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After ice expect snow

Winter is round the corner, and the best way to prepare for it is to read a few murky stories about the etymology of the relevant words: “ice” and “snow.”

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Eric Partridge and the etymology of slang (part two)

Eric Partridge is deservedly famous among word lovers. His main area of expertise was substandard English, that is, slang and cant. In this blog post, the Oxford Etymologist offers a tribute to an indefatigable word hunter and a great expert in the field that interests many people.

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Etymology gleanings for November 2020

Why is there no “master key” to the closet hiding the origin of language and all the oldest words?
Historians deal with documents or, when no documents have been preserved, with oral tradition, which may or may not be reliable. The earliest epoch did not leave us any documents pertaining to the origin of language.

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Smartphones are pacifiers for tough times

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated consumers’ reliance on new technologies in almost all aspects of their lives, from how they shop, to how they work, to how they communicate with colleagues and loved ones. While a number of technologies have played an important role in this transformation—such as the growth of reliance on video conferencing—among […]

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Muddy waters

When a word is isolated, etymologists are in trouble. A typical example is Engl. hunt, discussed last week (the post for February 12, 2020). But often, the cognates are so numerous that researchers are lost, embarrassed by the riches they face. This is what happens when we begin to investigate the origin of the English word mud.

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An etymologist is not a lonely hunter

The posts for the previous two weeks were devoted to all kinds of bloodsuckers. Now the time has come to say something about hunters and hunting. The origin of the verbs meaning “hunt” can give us a deeper insight into the history of civilization, because hunting is one of the most ancient occupations in the world: beasts of prey hunt for food, and humans have always hunted animals not only for food but also for fur and skins.

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Before you eat, drink, or breathe: “throat”

At the end of 2019, I wrote about the origin of the verbs eat and drink. The idea was to discuss a few other “basic” verbs, that is, the verbs referring to the most important functions of our organism. My next candidate is breathe, but, before I proceed to discuss its complicated history, it may be useful to look at the derivation of the names of the organs that allow us to inhale the air and get the food through.

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Monthly gleanings for October 2019

I received a question about the origin of French adieu and its close analogs in the other Romance languages. This question is easy to answer. The word goes back to the phrase à Dieu “to God,” which is the beginning of the longer locution à Dieu commande, that is, “I commend (you) to God” or, if we remain with French, “je recommande à Dieu.” The European parting formulas are of rather few types.

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An etymological aid to hearing

As promised, I am continuing the series on senses. There have already been posts on feel and taste. To show how hard it may be to discover the origin of some of our most basic words, I have chosen the verb hear. Germanic is here uniform: all the languages of this group have predictable reflexes (continuations) of the ancient form hauzjan.

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Our five senses: taste

Having discussed the origin of the verbs smell (“The sense and essence of smell”) and feel (“Fingers feel, or feel free”), I thought that it might be worthwhile to touch on the etymology of see, hear, and taste. Touch, ultimately of onomatopoeic origin, has been mentioned, though briefly, in one of the earlier posts. I’ll begin the projected series with taste.

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Monthly gleanings for August 2019

As is known, glamour is a spelling variant of glamor even in American English. The question I received was about the connection between glamour and grammar. The word glamour appeared in printed books only in the 18th century.  It occurred in Scottish ballads and meant “magic, enchantment.”

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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.

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Two cruces: “slave” and “slur”

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.

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