heavy duty words go back to Old English.

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On ‘work ethic’

By Peter Womack
The expression is somehow on everybody’s lips. Its incidence in the media has risen steadily over the last decade or so, and now an attentive reader of the broadsheets is likely to encounter it every day. It’s most often found on the sports pages: one recent forty-eight-hour period registered online praise for the respective work ethics of the footballer Nicolas Anelka, the cricketer Peter Siddle, the tennis player Marion Bartoli, and the British Lions rugby team.

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An idioms and formulaic language quiz

By Audrey Ingerson
On this day in 1928, sliced bread was sold for the first time by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri. Ever since then, sliced bread has been held up as the ideal — at least in idiomatic expressions. Ever heard of “the greatest thing since sliced bread”?

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Monthly etymological gleanings for June 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
One cannot predict which posts will interest the public and which will leave them indifferent. I hoped that my “revolutionary” hypothesis on the origin of Old Nick would result in a tidal wave (title wave, as some of my students write), but it did not produce as much as a ripple, whereas the fairly trivial essay on the letter y aroused a lively discussion.

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When in Rome, swear as the Romans do

What’s the meaning of the word irrumatio? In Ancient Rome, to threaten another individual with irrumatio qualified as one of the highest offenses, topping off a list of seemingly frivolous obscenities that — needless to say — did not survive into the modern era.

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Do we need the apostrophe?

By Simon Horobin
The recent decision by Devon County Council to drop the apostrophe from its road signs was met with dismay and anger by those concerned about the preservation of linguistic standards. Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, branded it an ‘Apostrophe Catastrophe’ which ‘captures in microcosm the kind of thinking that pervades our government, our institutions, our times’, drawing parallels with the government’s handling of the banking crisis, binge-drinking and sexual assault. Similar prophecies of doom followed the decision by the bookseller Waterstones to drop the apostrophe from its shop names.

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Gleanings from Dickens

By Anatoly Liberman
Some time ago I read Sidney P. Moss’s 1984 book Charles Dickens’ Quarrel with America. Those who remember Martin Cuzzlewit and the last chapter of American Notes must have a good idea of the “quarrel.” However, this post is, naturally, not on the book or on Dickens’s nice statement: “I have to go to America—on my way to the Devil” (this statement is used as an epigraph to Moss’s work).

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Will boys be boys?

By Anatoly Liberman
Within a year, two recent articles on the origin of the word boy have come to my attention. This is great news. Keeping a talent of such value under a bushel and withholding it from the rest of the world would be unforgivable. Nowadays, if a philological journal does not come as a reward for the membership in a popular society, its circulation is extremely low.

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An Oxford Companion to Game of Thrones

The long-awaited third season of Game of Thrones premiers on HBO 31 March 2013 and Oxford University Press has everything you need to get ready, whether you’re looking to brush up on your dragon lore, forge your own Valyrian steel, or learn about some of the most dramatic real-life succession fights culled from our archives.

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A history of psycholinguistics in the pre-Chomskyan era

By Willem Levelt
How do we speak and how do we understand language? It is widely believed that the scientific study of these uniquely human abilities was launched during the 1950s with the advent of Noam Chomsky’s generative linguistics. True, modern psycholinguistics received a major impulse from this “cognitive revolution,” but the empirical study of how we speak and listen and how children acquire these amazing skills has its roots in the late 18th century

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Monthly etymology gleanings for February 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
My usual thanks to those who have commented on the posts, written me letters privately or through OUP, and corrected the rare but irritating typos. I especially appreciate comments that deal with the languages remote from my sphere of interest: Arabic, Farsi, Romany, and so forth. But, even while dealing with the languages that are close to my area of expertise (for example, Sanskrit and Frisian), quite naturally, I feel less comfortable in them than in English, German, or Icelandic (my “turf”).

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‘Guests’ and ‘hosts’

By Anatoly Liberman
The questions people ask about word origins usually concern slang, family names, and idioms. I cannot remember being ever asked about the etymology of house, fox, or sun. These are such common words that we take them for granted, and yet their history is often complicated and instructive. In this blog, I usually stay away from them, but I sometimes let my Indo-European sympathies run away with me. Today’s subject is of this type.

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Maybe academics aren’t so stupid after all

By Peter Elbow
People who care about good language tend to assume that casual spoken language is full of chaos and error. I shared this belief till I did some substantial research into the linguistics of speech. There’s a surprising reason why we — academics and well-educated folk — should hold this belief: we are the greatest culprits. It turns out that our speech is the most incoherent. Who knew that working class speakers handle spoken English better than academics and the well-educated?

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Monthly etymology gleanings for January 2013, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Last time I was writing my monthly gleanings in anticipation of the New Year. January 1 came and went, but good memories of many things remain. I would like to begin this set with saying how pleased and touched I was by our correspondents’ appreciation of my work, by their words of encouragement, and by their promise to go on reading the blog in the future. Writing weekly posts is a great pleasure.

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