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‘If you want anything said, ask Mrs Thatcher’

By Susan Ratcliffe
In May 1979 the United Kingdom elected its first female Prime Minister, in spite of her own comment ten years earlier: ‘No woman in my time will be Prime Minister or Chancellor or Foreign Secretary—not the top jobs. Anyway I wouldn’t want to be Prime Minister. You have to give yourself 100%’. A few years later, having become Prime Minister (although she didn’t want the job?) Margaret Thatcher went on to say ‘In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman’. In fact, the things she said were so memorable that she has become one of the most quoted politicians of modern times. Everyone recognizes ‘there is no real alternative’, ‘the lady’s not for turning’, ‘the Falklands Factor’, ‘Rejoice, rejoice!’, ‘Victorian values’, ‘We can do business together’, and ‘There is no such thing as Society’.

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The bizarre history of the Oxford Latin Dictionary

By Chris Stray
When we are unsure of the meaning of a word, or want to know when it was first used, or what alternative spellings it has, we consult the dictionary. People often refer to “the dictionary,” in fact, as if there were only one, or as if it didn’t matter which one was consulted. But then most households probably only have one dictionary of any size, though consultation via computers, tablets, or smartphones is becoming increasingly common.

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Further Adventures of Scr-words, or, the Taming of ‘Shrew’

By Anatoly Liberman
Two weeks ago, I pondered the fortunes of the gregarious shrimp. The next ingredient of the scr- ~ shr- cocktail will be the much maligned but innocent shrew. As The Century Dictionary puts it, “there is no foundation in fact for the vulgar notion that shrews are poisonous, or for any other of the popular superstitions respecting these harmless little creatures.” The shrew is an insectivorous mammal. An old etymology traced shrew to a root meaning “cut” (as in shear) and glossed the word as “biter” on account of its allegedly venomous bite. Another version of this etymology refers to the shrew’s pointed snout. The Old High German cognate of shrew meant “dwarf” (a figure cut short?).

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Know your slang, poindexters?

Never mind if you’ve got the heebee-jeebies, how did we get that word? Winner of the Dartmouth Medal for RUSA/ALA Outstanding Reference Source and 2011 Booklist Editors’ Choice, Green’s Dictionary of Slang is a remarkable collection of this often reviled but endlessly fascinating area of the English language. From the past five centuries right up to the present day, and from all the different English-speaking countries and regions, it demonstrate the sheer scope of a lifetime of research by Jonathon Green, the leading slang lexicographer of our time. We dug through a few of the 10.3 million words and over 53,000 entries — definitions of 100,000 words with over 413,000 citations — to come up with a little quiz to celebrate.

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Monthly Etymology Gleanings for April 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Is loan a verb? Few questions have been asked with such regularity, and few answers have been so definitive, but people keep asking. Perhaps I might make a short introduction. Since English nouns of native origin have no endings (book, rope, pig, cow, goat) and even old borrowed nouns are often monosyllabic (wall, chair, table, desk, pen, lamp) and since infinitives also lack endings (come, go, see, take), the line separating the two grammatical categories is blurred. Some nouns and verbs had different forms in Old English. Such were love (noun) and love (verb); later they lost their endings and now coexist as homonyms. Other verbs were derived from “ready-made” nouns. The opposite process is less common, but consider the nouns meet, say, and go from the corresponding verbs. In principle, any noun can be converted into a verb. “Do students Professor, Dr., or Mr. us at this university?” “Don’t you uncle me!” The messages are perfectly clear.

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A scrumptious shrimp with a riddle

By Anatoly Liberman
My romance with shrimp began when, years ago, I looked up the etymology of scrumptious in some modern dictionary. Naturally, it turned out that the word’s origin is unknown (this happens every time I try to satisfy my curiosity in the area of my specialization). The usually sensible Century Dictionary suggests that scrumptious is an alternation of scrimptious, from scrimption, a funny noun going back to scrimp. The OED thinks so too.

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A Smidget of Regional Terms

By Mark Peters
There are some things I love to an unhealthy degree, such as The Shield, Russian imperial stouts, George Carlin’s comedy, mint chocolate chip ice cream, and Evil Dead 2. My heart beats equally fast for the Dictionary of American Regional English, which recently published its long-awaited final volume.

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Words are wind

By Adam Pulford
Somehow A Song of Ice and Fire, the colossal fantasy series by George R. R. Martin, had escaped my notice until the critically acclaimed TV series hit our screens last year, prompting me to buy the first book in the series. Little did I know that a few weeks later I would spend Christmas continually ushering away family members clutching Monopoly and Cluedo boxes so that I could devour all five volumes in unhealthily close succession. The five books have now been translated into more than 20 languages and have sold over 15 million copies worldwide. As Game of Thrones returns to our screens for a second season, there’s no better time to explore the interesting language used by its creator.

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Dudes, dandies, swells, and mashers

By Anatoly Liberman
My February blog on dude has been picked up by several websites, and rather numerous comments were the result of the publicity. Below, I will say what I think of the word’s “true” etymology and quote two pronouncements on “dudedom,” as they once appeared in The Nation. But before doing all that, I should thank the readers who pointed to me the existence of some recent contributions to the subject.

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The Seasons, Part 3: Rainy Winter?

By Anatoly Liberman
The Latin for “winter; snowstorm” is hiems, a noun related in a convoluted way to Engl. hibernate. It is a reflex (continuation) of an old Indo-European word for “winter,” and its cognates in various languages are numerous. Germanic must also have had one of them, but it lies hidden like the proverbial needle in a hayrick. Old Icelandic (OI) gymbr means “one-year old sheep.” In the Scandinavian area, this word does not have an exotic ring, as follows from Modern Icelandic and Norwegian gimber ~ gymber ~ gimmerlam (the latter refers specifically to a sheep that has not yet lambed), along with Swedish gymmer with its dialectal variants.

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Monthly Etymology Gleanings for March

By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many questions, some of which are familiar (they recur with great regularity) and others that are new and will answer a few today and the rest in a month’s time.

Nostratic Hypothesis. Our correspondent Mr. Steve Miller asked me whether I ever treat the topic of language evolution and, if I do, what I think of the Nostratic hypothesis.

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Name that cloud

By Storm Dunlop
World Meteorology Day marks a highly successful collaboration under the World Meteorological Organization, involving every country, large or small, rich or poor. Weather affects every single person (every living being) on the planet, but why do people feel meteorology is not for them? Why do they even find it so difficult to identify different types of cloud? Or at least they claim that it is difficult. The average person, it would seem, looks at the sky and simply thinks ‘clouds’. (Just as they look at the night sky and think nothing more than ‘stars’).

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The Seasons, part 2. From three to four, summer.

By Anatoly Liberman
The ancient Indo-Europeans lived in the northern hemisphere (see the previous post), but, although this conclusion is certain, it does not follow that they divided the year into four seasons. Our perception of climate is colored too strongly by Vivaldi, the French impressionists, and popular restaurants. At some time, the Indo-Europeans dominated the territory from India to Scandinavia (hence the name scholars gave them). They lived and traveled in many climate zones, and no word for “winter,” “spring,” “summer,” and “autumn” is common to the entire family; yet some cover several language groups.

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The Seasons, part 1: spring and fall

By Anatoly Liberman
Since this blog is now in the seventh year of its existence (if I remember correctly, it started in March 2006), some questions tend to recur. Our correspondent wants to know the origin of the word winter. Long ago I touched on winter and summer, but briefly, in the “gleanings,” so that it may be useful to devote a short series to the Germanic names of the seasons, leave these posts in the archive, and thus avoid possible repetition.

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Monthly Gleanings, February 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
The Infamous C-Word. This is the letter I received soon after the publication of the post devoted to our (formerly) most unpronounceable word: “…I am writing to ask you if you have run across it [this word] as a nautical term. I am a former sailing ship mariner (a.k.a. “tall ships”) and sailmaker and currently maritime historian/editor for the National Maritime Historical Society.

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“Music in your blood and poetry in your soul”: the beauty of Welsh English

By Bethan Tovey
To be born Welsh requires the genes of a chameleon. You must be a geographer (how many maps have I drawn to explain to anyone not from our little island the difference between “Britain” and “England”?), a musician (try singing “Bread of Heaven” in a Welsh pub: I give you two bars before you’re accompanied by full four-part harmony), a diplomat (not punching the hundred-and-first person to make a sheep joke takes some restraint), and above all, a linguist. The Welsh have a way with words.

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