Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Language

9780195387070

Drinking vessels: ‘goblet’

By Anatoly Liberman
One more drinking vessel, and I’ll stop. Strangely, here we have another synonym for bumper, and it is again an old word of unknown origin. In English, goblet turned up in the fourteenth century, but its uninterrupted recorded history began about a hundred years later. Many names of vials, mugs, and beverages probably originated in the language of drinkers, pub owners, and glass manufacturers. They were slang, and we have little chance of guessing who and in what circumstances coined them.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

A comic quotation quiz

Moliere wrote in La critique de l’école des femmes (1663) that “it’s an odd job, making decent people laugh.” In the hopes that 2013 will be filled with delightful oddity and humor, we present this quiz, drawn from the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, 4th edition. Edited by the late Ned Sherrin, the dictionary compiles words of wit and wisdom from writers, entertainers and politicians.

Read More
9780195387070

How come the past of ‘go’ is ‘went?’

By Anatoly Liberman
Very long ago, one of our correspondents asked me how irregular forms like good—better and go—went originated. Not only was he aware of the linguistic side of the problem but he also knew the technical term for this phenomenon, namely “suppletion.” One cannot say the simplest sentence in English without running into suppletive forms. Consider the conjugation of the verb to be: am, is, are. Why is the list so diverse? And why is it mad—madder and rude—ruder, but bad—worse and good—better?

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Words of 2012 round-up

By Alice Northover
While most people are getting excited for the start of awards season on Sunday with the Golden Globes, the season has just ended for word nerds. From November through January, the Word(s) of the Year announcements are made. I’ll let you decide who is the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, SAGs, National Film Critics Circle, etc. of the lexicography community. Just remember YOLO — because it appeared on every list.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Holy Court of Owls, Batman!

By Mark Peters
My name is Mark Peters, and I am a Batman-aholic. I blame Christopher Nolan. Between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, I felt an insatiable thirst for more Batman than Mr. Nolan was providing. In my desperation, I turned to a childhood addiction: comic books.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

A definition of ‘hobbit’ for the OED

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit… What’s a hobbit and how did J.R.R. Tolkien come by this word? Was it invented, adapted, or stolen? To celebrate the release of The Hobbit film and renewed interest in J.R.R Tolkien’s work, we’ve excerpted this passage from The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

The Dirty Dozens

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 for now and examine the dirty, bawdy, and wonderful world of verbal street duels. While its origins lie in “yo’ mama” jokes, this is language meant for music, as rap and hip-hop today can attest. Here’s a taste with an excerpt from Elijah Wald’s The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama.

Read More
9780195387070

Drinking vessels: ‘tankard’

By Anatoly Liberman
One drinks to the coming New Year, and one drinks while remembering the old one. Besides, some do it according to the Gregorian calendar, while others prefer the Julian one. As could be expected, the end of the world has been delayed and life continues. I was touched by the kind words from our regular correspondents; over time they have become my good friends.

Read More
9780195387070

Monthly etymology gleanings for December 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
A Happy New Year to our readers and correspondents! Questions, comments, and friendly corrections have been a source of inspiration to this blog throughout 2012, as they have been since its inception. Quite a few posts appeared in response to the questions I received through OUP and privately (by email). As before, the most exciting themes have been smut and spelling.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Words like lumps of coal

It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, except the writer throwing her manuscript across the room. What words will Santa give her? Gifts of ‘stillicide’ or ‘ectoplasm’ for her National Book Award — or lumps of coal for failing NaNoWriMo. We’d like to share a few reflections on terrible words from writers such as David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and Michael Dirda in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus below.

Read More
9780195387070

Why don’t ‘gain’ and ‘again’ rhyme?

By Anatoly Liberman
This is a story of again; gain will be added as an afterthought. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, dictionaries informed their users that again is pronounced with a diphthong, that is, with the same vowel as in the name of the letter A.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

The Naming of Hobbits

By Michael Adams
It will be interesting to see how much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s several invented languages will appear in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. In a letter to his American publisher, dated 30 June 1955, Tolkien suspected there were limits to how much invented language readers would ‘stomach’, to use his term. There are certainly limits to how much can be included in a film. American audiences, anyway, are subtitle averse.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Don’t bank on it

By Beverley Hunt
With just over a week to go until Christmas, many of us are no doubt looking forward to the holidays and a few days off work. For those working on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, however, writing the history of the language sometimes took precedence over a Christmas break.

Read More
9780195387070

Drinking vessels: ‘bumper’

By Anatoly Liberman
Some time ago, I devoted three posts to alcoholic beverages: ale, beer, and mead. It has occurred to me that, since I have served drinks, I should also take care of wine glasses. Bumper is an ideal choice for the beginning of this series because of its reference to a large glass full to overflowing. It is a late word, as words go: no citation in the OED predates 1677. If I am not mistaken, the first lexicographer to include it in his dictionary was Samuel Johnson (1755). For a long time bumper may have been little or not at all known in polite society.

Read More
9780195387070

Oh, what lark!

By Anatoly Liberman
For some time I have fought a trench war, trying to prove that fowl and fly are not connected. The pictures of an emu and an ostrich appended to the original post were expected to clinch the argument, but nothing worked. A few days ago, I saw a rafter of turkeys strutting leisurely along a busy street. Passersby were looking on with amused glee while drivers honked. The birds (clearly, “fowl”) crossed the road without showing the slightest signs of excitement.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Mars: A lexicographer’s perspective

By Richard Holden
The planet Mars might initially seem an odd choice for Place of the Year. It has hardly any atmosphere and is more or less geologically inactive, meaning that it has remained essentially unchanged for millions of years. 2012 isn’t much different from one million BC as far as Mars is concerned. However, here on Earth, 2012 has been a notable year for the Red Planet.

Read More