Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Anatoly Liberman

Bachelors and bachelorettes

No one doubts that “bachelor” came to Middle English at the end of the thirteenth century from Old French and meant “a young knight.” Most conjectures about the etymology of this mysterious word were offered long ago.

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A “neat” etymology

Where do you find the origin and, if necessary, the meaning of never say die, never mind, and other phrases of this type? Should you look them up under never, say, die, or mind? Will they be there?

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Idioms: a historian’s view

Idioms are phrases and often pose questions not directly connected with linguistics. Linguists interested in the origin of idioms should be historians and archeologists.

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A long look at the origin of idioms

Idioms are a thankful subject: one needs no etymological algebra or linguistic preparation for suggesting the origin of phrases. And yet it may be useful to explain how a professional goes about studying idioms.

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The sour milk of etymology

The time has come to write something about the etymology of the word milk. Don’t hold your breath: “origin unknown,” that is, no one can say why milk is called milk, but then no one can say why water is called water either.

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From the ridiculous to the sublime: from “monkey” to “elephant”

Recently I have reread August Pott’s essay on the word “elephant” and decided to write something about this word. I have nothing original to say about it and depend on two works: an excellent book in Italian and a detailed essay in English. Not everybody may have read them; hence my inroad on this convoluted problem.

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On buying and selling

Strange as it may seem, the origin of the verb buy remains a matter of uninspiring debate, at least partly because we don’t know what this verb meant before it acquired the modern sense.

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Osteological folklore: “bonfire”

My today’s word is bonfire, which turned up in texts at the end of the fifteenth century. Seven years ago, I devoted a post to it but today I know more about this tricky compound and can write the story in a different way.

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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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Soul searching, or the inscrutable word “soul” (part one)

If we expect someone to save our souls, this person won’t be an etymologist, because no language historian knows the origin of the word soul, and without a convincing etymology, how can anyone save the intangible substance it denotes? Yet nothing prevents us from looking at the main attempts to decipher the mysterious word.

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