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Souls searched for but not found (part two)

This is the second and last part of the series on the origin of the word “soul.” The perennial interest in the etymology of this word should not surprise us. It is our inability to find a convincing solution that causes astonishment and disappointment.

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Seeing is believing (?)

Today I’ll try to say something about the verb “see.” Once again, we’ll have to admit that the more basic a word is, the less we know about its remote history.

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Twinkle, twinkle, or stars and sparks

Nothing is known about the origin of the phrase “Milky Way.” By contrast, the origin of the word “star” is not hopelessly obscure, which is good, because stars and obscurity have little in common.

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The wiles of folk etymology

Words, as linguistics tells us, are conventional signs. Some natural phenomenon is called rain or snow, and, if you don’t know what those words mean, you will never guess. But everything in our consciousness militates against such a rupture between word and thing.

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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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