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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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The color gray in full bloom

By Anatoly Liberman
At the end of the nineteenth century, while working on the issue of the OED (then known as NED: New English Dictionary) that was to feature the word gray, James A. H. Murray sent letters to various people, asking their opinion about the differences between the variants gray and grey.

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Eponymous Instrument Makers

The 6th of November is Saxophone Day, a.k.a. the birthday of Adolphe Sax, which inspired us to think about instruments that take their name in some way from their inventors (sidenote: for the correct use of eponymous see this informative diatribe in the New York Times).

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Gray matter, part 3, or, going from dogs to cats and ghosts

By Anatoly Liberman
The shades of gray multiply (as promised in December 2013). Now that we know that greyhounds are not gray, we have to look at our other character, grimalkin. What bothers me is not so much the cat’s color or the witch’s disposition as the unsatisfactory state of etymology.

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Dialect and identity: Pittsburghese goes to the opera

By Barbara Johnstone
On a Sunday afternoon in November I am at the Benedum Center with hundreds of fellow Pittsburghers watching a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It’s the second act, and Papageno the bird-man has just found his true love. The English super-titles help us decipher what he is saying as he starts to exit the stage.

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Monthly gleanings for December 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
At the end of December people are overwhelmed by calendar feelings: one more year has merged with history, and its successor promises new joys and woes (but thinking of future woes is bad taste). I usually keep multifarious scraps and cuttings to dispose of on the last Wednesday of the year: insoluble questions come and never go away.

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Translation and subjectivity: the classical model

by Josephine Balmer
At a British Centre for Literary Translation Seminar held jointly with Northampton Library Services some years ago, one of the participating librarians recounted his first encounter with the vagaries of translation; having fallen in love with a black Penguin version of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot as a student, he had eagerly purchased a new version when it had recently been republished. But dipping in to the book, he quickly became perplexed.

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Gray matter, part 2, or, going to the dogs again

By Anatoly Liberman
I am returning to greyhound, a word whose origin has been discussed with rare dedication and relatively meager results. The component -hound is the generic word for “dog” everywhere in Germanic, except English. I am aware of only one attempt to identify -hound with hunter (so in in the 1688 dictionary by Rúnolfur Jónsson).

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Gray matter, or many more shades of grey/gray, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
One day the great god Thor was traveling and found himself in a remote kingdom whose ruler humiliated him and his companions in every possible way. Much to his surprise and irritation, Thor discovered that he was a poor drinker, a poor wrestler, and too weak to pick up a cat from the floor. To be sure, his host, a cunning illusionist, tricked him.

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From the infancy of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
Someone who today seeks reliable information on the origin of English words will, naturally, consult some recent dictionary. However, not too rarely this information is insufficient and even wrong (rejected opinions may be presented there as reliable).

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Etymology gleanings for November 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
Brave and its aftermath.
During the month of November, the main event in the uneventful life of the Oxford Etymologist (in this roundabout way I refer to myself) has been the controversy around the origin of bravus, the etymon of bravo ~ brave.

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