Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Anatoly Liberman

Walter W. Skeat and the Oxford English Dictionary

For many years, I have been trying to talk an old friend of mine into writing a popular book on Skeat. A book about such a colorful individual, I kept repeating, would sell like hotcakes. But he never wrote it. Neither will I (much to my regret), but there is no reason why I should not devote another short essay to Skeat. In 2016, Oxford University Press published Peter Gilliver’s book The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, a work of incredible erudition.

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From “frog” to “toad”

I did not intend to write an essay about toad, because a detailed entry on this word can be found in An Analytical Dictionary of English Etymology (2008), but a letter came from our correspondent wondering whether the etymology of toad is comparable with that of frog (the subject of the previous two posts), and the most recent comment also deals with both creatures.

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An etymological plague of frogs

Last week, I discussed a few suggestions about the origin of the English word frog. Unfortunately, I made two mistakes in the Greek name of this animal. My negligence is puzzling, because the play by Aristophanes lay open near my computer.

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A jumping frog and other creatures of etymological interest

Our readers probably expect this post to deal with Mark Twain’s first famous story. Alas, no. My frog tale is, though mildly entertaining, more somber and will certainly not be reprinted from coast to coast or propel me to fame. In the past, I have written several essays about animal names.

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Chewing the cud and ruminating on word origins

The history of cud may be more exciting than it seems at first sight. Initially (long ago!), I was intrigued when I read the statement by Henry Cecil Wyld, an outstanding language historian, that the origin of cud is unknown.

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A four-forked etymology: curfew

It appears that the etymology of curfew has been solved. In any case, all modern dictionaries say the same. The English word surfaced in texts in the early fourteenth century, but a signal to people to extinguish their fires is much older.

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“Indian summer” and other curious idioms

The Internet is full of information about the origin of the phrase Indian summer. Everything said there about this idiom, its use, the puzzling reference to Indian, as well as about a desired replacement of Indian by a word devoid of ethnic connotations and about the synonyms for the phrase in the languages of the world, is correct.

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Intractable words

In my correspondence with the journalist who was curious about the origin of caucus, I wrote that we might never discover where that word came from.

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The intractable word caucus

At the moment, the word caucus is in everybody’s mouth. This too shall pass, but for now, the same question is being asked again and again, namely: “What is the origin of the mysterious American coinage?”

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Back to work: body and etymology

While the blog was dormant, two questions came my way, and I decided to answer them at once, rather than putting them on a back burner. Today, I’ll deal with the first question and leave the second for next week. Since the publication of my recent book Take My Word for It (it deals with […]

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