Last week (May 27, 2020), I discussed two attempts to solve the etymology of sword. The second of them would not have deserved so much attention if Elmar Seebold, the editor of the best-known German etymological dictionary, had not cited it as the only one possibly worthy of attention. His is a minority opinion, which does not mean it is wrong, though I believe it is.
In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist responds to readers’ queries, discussing “evil”, “wicked”, “sward”, “hunt”, “thraúō”, “trash”, and “tomorrow”.
I decided to make good on my promise to complete a series devoted to a few words referring to the most basic functions of our organism. The previous posts dealt with eat, drink, and throat. Now, as promised, a story of breath is coming up. The basic word here is the noun breath; it already existed in Old English and had long æ. The verb breathe is a later derivative of the same root; it also had a long vowel.
Last week (September 11, 2019), I discussed the origin of sweet and promised to tackle its partial opposite. Sour has been attested in nearly all the Old Germanic languages: nearly, because, like sweet, it never turned up in the Gothic gospels.
The post on the origin of the word smell has been read by more people than any other in recent months. On the wave of this unexpected popularity, I decided to write an essay or two on related themes. If they arouse enough interest, I may continue in the same vein.
We read that Helgi, one of the greatest heroes of Old Norse poetry, sneaked, disguised as a bondmaid, into the palace of his father’s murderer and applied himself to a grindstone, but so bright or piercing were his eyes (a telltale sign of noble birth, according to the views of the medieval Scandinavians) that even a man called Blind (!) became suspicious.
It turned out that the melancholy idiom send one to Coventry may not have anything to do with that town. To reinforce this unexpected conclusion, I’ll relate another story. At one time, the phrase up at Harwich existed; perhaps it is still known in the eastern counties.
Once again, no gleanings: the comments have been too few, and there have been no questions. Perhaps when the time for a real rich harvest comes, I’ll start gleaning like a house on fire. When last week I attacked the verb clutter, I planned on continuing with the kl-series; my next candidates were cloud and cloth.
Last week, I discussed the role of taboo in naming animals, a phenomenon that often makes a search for origins difficult or even impossible. Still another factor of the same type is the presence of migratory words. The people of one locality may have feared, hunted, or coexisted in peace with a certain animal for centuries. They, naturally, call it something.
In their search for the origin of blunt, etymologists roamed long and ineffectually among similar-sounding words and occasionally came close to the sought-for source, though more often look-alikes led them astray. One of such decoys was Old Engl. blinn. Blinn and blinnan meant “cessation” and “to cease” respectively, but how can “cease” and “devoid of sharpness; obtuse” be related?
For a long time I have been dealing with the words bad, bed, bud, body, bodkin, butt, bottom, and their likes. The readers who have followed the discussion will probably guess from today’s title that now the time of path has come round.
As a rule, I try not to deal with the words whose origin is supposedly known (that is, agreed upon). One can look them up in any dictionary or on the Internet, and no one needs a blog for disseminating trivialities. The etymology of bed has reached the stage of an uneasy consensus, but recently the accepted explanation has again been called into question.
Color names have been investigated in almost overwhelming detail, but it is not the etymology but usage that tends to “throw us off the scent.”
Once John Cowan suggested that I touch on the murky history of the noun qualm and try to shed light on it. To the extent that I can trust my database, this word, which is, naturally, featured in all dictionaries, hardly ever appears in the special scholarly literature.
By Anatoly Liberman
It is hard to hide something (anything) from Stephen Goranson (see his comment to Part 1), who will find a needle in a haystack, and The Canterville Ghost is a rather visible needle. Yet Oscar Wilde is no longer as popular as one could wish for.
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.