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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

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“Deuce,” “doozy,” and “floozy.” Part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
Don’t hold your breath: all three words, especially the second and the third, came in from the cold and will return there. Nor do we know whether anything connects them. Deuce is by far the oldest of the three. Our attestations of it go back to the middle of the seventeenth century.

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An interlude

By Anatoly Liberman
Every word journalist is on the lookout for interesting pieces of information about language. H. W. Fowler, the author of the great and incomparable book Modern English Usage, confessed that his main reading was newspapers. Naturally: where else could he find so much garbled English?

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Ostentatious breeches, gods’ braggadocio, and ars poetica

By Anatoly Liberman
As promised, I am returning to the English verb brag and the Old Scandinavian god Bragi (see the previous post). If compared with boast, brag would seem to be more suggestive of bluster and hot air. Yet both may have been specimens of Middle English slang or expressive formations.

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Etymology gleanings for September 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
I begin almost every set of gleanings with abject apologies. To err is human. So it is not the mistakes I have made in the past and will make in the future that irritate me but the avoidable and therefore unforgivable slips.

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No simplistic etymology of “simpleton”

By Anatoly Liberman
Simpleton is an irritating word. At first sight, its origin contains no secrets: simple + ton. And that may be all there is to it despite the obscurity of -ton. We find this explanation in the OED and in the dictionaries dependent on it.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for August 2013, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman
My apologies for the mistakes, and thanks to those who found them. With regard to the word painter “rope,” I was misled by some dictionary, and while writing about gobble-de-gook, I was thinking of galumph. Whatever harm has been done, it has now been undone and even erased.

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Monthly etymology gleanings for August 2013, part 1

By Anatoly Liberman
I have received many comments on the posts published in August and many questions. Rather than making these gleanings inordinately long, I have broken them into two parts. Today I’ll begin by asking rather than answering questions, because to some queries I am unable to give quotable (or any) answers.

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Looking “askance”

By Anatoly Liberman
I have been meaning to tell the story of askance for quite some time—as a parable or an exemplum. Popular books and blogs prefer to deal with so-called interesting words. Dude, snob, and haberdasher always arouse a measure of enthusiasm, along with the whole nine yards, dated and recent slang, and the outwardly undecipherable family names.

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Three recent theories of “kibosh”

By Anatoly Liberman
The phrase put the kibosh on surfaced in texts in the early thirties of the nineteenth century. For a long time etymologists have been trying to discover what kibosh means and where it came from. Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Gaelic Irish, and French have been explored for that purpose.

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Alphabet soup, part 2: H and Y

By Anatoly Liberman
This is a story of the names of two letters. Appreciate the fact that I did not call it “A Tale of Two Letters.” No other phrase has been pawed over to such an extent as the title of Dickens’s novel.

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Monthly etymological gleanings for July 2013

By Anatoly Liberman
As always, I am grateful to our correspondents for their questions, suggestions, and corrections. Occasionally I do not respond to their queries because I have nothing to say and keep trying to find a quotable answer.

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Alphabet soup, part 1: V and Z

By Anatoly Liberman
It is common knowledge that an average page of an English dictionary contains at least twice as many borrowed as native words, even though come, go, see, sit, stand, do, make, man, woman, in, on, and other similar heavy duty words go back to Old English.

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How courteous are you at court?

By Anatoly Liberman
“Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, where have you been? I’ve been to London to look at the Queen,/ Pussy-cat, pussy-cat, what did you there?/ I frightened a little mouse under the chair.” Evidently, our power of observation depends on our background and current interests.

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Flutes and flatterers

By Anatoly Liberman
The names of musical instruments constitute one of the most intriguing chapters in the science and pseudoscience of etymology. Many such names travel from land to land, and we are surprised when a word with romantic overtones reveals a prosaic origin. For example, lute is from Arabic (al’ud: the definite article followed by a word for “wood, timber”).

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When it rains, it does not necessarily pour

By Anatoly Liberman
Contrary to some people’s expectation, July has arrived, and it rains incessantly, that is, in the parts of the world not suffering from drought. I often feel guilty on account of my avoiding the burning questions of our time.

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