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Puzzling heritage: The verb ‘fart’

By Anatoly Liberman
It cannot but come as a surprise that against the background of countless important words whose origin has never been discovered some totally insignificant verbs and nouns have been traced successfully and convincingly to the very beginning of Indo-European. Fart (“not in delicate use”) looks like a product of our time, but it has existed since time immemorial. Even the nuances have not been lost: one thing is to break wind loudly (farting); quite a different thing is to do it quietly (the now obscure “fisting”).

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#litdozens and the best rhyming literary insults in 140 characters or less

English has two great rhyming slanguages, cockney rhyming slang and the dozens, the African American insult game. We’ll leave the parsing of cockney phrases to news reporters covering the Olympics for now and examine the lewd, bawdy, and wonderful world of verbal street duels. Elijah Wald investigated the origins of this cacophony of dirty jokes in The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama. While it may have begun in “yo’ mama” jokes, this language was meant for music, as rap and hip-hop today can attest. The dozens even appears in the seminal writings of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

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Not a Euphemism

I write about euphemisms for Visual Thesaurus every month, and I love collecting and discussing evasions, dodges, lies, and straight-up malarkey, such as the terms sea kitten and strategic dynamism effort. However, I am also a fan of words and phrases in the “not a euphemism” category: especially the phrase not a euphemism itself, which is used in speech and writing to both downplay and heighten the filthiness of dirty-sounding phrases.

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Still in the fishbowl (2): ‘Mackerel’

By Anatoly Liberman
Not that I can say anything quotable on the subject of the mackerel, but people keep writing about it and the attempts to understand how this fish got its name are so interesting that the story may be worth telling. Only one thing seems certain. Mackerel first appeared in a West-European text, in the French form makerels (plural) about 1140 (which means that it was known much earlier), and no one doubts that the English borrowed their word from Old or Anglo-French. From France it spread to other lands, sometimes through an intermediary. The question is why the French called the mackerel this.

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Who really deciphered the Egyptian Hieroglyphs?

By Andrew Robinson
The polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829) — physicist, physiologist, physician and polyglot, among several other things — became hooked on the scripts and languages of ancient Egypt in 1814, the year he began to decipher the Rosetta Stone. He continued to study the hieroglyphic and demotic scripts with variable intensity for the rest of his life, literally until his dying day. The challenge of being the first modern to read the writing of what appeared then to be the oldest civilization in the world — far older than the classical civilization of Young’s beloved Greeks — was irresistible to a man who was as equally gifted in languages, ancient and contemporary, as he was in science.

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Computers read so you don’t have to

By Dennis Baron
Machines can grade essays just as well as human readers. According to the New York Times, a competition sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation produced software able to match human essay readers grade for grade, and a study of commercially-available automatic grading programs showed that computers assessed essays as accurately as human readers, but a whole lot faster, and cheaper, to boot. But that’s just the start: computers could lead to a reading-free future.

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Back to the fishbowl (1): ‘Herring’

By Anatoly Liberman
The fish known as Clupea harengas has two main names: in the Scandinavian countries, it is called sild or something similar (this name made its way to Finland and Russia), while in the lands where the West Germanic languages are spoken (English belongs to this group) the word is herring, also with several variants, for example, German Hering (the spelling Häring is quite obsolete), Dutch haring, and so forth. The rarely used English word sile “young herring” is a late adaptation of sild. The origin of both sild and herring is doubtful.

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Languages, Species, and Biological Parallels

By Stephen R. Anderson
Human languages are not biological organisms, despite the temptation to talk about them as “being born,” “dying,” “competing with one another,” and the like.  Nonetheless, the parallels between languages and biological species are rich and wonderful.  Sometimes, in fact, they are downright eerie…

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Real ‘spunk’

By Anatoly Liberman
There was no word spunk in Swedish until Pippi coined it (an event recently celebrated in this blog), but in English it has existed since at least the sixteenth century. It is surrounded by a host of equally obscure look-alikes (that is, obscure from the etymological perspective). To deal with them, I should remind our readers that English, like all the other Indo-European languages, is full of words in which initial s- looks like a gratuitous addition. It pretends to be a prefix but carries no meaning; it does not even make words more expressive.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Many thanks to those who responded to the recent posts on adverbs, spelling, and cool dudes in Australia. I was also grateful for friendly remarks on the Pippi post and the German text of Lindgren Astrid’s book (in German, spunk, the Swedish name of the bug with green wings, as I now know, remained spunk).

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Children, Etymologists, and Heffalumps

By Anatoly Liberman
The problem with Christopher Robin’s woozles and heffalumps was that no one knew exactly what those creatures looked like. The boy just happened to be “lumping along” when he detected the exotic creature. “I saw one once,” said Piglet. “At least I think I did,” he said. “Only perhaps it wasn’t.” So did I,” said Pooh, wondering what a Heffalump was like. “You don’t often see them,” said Christopher Robin carelessly. Tracking a woozle was no easy task either. “Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”

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Criticizing the OED

By Anatoly Liberman
The literature on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary is extensive, but I am not sure that there is a book-length study of the reception of this great dictionary. When in 1884 the OED’s first fascicle reached the public, it was met with near universal admiration. I am aware of only two critics who went on record with their opinion that the venture was doomed to failure because it would take forever to complete, because all the words can not and should not be included in a dictionary, and because the slips at Murray’s disposal must contain numerous misspellings and mistakes.

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Props to the cats – the lifespan of slang

By Julie Coleman
My students are mostly white, middle-class, and female, but their slang is heavily influenced by rap culture. They chillax with their bloods and homies, dissing the skanky hos, expressing props to the players and pimping up their whips. Comparison with hippy slang suggests that it’s only a matter of time before they’re not the only ones using these terms.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Spelling. I am grateful for the generous comments on my post in the heartbreak series “The Oddest English Spellings.” Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Bell at a congress in Coventry, and around that time I corresponded with Valerie Yule. A positive comment from Peter Demaere (Canada) reinforced my message. The situation is as odd as English spelling. Spelling reform had famous supporters from the start. Great linguists, including Walter W. Skeat and Otto Jespersen, and outstanding authors and public figures agreed that we should no longer spell the way we do.

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‘The glory of my crown': royal quotations past and present

With the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee only a few days away, it is perhaps a good moment to look back at some other long-serving monarchs of the British Isles. Inevitably, those who rule for a long time come to the throne early: Queen Victoria was 18 at her accession, and was described by Thomas Carlyle on her Coronation as ‘Poor little Queen! She is at an age when a girl can hardly be trusted to choose a bonnet for herself, yet a task is laid on her from which an archangel might shrink.’ After her reign of 63 years, H. G. Wells thought differently: ‘Queen Victoria was like a great paper-weight that for half a century sat upon men’s minds, and when she was removed their ideas began to blow about all over the place haphazardly’.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2012, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Shrew again. Soon after I posted an essay on shrew, in which I dissociated that word from a verb meaning “cut,” a correspondent asked me how my etymology (from “devil”) could be reconciled with the obvious connection between Old Engl. scirfemus (related to sceorfan “cut”) and German Schermaus (related to scheren, the same meaning), the latter from Middle High German scheremus. (The relevant forms can be found in the OED.) The connection referred to in the letter cannot be denied, but I think that both the Old English and the Middle High German word owe their existence to folk etymology: the shrew was associated with venom and its name underwent change.

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