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An etymologist among the gods

By Anatoly Liberman
Etymology, a subject rarely studied on our campuses, enjoys the respect of many people, even though they persist in calling it entomology. Human beings always want to know the origin of things, but sometimes etymology is made to carry double, like the horse in O. Henry’s story “The Roads We Take.” For instance, it is sometimes said that etymology helps us to use words correctly. Alas, it very seldom does so. If someone asks us about the meaning of the adjective debonair and is not only informed that a debonair man is genial, suave, and so forth but also that the adjective goes back to the French phrase de bon aire “of good disposition (nature),” this may help.

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‘Awning’ and ‘tarpaulin’

By Anatoly Liberman
The title of this post sounds like an introduction of two standup comedians, but my purpose is to narrate a story of two nautical words. The origin of one seems to be lost, the other looks deceptively transparent; but there may be hope. Both turned up in the seventeenth century: in 1624 (awning) and 1607 (tarpaulin) respectively.

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A global ingle-neuk, or, the size of our vocabulary

By Anatoly Liberman
The size of our passive vocabulary depends on the volume of our reading.  Those who grew up in the seventies of the twentieth century read little in their childhood and youth, and had minimal exposure to classical literature even in their own language. Their children are, naturally, still more ignorant. I have often heard the slogan: “Don’t generalize!” and I am not. I am speaking about a mass phenomenon, not about exceptional cases.

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Monthly etymology gleanings, part 2, September 2012

By Anatoly Liberman
Last week’s “gleanings” were devoted to spelling and ended with the promise to address the other questions in the next installment. But, since the previous part inspired some comments, I will briefly return to Spelling Reform. One of the questions was: “Who needs the reform?” Everybody does. At present, children spend hours learning “hieroglyphs” like chair, choir, character, ache, douche, weird, pierce, any and many versus Annie and manly, live (verb) versus live (adjective), and hundreds of others.

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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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