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9780195387070

While dancing around a bonfire, beware of analogy

This is the week of the spring equinox, but I decided not to wait until June and write a post about the solstice. For a change, bonfire is “a word of (fairly well-)known origin,” so don’t expect revelations. However, it is always instructive to observe people beating about the bush long after it has burned up. The image of beating about the bush suggested the title of this post.

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Ossing is bossing

If you know the saying ossing comes to bossing, rest assured that it does not mean the same as ossing is bossing. But you may never have heard either of those phrases, though the verb oss “to try, dare” is one of the favorites of English dialectology.

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Oxford Dictionaries

Putting two and two together

As somebody who loves words and English literature, I have often been assumed to be a natural enemy of the mathematical mind. If we’re being honest, my days of calculus and the hypotenuse are behind me, but with those qualifications under my belt, I did learn that the worlds of words and numbers are not necessarily as separate as they seem. Quite a few expressions use numbers (sixes and sevens, six of one and half a dozen of the other, one of a kind, etc.) but a few are more closely related to mathematics than you’d expect.

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Shooting one’s bolt from North to South

I was twelve years old when I first read Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, and it remained my favorite book for years. Few people I know have heard about it, which is a pity. Jack London was a superb story teller, but his novels belong to what is called politely the history of literature—all or almost all except Martin Eden.

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Keys and bolts

I received a question whether I was going to write about the word key in the series on our habitat. I didn’t have such an intention, but, since someone is interested in this matter, I’ll gladly change my plans and satisfy the curiosity of our friend.

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Oxford Dictionaries

Clarity about ‘the gay thing’

Sometimes, we say what we don’t really mean. ‘You look really tired’, for example, when we mean to be caring rather than disparaging of appearance. ‘I thought you were older than that!’ when we mean to applaud maturity rather than further disparage appearance. And so it is with the gay thing. The accidental difference between what people are saying or writing, and their intended meaning, is becoming perplexingly polarized.

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Five Biblical remixes from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil Rights icon Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a theologian and pastor, who used biblical texts and imagery extensively in his speeches and sermons. Here is a selection of five biblical quotations and allusions that you may not have noticed in his work (in chronological order).

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9780195387070

Monthly etymology gleanings for February 2015

One month is unlike another. Sometimes I receive many letters and many comments; then lean months may follow. February produced a good harvest (“February fill the dyke,” as they used to say), and I can glean a bagful. Perhaps I should choose a special title for my gleanings: “I Am All Ears” or something like it.

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9780198709268

Celebrating linguistic diversity on International Mother Language Day

It’s Thursday evening in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. I am late for an appointment to see my friend Shimanto (lit. boundary [Sanskrit]). On the street I shout ‘ei mama jaben?’ (Hey uncle, will you go? [Bangla]) to catch an auto-rickshaw (auto [English] man-powered-wheeler [Japanese]). After striking the deal, I sit inside the three-wheeler. As the young driver speeds up almost hitting passers-by and curses ‘jyam khub kharap!’ (Traffic jam [English] is very bad! [Persian]), I recollect the writing at the back of the car: ‘allāḥ sarvaśaktimān’ (God [Arabic] almighty [Sanskrit]).

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Crossing the threshold: Why “thresh ~ thrash”?

The previous post dealt with the uneasy history of the word threshold, and throughout the text I wrote thresh~ thrash, as though those were two variants of the same word. Yet today they are two different words, and their relation poses a few questions. Old English had the strong verb þerscan (þ = th in Engl. thresh), with cognates everywhere in Germanic.

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Education, metaphorically speaking

What do we think education means? What do we believe are teaching’s purpose, status, and function in society? A useful way to reflect on our pre-conceptions and assumptions about anything is to step back and consider the metaphors we automatically apply when thinking or speaking of it. This is a particularly useful exercise for the trainee teacher, who, for obvious reasons, is likely to frame teaching primarily in terms of a performance – one that is observed, analysed, graded and, if all goes well, given the pedagogic equivalent of a five star review.

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Oxford Dictionaries

Fresh Off the Boat and the language of the Asian-American experience

Fresh Off the Boat, the newest addition to ABC’s primetime lineup, has garnered more than its share of attention in the lead-up to its recent debut: based on restaurateur Eddie Huang’s critically-acclaimed memoir, it’s the first sitcom in 20 years since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl to feature an Asian-American family at its epicenter, assuming a place among the network’s recent crop of 21st-century family comedies, including Modern Family, Blackish, and Cristela.

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Our habitat: threshold

One does not have to be a specialist to suggest that threshold is either a disguised compound or that it contains a root and some impenetrable suffix. Disguised compounds are words like bridal (originally, bride + ale but now not even a noun as in the past, because –al was taken for the suffix of an adjective) or barn, a blend of the words for “barley,” of which only b is extant, and Old Engl. earn “house.”

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Our habitat: one more etymology brought “home”

When it comes to origins, we know as little about the word home as about the word house. Distinguished American linguist Winfred P. Lehmann noted that no Indo-European terminology for even small settlements has been preserved in Germanic. And here an important distinction should be made.

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9780199315765

Reading on-screen versus on paper

If over the holidays you received a book, was it digital or printed on paper? E-books (and devices on which to read them) are multiplying like rabbits, as are the numbers of eReading devotees. It’s easy to assume, particularly in the United States, with the highest level of eBook sales worldwide, that the only way this trend can go is up. Yes, there was triple-digit eBook growth in 2009, 2010, and 2011, though by 2014 those figures had settled down into the single digits.

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