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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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An Etymological Headache

To an etymologist ache is one of the most enigmatic words. Although it has been attested in Old English, its unquestionable cognates in other languages are few.

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The infamous C-word

By Anatoly Liberman
Like all word columnists, I keep receiving the same questions again and again.  Approximately once a month someone asks me about the origin of the F-word, the C-word, and gay.  Well, the C-word has been investigated in great detail, and a few conjectures are not so bad.

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Beginning one way in the New Year

By Anatoly Liberman
As promised, the first of the fifty-two posts due to appear in 2012 will be devoted to the verb begin, whose siblings have been attested in all the West Germanic languages (English is one of them) and Gothic. Surprisingly, they did not turn up in Old Scandinavian, except for Danish (under the influence of German?). Old Icelandic for “begin” was byrja, and its cognates continued into Norwegian and Swedish, let alone Modern Icelandic and Faroese. The etymology of begin has not been explained to everybody’s satisfaction, but such is the history of most etymological flesh.

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Meditations in the process of Winter Gleanings

By Anatoly Liberman
Last Wednesday, in anticipation of the inevitable calendar leap, I discussed the origin of the word end. The end has come. This post happens to be the last in 2011 — not really a rite of passage, for a week from now another Wednesday will bring the world another post, dated January 4, 2012. As announced, it will be devoted to the verb begin. One should not take December or oneself too seriously, but I am pleased to say that this blog is read and quoted by many and that I continue to receive letters and comments from all over the world.

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All’s well that ends well

By Anatoly Liberman
The year 2011 is coming to an end. Strange that we say “come to an end,” even though a year, unlike a rope, a street, and even life, in which it is hard to make ends (or both ends) meet, can have only one end, but such are the caprices of usage. In any case, the end of the year is close at hand. Those interested in such tricks may recollect that year sometimes needs neither the definite nor the indefinite article when we speak about this time of year, and so it has been for centuries.

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Rotten Row

By Anatoly Liberman
Some time ago, a colleague asked me what materials I have on the place name Rotten Row; she was going to write an article on this subject. But her plans changed, and the article did not appear. My folders contain a sizable batch of letters to Notes and Queries and essays from other popular sources dealing with Rotten Row. I am not a specialist in onomastics, and, if I am not mistaken, the question about the etymology of Rotten Row has never been answered to everybody’s satisfaction.

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Coffee or tea?

By Anatoly Liberman
It will be seen that the main question about tea is the same as about coffee, namely: How did the form tea conquer its numerous rivals?

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Monthly Gleanings: November 2011

By Anatoly Liberman
It was good to hear from Masha Bell, an ally in the losing battle for reformed spelling.  Her remarks can be found at the end of the previous post (it was about su- in sure and sugar), and here I’ll comment briefly only on her questions. 

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The phonetic taste of coffee

By Anatoly Liberman
All sources inform us about the Arabic-Turkish home of the word coffee, though in the European languages some forms were taken over directly from Arabic, so that the etymological part of the relevant entry in dictionaries and encyclopedias needs modification. There is a possibility of coffee being connected with the name of the kingdom of Kaffa, but this question need not bother us at the moment. The main puzzle is the development of the form coffee rather than its distant origin.

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Monthly Gleanings, Part 1: October 2011

By Anatoly Liberman
This has been a long month, and I was very pleased to have such generous feedback. Today I’ll only respond to the comments and will deal with the questions next Wednesday. Many thanks to our correspondents who take the time to agree and disagree with me and suggest new topics. In one comment, my responses were called derogatory. God forbid! Why should they even sound such to anyone? I may misunderstand an opponent or refuse to go all the way with him or her (“them”), but I am truly grateful for the attention my blog receives, and I like to hear counterarguments, even though no one’s opinion has ever changed as a result of discussion.

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Nobody wants to be called a bigot

By Anatoly Liberman
Nobody wants to be called a bigot, but accusations of bigotry are hurled at political opponents with great regularity, because (obviously) everyone who disagrees with us is a bigot, and it is to the popularity of this ignominious word that I ascribe the frequency with which I am asked about its origin. Rather long ago I wrote about bigot in the “gleanings,” but answers in the “gleanings” tend to be lost, while a separate essay will pop up in the Internet every time someone will ask: “Where did bigot come from?”

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Notes and Queries: jubilees and jubilation

By Anatoly Liberman
During five and a half years of its existence, this blog has featured the periodical Notes and Queries twice. Why I am turning to this subject again (now probably for the last time) will become clear at the end of the post. Notes and Queries appeared on November 3, 1849. In a series of short notes (naturally, notes) spread over the years 1876-1877, its first editor William John Thoms (1803-1885) told the world how the periodical had become a reality and how almost overnight

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Were ancient ‘wives’ women?

By Anatoly Liberman
When we deal with the origin of ship and boat (the names of things pertaining to material culture), problems are almost predictable. Such words may have been borrowed from an unknown language (or from an attested language, but definitive proof of the connection is wanting) or coined in a way we are unable to reconstruct, but wife? Yet its etymology is no less obscure. My proposal will add to the existing stock of conjectures, and the future will show whether it has any chance of survival, let alone acceptance.

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From ship to boat

By Anatoly Liberman
The history of boat is no less obscure than the history of ship. Britain was colonized by Germanic-speakers in the fifth century CE from northern Germany and Denmark. It is hard to imagine that the invaders, who became known to history as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes and who must have known a good deal about navigation, stopped using boats after they crossed the Channel. But a cognate of boat has not turned up in any modern dialect spoken on the southern coast of the North Sea.

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