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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Marquises and other important people keeping up to the mark

By Anatoly Liberman
The names of titles have curious sources and often become international words. The history of some of them graces student textbooks. Marshal, for instance, is an English borrowing from French, though it came to French from Germanic, where it meant “mare servant” (skalkaz “servant, slave”). Constable meant “the count of the stable.”

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Does learning a second language lead to a new identity?

Everyday I get asked why second language learning is so hard and what can be done to make it easier. One day a student came up to me after class and asked me how his mother could learn to speak English better. She did not seem to be able to breakthrough and start speaking. Perhaps you or someone you know has found learning another language difficult.

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How social media is changing language

By Jon Reed
From unfriend to selfie, social media is clearly having an impact on language. As someone who writes about social media I’m aware of not only how fast these online platforms change, but also of how they influence the language in which I write. The words that surround us every day influence the words we use.

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A globalized history of “baron,” part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
I will begin with a short summary of the previous post. In English texts, the noun baron surfaced in 1200, which means that it became current not much earlier than the end of the twelfth century. It has been traced to Semitic (a fanciful derivation), Celtic, Latin (a variety of proposals), and Germanic. The Old English words beorn “man; fighter, warrior” and bearn “child; bairn” are unlikely sources of baron.

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When is a book a tree?

By Philip Durkin
The obvious answer to ‘when is a book a tree?’ is ‘before it’s been made into a book’ – it doesn’t take a scientist to know that (most) paper comes from trees – but things get more complex when we turn our attention to etymology.

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A globalized history of “baron,” part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Once again we are torn between Rome, the Romance-speaking world, and England. The word baron appeared in English texts in 1200, and it probably became current shortly before that time, for such an important military title would hardly have escaped written tradition for too long.

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What is a book? (humour edition)

As the Amazon-Hachette debate has escalated this week, taking a notably funny turn on the Colbert Report, we’d like to share some funnier reflections on books and the purposes they serve. Here are some selections from the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Fifth Edition.

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What is a book?

In recent weeks, a trade dispute between Amazon and Hachette has been making headlines across the world. But discussion at our book-laden coffee tables and computer screens has not been limited to contract terms and inventory, but what books mean to us as publishers, booksellers, authors, and readers.

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Fishing in the “roiling” waters of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
Those who will look up the etymology of roil and rile will have to choose between two answers: “from Old French” or “of uncertain origin.” Judging by my rather extensive and constantly growing database, roil and rile have attracted little attention

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The in-depth selfie: discussing selfies through an academic lens

Looking at oneself is a timeless concept. We are constantly trying to figure out how to represent ourselves in our own brains . . . confusing certainly. In honor of Oxford Dictionaries’s 2013 word of the year — “selfie” — University of Southern California professors pay homage by discussing selfies through the lens of letters, arts, and sciences. They analyse the selfie trend through the perspectives of sociology, gender studies, religion, anthropology, and more. Watch their video below and learn how profound a camera flash and puckered mouth can be.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
As usual, many thanks for the letters, questions, and comments. I answered some of them privately, when I thought that the material would not be interesting to most of our readers. In a few cases (and this is what I always say) I simply took the information into account. My lack of reaction should not be misunderstood for indifference or ingratitude.

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What is English?

What is English? Ask any speaker of English, and the answer you get may be “it’s what the dictionary says it is.” Or, “it’s what I speak.” Answers like these work well enough up to a point, but the words that make it in the dictionary are not always the words we hear being used around us.

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Kotodama: the multi-faced Japanese myth of the spirit of language

By Naoko Hosokawa
In Japan, there is a common myth of the spirit of language called kotodama (言霊, ことだま); a belief that some divine power resides in the Japanese language. This belief originates in ancient times as part of Shintoist ritual but the idea has survived through Japanese history and the term kotodama is still frequently mentioned in public discourse.

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Small triumphs of etymology: “oof”

By Anatoly Liberman
There is an almost incomprehensible number of English words for money and various coins. Some of them, like shilling, are very old. We know (or we think that we know) where they came from. Other words (the majority) surfaced as slang, and our record of them seldom goes beyond the early modern period.

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Celebrating Victoria Day

Monday, 19 May is Victoria Day in Canada, which celebrates the 195th birthday of Queen Victoria on 24 May 1819. On 20 June 1837, at the age of 18, Queen Victoria took the throne as Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as the Empire was called at that point.

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