Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

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.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Monthly gleanings for December 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
At the end of December people are overwhelmed by calendar feelings: one more year has merged with history, and its successor promises new joys and woes (but thinking of future woes is bad taste). I usually keep multifarious scraps and cuttings to dispose of on the last Wednesday of the year: insoluble questions come and never go away.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Gray matter, part 2, or, going to the dogs again

By Anatoly Liberman
I am returning to greyhound, a word whose origin has been discussed with rare dedication and relatively meager results. The component -hound is the generic word for “dog” everywhere in Germanic, except English. I am aware of only one attempt to identify -hound with hunter (so in in the 1688 dictionary by Rúnolfur Jónsson).

Read More
Book thumbnail image

Gray matter, or many more shades of grey/gray, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
One day the great god Thor was traveling and found himself in a remote kingdom whose ruler humiliated him and his companions in every possible way. Much to his surprise and irritation, Thor discovered that he was a poor drinker, a poor wrestler, and too weak to pick up a cat from the floor. To be sure, his host, a cunning illusionist, tricked him.

Read More
Book thumbnail image

From the infancy of etymology

By Anatoly Liberman
Someone who today seeks reliable information on the origin of English words will, naturally, consult some recent dictionary. However, not too rarely this information is insufficient and even wrong (rejected opinions may be presented there as reliable).

Read More