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9780198712947

Shakespeare and sex

Shakespeare made many gifts to the English language, but his most memorable gift in the particularly rich and rarefied area of euphemisms for sexual intercourse comes in the opening scene of Othello, when Iago strives to provoke Desdemona’s father Brabantio to outrage with the news that ‘your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.’

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9780195387070

Between language and folklore: “To hang out the broom”

We know even less about the origin of idioms than about the origin of individual words. This is natural: words have tangible components: roots, suffixes, consonants, vowels, and so forth, while idioms spring from customs, rites, and general experience. Yet both are apt to travel from land to land and be borrowed. Who was the first to suggest that beating (or flogging) a willing horse is a silly occupation, and who countered it with the idea that beating a dead horse is equally stupid?

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9780198754275

How English became English – and not Latin

English grammar has been closely bound up with that of Latin since the 16th century, when English first began to be taught in schools. Given that grammatical instruction prior to this had focused on Latin, it’s not surprising that teachers based their grammars of English on Latin. The title of John Hewes’ work of 1624 neatly encapsulates its desire to make English grammar conform to that of Latin.

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9780195387070

Shebang, by Jingo!

The lines above look (and sound) like identical oaths, but that happens only because of the ambiguity inherent in the preposition by. No one swears by my name, while Mr. Jingo has not written or published anything. Nowadays, jingoism “extreme and aggressive patriotism” and jingoist do not seem to be used too often, though most English speakers still understand them, but in Victorian England, in the late nineteen-seventies and some time later, the words were on everybody’s lips.

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9780195387070

Etymology gleanings for January 2016

Some of the most enjoyable comments and questions are those that combine scholarship and play. One of our correspondents pointed out that Engl. strawberry, if pronounced as a Slavic word, means (literally) “from grass take.” Indeed it does! In the Russian s travy beri, only one ending does not quite match Engl. s-traw-berry.

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9780195575002

‘Mate’ in Australian English

Mate is one of those words that is used widely in Englishes other than Australian English, and yet has a special resonance in Australia. Although it had a very detailed entry in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (the letter M was completed 1904–8), the Australian National Dictionary (AND) included mate in its first edition of 1988, thus marking it as an Australianism.

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9780195387070

How did hiring begin?

Those who read word columns in newspapers and popular journals know that columnists usually try to remain on the proverbial cutting edge of politics and be “topical.” For instance, I can discuss any word I like, and in the course of more than ten years I have written essays about words as different as dude and god (though my most popular stories deal with smut; I have no idea why).

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9780195387070

…whether the wether will weather the weather

It so happens that I have already touched on the first and the last member of the triad whetherwetherweather in the past. By a strange coincidence, the interval between the posts dealing with them was exactly four years: they appeared on 19 April 2006 (weather) and 21 April 2010 (whether) respectively.

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9780199300914

How do you pronounce “Pulitzer?”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, the annual prize in journalism and letters established by the estate of Joseph Pulitzer in 1916 and run by the Columbia School of Journalism (also established by Pulitzer’s estate). The first Pulitzer Prizes in reporting were given in 1917 to Herbert Bayard Swope of New York World for a series of articles titled “Inside the German Empire” and to the New York Tribune for its editorial on the first anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania.

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Words of 2015 round-up

Word of the Year season has closed with the selections of the American Dialect Society this past weekend, so it’s time to reflect on the different words of the 2015. The refugee crisis and gender politics have featured prominently in selections around the globe as well as the influence of technology.

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9780195387070

If “ifs” and “ands” were pots and pans….

If things happened as they are suggested in the title above, I would not have been able to write this post, and, considering that 2016 has just begun, it would have been a minor catastrophe. People of all ages and, as they used to say, from all walks of life want to know something about word origins, but they prefer to ask questions about “colorful” words (slang).

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9780199914005

Gender politics of the generic “he”

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what pronouns to use for persons whose gender is unknown, complicated, or irrelevant. Options include singular they and invented, common-gender pronouns. Each has its defenders and its critics.

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9780195387070

Etymology gleanings for December 2015

I often refer to the English etymological dictionary by Hensleigh Wedgwood, and one of our correspondents became seriously interested in this work. He wonders why the third edition is not available online. I don’t know, but I doubt that it is protected by copyright. It is even harder for me to answer the question about the changes between the second and the third edition.

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Oxford Dictionaries

From teaspoons to tea-sots: the language of tea

Tea was first imported into Britain early in the seventeenth century, becoming very popular by the 1650s. The London diarist Samuel Pepys drank his first cup in 1660, as recorded in his famous diary: “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before.”

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