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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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Henry Bradley on spelling reform

By Anatoly Liberman
Last week I wrote about Henry Bradley’s role in making the OED what it is: a mine of information, an incomparable authority on the English language, and a source of inspiration to lexicographers all over the world

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Unsung heroes of English etymology: Henry Bradley (1845-1923)

By Anatoly Liberman
At one time I intended to write a series of posts about the scholars who made significant contributions to English etymology but whose names are little known to the general public. Not that any etymologists can vie with politicians, actors, or athletes when it comes to funding and fame, but some of them wrote books and dictionaries and for a while stayed in the public eye.

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Etymology as a profession

By Anatoly Liberman
Two or three times a year I receive questions about what the profession of an etymologist entails. I usually answer them briefly in my “gleanings,” and once I even devoted a post to this subject. Perhaps it won’t hurt if I return to the often-asked question again.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for March 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
Beguines.
The origin of Beguine is bound to remain unknown, if “unknown” means that no answer exists that makes further discussion useless. No doubt, the color gray could give rise to the name. If it were not so, this etymology would not have been offered and defended by many scholars.

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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 4

By Anatoly Liberman
Apart from realizing that each of the three words in question (beggar, bugger, and bigot) needs an individual etymology, we should keep in mind that all of them arose as terms of abuse and sound somewhat alike. The Beguines,Beghards, and Albigensians have already been dealt with.

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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 3

By Anatoly Liberman
Unlike so many words featured in this blog, bugger has a well-ascertained origin, but it belongs with the rest of this series because it sheds light on its companions beggar and bigot.

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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
The final sentence in the essay posted in January was not a statement but a question. We had looked at several hypotheses on the origin of the verb beg and found that none of them carried conviction. It also remained unclear whether beg was a back formation on beggar or whether beggar arose as a noun agent from the verb.

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Monthly gleanings for February 2014

By Anatoly Liberman
I am impressed. Not long ago I asked two riddles. Who coined the phrase indefatigable assiduity and who said that inspiration does not come to the indolent? The phrase with assiduity turns up on the Internet at once (it occurs in the first chapter of The Pickwick Papers), but John Cowan pointed out that Dickens may have used (parodied?) a popular cliché of that time.

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Beggars, buggers, and bigots, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Bigot will wait until the end of this miniseries, because some time ago (26 October 2011) I published a special post on this word and now have only a short remark to add to it. But beggars and buggers cry out for recognition and should not be denied it.

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Genius and etymology: Henry William Fox Talbot

By Anatoly Liberman
What does it take to be a successful etymologist? Obviously, an ability to put two and two together. But all scholarly work, every deduction needs this ability. The more words and forms one knows, the greater is the chance that the result will be reasonably convincing.

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Bickering and bitching

By Anatoly Liberman
Respectability in etymology is determined by age: the older, the better. The verb to bicker has been known since the fourteenth century, while the verb to bitch “complain; spoil” is a nineteenth-century invention. On the other hand, the noun bitch occurred already in Old English, so that it is not quite clear which of the two words—bitch or bicker—should be awarded the first place.

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Whoa, or “the road we rode”

By Anatoly Liberman
The world has solved its gravest problems, but a few minor ones have remained. Judging by the Internet, the spelling of whoa is among them. Some people clamor for woah, which is a perversion of whoa and hence “cool”; only bores, it appears, don’t understand it. I understand the rebels but wonder.

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Front page news: the Oxford Etymologist harrows an international brothel

By Anatoly Liberman
Why brothel? We will begin with the customer. Broþel surfaced in Middle English and meant “a worthless person; prostitute.” The letters -el are a dead or, to use a technical term, unproductive suffix, but even in the days of its efflorescence it was rarely used to form so-called nomina agentis (agent nouns), the way -er is today added to read and work and yields reader and worker.

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The color gray in full bloom

By Anatoly Liberman
At the end of the nineteenth century, while working on the issue of the OED (then known as NED: New English Dictionary) that was to feature the word gray, James A. H. Murray sent letters to various people, asking their opinion about the differences between the variants gray and grey.

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Gray matter, part 3, or, going from dogs to cats and ghosts

By Anatoly Liberman
The shades of gray multiply (as promised in December 2013). Now that we know that greyhounds are not gray, we have to look at our other character, grimalkin. What bothers me is not so much the cat’s color or the witch’s disposition as the unsatisfactory state of etymology.

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