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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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How courteous are you at court?

By Anatoly Liberman
“Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to look at the Queen,/ Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, what did you there?/ I frightened a little mouse under the chair.” Evidently, our power of observation depends on our background and current interests.

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Flutes and flatterers

By Anatoly Liberman
The names of musical instruments constitute one of the most intriguing chapters in the science and pseudoscience of etymology. Many such names travel from land to land, and we are surprised when a word with romantic overtones reveals a prosaic origin. For example, lute is from Arabic (al’ud: the definite article followed by a word for “wood, timber”).

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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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When it rains, it does not necessarily pour

By Anatoly Liberman
Contrary to some people’s expectation, July has arrived, and it rains incessantly, that is, in the parts of the world not suffering from drought. I often feel guilty on account of my avoiding the burning questions of our time.

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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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The highest dictionary in the land?

By Dennis Baron
Perhaps the highest-profile cases to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this term are the two involving the definition of marriage. U.S. v. Windsor challenges the federal definition of marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman” (Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], 1 USC § 7), and Hollingsworth v. Perry seeks a ruling on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage which reads, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

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Multifarious Devils, part 4. Goblin

By Anatoly Liberman
Petty devils are all around us. Products of so-called low mythology, they often have impenetrable names. (Higher mythology deals with gods, yet their names are often equally opaque!) Some such evil creatures have appeared, figuratively speaking, the day before yesterday, but that does not prevent them from hiding their origin with envious dexterity (after all, they are imps). A famous evader is gremlin.

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The evolution of language and society

By Avi Lifschitz
We might have grown skeptical about our cultural legacy, but it is quite natural for us to assume that our own cognitive theories are the latest word when compared with those of our predecessors. Yet in some areas, the questions we are now asking are not too different from those posed some two-three centuries ago, if not earlier.

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Multifarious Devils, part 2. Old Nick and the Crocodile

By Anatoly Liberman
In our enlightened age, we are beginning to forget how thickly the world of our ancestors was populated by imps and devils. Shakespeare still felt at home among them, would have recognized Grimalkin, and, as noted in a recent post, knew the charm aroint thee, which scared away witches. Flibbertigibbet (a member of a sizable family in King Lear), the wily Rumpelstilzchen, and their kin have names that are sometimes hard to decipher, a fact of which Rumpelstilzchen was fully aware.

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Monthly etymological gleanings for May 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
Language controlled by ruling powers?
Very much depends on whether the country has a language academy that decides what is correct and what is wrong. Even in the absence of such an organization, a committee consisting of respected scholars and politicians sometimes lays down the law. Spelling is a classic case of “ruling the language.”

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The five most common insults and slogans of medieval rebels

By Jan Dumolyn and Jelle Haemers
How subversive was the speech of Flemish rebels in the later Middle Ages? Violence remained the exception in urban rebellions, whereas subversive utterances, though always risky, must have been almost the rule of daily politics in the urban centres of late medieval Flanders and, clearly, in many other European towns and cities as well.

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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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Arrested Development: The English language in cut-offs

Arrested Development—the cult comedy set to rise from the dead on Netflix 26 May 2013—had its own distinctive language. It was a show of catchphrases: “I’ve made a huge mistake.” “No touching!” “I’m a monster!” “There’s always money in the Banana Stand.” “Steve Holt!” “Her?”

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Multifarious devils, part 1: “bogey”

By Anatoly Liberman
As has often happened in the recent past, this essay is an answer to a letter, but I will not only address the question of our correspondent but also develop the topic and write about Old Nick, his crew, and the goblin. The question was about the origin of the words bogey and boggle. I have dealt with both in my dictionary and in passing probably in the blog.

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