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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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9780199592746

What does he mean by ‘I love you?’

Have you ever had difficulty expressing your emotions in words? Have people misinterpreted what you feel even if you name it? If you speak more than one language, you’re almost certain to have answered “yes”.

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Can metaphors make better laws?

By Ben McFarlane
Lawyers have a lot of explaining to do. It’s the nature of their job, as their most important task is to communicate, clearly and concisely, the content of the law. It should therefore be no surprise to find that many of the most masterful users of language, from Cicero to Clinton, from Lincoln to Lenin, were lawyers.

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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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9780199665211

How the Humanities changed the world

Have insights from the humanities ever led to breakthroughs, or is any interpretation of a text, painting, musical piece, or historical event as good as any other? I have long been fascinated with this question. To be sure, insights from the humanities have had an impact on society.

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Thinking about the mind: an anti-linguistic turn

By Bence Nanay
Contemporary philosophy of mind is an offshoot of philosophy of language. Most formative figures of modern philosophy of mind started out as philosophers of language. This is hardly surprising – almost everyone in that generation started out as a philosopher of language. But this focus on language left its mark on the way we now think about the mind – and this is not necessarily a good thing.

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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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Is smell for the dogs?

By Barbara Malt
Dogs are the noses of modern society. They not only track the scent of prey across a meadow but find lost children, sniff out bombs and drugs, and conduct medical diagnosis. Pigs are good, too; we rely on them to hunt down rare and expensive truffles. Domestic cats can turn in an impressive performance, pawing out the last crumb of tuna sandwich at the bottom of a workbag. But humans?

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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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Whoa, or “the road we rode”

By Anatoly Liberman
The world has solved its gravest problems, but a few minor ones have remained. Judging by the Internet, the spelling of whoa is among them. Some people clamor for woah, which is a perversion of whoa and hence “cool”; only bores, it appears, don’t understand it. I understand the rebels but wonder.

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9780195387070

Front page news: the Oxford Etymologist harrows an international brothel

Why brothel? We will begin with the customer. Broþel surfaced in Middle English and meant “a worthless person; prostitute.” The letters -el are a dead or, to use a technical term, unproductive suffix, but even in the days of its efflorescence it was rarely used to form so-called nomina agentis (agent nouns), the way -er is today added to read and work and yields reader and worker.

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9780199828111

What the bilingual brain tells us about language learning

One of the most common questions people ask revolves around when and how to learn a second language. One common view is that earlier is better. There is good evidence for this view. A number of studies have found that the earlier a person learns a second language, the better they perform on a number of tests.

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Words of 2013 round-up

By Alice Northover
Word of the Year season in the English-speaking world has come to a close. Oxford Dictionaries kicked off the annual reflection (and often infuriation) regarding words that were particularly relevant this past year. Here’s a brief round-up of the various words singled out by dictionaries, linguists, and enthusiasts.

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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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