Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Search Term: Wilhelm Oehl

Wilhelm Oehl and the butterfly

When I was growing up, I read Paul de Kruif’s book Microbe Hunters so many times that I still remember some pages by heart. Two chapters in the book are devoted to Pasteur. The second is called “Pasteur and the Mad Dog.” A book about great word hunters would similarly enthral the young and the old.

Read More

The scars of old stars

The Oxford Etymologist is out of hibernation and picks up where he left off in mid-December. It may be profitable to return to the origin of “star”, but from a somewhat broader perspective.

Read More

Winter etymology gleanings

Both “thank” and “give” deserve our attention! And it is those two outwardly unexciting words that I’ll offer today as part of our etymological feast.

Read More

From Halloween to Thanksgiving

Both “thank” and “give” deserve our attention! And it is those two outwardly unexciting words that I’ll offer today as part of our etymological feast.

Read More

Going out on a limb

Etymologists often deal with a group of words that seem to be related, and yet the nature of the relationship is hard or impossible to demonstrate. Such groups are particularly instructive to investigate. I have long been interested in a possible connection between “limp” (adjective), “limp” (verb), and “lump.”

Read More

Etymology gleanings for December 2020 and January 2021

Impulses behind word formation never change. This statement surprised one of our readers. However, if we assume that most “natural” words are, at least to some degree, sound-symbolic and/or sound-imitative (onomatopoeic), such monosyllabic complexes as kob, kab, keb, kub, kid, kat, and their likes must have arisen again and again in the course of language history, even if every time they were tied to different objects.

Read More

Harlequin’s environment

Marley was dead, to begin with, as all of us know. Likewise, the origin of the word Harlequin is controversial, to begin with. Henry Cecil Wyld’s excellent dictionary, to which I often refer, says that all ideas about the etymology of Harlequin are mere speculations. This is not true and was not quite true even […]

Read More

Cut and dried

A less common synonym of the idiom cut and dried is cut and dry, and it would have served my purpose better, because this essay is about the verb cut, and two weeks later the adjective dry will be the subject of a post. But let us stay with the better-known variant.

Read More

English, Chinese, and all, all, all

I think I should clarify my position on the well-known similarities between and among some languages. In the comment on the March gleanings (April 1, 2020), our correspondent pointed to a work by Professor Tsung-tung Chang on the genetic relationship between Indo-European and Chinese. I have been aware of this work for a long time, but, since I am not a specialist in Chinese linguistics and do not know the language, I never mentioned my skeptical attitude toward it in print or in my lectures.

Read More

“Breath” and “breathe”

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.

Read More

Feeling fingers, part 2

Finger seems to be a transparent word, but this transparency is an illusion, for what is fing- (assuming that we understand what -er is)? Our story began last week (see the post for September 25, 2019), and I attempted to show that one of the two best-known etymologies of finger, namely, from the numeral five, is “less than fully convincing” (a common academic euphemism for “nearly unacceptable”).

Read More

The sense and essence of smell

This post owes its existence to a letter from our correspondent, who was surprised to discover that dictionaries call the origin of the word smell unknown. Not that two and a half pages later this origin will become “known,” but the darkness around it may become less impenetrable.

Read More

Etymology gleanings for September 2018

Many thanks to those who have commented on the recent posts and written me privately. My expertise is in Germanic, with occasional timid inroads into the rest of Indo-European. Therefore, I cannot answer questions about Arabic and Chinese. Below, I’ll say something about Hittite, but, obviously, for my information I depend on the authority of others.

Read More