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An interlude

By Anatoly Liberman
Every word journalist is on the lookout for interesting pieces of information about language. H. W. Fowler, the author of the great and incomparable book Modern English Usage, confessed that his main reading was newspapers. Naturally: where else could he find so much garbled English?

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Ostentatious breeches, gods’ braggadocio, and ars poetica

By Anatoly Liberman
As promised, I am returning to the English verb brag and the Old Scandinavian god Bragi (see the previous post). If compared with boast, brag would seem to be more suggestive of bluster and hot air. Yet both may have been specimens of Middle English slang or expressive formations.

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Sagan and the modern scientist-prophets

By Lynda Walsh
Nobody questions Carl Sagan’s charisma. He was television’s first science rock star. He made appearances on the Tonight Show; he drove a Porsche with a vanity plate that read “PHOBOS,” one of Mars’s moons; journalists enthused over his “velour” voice.

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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?

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Etymology gleanings for September 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
I begin almost every set of gleanings with abject apologies. To err is human. So it is not the mistakes I have made in the past and will make in the future that irritate me but the avoidable and therefore unforgivable slips.

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No simplistic etymology of “simpleton”

By Anatoly Liberman
Simpleton is an irritating word. At first sight, its origin contains no secrets: simple + ton. And that may be all there is to it despite the obscurity of -ton. We find this explanation in the OED and in the dictionaries dependent on it.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for August 2013, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
My apologies for the mistakes, and thanks to those who found them. With regard to the word painter “rope,” I was misled by some dictionary, and while writing about gobble-de-gook, I was thinking of galumph. Whatever harm has been done, it has now been undone and even erased.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for August 2013, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many comments on the posts published in August and many questions. Rather than making these gleanings inordinately long, I have broken them into two parts. Today I’ll begin by asking rather than answering questions, because to some queries I am unable to give quotable (or any) answers.

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Looking “askance”

By Anatoly Liberman
I have been meaning to tell the story of askance for quite some time—as a parable or an exemplum. Popular books and blogs prefer to deal with so-called interesting words. Dude, snob, and haberdasher always arouse a measure of enthusiasm, along with the whole nine yards, dated and recent slang, and the outwardly undecipherable family names.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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