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Do birds and fowls fly?

By Anatoly Liberman
An etymologist is constantly on the lookout for so-called motivation. Why is a cat called cat, and why do English speakers say tree if the Romans called the same object arbor? As everybody knows, the “ultimate truth” usually escapes us. Once upon a time (about five thousand or even more years ago?) in a hotly debated locality there lived the early Indo-Europeans, and we still use words going back to their partly unpronounceable sound complexes.

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The oddest English spellings, part 21: Phony from top to bottom

By Anatoly Liberman
I have written more than once that the only hope to reform English spelling would be by doing it piecemeal, that is, by nibbling away at a comfortable pace. Unfortunately, reformers used to attack words like have and give and presented hav and giv to the irate public. This was too radical a measure; bushes exist for beating about them. Several chunks of orthographic fat are crying to be cut off.

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Why did Milton write his theology in Latin?

By John Hale
John Milton wrote his systematic theology, De Doctrina Christiana, his “dearest possession,” in Latin — a usual choice for a theological work, but with many unusual aspects. Language was a choice, not a foregone conclusion. Continental theologians could be rendered into English (for instance, the work by Johannes Wolleb).

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A brief history of western music defined

Many of you may have seen the cdza video “An Abridged History of Western Music in 16 Genres | cdza Opus No. 7″ (below) that went viral this summer. (cdza, founded by Joe Sabia, Michael Thurber, and Matt McCorkle, create musical video experiments.) To complement this lively celebration of the history of western music, from ragtime to reggae and baroque to bluegrass, we thought about how we can put this music into words. Here’s a quick list of definitions, drawn from the latest edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Music, to help lead you through each genre.

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Do you ‘cuss’ your stars when you go ‘bust’?

By Anatoly Liberman
Here, for a change, I will present two words (cuss and bust) whose origin is known quite well, but their development will allow us to delve into the many and profound mysteries of r. Both Dickens and Thackeray knew (that is, allowed their characters to use) the verb cuss, and no one had has ever had any doubts that cuss means “curse.” Bust is an Americanism, now probably understood everywhere in the English-speaking world. The change of curse and burst to cuss and bust seems trivial only at first sight.

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To let you appreciate what sort of consul he professes himself to be

On 2 September 44 BC, Cicero launched into the first of the most blistering oratorical attacks in political history, attacks which ultimately cost him his life. The following is an excerpt of the Second Philippic, a denunciation of Mark Antony, from the Oxford World’s Classic Political Speeches. Do we hear echoes of contemporary political rhetoric in these harsh tones?

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Finding the right word

How do you choose the right word? Some just don’t fit what you’re trying to convey, either in the labor of love prose for your creative writing class, or the rogue auto-correct function on your phone. Can you shed lacerations instead of tears? How is the word barren an attack on women? How do writers such as Joshua Ferris, Francine Prose, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Simon Winchester weigh and inveigh against words?

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What’s so super about Super PACs?

By Katherine Connor Martin
Back in January we published a short glossary of the jargon of the presidential primaries. Now that the campaign has begun in earnest, here is our brief guide to some of the most perplexing vocabulary of this year’s general election. It may seem like the 2012 US presidential election has stretched on for eons, but it only officially begins with the major parties’ quadrennial nominating conventions, on August 27–30 (Republicans) and September 3–6 (Democrats). How can they be called nominating conventions if we already know who the nominees are?

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(Bi)Monthly Etymology Gleanings for July-August 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Farting and participles (not to be confused with cabbages and kings). Summer is supposed to be a dead season, but I cannot complain: many people have kindly offered their comments and sent questions. Of the topics discussed in July and August, flatulence turned out to be the greatest hit. I have nothing to add to the comments on fart. Apparently, next to the election campaign, the problem of comparable interest was breaking wind in Indo-European.

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Understanding ‘the body’ in fairy tales

By Scott B. Weingart and Jeana Jorgensen
Computational analysis and feminist theory generally aren’t the first things that come to mind in association with fairy tales. This unlikely pairing, however, can lead to important insights regarding how cultures understand and represent themselves. For example, by looking at how characters are described in European fairy tales, we’ve been able to show how Western culture tends to bias the younger generation, especially the men.

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The jarring word ‘ajar’

By Anatoly Liberman
All modern dictionaries state that the adverb ajar goes back to the phrase on char, literally “on the turn” (= “in the act of turning”). This is, most probably, a correct derivation. However, such unanimity among even the most authoritative recent sources should be taken with caution because reference books tend to copy from one another. Recycling a plausible opinion again and again produces an illusion of solidity in an area notorious for debatable results. That is why it is so interesting to read books published before Skeat’s dictionary (1882) and the OED came out.

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Buddhism or Buddhisms? Lexical consequences of geo-political categories

By Richard Payne
In a previous post, we argued that the geo-political categories commonly employed in both popular and academic representations of Buddhism are problematic. The problems were grouped into rhetorical and lexical; the rhetorical consequences having been considered there, we now turn to the lexical. Specifically, the lexical distinction between mass nouns and count nouns clarifies how thinking about the subject of study logically (and implicitly) follow from ways of talking about that subject.

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Grammar sticklers may have OCD

By Dennis Baron
It used to be we thought that people who went around correcting other people’s grammar were just plain annoying. Now there’s evidence they are actually ill, suffering from a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder/oppositional defiant disorder (OCD/ODD). Researchers are calling it Grammatical Pedantry Syndrome, or GPS.

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I been, I seen, I done

By Anatoly Liberman
The forms in the title are substandard but ubiquitous in conversational English, and the universally understood reference to the genre called whodunit (it originated about seventy years ago) testifies to its partial victory. I have often heard the question about their origin and will try to answer it, though my information is scanty and to the best of my knowledge, a convincing theory of whodunit (the construction, not the genre) is lacking, which does not augur well for a detective story.

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Red and yellow and pink and green…

By Katherine Shaw
Many of us learn the colours of the rainbow from an early age, but have you ever wondered where the names for the different shades we see around us come from? The origins of many of the words for the colours of the visible spectrum go back far in time, and are ultimately unknown. But the origins of others are better recorded.

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Two English apr-words, part 2: ‘Apricot’

By Anatoly Liberman
Fruits and vegetables travel from land to land with their names. Every now and then they proclaim their country of origin. Such is the peach (though of course not in its present-day English form), whose name is a borrowing of Old French peche (Modern French pêche), ultimately from Latin Persicum malum “Persian apple.” It follows that the noun peach began its life as an adjective. To a modern speaker of French and English the distance between pêche ~ peach and persicum (with its phonetic pit gone) is unbridgeable, but Swedish persika, Dutch perzik, and Russian persik are quite transparent.

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