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Oxford Etymologist Archives | OUPblog

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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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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
Spelling. I am grateful for the generous comments on my post in the heartbreak series “The Oddest English Spellings.” Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Bell at a congress in Coventry, and around that time I corresponded with Valerie Yule. A positive comment from Peter Demaere (Canada) reinforced my message. The situation is as odd as English spelling. Spelling reform had famous supporters from the start. Great linguists, including Walter W. Skeat and Otto Jespersen, and outstanding authors and public figures agreed that we should no longer spell the way we do.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for May 2012, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Shrew again. Soon after I posted an essay on shrew, in which I dissociated that word from a verb meaning “cut,” a correspondent asked me how my etymology (from “devil”) could be reconciled with the obvious connection between Old Engl. scirfemus (related to sceorfan “cut”) and German Schermaus (related to scheren, the same meaning), the latter from Middle High German scheremus. (The relevant forms can be found in the OED.) The connection referred to in the letter cannot be denied, but I think that both the Old English and the Middle High German word owe their existence to folk etymology: the shrew was associated with venom and its name underwent change.

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Bigger in size but equally ignorant: ‘shark’

By Anatoly Liberman
The fishy series in this blog began with shrimp, reached the heights of prawn, and now, bypassing countless intermediate steps, will offer a discussion of shark. I am sorry to admit that despite the monster’s size and voracity I can say deplorably little about the chosen subject, but, since I always deal with obscure vocabulary, I suffer from self-inflicted wounds and have no reason to complain. Before I come to the point, an apology is in order. While compiling my voluminous bibliography of English etymology, I didn’t encounter references to Tom Jones’s publication on shark.

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After ‘shrimp’ comes ‘prawn’

By Anatoly Liberman
Several people pointed out to me that I cannot distinguish a shrimp from a prawn, and I am afraid they are right. The picture copied for the shrimp post had the title “Shrimp cocktail,” but the shrimp there are too big and are really prawns. In any case, I decided to atone for my mistake and write a post on the etymology of prawn. This plan was hard to realize, because the origin of prawn is really, that is, hopelessly unknown: the word exists, but no one can say where it has come from. It is strange that more or less the same holds for shrimp and shark, though both are less opaque. There must have been some system behind calling those sea creatures. The fishermen who coined such names had a reason to call a shrimp a shrimp and a prawn a prawn.

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The Oddest English Spellings, Part 20

By Anatoly Liberman
Why don’t good and hood rhyme with food and mood? Why are friend and fiend spelled alike but pronounced differently? There is a better way of asking this question, because the reason for such oddities is always the same: English retains the spelling that made sense centuries ago. At one time, the graphic forms we learn one by one made sense. Later the pronunciation changed, while the spelling remained the same. Therefore, the right question is: What has happened to the pronunciation of the words that give us trouble?

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Further Adventures of Scr-words, or, the Taming of ‘Shrew’

By Anatoly Liberman
Two weeks ago, I pondered the fortunes of the gregarious shrimp. The next ingredient of the scr- ~ shr- cocktail will be the much maligned but innocent shrew. As The Century Dictionary puts it, “there is no foundation in fact for the vulgar notion that shrews are poisonous, or for any other of the popular superstitions respecting these harmless little creatures.” The shrew is an insectivorous mammal. An old etymology traced shrew to a root meaning “cut” (as in shear) and glossed the word as “biter” on account of its allegedly venomous bite. Another version of this etymology refers to the shrew’s pointed snout. The Old High German cognate of shrew meant “dwarf” (a figure cut short?).

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