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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Anatoly Liberman

Trashing Thurse, an international giant

While working on my previous post (“What do we call our children?”), which, among several other words, featured imp, I realized how often I had discussed various unclean spirits in this blog. There was once an entire series titled “Etymological Devilry.” Over the years, I have dealt with Old Nick, grimalkin, gremlin, bogey, goblin, and […]

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What do we call our children?

In the Indo-European languages, most words for “mother,” “father,” “son,” and “daughter” are very old—most (rather than all), because some have been replaced by their rivals. Thus, Latin filia “daughter” is the feminine of filius “son,” and filius has nothing to do with son, which is indeed ancient.

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On nuts and nerds

For decades the English-speaking world has been wondering where the word nerd came from. The Internet is full of excellent essays: the documentation is complete, and all the known hypotheses have been considered, refuted, or cautiously endorsed. I believe one of the proposed etymologies to be convincing (go on reading!), but first let me say something about nut.

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Etymology gleanings for July 2017

First of all, I would like to thank our readers for their good wishes in connection with the 600th issue of The Oxford Etymologist, for their comments, and suggestions. In more than ten years, I must have gone a-gleaning about 120 times.

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Two numerals: “six” and “hundred,” part 2: “hundred”

Like the history of some other words denoting numbers, the history of hundred is full of sticks and stones. To begin with, we notice that hundred, like dozen, thousand, million, and billion, is a noun rather than a numeral and requires an article (compare six people versus a hundred people); it also has a regular plural (a numeral, to have the plural form, has to be turned into a noun, or substantivized, as in twos and threes, at sixes and sevens, on all fours, and the like).

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Two numerals: “six” and “hundred,” part 1

The reason for such a strange topic will become clear right away. The present post is No. 600 in the career of “The Oxford Etymologist.” I wrote my first essay in early March 2006 and since that time have not missed a single Wednesday.

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Boasting and bragging

No one likes boasters. People are expected to be modest (especially when they have nothing to show). For that reason, the verbs meaning “to boast” are usually “low” or slangy (disparaging) and give etymologists grief and sufficient reason to be modest.

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From the life of words, Part 3: the names of some skin diseases

The scourge of the Middle Ages was leprosy. No other disease filled people with equal dread. The words designating this disease vary. Greek léprā is a substantivized feminine adjective (that is, an adjective turned into a noun—a common process: compare Engl. the blind and blinds, with two ways of substantivization).

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The dwarfs of our vocabulary

I receive all kinds of questions about etymology. Unless they are responses to my posts, they usually concern slang and exotic words. No one seems to care about and, as, at, for, and their likes. Conjunctions and prepositions are taken for granted, even though their origin is sometimes obscure and their history full of meaning.

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Mid-June etymology gleanings

John Cowan pointed out that queer “quaint, odd” can be and is still used today despite its latest (predominant) sense. Yes, I know. Quite intentionally, I sometimes use the phrase queer smile. It usually arouses a few embarrassed grins. My students assume that a man in the winter of his days is so un-cool that he does not know what this adjective now means.

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English idioms and The British Apollo

In 1708, London witnessed the appearance of The British Apollo, or Curious Amusements for the INGENIOUS. To which are Added the most Material Occurrences Foreign and Domestick. Perform’d by a Society of GENTLEMEN. VOL. I. Printed for the Authors, by F. Mayo, at the Printing-Press, against Water-Lane in Fleet-Street.

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From the life of words, part 2

I am picking up where I left off last week. At first sight, nothing could be more straightforward than the adjective still. It has always meant “fixed, not moving.” We sit still, come to a standstill, and enjoy still lifes (that is, pictures of living things in a state of rest).

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From the life of words, part 1

From time to time, various organizations invite me to speak about the history of words. The main question I hear is why words change their meaning. Obviously, I have nothing new to say on this subject, for there is a chapter on semantic change in countless books, both popular and special.

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