Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Book thumbnail image

How to be an English language tourist?

By David Crystal
Hilary and I asked ourselves this question repeatedly when we were planning the tour that we eventually wrote up as Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain. Where can you find out about the places that influenced the character and study of the English language in Britain? How do you get there? And what do you find when you get there?

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Challenges of the social life of language

When we consider two obvious facts – that virtually everyone becomes a fluent speaker of at least one language, and that language is central to social life – we can see that most of us are quite sociolinguistically talented. Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, we know quite a lot about many of the intricacies of “the social life of language.” This doesn’t mean, however, that our knowledge is complete or wholly accurate. Here are ten illustrations of the point.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Three recent theories of “kibosh”

By Anatoly Liberman
The phrase put the kibosh on surfaced in texts in the early thirties of the nineteenth century. For a long time etymologists have been trying to discover what kibosh means and where it came from. Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Gaelic Irish, and French have been explored for that purpose.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Sound symbolism and product names

By Barbara Malt
In many animal communications, there’s a transparent link between what is being communicated and how that message is communicated. Animal threat displays, for instance, often make the aggressor look larger and fiercer through raising of the hair and baring of the teeth. A dog communicates excitement through look and sound.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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”?

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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).

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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

Read More