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Oxford Etymologist Archives | OUPblog

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Monthly etymology gleanings, part 1, September

By Anatoly Liberman
First and foremost, many thanks to those who have sent questions and comments and corrected my mistakes. A good deal has been written about the nature of mistakes, and wise dicta along the errare humanum est lines have been formulated. Yes, to err is human, but it is the stupidity and “injustice” of some mistakes that are particularly vexing.

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Do birds and fowls fly?

By Anatoly Liberman
An etymologist is constantly on the lookout for so-called motivation. Why is a cat called cat, and why do English speakers say tree if the Romans called the same object arbor? As everybody knows, the “ultimate truth” usually escapes us. Once upon a time (about five thousand or even more years ago?) in a hotly debated locality there lived the early Indo-Europeans, and we still use words going back to their partly unpronounceable sound complexes.

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The oddest English spellings, part 21: Phony from top to bottom

By Anatoly Liberman
I have written more than once that the only hope to reform English spelling would be by doing it piecemeal, that is, by nibbling away at a comfortable pace. Unfortunately, reformers used to attack words like have and give and presented hav and giv to the irate public. This was too radical a measure; bushes exist for beating about them. Several chunks of orthographic fat are crying to be cut off.

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Do you ‘cuss’ your stars when you go ‘bust’?

By Anatoly Liberman
Here, for a change, I will present two words (cuss and bust) whose origin is known quite well, but their development will allow us to delve into the many and profound mysteries of r. Both Dickens and Thackeray knew (that is, allowed their characters to use) the verb cuss, and no one had has ever had any doubts that cuss means “curse.” Bust is an Americanism, now probably understood everywhere in the English-speaking world. The change of curse and burst to cuss and bust seems trivial only at first sight.

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(Bi)Monthly Etymology Gleanings for July-August 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Farting and participles (not to be confused with cabbages and kings). Summer is supposed to be a dead season, but I cannot complain: many people have kindly offered their comments and sent questions. Of the topics discussed in July and August, flatulence turned out to be the greatest hit. I have nothing to add to the comments on fart. Apparently, next to the election campaign, the problem of comparable interest was breaking wind in Indo-European.

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The jarring word ‘ajar’

By Anatoly Liberman
All modern dictionaries state that the adverb ajar goes back to the phrase on char, literally “on the turn” (= “in the act of turning”). This is, most probably, a correct derivation. However, such unanimity among even the most authoritative recent sources should be taken with caution because reference books tend to copy from one another. Recycling a plausible opinion again and again produces an illusion of solidity in an area notorious for debatable results. That is why it is so interesting to read books published before Skeat’s dictionary (1882) and the OED came out.

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I been, I seen, I done

By Anatoly Liberman
The forms in the title are substandard but ubiquitous in conversational English, and the universally understood reference to the genre called whodunit (it originated about seventy years ago) testifies to its partial victory. I have often heard the question about their origin and will try to answer it, though my information is scanty and to the best of my knowledge, a convincing theory of whodunit (the construction, not the genre) is lacking, which does not augur well for a detective story.

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Two English apr-words, part 2: ‘Apricot’

By Anatoly Liberman
Fruits and vegetables travel from land to land with their names. Every now and then they proclaim their country of origin. Such is the peach (though of course not in its present-day English form), whose name is a borrowing of Old French peche (Modern French pêche), ultimately from Latin Persicum malum “Persian apple.” It follows that the noun peach began its life as an adjective. To a modern speaker of French and English the distance between pêche ~ peach and persicum (with its phonetic pit gone) is unbridgeable, but Swedish persika, Dutch perzik, and Russian persik are quite transparent.

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Two English apr-words, part 1: ‘April’

By Anatoly Liberman
The history of the names of the months is an intriguing topic. Most of Europe adopted the Roman names and some of them are trivial: September (seventh), October (eighth), November (ninth), and December (tenth). (Though one would wish the numerals to have reached twelve.) But there is nothing trivial in the division of the year into twelve segments and the world shows great ingenuity assigning names to them.

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Puzzling heritage: The verb ‘fart’

By Anatoly Liberman
It cannot but come as a surprise that against the background of countless important words whose origin has never been discovered some totally insignificant verbs and nouns have been traced successfully and convincingly to the very beginning of Indo-European. Fart (“not in delicate use”) looks like a product of our time, but it has existed since time immemorial. Even the nuances have not been lost: one thing is to break wind loudly (farting); quite a different thing is to do it quietly (the now obscure “fisting”).

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Still in the fishbowl (2): ‘Mackerel’

By Anatoly Liberman
Not that I can say anything quotable on the subject of the mackerel, but people keep writing about it and the attempts to understand how this fish got its name are so interesting that the story may be worth telling. Only one thing seems certain. Mackerel first appeared in a West-European text, in the French form makerels (plural) about 1140 (which means that it was known much earlier), and no one doubts that the English borrowed their word from Old or Anglo-French. From France it spread to other lands, sometimes through an intermediary. The question is why the French called the mackerel this.

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Back to the fishbowl (1): ‘Herring’

By Anatoly Liberman
The fish known as Clupea harengas has two main names: in the Scandinavian countries, it is called sild or something similar (this name made its way to Finland and Russia), while in the lands where the West Germanic languages are spoken (English belongs to this group) the word is herring, also with several variants, for example, German Hering (the spelling Häring is quite obsolete), Dutch haring, and so forth. The rarely used English word sile “young herring” is a late adaptation of sild. The origin of both sild and herring is doubtful.

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Real ‘spunk’

By Anatoly Liberman
There was no word spunk in Swedish until Pippi coined it (an event recently celebrated in this blog), but in English it has existed since at least the sixteenth century. It is surrounded by a host of equally obscure look-alikes (that is, obscure from the etymological perspective). To deal with them, I should remind our readers that English, like all the other Indo-European languages, is full of words in which initial s- looks like a gratuitous addition. It pretends to be a prefix but carries no meaning; it does not even make words more expressive.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Many thanks to those who responded to the recent posts on adverbs, spelling, and cool dudes in Australia. I was also grateful for friendly remarks on the Pippi post and the German text of Lindgren Astrid’s book (in German, spunk, the Swedish name of the bug with green wings, as I now know, remained spunk).

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Children, Etymologists, and Heffalumps

By Anatoly Liberman
The problem with Christopher Robin’s woozles and heffalumps was that no one knew exactly what those creatures looked like. The boy just happened to be “lumping along” when he detected the exotic creature. “I saw one once,” said Piglet. “At least I think I did,” he said. “Only perhaps it wasn’t.” So did I,” said Pooh, wondering what a Heffalump was like. “You don’t often see them,” said Christopher Robin carelessly. Tracking a woozle was no easy task either. “Hallo!” said Piglet, “what are you doing?”

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Criticizing the OED

By Anatoly Liberman
The literature on the history of the Oxford English Dictionary is extensive, but I am not sure that there is a book-length study of the reception of this great dictionary. When in 1884 the OED’s first fascicle reached the public, it was met with near universal admiration. I am aware of only two critics who went on record with their opinion that the venture was doomed to failure because it would take forever to complete, because all the words can not and should not be included in a dictionary, and because the slips at Murray’s disposal must contain numerous misspellings and mistakes.

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