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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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Two English apr-words, part 1: ‘April’

By Anatoly Liberman
The history of the names of the months is an intriguing topic. Most of Europe adopted the Roman names and some of them are trivial: September (seventh), October (eighth), November (ninth), and December (tenth). (Though one would wish the numerals to have reached twelve.) But there is nothing trivial in the division of the year into twelve segments and the world shows great ingenuity assigning names to them.

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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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