Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Book thumbnail image

Fishing in the “roiling” waters of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
Those who will look up the etymology of roil and rile will have to choose between two answers: “from Old French” or “of uncertain origin.” Judging by my rather extensive and constantly growing database, roil and rile have attracted little attention

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
As usual, many thanks for the letters, questions, and comments. I answered some of them privately, when I thought that the material would not be interesting to most of our readers. In a few cases (and this is what I always say) I simply took the information into account. My lack of reaction should not be misunderstood for indifference or ingratitude.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Small triumphs of etymology: “oof”

By Anatoly Liberman
There is an almost incomprehensible number of English words for money and various coins. Some of them, like shilling, are very old. We know (or we think that we know) where they came from. Other words (the majority) surfaced as slang, and our record of them seldom goes beyond the early modern period.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Little triumphs of etymology: “pedigree”

By Anatoly Liberman
If I find enough material, I may tell several stories about how after multiple failures the ultimate origin of a common English word has been found to (almost) everybody’s satisfaction. The opening chapter in my prospective Decameron will deal with pedigree, which surfaced in English texts in the early fifteenth century.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Casting a last spell: After Skeat and Bradley

By Anatoly Liberman
I think some sort of closure is needed after we have heard the arguments for and against spelling reform by two outstanding scholars. Should we do something about English spelling, and, if the answer is yes, what should we do? Conversely, if no, why no? 

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Monthly etymology gleanings for April 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
As usual, many thanks for the letters, questions, and comments. I answered some of them privately, when I thought that the material would not be interesting to most of our readers. In a few cases (and this is what I always say) I simply took the information into account. My lack of reaction should not be misunderstood for indifference or ingratitude.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Walter W. Skeat (1835-1912) and spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman
Henry Bradley, while writing his paper (see the previous post), must have looked upon Skeat as his main opponent. This becomes immediately clear from the details. For instance, Skeat lamented the use of the letter c in scissors and Bradley defended it.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Henry Bradley on spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I wrote about Henry Bradley’s role in making the OED what it is: a mine of information, an incomparable authority on the English language, and a source of inspiration to lexicographers all over the world

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Unsung heroes of English etymology: Henry Bradley (1845-1923)

By Anatoly Liberman
At one time I intended to write a series of posts about the scholars who made significant contributions to English etymology but whose names are little known to the general public. Not that any etymologists can vie with politicians, actors, or athletes when it comes to funding and fame, but some of them wrote books and dictionaries and for a while stayed in the public eye.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Etymology as a profession

By Anatoly Liberman
Two or three times a year I receive questions about what the profession of an etymologist entails. I usually answer them briefly in my “gleanings,” and once I even devoted a post to this subject. Perhaps it won’t hurt if I return to the often-asked question again.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Monthly etymology gleanings for March 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
Beguines.
The origin of Beguine is bound to remain unknown, if “unknown” means that no answer exists that makes further discussion useless. No doubt, the color gray could give rise to the name. If it were not so, this etymology would not have been offered and defended by many scholars.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 4

By Anatoly Liberman
Apart from realizing that each of the three words in question (beggar, bugger, and bigot) needs an individual etymology, we should keep in mind that all of them arose as terms of abuse and sound somewhat alike. The Beguines,Beghards, and Albigensians have already been dealt with.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 3

By Anatoly Liberman
Unlike so many words featured in this blog, bugger has a well-ascertained origin, but it belongs with the rest of this series because it sheds light on its companions beggar and bigot.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More